Fellow Feature: Ananya Raghavan, Conservation + Tech ’22 (Society & Environment)
“I think everyone I have met, especially through the Fung Fellowship, has the potential to do something really positively impactful for the world, and I hope to see everyone go after their dreams.”
Ananya Raghavan is a Conservation + Tech fellow studying society and environment and data science with a minor in public policy at UC Berkeley. Here, Ananya shares about her areas of study, why she believes interdisciplinary access to tech is necessary, and how fellows can reframe the conversation around biodiversity.
What are you studying, and why?
“I knew that I wanted to focus on environmental work because everything that I’d been passionate about and had done in high school had revolved around that, whether it was volunteering at animal shelters or doing field work and habitat restoration. When I was applying to Berkeley, I learned about the society and environment major, which is sort of a mix of the two. Since I wanted to do environmental law, I thought that would be a very niche area to focus on.
As for data science, when I was applying to internships after my first year at Berkeley, there were a lot of cool environmental applications of data science, but at that point I’d only taken Data 8, so I didn’t have enough experience to pursue them.
I thought, “Okay, I guess I’m going to bite the bullet and learn computer science (CS) even though I’m not very good at it.” I couldn’t have predicted how many doors data science would open because I always had a very limited perception of CS. If I majored in CS or something related, I thought I’d probably end up working for a big tech company, and I’m personally not fond of what many of them do, but I’m learning how interdisciplinary CS and data science can be, and how the applications into different fields can be very promising.
For example, last summer, I interned at the California Energy Commission and did research on how to make renewable energy more accessible for people and more commonly used. Some of that was performing data analysis and creating visualizations to better understand where people have access to renewable energy, when people use the most energy, the cost structure, and things like that. That was the first time that I got to apply my data science schoolwork to an internship, and it was a great learning opportunity.
As for the public policy minor, I started to consider the possibility of not going to law school immediately out of undergrad, and maybe working for some time. If I were to work for a non-profit and start to do some policy-related work, I thought it could be helpful to have some formal coursework in it.
What is something interesting you’ve learned in your data science or computer science coursework?
In Legal Studies 123, a class focused on data science applications within law and criminal justice, something I learned about that I never knew before was the use of predictive algorithms to sentence people in courts in America. It has been used in some parts of America since 2000, and none of the technology is really available to the public. As a constituency, we don’t even know how it works because it’s considered as a proprietary “black box algorithm,” so the company responsible doesn’t want other people to be able to copy it. But if it’s trained with historical data on arrests and sentencing periods, then it’s obviously biased, right? It’s perpetuating systemic problems under the facade of being an impartial technology.
It’s unbelievable that this is being used in America because that should not be the case; it’s very unfair. When people talk about incorporating technology into many different aspects of life, we can’t just trust that the technology is going to do what it’s intended to do. And though we may not all understand it fully, it is still very valuable for people to learn and be critical of these developments and systems because not all of them should be in place. Sometimes, not understanding the technology isn’t a flaw on one’s own part, but just how it is construed and made to be seen in mass media.
I wish that more people at UC Berkeley felt empowered to pursue technology because especially here, I’ve seen many people feel closed out of EECS and CS if they don’t already have experience in it because it’s so competitive. I think with more support from classmates and having a little bit more faith in one’s abilities to learn and grow, more people could pursue even just having some introductory courses to CS and tech-related areas. If you’re in a different field, you probably have a different way of approaching a problem, and you could bring up ethical concerns that people who are so focused on just advancing technology haven’t thought about.
“If you’re in a different field, you probably have a different way of approaching a problem, and you could bring up ethical concerns that people who are so focused on just advancing technology haven’t thought about.”
How do you think we can increase access to tech to other disciplines and other occupations, especially as everything’s rapidly going digital?
I think sometimes fields seem very separate and isolated. When people think about law, they generally think about reading a bunch of dense manuscripts, analyzing things, and perhaps having a dramatic trial proceeding. I think we need to emphasize that every field relies on interdisciplinary collaboration and thinking, which is something the Fung Fellowship highlights well.
I don’t believe that any field functions without having some working knowledge of other disciplines. If you are a policy maker you cannot make policy regulating health care, the economy, environmental protection, or digital privacy if you don’t understand aspects of them.
It’s important for people to recognize how interdisciplinary everyday work is and understand what technology’s power really is. Everybody’s already more integrated into and accustomed to using technology through our everyday devices than we would have thought. We just need to open our minds to the possibilities that are beyond what we conventionally think of as within each field.
In the fellowship, you’re learning a lot about human-centered design. How do you think the design process is complicated by working with the environmental interests that can occasionally go against human interest?
I think that innately, sometimes, people have a bit of a selfish tendency to only focus on social causes that impact them directly, which is why I think public health at large is a lot more of a concern for people than working on climate change or conservation. People sometimes do not see the direct ramifications that biodiversity loss will have in their lives, and in part I think that’s because of failures of the American education system to actually emphasize things that are pertinent to people’s lives.
“People don’t see the direct ramifications that biodiversity loss will have in their lives, and in part I think that’s because of failures of the American education system to actually emphasize things that are pertinent to people’s lives.”
If more people understood biodiversity and how we rely on plants that we can’t see halfway across the world, they would understand the importance. For instance, the tundra generates a lot of our world’s oxygen and sequesters carbon, so if people continue chopping down the trees in the tundra, the entire world will be in a terrible situation, yet not many people know or focus on that. With that, I think tech has the ability to bridge all of that, and put things in the palm of people’s hands to show them the importance of biodiversity.
