Bar of yellow color

'Hood Ecologist

Robin D. Lopez puts on a collar depicting the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, a deity considered to be the mother of gods and mortals and a representation of Mother Earth.

Robin D. Lopez puts on a collar depicting the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, a deity considered to be the mother of gods and mortals and a representation of Mother Earth. 

Photo by Froggie Violet Vega.

As a native of Richmond, California, it’s not difficult for Robin Lopez to imagine what might have been.

Street gangs, a violent fact of life in the city north of Berkeley, lured many around him out of school and into harm’s way. But two qualities became a lifeline for Lopez: his insatiable sense of wonder and possibility.

“When I was a kid, my mom used to drive me over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge,” he recalls. “I was curious about how this thing rode over the water. She said, ‘look it up.’ It mystified me. So, when I was really little, I knew I wanted to be a civil engineer, but I had no idea what that was.”

More than two decades later, Lopez is still asking questions and looking for answers—solutions that are of no small consequence, especially in places like Richmond.

Science and survival

A doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM), Lopez focuses his dissertation research on water quality in streams and the environmental justice dimensions of river restoration. In particular, he’s considering how restoration efforts mitigate or exacerbate social and economic inequality in cities like his hometown.

“Robin has a deep intellectual curiosity, a positive personality, and a desire to address research questions that are challenging, original, and socially important,” says Ted Grantham, Lopez’s graduate adviser and an associate professor of Cooperative Extension in ESPM. “His enthusiasm for science is only matched by his dedication to his community.”

Lopez is the sixth of 12 children, and the only person in his family to attend college. He grew up helping his father run a janitorial business, including cleaning office buildings across the street from the Berkeley campus.

During the pandemic, Lopez continued his fieldwork collecting water samples for research on fish migration and survival during changes in climate.

Photo by Froggie Violet Vega.

Turning 18 was “surreal,” Lopez recalls. “I was in tears—the fact that I had lived that long.” After surviving his adolescence, he started to look at preserving life on a grander scale.

While a student at Contra Costa Community College, he met Berkeley alumna Mayra Padilla, PhD ’05 Psychology, who serves as dean of institutional effectiveness and equity at the school. Padilla—who transcended her own Richmond upbringing to earn a doctorate in neuroscience—showed him that it was possible to get an advanced degree and use the expertise to improve life in his hometown.

Lopez dropped out numerous times along the way, but ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from San Francisco State University and a master’s degree in water resources engineering from San José State University.

Pivoting from civil engineering to an environmental focus, the self-proclaimed “’hood ecologist” has dedicated himself to community-Earth health and welfare. It’s a passion he developed during an internship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, which he started while in community college. The experience also was a major factor in his decision to apply to ESPM.

Lopez with participants in the Oakland Town Camp program, in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Photo by Harmony Ortiz.

The power of perseverance

A recipient of UC Berkeley’s Chancellor’s Fellowship, Lopez was awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship in 2017. Still, he’s decidedly modest about his accomplishments. “I will be the first to admit that I’m not the smartest person in the room, and I don’t consider myself an intellectual,” he says. “But I’m curious, and I’m constantly asking questions.”

It’s a habit he’s passing on to area elementary school children, to whom he routinely talks about science. Lopez reminds them that they, too, can tap their hidden science acumen.

“If they’re curious and inquisitive, they’re already scientists,” Lopez says. “My grandfather is the most intellectual scientist I’ve ever known, and he doesn’t have a degree. But he can tell you everything about geologic features.”

“The biggest thing I want them to know is they have an advocate,” he adds. “They already know what they haven’t accomplished. I remind them if a teacher ever gives them problems, they can hit me up.”

Lopez speaks from experience. When he was a high school junior, a teacher encouraged Lopez to drop out of school—and he did, for two months.

“She told me in front of the class that I was a waste of time and that there was no hope for me,” he says. “I laugh about it today.” Lopez’s personal website lists the colleges and universities from which he was rejected admission, a reminder to others—especially young adults who might be following in his path— that perseverance is critical.