“Farm 5” Picnic Reunites UW-WSU Collaborators

On Tuesday, July 29, a group of researchers and their families met for a picnic outside of Puyallup, Wash., to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a research collaboration between the University of Washington and Washington State University—a program that laid the foundation for the current biofuels research at SEFS.

Organized in large part by Professor Emeritus Reinhard Stettler, the gathering brought together some of the core members of a research team that has spent several decades exploring the unusual potential of growing hybrid poplars.

Farm 5 Picnic

The hybrid poplars, marked here with ribbon, quickly proved their unusual growth potential compared to non-hybrid neighboring trees.

In 1968, Stettler published a paper in Nature in which he described a mechanism to overcome a major barrier to hybridization in native cottonwoods—and he needed a place for the hybrids he had produced to grow. He turned to Professor Paul Heilman, based at WSU’s Puyallup Research & Extension Center, who agreed to plant the hybrids as well as the female Populus trichocarpa parents.

It was the early 1970s, and the Middle East oil embargo was driving up gas prices and threatening supply, so the U.S. Department of Energy put out a request for proposals on using biomass as a potential energy source. Stettler and Heilman secured one of the first grants through that program in 1978—a grant that would fund research for 20-plus years—and forged a partnership with WSU to conduct research on the genetic and environmental factors responsible for growth and disease resistance in the native black cottonwood and its offspring with known parents from eastern cottonwood or Populus deltoides.

“It was an important and model partnership between the state’s two major research institutions, WSU and UW,” says Professor Emeritus Tom Hinckley, a long-time collaborator on the project. “Without the one, the other would have failed.”

The July picnic brought many of the collaborators together at that original site, known as Farm 5, and included an update and field tour about ongoing research there involving a new generation of poplars. Hinckley especially enjoyed the opportunity to get reacquainted with former colleagues and students. “For me, it was the first time back there since 1992 or 1993, and it just brought back a flood of memories,” he says.

Photos © Tom Hinckley & Nico Stettler.

Farm 5 Picnic

At the picnic (alphabetical): Curt Bod, former staff, WSU; Toby Bradshaw, former postdoc and research assistant professor, biology; Michael Carlson, former graduate student; Lynn Catlett, former staff, UW (+ Tony Ferruci); Reinhart Ceulemans, former visiting scientist (+Hedwig); Tom DeLuca, SEFS Director; Sharon Doty, SEFS Professor; Joan Dunlap, former graduate student; Gordon Ekuan, former staff, WSU; Ruth Fenn, former graduate student & staff, UW (+Lauren); Arturo Figliola, former graduate student (+Nino); Dylan Fischer, current faculty, Evergreen State College; Diane Fogle, former staff, WSU; Alex Friend, former graduate student; Paula Glackin, former staff, UW (+Jim); Barri Herman, current staff scientist at WSU and head of Poplar Program; Tom Hinckley, SEFS Professor Emeritus and former graduate student (+Arline); Jud Isebrands, former visiting scientist, former research scientist, USFS (+Sharon); Jeff Kallestad, current research staff, WSU; Carrie LeRoy, current faculty, Evergreen State College; Randi Luchterhand, current staff, WSU; Don Rice, current staff at Greenwood Industries (+Fran); Giuseppe Scarascia, former visiting scientist and graduate student) (+Elisa, Costanza, Tommaso); Barbara Smit, former faculty, SEFS (+Jim); Brian Stanton, current staff, Greenwood Industries (+Carol); Reini Stettler, former faculty, SEFS (+Dan, Nico); Liz VanVolkenburgh, professor, biology; Marc Villar, former visiting scientist (+Pascale); Brian Watson, former staff, UW (+Do); Jack Whisler, former staff, UW; Brenda Wiard, former graduate student (+Mark).

David G. Briggs: 1943-2014

We were extremely sad to learn last week that a wonderful member of the SEFS family, Professor Emeritus David Briggs, passed away at his home on Saturday, July 26.

