Three Questions for Robin D. López

October 12, 2021

Growing up in Richmond, California, Robin D. López says he was always interested in science and engineering, and from an early age, dreamed of becoming a civil engineer. Since 2012, he has worked as a research associate studying climate change in the Earth & Environmental Sciences Area. He is also a Ph.D. candidate and researcher in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley.

A few years ago, López created an original hip-hop video, “Flows in Hydrogeology,” as a way to connect with the youth he mentors at Metas, a local non-profit, college-readiness program. You can learn more about his life as a scientist fighting climate change in this video series produced by San Jose Tech Interactive for its “Solve for Earth” exhibit.

López answered a few questions for Elements in celebration of Latin American Heritage Month.

What brought you to Berkeley Lab?

I first came to Berkeley Lab in 2010 as an intern in the Community College Internship (CCI) program.

After completing an internship through the Summer Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program in 2012, I was hired first as a student research assistant in the Earth & Environmental Sciences Area and then promoted to research associate after transferring to San Francisco State from Contra Costa College to complete my Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Upon encouragement from Berkeley Lab mentors, I completed my master’s in water resources engineering at San Jose State University.

I’m the first person in my family to go to college, and those Berkeley Lab internships were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’d like to acknowledge Tim Kneafsey, Craig Ulrich, Yuxin Wu, Baptiste Dafflon, Kenzi Karasaki, Jens Birkholzer, Susan Hubbard, William Riley, and Bill Collins for investing in me and enabling me to be the best version of myself as a scientist and human.

What are you currently working on?

On the science side, I’m in pursuit of addressing issues at the intersection of climate change, water management, ecological integrity, and justice. Since beginning my Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, my prior work on analyzing soils from the Arctic tundra to understand climate feedback systems has significantly scaled back. My dissertation work currently leverages skills and expertise accumulated from experience at Berkeley Lab, to assess groundwater influence on surface water streams with respect to Coho salmon fish survival and migration in the Russian River watershed. Part of my efforts include, centering Indigenous knowledge of the ecological system to understand historic conditions from the original land stewards. This work caught the attention of California’s Regional Water Quality Control Board, and there’s now plans to upscale the work and inform better state policy.

Lastly, I’m also actively working on a project that is special to me, and speaks to the power of representation. I’m conducting data analysis on stream restoration projects to shed light on the social and ecological inequities surrounding where and how restoration projects happen. This is largely the result of what happened with the restoration of Baxter Creek in my hometown of Richmond, California, when our community needs and expectations were dismissed and trivialized. The hope is that my work can center ecological integrity and subsurface interactions as a priority for the advancement of our country’s scientific enterprise, while accounting for social dimensions of such research.

In addition to my work as an environmental scientist, I’m a mental health advocate, a freelance photographer/videographer, and community organizer/grant writer for local bike collectives serving Black and Brown youths such as the Oakland-based Scraper Bike Team and Richmond’s Rich City Rides.

Why is mentoring 4th and 5th grade students at Metas important to you?

Because growing up, I didn’t have role models from my community who were scientists or engineers, and I didn’t have mentors at school who believed I could become a scientist or an engineer.

When I first started teaching and mentoring 4th and 5th grade students in science and math at Metas, I would ask them to draw a picture of a scientist. And they would draw a picture of a white man in a lab coat. When I told them that I’m a scientist, they couldn’t believe it. Those beliefs start early.

Now, on the first day of class, I make it a point to tell them, “I’m a researcher who works at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. We come in many shades and come from many backgrounds. I want you to be my boss one day.”

Robin displays his pride in his Mexican and indigenous heritage.
An undated photograph of a 6-month-old Robin and his family in Mexico.
Robin and some of the children he mentors at the Oakland Town Camp, in the West Oakland neighborhood. (Photo Credit: Harmony Ortiz)