UW News

October 2, 2018

Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell brings leadership to UW community, new EarthLab initiative

UW News

people on the beach
Sally Jewell has walked the halls of the White House and cared for a fifth of all U.S. land. She has practiced diplomacy at boardroom tables and leadership at one of the nation’s most successful outdoor retail companies. She has climbed Mount Rainier seven times.

Now, Jewell brings a lifetime of experience in business, nonprofits, government and the outdoors to the University of Washington, where one of her tasks is to help shape the future of EarthLab, a new university-wide institute that seeks to connect scholars with community partners to solve our most difficult environmental problems.

Sally Jewell

Sally Jewell

Jewell, U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President Barack Obama and former CEO of REI, has returned to her alma mater to work as a distinguished fellow with the College of the Environment and to serve in a volunteer capacity as chair of the advisory council for EarthLab.

As a fellow with the College of the Environment, she will guest lecture with various units across campus, mentor students and collaborate with faculty and staff. In her capacity as chair of EarthLab’s advisory council, she will develop a team of advisors composed entirely of people outside the university with varied backgrounds and expertise that will provide strategic guidance, support and direction for EarthLab.

“By coming to the university, I’m trying to help students understand how you can create a future that’s both economically successful and environmentally sustainable — one that you are proud to leave to future generations,” said Jewell, who received her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the UW and served on the Board of Regents for 12 years. “EarthLab is addressing that by working outside the university to identify and raise support for solving big challenges, especially those in the environment, then bringing together multidisciplinary teams from across the university to help.”

Ben Packard

Ben Packard

In addition to the outside advisory council, whose members Jewell will name by the end of 2018, EarthLab is supported by a leadership board of deans and a steering committee made up of faculty and academic leaders across all three campuses and disciplines. This broad leadership translates to the variety of projects EarthLab will tackle — projects that will require multidisciplinary teams.

“Think of EarthLab as a bridge that connects our diverse scholarship with people who can use it to make better decisions about the significant environmental challenges we’re facing,” said Ben Packard, EarthLab’s executive director. “We couldn’t ask for a better person than Sally Jewell to help us launch this advisory council. She’s full of passion for the university to be more engaged in these big challenges, and she knows from her experiences how to navigate across sectors.”

While the EarthLab concept has been percolating at the UW for nearly a decade, in the past year the idea has coalesced into a tangible organization led by Packard, who previously worked at The Nature Conservancy and Starbucks. At its core, EarthLab will connect researchers at the UW with decision-makers to develop actionable solutions to the most pressing environmental challenges.

What makes this different from previous collaborations is an intentional push to establish long-term, working relationships between scholars and outside organizations to address messy, complex issues that won’t be solved with the publication of one paper, or the funding of one project.

That might involve partnering with a city to find environmentally sustainable ways to build affordable housing, or working with shellfish growers to lessen the impact of ocean acidification on their businesses, or advising a municipal agency on how to deal with contaminated stormwater runoff.

Lisa Graumlich

Lisa Graumlich

“This is really about deep involvement, thinking locally and globally, and bringing people who have never been at the table before into a partnership where the UW is just one of the entities. For me as an academic, it’s a really different way of thinking about our role,” said College of the Environment Dean and Mary Laird Wood Professor Lisa Graumlich, who was the college’s founding dean in 2010 and has envisioned a program such as EarthLab from the start.

Similar programs exist at a handful of universities across the U.S., including Arizona State University, Columbia University, Stanford University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Vermont. These various institutes also work at the boundary of university scholarship and society, putting science into action and engaging in ongoing research with decision-makers from all sectors.

“Many people outside the university describe UW as a building with no doors. There are a lot of windows and they can see something is going on, but they don’t know how to get in,” Packard said. “The university’s mission to serve society will be met if we’re more accessible and engaged, listening more and adjusting to serve society’s needs without compromising the integrity of our independent scholarship.”

The UW’s Climate Impacts Group and Washington Ocean Acidification Center are two existing organizations that are members of EarthLab. Both have track records of working with local communities and municipalities to address relevant issues related to climate change. For example, researchers with the Climate Impacts Group and Washington Sea Grant recently published a report that offered the clearest picture yet of sea level rise at more than 150 coastal sites in Washington. These localized projections will help coastal communities better plan infrastructure projects and evacuation routes, among other things.

Because these kinds of projects can cross many academic fields, EarthLab will be a home for multidisciplinary, applied research, and will provide administrative support and services for “nontraditional” grants that could fund an applied research project that addresses an environmental problem in society.

An EarthLab grants program will begin in early 2019, geared toward faculty who are working on “first mile” or “last mile” problems — either beginning a project that involves engaging community partners, or finding ways to make completed research relevant to communities. One goal is to involve students who want to work on interdisciplinary research teams.

“Students almost universally want this,” said Jewell, referencing her conversations with students at the UW and at Harvard during a recent fellowship. “They want to have an experience here, and in their work with professors, that has applicability when they leave. We have the chance to do this here through EarthLab. I think there will be many opportunities for students to work on real-life issues.”

Another long-term goal of EarthLab is to reward faculty who are working on multidisciplinary, applied research that addresses current societal problems. Most units across campus award tenure and career advancement in a way that encourages researchers to focus narrowly and maximize their number of publications, Packard said.

EarthLab’s leaders realize the scale of such a change.

“What we’re talking about is nothing short of how the UW shows up in the 21st century,” Packard said. “If we’re going to invest in this and support our faculty and students to engage in this way, then we will fundamentally change the way the university shows up.”

EarthLab received foundational support from the Bullitt Foundation, the Stolte Family Foundation and several individuals.


For more information, contact Packard at bwpack@uw.edu or 206-616-0357.