Briggs was born on July 3, 1943, in North Brookfield, Mass. He earned his bachelor’s at the University of Massachusetts, a master’s from Yale University, and his doctorate from the College of Forest Resources (CFR). He first joined CFR as a graduate student around 1968, but in the early 1970s he briefly left the university to work as an analyst for Washington Iron Works in Seattle. After returning and finishing his dissertation in 1980, Briggs joined the CFR faculty and taught operations research and forest products for more than three decades until his retirement in 2011.

David G. BriggsIn his many distinguished years with our school, he simultaneously served as director of the Stand Management Cooperative and the Precision Forestry Cooperative, and also directed the UW site of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Advanced Forestry Systems. Briggs was respected as a great leader and collaborator, and he was appointed as the Corkery Chair in recognition of his scholarly and professional contributions. He mentored dozens of graduate and undergraduate students, as well as young professors, and was especially known for his enormous generosity and kindness. Even as his health started to slow him down, he continued participating in school affairs and kept an active research profile.

His decorated career as a professor is only part of what his many friends and colleagues remember so fondly. With a tremendous zeal for life and the outdoors, Briggs was an avid climber and mountaineer, and was famous for his storytelling—such as tales of climbing peaks, up and back, early in the morning before the rest of his party had even woken up. He loved traveling and had only recently returned from a trip with his wife Anne to Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. He also had an affinity for animals, at various times keeping llamas, chickens, geese, dogs, cats and a horse on his land.

Briggs will be sorely missed by his mother, Georgia Briggs, his wife, Anne Briggs, his son Jeremy Briggs, his stepdaughter Laura Shepard, many other family and friends, and the countless students and faculty he guided and influenced during his long career at the University of Washington.

A celebration of his life will be held at The University of Washington Club (4020 E. Steven Way) on Sunday, August, 17, from 4 to 7 p.m.; parking on Sundays is available in the Padelford Parking Garage. The family asks that remembrances may be donated to the American Alpine Club or Washington Trails Association.

David Briggs

Interactive Arboretum Map is Now Live!

Tracy Mehlin, information technology librarian for the Elisabeth C. Miller Library, passed along the exciting news that the new Washington Park Arboretum Interactive Map has officially launched!

The project started in August 2012 with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to survey the Arboretum and digitize paper inventory maps. Now, the online, interactive map identifies landmarks, trails, gardens and every woody plant growing in the Arboretum. It can be browsed or searched, and users can turn layers on and off, measure distances, draw a custom route and print out a custom map.

It’s an incredibly comprehensive resource, with applications for everyone from faculty and students to visitors and researchers around the world, so get in there and start exploring!

Arboretum Interactive Map

Steven D. Stinson: 1961-2014

We were deeply saddened to learn last week that one of our alumni and great friends, Steve Stinson, passed away on Wednesday, July 16, after a two-year battle with cancer.

Steve StinsonBorn December 10, 1961, Stinson grew up working on his family’s Cowlitz Ridge Tree Farm in Toledo, Wash., and was a tireless advocate for forestry. He was particularly known for his support of small family forest owners, and he was an integral part of the Washington Farm Forestry Association (WFFA).

Stinson earned his bachelor’s from Evergreen State College and was a master’s student under Professor Chad Oliver at the College of Forest Resources. He was among the first students working on the landscape management system (LMS) developed in the Oliver Lab, and his thesis was on dynamic habitat-based forest planning for small forest landowners. At a national Society of American Foresters meeting, one of Stinson’s posters demonstrating the LMS won a blue ribbon award; the poster and award were displayed outside the silviculture lab for many years. After graduating in 2000, he went on to direct the Washington Department of Natural Resources’ Small Forestland Landowner Office, established as part of Washington’s Forest and Fish Law, and he later contributed to the Denman Forestry Issue Lecture Series.

