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Grace Wu – Philomathia Fellow at University of California at Berkeley


I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Energy and Resources Group, an interdisciplinary graduate program at University of California at Berkeley. Before graduate school, I worked at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) leading a project to understand climate change impacts on an endangered butterfly in the Great Lakes region. I also worked as an outdoor science educator in the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California, where I grew up. I hold a B.A. in Biology from Pomona College, an M.Phil in Zoology from University of Cambridge, and an M.S. in Energy and Resources from U.C. Berkeley.

Research Overview

The overarching objective of my research is to improve ecosystem, biodiversity, and land use outcomes of energy development through analysis and design of decision support tools. Taking a problem-driven approach, I leverage methods and frameworks across multiple fields including environmental planning, spatial science, landscape ecology, and power systems to identify and evaluate renewable energy siting opportunities for environmental impact and cost-effectiveness. With the rapid transformation and growth of the energy sector in countries across the world, particularly toward low-carbon technologies, my research investigates how these transitions can be leveraged as opportunities for cost-effective, socially responsible, and sustainable energy development.

My work in this topic area began in California, a test-bed for rapid and ambitious renewable energy expansion. Working with The Nature Conservancy and energy economics experts, I used scenarios to highlight different considerations and trade-offs in achieving an ambitious renewable energy goal. My findings show that it is not only possible but cost-effective, to achieve both climate and conservation goals in California. I have continued to tackle similar problems in Southern and Eastern African countries aiming to scale-up their solar and wind development. Working with representatives from ministries of energy, utilities, and academics, I developed open-access decision support tools that facilitate planning of low-environmental-impact and low-cost solar and wind projects.

My interest in the drivers of land use change began when I was an undergraduate at Pomona College, working on my senior thesis at the local California Chaparral field station. The field station was under threat by development projects to expand the college campuses—for a parking lot and library storage. I was struck by the incongruity of the rare biodiversity the field station harbored and its potential economic value as an ordinary college expansion project. Later, during fieldwork in Panama for my master’s thesis, I saw first-hand the deforestation flanking the Trans-American Highway in eastern Panama, with teak plantations and ranching in its wake. This scale and speed of environmental degradation left a lasting impression of the socio-economic complexities of land use change. Finally, during my work at the USGS, though I was tasked to investigate the impact of climate change on the persistence of an endangered butterfly, I quickly realized that poorly sited steel mills, urban sprawl, and industrial agriculture had already sounded its death knell, with climate change only dealing the final blow.

These experiences have motivated me to continue researching ways to avoid, reduce, or mitigate negative impacts of infrastructure development on the natural environment. The Philomathia fellowship has allowed me to independently pursue these interests by providing support for a new project investigating the land use impacts of large-scale hydropower development in Brazil, and further improvement of renewable energy decision support tools.