|(Bonnie Powell photos)|
UC Berkeley Web Feature
In defending the Earth, Denise Grab finds a way to combine her lifelong passions
BERKELEY – Denise Grab is just back from the beach, talking excitedly about her work with middle-school children at a marine science education camp on Monterey Bay.
Established in 1871 by California Governor Henry Huntly Haight, the University Medal honors UC Berkeley's most distinguished graduating senior. Three to five students finalists are also named.
Three previous winners have returned their medallions, then made of 14-karat gold, to Berkeley as gifts. The last to do so was Clothilde Grunksy Taylor '14, as a 90th birthday present to herself in 1981: "I received so much from the university — I had a wonderful time there — and I wanted to give a little of it back," said Taylor. Having appreciated in value 100 times, the medal was worth $4,000.
The 2005 Medalist: Alejandra Dubcovsky, scholar of slave letters, wins University Medal
This week, Grab's back on campus to pick up her degree — and to be honored at Commencement Convocation on May 11 as one of the five finalists for the prestigious University Medal, awarded to the top graduating senior with a 3.96 GPA or better and outstanding accomplishments.
She still can't quite believe it.
"I'd been reading these profiles [of University Medal winners and finalists] for years, and these people are so amazing. I just decided to give it a shot," Grab says of her decision to apply for the award.
She got the news that she was a finalist while checking her e-mail after a day of teaching environmental and marine science to her young students at Camp SEA Lab in Seaside, on the shores of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. "I was really psyched," Grab says. "I think I started jumping up and down."
Grab plans to go to Yale Law School in the fall and will pursue a joint degree with Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
UC Berkeley was the perfect place to pursue her interests, she said, since it's a "hotspot" for environmental issues. "It's really an amazing place," Grab says. "It's so gorgeous, and it's great to have all these people here with different points of view."
Grab first became interested in water quality issues as a middle school student, when she was assigned to do water quality for a Science Olympiad competition because nobody else wanted to do it.
"I got stuck with it - and then I found out I really loved it," she recalls.
While a student at UC Berkeley, Grab held internships with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Oakland-based environmental law firm Earthjustice. She also joined the student-run Mock Trial Team her freshman year, piquing her interest in law.
The internships proved an important part of her education. "I really got to see where my education might lead me," she says. At the EPA, Grab's research on cleaning up the environment was ultimately included in a resource guide that is now distributed to Superfund site managers for use in their clean-ups.
She also volunteered with WonderWorks for Kids, teaching science to children from kindergarten to 12th grade, and pursued the counselor job at Camp SEA Lab after she graduated because of her own experience with science camps as a child.
"The camps had a lot to do with me choosing environmental science when I got to college," she said. "Now, I want to be able to give back that knowledge, and that love of the environment, to these kids."
As for her interest in the law - that runs in her veins. Her mother, father, grandmother, uncle and sister are all lawyers. Her mother and grandmother both went to UC Berkeley for a portion of their college years, but Grab is the first one to actually graduate from Cal.
'Denise [Grab] is the best undergraduate student I have taught in my 25 years at UC Berkeley, and is unlikely to be surpassed.'
-Wayne Getz, biomathematician, from his letter recommending Grab
for the University Medal
Grab took Getz' course on how to model population processes, a notoriously difficult class in the College of Natural Resources. "In her mid-term, Denise became the first undergraduate student over the past 25 years to get a perfect grade," he wrote.
But it took her mock trial experience, both in high school and at UC Berkeley, to steer her toward environmental law.
"I really like that kind of analytical thinking, thinking on your feet," she says. "Environmental law is something I could do and make a concrete difference in the world."
Although she started at UC Berkeley with a strong interest in water issues, that has expanded to include environmental health and conservation biology issues. But "this is going to change," she says, explaining that she expects her goals to evolve over the next few years at law school.
When she wasn't studying or working, Grab said she took advantage of the local arts scene in the Bay Area. Her junior year, she got a season pass to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
Is there anything she didn't do?
"The one thing I regret," she said, "is not taking more math here."