StinsonEarly in his career, Stinson had the foresight to see that small family forest owners were being left out of the policy discussion largely because there was no database to identify how many there were, where they were located, and how much they managed. So he worked with the Washington delegation to secure funding for the University of Washington to create a database of small tree farm family ownership through the Rural Technology Initiative (RTI), currently managed by Luke Rogers at SEFS. As a result, the Washington State Parcel and Forestland Databases—both projects now into their 10th years—provide comprehensive GIS data on tree farm land parcels and a wealth of other information. Among many other long-term benefits, these resources more accurately document the significant contributions of small forest owners, including their role in providing riparian protection in the lowlands and population centers of the state.

Stinson’s life and work touched countless lives, and he is fondly remembered at SEFS as a great friend and champion of the forestry community. He was widely respected for his pragmatism, genuine concern for other people, and a relentless pursuit of science-based decision-making. He invested so much of his time and passion in the forestlands of Washington State, and helping landowners navigate the complexity of modern forest management. He will be greatly missed.

***

A celebration of Stinson’s life will be held at the family tree farm in Toledo on Saturday, July 26, at 5 p.m. The Stinson family has chosen to have a potluck, so please bring a dish and beverage of your choice. They will provide plates and cutlery. There will be a bonfire and live music by Joe Batt, Tom Barbara, Joe Green and Richard Roth. If you have questions, please email Ann (amstinson126@comcast.net) or Julie (julieintheyukon@gmail.com). No phone calls please.

The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to:

Washington Farm Forestry Association
P.O. Box 1010
Chehalis, WA 98532

(Port Blakely is establishing a scholarship in Stinson’s memory; more details will be available soon about designating donations to WFFA for this particular fund.)

or

Assured Home Health & Hospice
2120 North Park Street, Suite A
Centralia, WA 98531

Photos of Steve Stinson © Courtesy of Rick Dunning and Luke Rogers.

Steve Stinson

Tell Us: Favorite Field Trip as a Student

In the inaugural issue of Roots, our new alumni e-newsletter, we asked alumni to tell us about their favorite field trips as a student. Here’s what Marion “Bud” Fisk (‘58), who lives with his wife of 56 years in Tieton, Wash., shared with us:

Marion "Bud" Fisk

Marion “Bud” Fisk

“I don’t know if students still get to go to Pack Forest or spend their last quarter in the woods or not. But the class of ’58 spent the first half of the last class quarter helping the DNR inventory the Capitol State Forest. We got lots of experience, made some good friendships and helped the ol’ DNR a bit.

For the second half of the quarter, we went to Glenwood, where St. Regis Paper owned several thousand acres of pine/fir mix. Sleeping in our bags in wood-floored tents, eating in the loggers’ mess hall, jumping over rattlesnakes out on the plateau, and getting dunked in the log pond created a whole bunch of lifelong memories. One of our small group, Doug Daniels, stayed on and worked for the DNR out of Glenwood for his entire career. The next class produced Len Rolph, who stayed on with St Regis for his career and ended up as chief forester of the Klickitat block. Len and I have hunted that area out of his backyard for the last 50 years and have fed our families on the venison and elk we harvested. Quite an extended field trip.”Great stuff, Bud—thanks for writing!

For the next issue of Roots, we’re asking alumni to tell us: Who was your favorite professor, and why did he/she have such a big impact on you? We’ll feature one or more response in the next issue of Roots, and also right here on the “Offshoots” blog. Please email submissions—of no more than 250 words—to sefsalum@uw.edu, and we’ll follow up to ask for a photo if your letter is accepted and published.

Photo of Bud Fisk © Bud Fisk.

Alumni (and Staff) Spotlight: Wendy Gibble

While volunteering with the Falcon Research Group in the San Juan Islands a number of years ago, Wendy Gibble remembers repelling down a cliff to reach a peregrine falcon nest. She’d been taking part in a raptor study for several years, and her job was to put bands on the young birds. With each subsequent season visiting a nest, Gibble says the adult falcons grew less tolerant of the intruders—and also far less timid. At first, they would swoop nervously yet stay about 10 feet above the researchers’ heads. After a few years, though, some of them would actually make contact. “You’re hanging on a rope, banding a young falcon, and all the sudden you get this “thwack” on your helmet,” she says.

