Making "nature" real and meaningful in everyday life
Grace Ha is a Ph.D. candidate in marine ecology at UC Davis, where her thesis focuses on the analysis of camouflage in marine ecosystems. She is participating in the Leaders for the Future program, a five-month cross-campus collaboration between the Office of Research, the Internship and Career Center, GradPathways (Graduate Studies) and our institute. She recently participated in the Food, Ag + Health Entrepreneurship Academy as our 2018 Harkins Fellow.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Ha holds a B.S. from Cornell University and is a former Fulbright Fellow to South Korea. After obtaining her Ph.D., she plans to pursue a data science career in either tech or the nonprofit sector, using her statistical and problem-solving skills for a broad range of applied issues. Ha says she discovered marine ecology “almost by accident” when she took a field biology class on a whim as an undergraduate and fell in love.
“I had always been interested in the idea of nature, but this course was my first experience actually touching, smelling and exploring nature as a real subject. To this day, I am fascinated by how the natural world can be more diverse and more extraordinary than any one person’s imagination.”
In addition to her research, Ha is passionate about mentoring, fostering diversity in the workplace—and Agatha Christie murder mysteries.
Describe your project or venture.
At the Entrepreneurship Academy, I pitched this idea of an urban nature walking tour. In short, it would be a series of walking tours exploring different districts in San Francisco—a city I know and love—focused on understanding how environmental, historical and cultural forces have shaped the way species live in these specific spaces.
There are these notions that nature doesn’t exist in the city, that humans are separate from nature and that organisms we encounter in an urban environment are “trash” species. I think all of these notions are not only false, they actively cut people—especially children—off from feeling connected to their environment. Helping folks, whether residents of a neighborhood or the occasional tourist, better understand their immediate surroundings in a fun and active way is a great way to start disabusing these misconceptions.
What’s important about your research—and where do you hope to take it?
As a graduate student, my dissertation has focused heavily on academic theory and experimentation of animal camouflage in marine habitats. My work is all about studying the complexity of ecosystems, which for many people is a very esoteric and abstract subject. Spending so much time thinking about it, however, has made me realize that not only is there value in learning something deeply and passionately, but it is incredibly important to understand how these abstract concepts (for example, “nature”) relate to specific people, places and communities. Learning about one’s immediate environment is one way to ground abstract environmental concepts and make “nature” feel like a real and meaningful part of one’s everyday life. Wherever I go in the future, whether it is through this urban nature walking tour or another venture, this is a guiding principle I hope to take with me.
What are you most passionate about in your work?
I love asking questions about how things work in real life. In my academic work, this has involved coming up with scientific hypotheses and then testing them with all forms of data—whether it is collecting survey data on species abundances, running experiments in the field and laboratory, or simply making observations about animal behavior. The whole process can be a challenge, but the fact that science is this formalized process of feeding one’s curiosity is something I am very passionate about.
What was the most important thing you learned at the Entrepreneurship Academy?
I think the two most important things the academy taught me are (1) business/industry and academia have many parallels to each other (in other words, I have transferable skills!) and (2) progress is an iterative process that often involves making connections and getting feedback from a broad network of people.
What is the most unexpected advice you received from a mentor?
I was surprised by the diversity and creativity of funding ideas I received. Discussions I had ranged from comparing general price-points for similar walking tours, to applying for grants to nonprofits, to even making a direct pitch to the City of San Francisco. Academia tends to be more narrowly focused on how budgets get funded. Realizing how much bigger the metaphorical pie could be was eye opening and exciting.
What is the most important thing you are discovering in the Leaders for the Future program?
I am discovering how important it is to just simply talk and connect with people. One of the most amazing benefits of this program is the opportunity to meet people from a wide variety of backgrounds, learn about their skills and aspirations, and make funny revelations about how our paths intersect in strange ways. For instance, I came to one workshop thinking I would gain some business-related training. I happened to ask one of my colleagues about something related to chemistry—and came away with a surprising and concrete solution to a problem I had been dealing with in my dissertation!
The UC Davis teams that create and run both the Leaders for the Future program and the Entrepreneurship Academy have done an amazing job with not only putting us in contact with a diverse range of professional mentors, but also assembling fabulous groups of people in an environment that is really conducive to conversation and connection.
How will your experiences as a Leader for the Future and at the academy shape your professional future?
I have started to change my view of what I am capable of—not only in terms of how my scientific skills are transferable to different industries, but also in simply thinking, “Huh, if I felt like it was the right path, I think I could be an entrepreneur.” This is a completely new perspective for me, and in many ways it fundamentally alters how I view my professional future and my options outside of academia. At another level, these two experiences have been amazing opportunities to meet new people and network. The people I have met in the past couple months through them have already opened doors to learning and internship opportunities I would not otherwise have been aware of.
Anything else you’d like us to know about you?
Taking part in these career development opportunities has been an eye-opening experience. I am very grateful that UC Davis has such thoughtful, conscientious and passionate people in a variety of offices around campus focused on making students’ lives better.
[Profile photo of Grace Ha: David Slipher, UC Davis]