Tiffany Wise-West, ENVS Graduate Student

Tiffany Wise-West discusses the transition from engineering to social sciences, and how she tries to get the most out of graduate school

July 21, 2011


Tiffany Wise-West doing field work in Tanzania for the Karimu Foundation, 2010.

While working as an engineering consultant in California’s Central Coast, Tiffany Wise-West became conflicted about the work she was doing versus her personal views on sustainability. She worked on municipal infrastructure projects and observed the use of construction materials and methods that were environmentally destructive.

Eventually the idea of contributing to environmental problems caused Tiffany to leave her career and seek a new path. 

She discussed her desire to work for sustainable, beneficial environmental change with a friend and alumni of Environmental Studies, Roseann Cohen (Ph.D. 2010), who encouraged her to apply to the Ph.D. program. “I am interested in sociology and economics, and the interdisciplinary program here really appealed to me. I was thrilled when I got accepted.”

The first two years of the Environmental Studies doctoral program is focused on classroom work – bolstering students' knowledge of both the physical and social science aspects of environmental studies. Tiffany agrees that this was an intense learning period for her; “I had no idea how much I didn’t know.” She took extra classes because of her excitement for the subject, became involved in research groups such as the Science & Justice Working Group, and worked as a teaching assistant for classes that broadened her social science education. “It’s been a huge, exciting learning process,” she says. “Even the prequalifying exam reading was enjoyable.”

Tiffany is working with her advisor, Professor Brent Haddad, on a renewable energy project with the City of Santa Cruz – installing a wind turbine and solar panels at the Santa Cruz Wharf. “My part is expanding the community stakeholder study beyond business owners and managers, and doing a three tiered study: comparing wind turbine projects on a city-wide level; looking at East Coast versus West Coast turbine studies; and an updated look at U.S. versus Denmark’s wind energy use.”

Her work on the renewable energy project will greatly contribute to her dissertation project, and an upcoming conference in California will give her more data and contacts for her work – the 2011 California-Denmark Workshop on Renewable Energy. She believes the conference is a golden opportunity for her, although it put an important side-project on hold: “I had to cancel a trip to Tanzania.”

Tiffany had worked the previous year in Tanzania as a water expert for Karimu, a non-profit started by former colleagues. Her work involved GPS mapping of water features, water quality testing, and - most importantly - interviewing women and girls about their water needs and concerns. She also assisted with the installation of a central water tank near the village school, which provides disinfected water to the community. This year a research assistant will go in her place to conduct interviews with the men in the village, meet with government officials, and to experiment with different water treatment technologies. 

Keeping her work focused on her dissertation is Tiffany’s primary goal. She credits advice she received from a fellow graduate student, Leighton Reid. “He told me, ‘anything that you have to do that fulfills a requirement - a paper, or a research position - try to make that work for you, and the research your trying to complete.’ Any assignment that I had, talk I gave, or reading group I committeed to participate in, I tried to make it a step in the research. Each thing can serve a dual purpose and contribute to your goals.”

Her transition from the professional world to the world of academics has been drastic, but she has found support from friends and family. “Readjusting my lifestyle to being a student was definitely a challenge. My husband is a super support system. I also have women friends who left careers and returned to school, for law degrees or an MBA, which influenced me to return – it made me realize that I could do it, too.” 

She believes that graduate school can provide people who are dissatisfied with their work a way to a brighter future and "a rewarding career. If you’re working now and you aren’t doing something that you love, but you see a connection from it to something you would like to be doing, graduate school can be an excellent way to make that transition.”

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