Wendy Gibble

Before returning to graduate school after 13 years in environmental consulting, Gibble volunteered on a wide range of conservation projects, including several raptor studies.

Armored with that helmet and a sturdy jacket, Gibble didn’t feel in danger, and in fact she loved the excitement of working hands-on with wildlife research and conservation. So much that she regularly sought out similar volunteer projects with several organizations, including Hawkwatch International, and ended up participating in raptor studies at far-flung sites around the world, from Cape May, N.J., to Chile and the Falkland Islands.

She managed all of that, incredibly, on top of her full-time career as an engineer. But her side passions were increasingly elbowing for more room and attention.

Gibble had grown up in Chatham Township, N.J., about 30 miles west of Manhattan, and later studied civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University in New York. She briefly returned to New Jersey after graduation before heeding the call of the Pacific Northwest and its many natural offerings.

“I came for the mountains,” she says, and ended up working in environmental consulting for 13 years, splitting time between a couple firms, including Herrera Environmental Consultants. Some of her work involved construction management for water resource projects, such as drinking water supplies, fish rearing and passage projects. Gibble did some flood modeling and work on landfills, as well as projects on the Columbia and Snake river systems designing hatcheries and fish screens (to prevent fish from getting sucked out with irrigation withdrawal). She also spent time designing water treatment plants, pipeline transmissions, pump stations and other infrastructure related to our drinking water system.

Through she generally enjoyed all of those projects, Gibble felt a growing desire to spend her days working more directly with habitat management and conservation. She’d experienced that world firsthand through her volunteering, but only for a few weeks a year. The tease was too much to keep ignoring.

Wendy Gibble

Getting to do field research across the state, including recently in the Wenatchee Mountains (above), is one of Gibble’s favorite parts of her job with Rare Care.

“I had that moment of, ‘What am I doing?’” she says. “I was running into people all over South America who were doing really cool research projects and wildlife studies, and I just thought it was time for a career change.”

Since she didn’t want to leave the West Coast, Gibble started researching potential graduate programs in California and Washington. She says she had a really good feeling about coming to the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) and ended up pursuing a master’s with Professor Kristiina Vogt as her advisor. Within her overall emphasis on plant ecology, Gibble studied plant invasion in the Puget Sound prairies for her thesis (her other committee members included Professors Charles Halpern and Peter Dunwiddie). She got to be in the field. She got to organize her own research program. She’d found a shared outlet for her personal and professional aptitudes.

As it happened, a few months before Gibble had even earned her M.S. in March 2006, the program manager position opened up with the Washington Rare Plant Care and Conservation Program, or Rare Care, with the UW Botanic Gardens. Gibble had taken a seminar with Professor Sarah Reichard, the director of UWBG, and knew a little bit about the Rare Care program. The timing was hard to beat, and Gibble knew positions like this one didn’t pop up every day in this field, so she jumped at the opportunity and started working while she wrapped up her thesis.

The Rare Care program, housed at the Center for Urban Horticulture, is dedicated to conserving Washington’s rare native plants. It has four main areas of emphasis: researching rare native plants and engaging graduate students in those studies; organizing statewide citizen science monitoring of rare plants (including more than 200 volunteers who do around 5,000 hours of work each year); managing the Miller Seed Vault, a seed banking effort that preserves the seeds of rare plant species; and conducting other outreach projects.

Wendy Gibble

Gibble, center, at the 2014 SEFS Alumni Spring Gathering, held April 27 at the Center for Urban Horticulture.

A big part of what Gibble loves about her role as program manager is that she gets to have a hand in all of these activities, and a couple years ago she took on the additional responsibility of managing the education programs and a seven-person staff. She especially enjoys working closely with students, and getting to spend a lot of time traveling to field sites around the state. “I really like going new places,” she says, “and that’s one of the things I really love about my job. I’ve gone to places I probably never would have seen.”

