NEWS Independent Spirit Rower Vanessa Gerber Follows Her Environmental Passion To Oxford
BERKELEY - When faced with one of the toughest decisions she’ll ever have to make in life, Vanessa Gerber burst out laughing.
That’ll happen when you can’t go wrong with whatever decision you ultimately make.
Gerber, who received her degree last spring in Conservation and Resource Studies and was a four-year member of Cal’s women’s crew, had the rare and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of choosing between graduate programs at both Oxford and Cambridge – two of the most prestigious universities on the planet.
“Both times I found out I was by myself in the CRS lab working on my research, checking my e-mail to get data,” Gerber said. “When I got the (acceptance letter) from Cambridge, I started crying. People were looking at me wondering what was going on. When I got the one from Oxford, I just kind of started laughing. I just thought, ‘this can’t be real.’”
It was very real, thanks to the academic accomplishments Gerber forged during her time in Berkeley. A Pac-12 All-Academic selection with a 3.78 GPA, Gerber also was one of three recipients of the Oscar Geballe Postgraduate Scholarship – a $5,000 stipend given to a student-athlete who combines scholarship with intercollegiate competition.
Gerber ended up choosing Oxford, where she will enroll in the university’s Master’s in Environmental Change and Management program. She also intends to continue her rowing career on the Oxford women’s crew.
“It’s both unbelievable and not unbelievable at the same time,” said Gerber’s mother, Jessica. “Ever since nursery school, Vanessa came into this world with a focus. I’ve never seen anything like it. We used to joke that if you want something done, just ask Vanessa.”
Gerber’s path to Oxford was aided by Cal professor Daniel Kammen, one of the leading energy scholars in the world. She was inspired after taking Kammen’s class, Energy and Society, and decided to make that area of study the focal point of her college course load. Gerber ended up opting into the College of Natural Resources Honors Research Program, doing a yearlong thesis on the environmental impact of the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond.
Kammen became Gerber’s advisor for the thesis and helped her make the decision between graduate schools. Kammen has affiliations with both Oxford and Cambridge.
“She was very willing to learn things she hadn’t done in class,” Kammen said. “If there was something she needed to learn for her thesis, there wasn’t a lot of hemming and hawing. She has an independent spirit. If she wants to do it, she does it.”
Gerber grew up with a love of the outdoors and concern for the environment, but it wasn’t until she took Energy and Society that she became truly committed to making that area of academia her passion. Students in the class range from undergraduates to Ph.D. students, and it focuses on sustainable energy.
“The class really helped me see the connection between energy use, volume and types of fuels that we use, and climate issues,” Gerber said. “As a society, we need energy as human beings. We’re never going to not need energy. We also only have one planet. My passion is protecting the planet and the environment by using the most sustainable forms of energy. Making that connection between energy and climate really sparked something in me.”
Gerber spent last summer as an intern for the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club and was exposed to the intricacies of refinery regulation. So despite the demands of crew and finishing up her major, Gerber added the honors research program to her workload to find out more about the impact the Chevron refinery is having on the local community.
“Technically, I had room in my schedule,” she said.
Gerber will start the program at Oxford in the fall, but before that she is spending her second summer as an intern for the U.S. Forest Service at the Spotted Bear Ranger District in Hungry Horse, Montana. Gerber works on the trails crew, clearing downed trees and making sure hiking trails are kept in good order.
Gerber did a similar internship following her sophomore year at Cal.
“It was a totally unique experience,” Gerber said. “It’s something I would do for free. It was a total contrast from my every day here. I literally walked everywhere for two-and-a-half months.”
Gerber started out as a soccer player but took up rowing for her junior year of high school. She had watched her older sister, Nina, compete in rowing since she was in middle school and had taken one rowing camp previously, but had been immersed in club soccer. Before her junior year at the Marin Academy in San Rafael, she attended another rowing camp. Now more familiar with the sport and some of Nina’s teammates, it didn’t take long for her to give up the soccer pitch for the water.
“I played so many sports, and rowing is such a unique sport,” Gerber said. “The synchronicity is just so amplified from any other experience on any other team I have had before. And just the feeling of rowing is so unique. Not often do we get to be on water. We see water, but we’re land creatures. It’s fun to feel that sensation.”
Gerber took some recruiting trips to a few schools on the East Coast but nothing could top her experience at Cal.
“She’d come back from visits on the East Coast and say they were nice, but nothing like her visit at Cal,” Jessica Gerber said. “She said it was like she found her people.”
Like so many Cal alums – student-athlete or otherwise – Gerber hopes to be a regent for change and make a profound impact on the community, both local and larger. After she completes the program at Oxford, she has designs on working for an agency that makes a measure of difference in sustainable energy.
“It’s not about being the front person or headliner, but playing a part in change,” Gerber said. “I definitely think that’s my quest in my life, in my academics. It’s what I care most about. It doesn’t have to be the biggest change, but I want that over anything else.
“I’m not necessarily aspiring to be president or sit on the U.N. … I mean, maybe.”