The framing of the conversation should be adjusted to highlight urgency and ignite people’s self interests. For example, instead of saying, “We need to protect this tiger because it’s a beautiful endangered species,” we can frame it as, “If this tiger is gone, here is how it would impact the people living around it and that is why its conservation efforts, as well as prioritizing the surrounding communities and their needs, need to be bolstered.”
If an issue isn’t framed as urgent, it likely won’t to activate enough people to make enough of a positive and timely difference.
Even people who are working in the environmental space sometimes ignore environmental justice or engagement with Indigenous communities and something broader than just “We need to protect this natural landscape here.” It’s important to recognize the sustainable practices and actions taken by many groups of Indigenous people and realize that the Western world isn’t the pioneer in this space by any means — there is a lot to learn from Indigenous communities, and they need to be given back a lot of power and autonomy. I think part of that is also just framing how interdisciplinary and interconnected everything is. People tend to pick out little aspects of each situation, but it’s important to look at the history and bigger picture.
Since some ideas of approaching problems more interdisciplinarity are relatively new, fellows have the potential to do a lot of good in that realm, especially because we’re just a year and a half away from going into the job market. My one hope is that as people go and enter into the job market, they don’t get swayed into working for companies that may offer them more but don’t align with their values or true future goals.
At the end of the day I know that a lot of people are very concerned about making a good living, and rightly so. We live in a society where a lot is determined by how much wealth and status people have. I think that there is potential to do work that is positively impactful while earning a comfortable living.
Do you have any other current projects that you have been working on?
On campus, I’m currently a part of BEACN (Bay Area Environmentally Aware Consulting Network), where I work on sustainability and environmentally focused consulting work. Projects that I have been able to work on include helping a top biopharmaceutical company divert their waste streams and become more environmentally-friendly in their waste disposal practices, and working with a sustainable cotton-sourcing company that was attempting to expand its market share. I like BEACN because I had not been exposed to doing consulting work as a means of advancing sustainability causes before. I now know it’s possible to do consulting for non-profits and environmental justice-focused organizations, and a lot of the skills I was able to develop will come in handy for future work.
For one of my classes this semester, everyone gets to work on a semester-long project with a company. Mine is with one that makes solar-powered water pumps to access groundwater and improve water access in parts of sub-Saharan Africa where surface water pollution is a major issue. My project is mainly focusing on the data analysis of expanding water pump installation and use, and how to improve that infrastructure. It’s not just a healthcare concern of people not having access to clean water, but it’s also a concern of ensuring kids have the ability to focus on their education if their needs are being met and taken care of, it’s looking at how the infrastructure can be sustainable so it doesn’t generate any pollution and can be self-sustaining, and it’s about taking care of communities that have historically been taken advantage of.
What would you say are your long-term goals and what impact do you want to have on the world?
I know that I want to focus on doing something that has a positive social and environmental impact — whether that mean working on policy and protecting and expanding efforts of environmental protection and environmental justice, or going into consulting work to help expand renewable energy initiatives, or working for a company focused on expanding sustainable technology, I’m not sure yet. I think there’s just a lot of interesting possibilities of things to do, and I’m excited to see what they’ll end up being.
The idea of working somewhere entirely different for a period of time is also intriguing. Living somewhere [different] and immersing yourself in a different culture, in nature, and figuring out how you can help the existing initiatives in the community with perhaps the different experiences and skills that you might be bringing is a powerful thing. So if there was a way to merge biodiversity protection and conservation work to other fields I am interested in, whether in the legal field or working within data science applications to bring that information to public light and activate people to do more, I think that could be a cool intersection.
As people are getting more informed about issues like climate change and biodiversity loss through the internet, we also start to see how much data and information is out there. I feel like data science as a discipline can overlap into everything. So many people in data science are either double-majoring, minoring, or working within another field. It’s the application of data science skills into whatever field people are passionate about and want to incite change in that is so promising, and that’s where I think interdisciplinary tech is going to get a lot more bolstered — just from people seeing its potential to create the changes they want.
What do you think of the virtual semester and how’s it going for you?
It’s been a little hard to adjust to just because I think in some aspects virtual interaction and communication just isn’t the same as face-to-face interactions and experiences. It has been good for multitasking though. I will say it was really good for spending time with my family. I just came back to Berkeley, so prior to that I got to spend six months of uninterrupted time with my parents, my sister, and my dog, and we haven’t all been together for that long of a period of time in a while. It’s nice to reconnect and be more involved in each other’s lives again. I’m also very fortunate that I didn’t have any drastic changes in my life as a result of the pandemic, and I know that’s not the case for everyone, so I am very grateful for that and hope everyone is doing okay.
Let’s say it’s 2022, we have a vaccine, and there’s some sense of “normalcy” returning — what would be the first thing that you do?
I would love to just hang out with my friends in the same space. To have everybody in the same apartment or house and just be able to give people a hug, that’s something I’m looking forward to!”
Connect with Ananya // As told to Alison Huh
Fellow Features is a series dedicated to showcasing the Fung Fellowship community and learning more about their lives and their stories. If you’re interested in being featured, please fill out our feature nomination form: https://forms.gle/bqVYCGUJFsAt99bW8