Ilana Stein (Class of 2005), Integrative Plant Biologist, UC Berkeley

SFWS: Please explain your graduate work at UC Berkeley.

Ilana Stein: I am a first-year doctoral student in UC Berkeley's Integrative Biology Department. My program focuses on the integration of multiple scales of biology, with a unifying emphasis on trying to understand the processes that drive evolution. People in the department study a broad range of topics, such as paleontology, neuroscience, molecular phylogenetics, ecology, and so forth. The lab that I am a part of is focused on plant ecophysiology and ecosystems science, so we're in the unofficial ecology subset of the program.

I am a member of Dr. Todd Dawson's lab, and in very broad terms we study the interactions between plants (especially trees) and their environments. Some of this work involves using stable isotopes as a proxy for understanding physical and biological processes, like figuring out how trees respond to seasonal drought by measuring the isotopic composition of cellulose in their annual rings. One of the cool things about the lab is that we study how processes at an organismal scale are affected by and have an impact on the larger ecosystem or even climate. We call it a "leaves to landscape" approach, because what goes on at the leaf level has strong repercussions for what happens at a landscape scale (and vice versa).

Much of what we study has to do with how different plants use water and respond to drought differently, which is especially relevant here in California and in the context of climate change. This semester I helped out with some fieldwork in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where we were measuring the effects of this past year's extreme drought on coast redwoods, bay laurels, and douglas firs. In order to collect samples of leaves up in the canopy we had to climb the trees, which was loads of fun, and my personal highlight was making it to the top of a 226-foot-tall coast redwood. We were also getting up at 3 am to take pre-dawn water potential measurements (and climbing in the dark), but that's just part of the weird adventure of fieldwork.

Most of the time, I'm on campus, which keeps me very busy. I take classes, participate in lab meetings, read papers, apply for funding, and try to fit in time to think about my own research. I'm also a "graduate student instructor" (Berkeley-speak for teaching assistant) for an undergraduate class in plant morphology, which is basically the plant equivalent of animal anatomy. In developing ideas for my dissertation research, I am hoping to study the impacts of climate change on tropical forest succession (recovery from deforestation) in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, one of my favorite places.

SFWS: What other things have you been up to since graduating?

IS: I went to Prescott College in Arizona for two years. It's an outdoorsy, liberal arts college – an extension of Waldorf in some ways. I took some great classes in studio art and field ecology there, but I ended up transferring to Mills College (in Oakland), which is a bit more rigorous and offers more lab science classes. Right around that time, Susan Cook asked me to illustrate her (now published) children's book, Rukia Goes to School. As part of that, I went to Kenya with her and taught art at the Rudolf Steiner School Mbagaathi, where the book takes place. (The book is available in the SFWS Grade School Book Closet.)

While I was at Mills I went to Brazil for a field-based study-abroad program through the School of International Training (SIT) focused on Amazon resource management and human ecology. I mostly lived in the city of Belém, but spent a couple of weeks on a riverboat and did a lot of other traveling around in the region, too. We visited tiny rural communities in the middle of nowhere, research centers, NGOs, massive open pit mines, deforested cattle ranches, etc., to get a real sense of all of the complex social and environmental issues there. Towards the end of the program I conducted a research project on alternative methods of subsistence agriculture and how it might help reduce deforestation pressures. That experience in Brazil was quite formative and I have been back a number of times since, to other parts of the country.

After graduation I did some invasive plant research at the US Department of Agriculture with Dr. Sarah Swope, who has since become a professor at Mills. I got to be second author on our paper (published in 2012), which certainly helped me get into grad school. After that and an extended stint in South America, I worked for three years as a wetland field biologist for the Invasive Spartina Project here in the San Francisco Bay. I worked on invasive cordgrass (Spartina spp.) eradication, habitat restoration, and endangered bird species monitoring. As part of that job I did a lot of boating and kayaking, and got to know the Bay Area a whole lot better. It was a great experience.

SFWS: Tell us about your time here at SFWS and how it impacted your life and studies.

IS: I feel like having a Waldorf education has supported me in obvious as well as unexpected ways. For one thing, Waldorf encourages creative, critical, and independent thinking early on. In college I felt well prepared on that front—I was already used to approaching things in an interdisciplinary, synthetic way. The integration of art into everything else at Waldorf is the reason I started out as a double major in art and environmental science in college, and I'm pleasantly surprised by how relevant that background is for pursuing a PhD in biology. Art involves a lot of careful observation and consideration of how information should be presented, which is also very important in the sciences. In the plant morphology lab that I'm teaching, my students have to illustrate their lab write-ups. Because I'm accustomed to doing things like that I feel more able to give a clear idea of what is expected of my students, and why that type of work is important. And just in general, I think that Waldorf does an excellent job of encouraging students' curiosity, which, from what I can tell, is a prerequisite for doing anything worthwhile in science.

Most importantly, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now if I didn't care an awful lot about the environment and have a personal connection to nature. That's my main motivation, both in terms of intellectual curiosity and feeling some sense of responsibility or global citizenship. I owe a lot of that to my parents, but Waldorf definitely gives children that connection with nature from early on, and raises a bunch of thoughtful humans who actually give a damn about the world, regardless of what field they end up in. That's probably what I appreciate about it the most.