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Making waves in academia and policy

From fieldwork in Hawaii to testifying in Congress, Kate Brauman, Environment and Resources PhD ’10, developed a career in water policy by embracing interdisciplinary interests, following her personal values, and being open to new opportunities – even when her path forward wasn’t clear.

Kate Brauman at BBC studio
Kate Brauman prepares for a TV interview in the BBC studio in Paris following her testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, in which she discussed findings from a global assessment for the Intergovernme

Despite growing up on the Stanford campus with two parents in the university’s chemistry department, Kate Brauman didn’t plan to become a scientist or to return to Stanford University for a PhD.

But these decisions have helped her combine science with policy to build an impactful career she never foresaw. Now approaching 10 years in her research position at the University of Minnesota, Brauman is taking a break from academia for a Science Technology Policy Fellowship, awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to work on climate and water resiliency at the U.S. Department of Defense.

“I could tell a really coherent story about how everything I’ve done has led up to this point in my career,” said Brauman, Environment and Resources PhD '10, “but that’s not what really happened. A lot of my success has come from seeing where there might be an opportunity and following up with it.”

Dipping a toe into interdisciplinary waters

Brauman is candid about not knowing what kind of career she wanted until sometime after her undergraduate degree. Perhaps one of the earliest indicators of her interdisciplinary leanings, Brauman first studied religion and science at Columbia University.

“Religion is such an interesting intersection of history and culture and literature and philosophy all mixed together,” she said. Brauman was most intrigued by the interaction between religion and the sciences, particularly the insights into why scientists ask the questions that they do.

Brauman got a job in the public education department at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) – a nonprofit environmental advocacy group – forcing her to quickly acquaint herself with numerous environmental issues.

“There was a chunk of time where if you called or wrote or sent an email to the NRDC, you got me,” Brauman said. “It was a really profound turning point because it just hadn’t occurred to me to get into environmental issues, and once I was there it felt like such a natural fit.”

Despite her affinity to the subject, becoming a lawyer like others at the NRDC didn’t feel right, and thanks to a genetics laboratory during her undergraduate studies, she knew benchwork science was not for her. “You can’t know everything and be everything,” Brauman said. “Deciding on what to study can be a hard choice because there’s no right answer. You really have to think about what’s going to make you happy, and then go with your gut.” She whittled the vast field of environmental science down to two topics that made her happy: water and energy.

“Both are technical subjects yet also deeply value laden,” Brauman said. “They hit that interstitial space that has always appealed to me. There is a science component, but it’s also about what we care about and what decisions we want to make.” When she had to decide between the two, rivers trumped power plants. She subsequently applied for, and received, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to study hydrology related to dam removal.

Continuing to have enthusiasm about what I do and saying ‘yes’ to opportunities has been a recurring theme that I feel really good about.

Finding Stanford Earth

When it came to finding the right graduate school, however, Brauman’s interdisciplinary interests, which helped her in her NRDC position, suddenly proved to be a challenge – one she would face again when seeking an academic appointment after her postdoctoral studies.

“If I’m going to generalize the response of most programs, it’s that they didn’t know what to do with me,” Brauman said. “I was coming in as someone who I think seemed clearly capable, but who was also totally inexperienced – for example, I had never taken a hydrology class in my life.”

Kate Brauman in the field
Brauman conducting fieldwork at a ranch in the mountains of Kona, Hawaii. (Photo courtesy of Kate Brauman)

Some schools offered to accommodate her desire to add classes from other disciplines to a hydrology or ecology-centric program. But the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) program in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) won Brauman over. The E-IPER program fully supported, and even required, what she sought – an interdisciplinary focus that would broaden her understanding of the field.

“At the end of the day with interdisciplinary stuff, you don’t go as deep into any one discipline, but you end up going deep into something that’s in between,” Brauman said. It was important that her advisors understood and supported that, and through E-IPER, she found two advisors to help her accomplish her goal.

Brauman connected first with David Freyberg, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, because of her interest in hydrology and dams; she then met Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and faculty director of the Natural Capital Project, who was running a suite of research projects on the Big Island of Hawaii.

With both advisors at the helm, Brauman conducted fieldwork in Kona, Hawaii, to study how changing ecosystems affect groundwater recharge, and subsequently the water supply for the city. Though it may sound like a sweet gig in paradise, Brauman will be quick to tell you that she’s never worked harder, or been colder, in her life.

The island is home to a unique hydrological phenomenon in which the fog banks envelop the trees so much so that moisture accumulates, causing droplets to cascade down from the canopy onto the ground below even when it’s not raining. “If you stare into the island from the beaches of Kona around 1 p.m., the mountain is wreathed in fog – and right in the middle of that fog bank, that’s where you’d find me,” Brauman said.

An academic niche

Brauman’s path post-Hawaii was not all sunshine and treetop raindrops. When looking for academic appointments, she struggled once again to find a natural fit for her interdisciplinary background.

“I think it’s less true now,” said Brauman. “I think there’s growing and enthusiastic interest in people that have interdisciplinary backgrounds. But at the time I definitely felt like I went to lots of places where they liked me in theory, but in practice, hired someone who worked more like they do.”

Fortunately, the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota was looking for someone to research water productivity, or “crop per drop” as Brauman calls it, and it turned out to be an ideal location for her to explore not just her scientific ambitions, but also her desire to apply her expertise.

“I definitely knew that I wanted to be in, if not necessarily policy, a research-to-implementation, research-to-action space,” said Brauman. “As a relatively small state with the Capitol right next door to the university, you can actually interface with policymakers in Minnesota, and since I’ve been here I’ve gotten to work with people in many different agencies.” That recently includes incorporating some of the university’s research into the 2020 state water plan, but Brauman hasn’t just stuck to implementing change in her current state.

From academic to influencer

She was selected to be one of the coordinating lead authors for a chapter in the 2019 global assessment produced by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

“After three years of work developing the assessment, it was a front row seat to policymaking in real time and it was really exciting to be a part of that,” Brauman said. Shortly afterward, she testified to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on the same findings. The experience made her feel like she finally made it into the colloquial “room where it happens.”

“Coming off of the work with IPBES that I’ve just done, I have a ton of excitement about being in a more applied space,” said Brauman. “I am in a great position to take all of this amazing research that’s happening in academia and interpreting it and translating it and getting it out in the world.”

She plans to keep doing just that in her upcoming fellowship working under the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Sustainment and Environment at the Department of Defense. There, Brauman will implement climate resilience plans for military bases and work toward developing a water resilience plan for them.

“The fellowship feels like this tremendous opportunity, and there’s actually a bunch of [E-IPER] students or alumni who have done these or similar fellowships, though I think I’m probably the latest career of them,” Brauman said. “It’s kind of fun to be solidly mid-career and try something different.”

The secrets to success

She will be employing the skillset her education provided, but one lesson should serve especially important for her new position: knowing how to learn.

“Through E-IPER, I feel way more equipped to pull what I need to know from reading or talking to somebody, and to ask the right questions,” she said.

After reflecting on the last decade of her career and the experiences preceding it, there is one other common thread that Brauman is particularly proud of, true of both her time at Stanford and beyond.

“Yes, you’ve got to work hard, and yes, you’ve got to do your homework, and yes, there will be boring stuff in between,” Brauman said. “But continuing to have enthusiasm about what I do and saying ‘yes’ to opportunities has been a recurring theme that I feel really good about.”

Brauman lives in Minnesota with her husband, Kevin, and is keeping tabs on his growing collection of ’70s-era stereos as they contemplate a move to D.C.

Freyberg and Daily are also senior fellows at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

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