Anu Thirunarayanan, Conservation + Tech ’22 (Data Science & CRS)

Anu Thirunarayanan is a Conservation+Tech Fellow studying Data Science & Conservation and Resource Studies (CRS). Here, they discuss their enthusiasm for environmental justice and their passion for using technology, data, and media to connect people.

Tell us about yourself.

I am a junior studying Data Science & Conservation and Resource Studies in the Conservation and Tech track. I grew up in San Mateo, California, with my parents and younger sister. I am the kind of person that does everything with intention, so coming into college, I wanted to find the balance between sticking to my tried-and-true activities and bouncing around to try new things. In my free time, I like to consume LOTS of media: music, television, podcasts, articles, etc.

What do you study at Berkeley?

I am pursuing a simultaneous degree (also known as majors in two separate colleges at UC Berkeley) in Data Science at the College of Letters & Science and Conservation and Resource Studies at the College of Natural Resources.

I initially came to UC Berkeley as an applied mathematics major. Throughout high school, I’d grown interested in mathematical biology, mainly quantitative ecology and epidemiology. However, once I came to UC Berkeley, I realized that even the applied mathematics major was still incredibly theoretical — I wanted my areas of study to be more practical and interdisciplinary. So I took the time to reflect on my interests and principles. Consequently, I realized that I was instilled with the value that I needed to respect Earth growing up. I was simultaneously fascinated by the capacity of technology, data, and media to connect people worldwide. Thus, I decided to pursue my passions within both spaces.

My reason for why I continue to choose these majors every day is not the same as before, though. After taking INFO 188 — Behind the Data: Humans and Values, I became obsessed with data ethics. However, there were not many classes I could take to learn more about tech justice, public interest technology, etc. However, my focus on environmental justice in my Conservation and Resource Studies major complements my data science major with a foundational understanding of justice. Both “information” and “the environment” are pervasive and all around us. While people have been working for many years to understand what environmental justice means — what the goals are, what sorts of policies need to be put in place, etc. — these questions are much newer in technology. Studying Conservation and Resource Studies has allowed me to incorporate justice-oriented methods and theories into my understanding of data ethics to fundamentally learn (outside of the “political science” vacuum) how to properly establish democratic (i.e., human-centered versus authoritarian/system-centered), technological, and scientific institutions.

“I wanted to take advantage of how project-oriented [the Fung Fellowship] is and collaborate with a team to produce a real impact on real issues.”

What brought you to the Fung Fellowship?

I came to Berkeley craving an interdisciplinary learning experience. My interest in combining nature, technology, health, and justice led me to pursue a simultaneous degree in Data Science & Conservation and Resource Studies. Despite the flexible nature of both majors, I feel that my subjects of study have been categorized instead of melded outside of my theoretical interests. My classes require different critical thinking and problem-solving methods, and thus far, there has been little to no overlap. Sometimes I feel that the more I try to break out of the metaphorical box, the more I only get caged in.

Through the Fung Fellowship, I wanted to incorporate a wide range of perspectives into my outlook. I wanted to take advantage of how project-oriented this program is and collaborate with a team to produce a real impact on real issues. Most importantly, I looked forward to weaving together my areas of interest while learning more about the human-centered design process.

As we are approaching the end of the school year, what has been your biggest takeaway from the program?

My biggest takeaway has been to trust my instincts and knowledge. I have been working with non-profit organizations (NPOs) since high school, and I developed a pretty strong understanding of the needs of small NPOs and the pace of work that needs to be done. Sometimes our client would ask our group questions that my teammates and I had not thought about, and I would give an answer that I didn’t have the chance to think through. To my surprise, my responses were always met with enthusiasm. While I am not sure what my professional career holds or what the future will look like, I know that if I can be confident and trust my gut, I will be good.

What are some of your hobbies/passions?

Over the course of this past year, I have delved more and more deeply into different types of media. I am reading more articles, listening to podcasts, watching more TV (especially reality TV), dabbling in various genres, etc. I have grown especially interested in long-form video essays & deep-dive commentary and analysis, as opposed to the shorter and more fun youtube content that I was drawn to in high school.

There’s a ton of overlap between media, information sciences, and tech ethics, and I’d love to delve more deeply into those intersections. For example, I love the TV show “Euphoria” and watched a lot of video essays analyzing the role of technology and social media that plays in the plot of the show and the impacts of digital portrayals in media bleeding into the real world. It would be cool to do similar research at these intersections. However, my professional goals are still largely undefined, other than knowing I want to work on information justice — so we’ll see how it all pans out.

What advice do you have for students that are joining the fellowship?

Take the time to intentionally reach out to your cohort, meet new people, and make friends! There are so many incredible people within my cohort, but I unfortunately only had the pleasure of getting to know a handful of them. If I could go back and change anything, it would be to reach out early to the people that I wanted to learn more about.

How has your experience been with the Fung Fellowship?

My experience with the Fung Fellowship, truth be told, has been a rollercoaster. There were many times when I was feeling unmotivated to do my project — I was also quite sick on and off throughout the year so dealing with my health often took priority. I unexpectedly had a blast during our End-of-Year Project Showcase. I held an immense amount of pride when speaking about my project with other members of Fung Institute and to our project partner as well. I will always have the Project Showcase as a fond memory.

What is your favorite quote?

“If you see a problem and feel that something should be done about it, and you look around and you see that no one else is doing anything — you’re elected.” – Nick Carter,1997 Goldman Prize winner, Zambia

Connect with Anu Thirunarayanan.

Edited by Nick Yang.

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