Undergrad connects her way to purposeful work

Lilou Redon-Gabel ’22 revolutionized her undergraduate experience — and deepened her engagement with climate change issues — when she vaulted over her fears and began connecting one-on-one with Berkeley professors and graduate-level researchers. Through the Discovery Initiative, all undergraduates will have the opportunity for the kind of transformative journey she pursued.

Photo of Lilu smiling with long, sandy brown hari and a purplish blue top.

Lilou Redon-Gabel ’22 transformed her education when she connected to a variety of hands-on discovery work.

Through conversations with peers and mentors and the hands-on discovery work she engaged in, Redon-Gabel metamorphosed from a self-described “aimless and discouraged” undeclared first-year student into a deeply engaged fourth-year civil engineering major with a prestigious research fellowship, an ongoing position at the renowned Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), and a clear path to applying her education to combating climate change and social inequities.

Berkeley’s Discovery Initiative aims to make this type of engagement with the university and accompanying journey of self-inquiry the norm for every student. Discovery is designed to help students utilize the university’s enormous range of resources in ways that deeply serve their learning and help them translate their passions into purposeful action in the world, as Redon-Gabel is doing.

When Redon-Gabel arrived at Berkeley, she found herself at sea. “I came from a small charter high school,” she explains. “So Berkeley felt big and rigorous and fast-paced. I was taking basic chemistry and calculus and just trying to get through. I wasn’t really studying effectively and learning.”

Many students experience confusion and frustration as they try to build a path to achieve their goals at Berkeley. By her second year, Redon-Gabel’s frustration was mounting. What she didn’t know was that she was on the verge of the kind of epiphany that the Discovery Initiative works to cultivate for all students.

“The lab totally changed my concept of what was possible. The projects I worked on could have a big impact on improving air quality for residents of lower-income areas.” — Lilou Redon-Gabel ’22

As a high school student in LA, Redon-Gabel had been keenly aware of social and racial inequities without feeling she had the resources to combat them. At Berkeley, she realized that these socioeconomic challenges are exacerbated by climate change. She wondered how an engineering degree could help address these challenges. Then a fellow student encouraged Redon-Gabel to contact graduate researcher Rebecca Sugrue at LBNL to explore doing research related to her interests.

Despite her nervousness, Redon-Gabel emailed Sugrue, who was studying the impact of air pollution on disadvantaged Bay Area communities. Sugrue offered Redon-Gabel an undergraduate research-assistant position, which she calls "the moment of transformation.”

Working at LBNL allowed Redon-Gabel to see firsthand how engineers can combat social and environmental injustice. “It was so powerful,” Redon-Gabel says. “The lab totally changed my concept of what was possible. The projects I worked on could have a big impact on improving air quality for residents of lower-income areas.”

Photo of Redon-Gabel in a purple safety vest standing in front of a chain-link fence and checking a sensor.

Redon-Gabel gained real-world experience tracking air quality.

The satisfaction Redon-Gabel found by connecting with Sugrue inspired her to extend her reach. “I started emailing different professors and meeting with them to talk about their work,” she says. “Those conversations clarified so much and made me much more optimistic.” She also extended her environmental and social justice work: She applied for and won the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship’s Rose Hills grant, which enabled her to run a project using sensors to evaluate air pollution trends in Modesto and Richmond, California.

While Redon-Gabel found the right mentors to encourage her to turn her interests into important research projects, many Berkeley students miss out on such opportunities. The Discovery Initiative removes roadblocks and works to ensure that all Berkeley undergraduates pursue personal journeys of profound exploration with gratifying outcomes. Building a culture of connection that formalizes mentorship programs and training, Discovery helps mentors feel supported and empowered to change the lives of their mentees. With the support of the Berkeley community, the Discovery Initiative will grow the number of research positions open to undergraduates and increase fellowships for students pursuing independent work.

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