Some of those excursions include gathering collections for the seed vault, or leading a range of research and monitoring projects. Gibble recently spent a week in the Lake Quinault area working with the Forest Service to map populations of the rare Quinault fawn lily. She’s also been collecting seeds with the Bureau of Land Management out in Washington’s shrub steppe regions, and monitoring Whited milk-vetch south of Wenatchee. “It’s all very cool,” she says.

Of course, even the most satisfying work week still leaves plenty of spare hours, and Gibble isn’t one to wear out a couch. “If I’m in the wilderness, I’m a happy person,” she says, and that means hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, bird watching, gardening, skiing, canoeing, kayaking, you name it—including rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Wendy Gibble

Gibble on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.

Two summers ago, she added salmon fishing. Gibble and some friends chartered a boat on the west side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where she hooked her first Chinook salmon. She doesn’t remember how long she fought the 28-pounder—it was a bit of blur—but she definitely recalls the thrill of the catch, and then the four or so months it took to work her way through all the meat. “It was a ton of fun,” she says.

Not to limit herself to terrestrial and marine adventures, Gibble used to have a pilot’s license, as well. “It was a bucket list kind of thing,” she says, and she flew herself to a number of local destinations, including to Portland, Ore., and out to the San Juan Islands. Yet since flying requires a lot of time and money to stay current and safe, Gibble didn’t keep her license up to date. Plus, as fun as it was to cruise through the sky, she says most of her outdoor passions involve closer contact to nature. “In the end,” she says, “I just want to be on the ground.”

For all the ground she’s covered so far—New Jersey to Washington, Cape May to Chile, engineering to ecology, and countless trips along the way—Gibble knows there’s plenty yet for her to do and explore in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. Best of all, she no longer has to wait for vacations and volunteer projects to get there. With Rare Care and the broader SEFS community, she gets to travel regularly and work at the leading edge of environmental research and education every day.

And that, says Gibble, is a rare find indeed.

Photos © Wendy Gibble.

Wendy Gibble

Director’s Message: Summer 2014

As I’m writing this message, I’m looking out my office windows at another brilliant summer afternoon. This time of year in the Seattle and the Pacific Northwest—clear skies, mountains on every horizon, sails carving up every lake and channel—is especially distracting, and we’re lucky that Summer Quarter is our quietest. Half of every class would be dreamily gazing outside and clamoring for an escape.

Tom DeLuca

Director Tom DeLuca on a recent backpacking trip with his sons in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

It often feels like a reflex or instinct, this yearning to be outdoors, reveling in the infinite variety and beauty of nature. But I have to remind myself that I grew up in a family that had me out skiing all winter, and on extended backpack trips in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Northern Michigan in the summer. We spent countless hours building fence lines, cutting firewood and enjoying every autumn and spring on land we owned and managed in western Wisconsin, or simply playing in the woods by our house on a daily basis.

Not everyone has that same access to parks, open lands or wilderness, or the same opportunities to take advantage of them. Similar to developing a taste for unique foods, our understanding and appreciation of the ‘outdoors’ often starts with exposure to nature on a regular basis, ideally starting at a young age. Without a daily diet of nature, many people never develop an overarching respect for the natural world, and the immense value of its resources. There’s nothing automatic or universal about developing that respect. It’s often the result of years of experience and exploration, honed throughout our lives like so many of our philosophies and passions.

That’s why our role at SEFS is so important. We invest a significant portion of our effort toward instilling our students with a deep sense of respect and value for natural and semi-natural places, with a special emphasis on forests. Our hope is that our students leave here with a sturdy land and conservation ethic, derived from a scientific understanding of how ecosystems function, and how we might best manage lands for the enduring integrity and benefit of humans and all living species alike.

