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Where the Acorns Become the Oaks

Mary Yang and Bill Kuni support graduate education and the fight against the climate crisis

As the Rausser College of Natural Resources joins the university-wide 150 Years of Women at Berkeley celebration this year, we honor many remarkable female students and faculty from the past century and a half at the College. However, another extraordinary group is just as critical to our culture of excellence: our female alumnae and donors.

Mary Yang, BS ’84 Chemistry, has devoted her generous philanthropy to Rausser College. With her partner, Bill Kuni, she created the Mary M. Yang and H. William Kuni Environmental Stewardship Fund to benefit graduate students in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM). Established in 2017, the fund currently supports one to two graduate students each year.

Two people, one holding a sign saying "Science not Silence!" with a mouth

PHOTO: Courtesy of Mary Yang

“I really appreciate the education I received from the College of Chemistry, but as I evolved, I recognized that the world’s biggest problems—such as sustainability, preserving biodiversity, and combating the climate emergency—cannot be solved by science alone,” Yang says. “Science, economics, social and political understanding—all of these disciplines must be synergistically applied to inform practice, policy, advocacy, and action. That’s what Rausser College, and particularly ESPM, hopes to achieve.”

Yang co-founded and led an innovative biotechnology company that developed products for the fields of digital- imaging spectroscopy and protein engineering. Kuni is a former corporate CEO, entrepreneur, and management consultant. They have both been forceful advocates for and supporters of environmental causes and organizations in the San Diego area. For her civic engagement, Yang was recognized in 2019 by the state senate’s president pro tem, Toni Atkins, as one of California’s Women of the Year.

The Yang and Kuni fund specifically aids graduate students whose scholarship focuses on applied science or policy research that promotes conservation- and sustainability- oriented solutions. Though much of the couple’s philanthropy supports the full educational pipeline, graduate study is “where the acorns become the oaks,” Kuni says.

Yang comes from a family that has always valued education. “I had a great-aunt who was born in China in the late 1800s,” she remembers. “Her father wouldn’t let her go to university, so she worked to put herself through college. She later became principal of a high school.” Yang’s mother, now 94, got her college degree in agriculture—the same major as Berkeley’s first female graduate.

Funding graduate study in ESPM allows Yang and Kuni to continue learning about the environmental and social causes they care about so deeply. “One of the treasured aspects of our gift is the interaction with students and faculty,” Yang says. “When I look at the world’s many problems, it’s difficult not to get depressed. But when I’m able to have lunch with a bunch of students, learn about what they’re doing and what they hope to accomplish, their excitement, intelligence, and energy inspire me. And I think, ‘Yes, we will win this fight!’”