However, as I’ve learned, the taste for nature is best developed young, so we’ve recently launched a number of programs with the goal of capturing the imaginations of young minds much earlier.

Mount Rainier Institute

After a day of field experiments, students relax around a campfire during one of the first pilots of the Mount Rainier Institute.

This past October, we successfully completed the first pilots of the Mount Rainier Institute (MRI), and this fall we’ll be welcoming the first full season of students. A partnership between Mount Rainier National Park and SEFS, MRI is a residential environmental learning center designed to nurture the next generation of environmental stewards and leaders. The program invites middle school students from all backgrounds—and especially from diverse communities with limited access to parks and other natural spaces—to spend four days and three nights at Pack Forest and Mount Rainier National Park. They learn science by doing science, testing skills like observation, inquiry, analysis, supporting claims with evidence, and presenting their findings. Through these hands-on experiments, along with other fun activities like night hikes and campfires, they build confidence in being outdoors and, we hope, form the beginnings of their own land ethic.

Around the same time last year, we also kicked off a program at the UW Botanic Gardens that targets an even younger audience. The Fiddleheads Forest School immerses preschool-aged children in the natural world, introducing them to their relationships with trees, herbs, insects and mammals. It’s casual and playful, and these young students get to spend time in the beautiful outdoors classroom of the Washington Park Arboretum—an easy place to begin a lifelong love of nature.

Programs like these have me brimming with enthusiasm and confidence in the next generation of environmental leaders and resource managers. Because even if we can’t all grow up with regular access and exposure to nature, we can all grow into responsible stewards and ensure the long-term preservation of the landscapes we value so much.

Tom DeLuca
Director, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Photo of Tom DeLuca © Tom DeLuca; photo of Mount Rainier Institute © Kevin Bacher/NPS.

Grad Student Spotlight: Cameron Newell

Few of our graduate students at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) arrive here by following the exact same script. After all, the very nature of pursuing scientific training—always asking questions, always refining methods and ideas—tends to favor detours over simple, direct routes.

That’s why many of our students make their way here more like a pinball than an arrow; not out of aimlessness or lack of dedication, by any means, but by seeking diverse experiences and allowing those to shape and guide them. These students come with an appreciation that some of the most exciting discoveries and decisions can happen on the go, firsthand and unplanned, and that being open to the world is often the best way to find your place in it. In many ways, that’s how Cameron Newell found his way to the Master of Environmental Horticulture program at SEFS a year ago.

Cameron Newell

Newell on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos.

Newell grew up about an hour northwest of Melbourne, Australia. After earning a bachelor of science with majors in botany and zoology at Monash University in Melbourne, he spent a few years exploring an assortment of jobs, from driving seeding drills and rouseabouting on farms in the west, to working for the Victorian state government one summer as a firefighter. “It was the wettest summer in 100 years,” he says, “so I ended up filling sandbags more than putting out fires. It was a good thing, I guess, but you don’t make as much money that way.”

For one 18-month stretch, Newell hooked up with a filmmaker who was looking for a camera assistant on a documentary. The project involved capturing a year in the life of crocodiles, following them from babies and nesting mothers on through to mating. Newell didn’t have any experience as a cameraman, but before he knew it he was spending weeks in the field filming up around Darwin and other remote reaches of the country. “It was kind of scary most of the time,” he says, “sitting in a little flat-bottom boat filming crocodiles.”

At the end of that string of jobs, Newell set off with his brother on a seven-month backpacking adventure through South America. They flew into Santiago, Chile, and then trekked through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador before spending a short time in Colombia. Near the tail end of the journey, while still in Ecuador, Newell met Susan North—his “soul mate, an amazing woman from San Diego,” he says. “My plans changed a bit from there.”

So after their last stop in Colombia, the brothers headed their separate ways, with Newell traveling up to the United States with Susie. From there, they would spend the next two and a half years dating long distance while Newell worked on several other documentaries—including films about kangaroos, flying foxes and red crabs—and applied for a green card to live in the country. When he was finally able to join Susie in San Diego full-time, he spent about two and a half years working in environmental consulting.

Newell

Newell, left, working on the documentary about crocodiles he helped film in Australia.

During that time, he’d been thinking about ways to get more engaged with environmental restoration and sustainable farming. “My parents had a nursery growing up,” he says, “so I was always growing plants. I had my own little side business doing small-scale stuff on farms, putting in windbreaks, things like that. But sustainable agriculture has become a bigger interest of mine through time and jobs, and I wanted to work out a way to pair agriculture and restoration.”

He started digging into potential graduate programs that would give him the flexibility and hands-on field application he wanted. That’s what attracted him to the Master of Environmental Horticulture degree program with SEFS, where he’s now working with Professors Kern Ewing and Jim Fridley. His research focuses on habitat restoration for pollinators in small agricultural areas in Seattle and surrounding communities, including Duvall and Carnation. “Pollination is a big thing at the moment with the collapse of the honey bee populations,” he says. “There’s going to be an increased need for native pollinators.”

Newell has just completed his first year here, and this summer he’s carrying out some pollinator surveys in a few local towns to determine which pollinators are around and active. He’s also gotten involved with the local project tracking the reemergence of Western Bumble Bees in the Seattle area, so he’ll be out chasing bees from time to time.

He has about a year left in his program, and after that Newell says he’d eventually like to work in Africa or somewhere else in the developing world. What happens in the meantime, of course, is all part of the adventure—and could end up leading him in another direction entirely!

All photos © Cameron Newell.

Newell
Traveling is still very much in Newell’s blood. In fact, he just got back from 10 days in Canada with his father. “My old man came out,” he says, “and we rented an RV in Vancouver and drove up to Banff and Jasper.”

Allison McGrath: Going Solar

A little more than a year ago, Allison McGrath was already plenty busy with her graduate school commitments. In addition to pursuing a joint master’s with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) and the Evans School of Public Affairs, she was working part-time as a student assistant for the Evans School Executive Education program. But then she stumbled across a volunteer project that paralleled her research interests in water management—and that offered a tremendous opportunity to apply her studies to direct practical use.

UW-Solar

McGrath doing her best impression of a solar panel on a hike to Obstruction Point in the Olympics.

“It was kind of random, actually,” says McGrath, who grew up in Ravenna and Kirkland. When her supervisor at the Evans Executive Education Program learned about McGrath’s interest in renewable energy, she introduced her to Stefanie Young, the project manager for UW-Solar, a student-run solar project at the University of Washington. The group’s mission, working with UW Housing and Food Services, is to develop solar installations on buildings throughout campus to promote clean and sustainable power production, improve the resilience of power systems, and reduce the overall carbon footprint of the university.

As it happened, the UW-Solar team was looking for help shoring up a feasibility study to install a new solar array on campus. McGrath had done some policy work involving biofuels, and she was drawn to renewable energy for the same reasons she loves studying water management. “It’s really interesting to me,” she says. “You have to take a systems approach to creating this resilient infrastructure.”

She was sold on the project and joined the team in February 2013. At the time, UW-Solar was operating on a $5,000 grant from the Campus Sustainability Fund (CSF) to complete the feasibility study, and the group was actively applying for grants and other support through several project partners, including CSF, UW Housing and Food Services, and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

McGrath plunged right into the mix, and though she had a little catching up to do with some of the science and technology of solar energy, she loved the challenge.

“It was a fun project to be involved in,” she says. “The nice part is that I started out in the finance and policy side, but it was really interdisciplinary and everyone was invited to participate in every step of the process. Even when stuff went over my head, I was still able to be there and learn about it.”

UW-Solar

The solar panel installation at Mercer Court.

One of the most important steps was deciding where to build the solar array. As part of the initial feasibility study, UW-Solar had identified about a dozen suitable buildings around campus, including the possibility of retrofitting an older structure. Yet they ultimately selected one of the new Mercer Court dorms, which were built with the foresight to include infrastructure for solar panels—including electrical closets on the roof instead of in the basement—even though the cost of installing the panels had been prohibitive at the time.

After months of fundraising and outreach, UW-Solar cleared that cost hurdle in spectacular fashion, raising an incredible $174,900, which was more than enough to kick off a full-scale pilot project.

Even with the funds in hand, the stakes were still extremely high to prove the long-term viability of solar energy on campus. “We chose Mercer because we thought it was going to be the most successful,” says McGrath. “Since it was a pilot project, there was a lot riding on it.”

The project itself involved installing 178 solar panels on the roof of one dorm building. They are projected to provide a significant power boost—roughly between 30,000 to 40,000 kilowatt hours a day, or a quarter of the building’s energy demands. It’s a fixed array and is expected to last decades, and it should pay for itself—including the cost of construction—in energy savings in as little as eight years. Plus, though it might seem counterintuitive in Seattle, the rainy weather actually helps keep the panels clear of dust and operating efficiently. In other words, says McGrath, solar can definitely thrive in Seattle.

Construction began on March 10, and the solar panels are now fully installed and up and running. In fact, in early April solar power proponents Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Denis Hayes (President and CEO of Bullitt Foundation, as well as founder of Earth Day) attended an official dedication of the array.

UW-Solar

Denis Hayes (left) and Governor Inslee at the official dedication of the array in April.

The project, of course, is not over. The array includes a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system, a type of industrial control system that will acquire energy and atmospheric data from sensors mounted on the solar panel array. A portion of the grant money is funding a new computer lab, which will provide ongoing research opportunities for computer scientists at UW interested in testing energy data system security. As part of the ongoing educational component, UW-Solar is publishing real-time and historical energy production and savings data online. They also created a time-lapse video of the whole installation process, and they’re visiting classrooms to talk about the project and putting together curricula for other groups that want to take on similar projects.

As for McGrath, she’s returned her full attention to her thesis, which involves assessing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, originally passed in 1968, and its implementation. She’s been looking at management plans and interviewing folks from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. “I’m deep in the thick of interviewing right now,” she says, and her plan is to defend later this summer.

And when she does graduate, McGrath knows she’ll leave with far more than just her degree. After all, she helped launch a major solar project—an inspiring testament to the will, creativity and leadership of students—that will have an impact on the University of Washington for years to come.

She hadn’t expected such a powerful experience when she started graduate school, but then that’s the nature of serendipity.

“Life is cool that way,” she says.

Want to Get Involved?
McGrath says UW-Solar is always eager for new student volunteers to replace graduating members and help fuel the next big project. There are about 12 students currently involved with the group, and Professor Jan Wittington from the College of Built Environments is the faculty advisor. If you’re interested, check out the group’s Facebook page to hear about project updates and other cool solar-related news, and McGrath encourages you to contact Stefanie Young. “Stefanie is a great project manager,” she says. “She really brings everyone together.”

Photos: ©; panel installation © UW-Solar; Denis Hayes and Governor Jay Inslee © Anil Kapahi and UW-Solar; the UW-Solar team, McGrath at the far right (below) © Anil Kapahi and UW-Solar.

UW-Solar

Slideshow: 2014 SEFS Graduation Celebration!

This past Friday, June 13, we honored and celebrated with our latest graduating class, sending off an incredibly talented group of students to become the next leaders in their fields—both here at home in the Pacific Northwest, and all around the world. With families and friends packed into Kane Hall, and with professors and graduates in their splendid academic regalia, we heard terrific student speeches from Crescent Calimpong and Tara Wilson, and Professor David Ford had the room in stitches throughout his keynote address. It was a grand affair, and we even managed to wrangle (nearly all of) the graduates for some group photos.

If you’d like a glimpse of the action, take a look at a slideshow we put together from the ceremony and cupcake reception afterward!

Slideshow photos © Karl Wirsing/SEFS.