What is the secret to second-year Ph.D. student Jessica Perkins’ success? At first, you might think it comes from her growing up in a large, extended family in Rhode Island and learning to appreciate the value of active involvement in a community. Later, you might think it’s her time management skills. She earned a combined B.S./M.S. in Environmental Engineering at Tufts University while playing field hockey. Finally, you might consider her secret is that she only needs six hours of sleep a night.
No matter what you think the secret is, after meeting Jess, you will come away amazed at how much she has accomplished in 26 years. She plans to accomplish much more once she graduates from UC Santa Barbara, after earning two degrees from two different departments: a Ph.D. in Environmental Science & Management from the Bren School and a Master's in Technology Management from the Technology Management Program.
Maybe you have heard of Jess or seen her perform at the 2015 Grad Slam? She was the one who wielded a ballpoint pen and wowed the audience and judges alike with a terrifying tale of life-cycle assessment. In fact, you may have seen her more than once (during Round 4, or Semifinal Round 1). She made it to the final round, where she was a runner-up.
I had a chance to interview Jess this summer but she was unavailable to meet in person. Why, you ask? She was doing a snazzy internship at Apple Inc., working on life-cycle assessments of some of their products to evaluate the environmental impact, specifically looking at the water footprint.
For someone who as a child used to tell her parents that some things were “too hard for a girl to do,” she has since made things look awfully easy. While we talked over the phone, she revealed some of her secrets to her success from her research to her approach to life to how to prepare for the Grad Slam.
You made it all the way to the Grad Slam 2015 finals where you were a runner-up. How did you prepare? Do you have any advice for people competing next year?
Just to practice, to bounce ideas off other people. I practiced a couple of times for my classmates, my roommates who weren't in grad school, and with my sister over FaceTime. The more you practice, the more feedback you get from a lot of people, the better your presentation will be. Presenting is nerve-wracking, but it only gets easier the more you do it.
You won a gift card and some cash. Did you have any special plans for your winnings?
Since it was my first year, I used my gift card to buy a UCSB sweatshirt. Now I can proudly wear the letters.
You famously stood up to the Grad Slam audience holding a single pen. How would you best describe your research?
It’s life-cycle assessment or LCA. I evaluate environmental and human health impacts on the entire life cycle of a product: raw material extraction, production, transportation, use, and end-of-life (disposal/recycling). My goal is to improve the usefulness of LCA as a decision-making tool by applying concepts from organizational science and communication.
What advice would you give to an incoming graduate student?
One thing I learned when I got here was that as a grad student you could expand the boundaries of your research. Even going into Bren, an interdisciplinary school, I didn’t realize how far the interdisciplinary bounds could be pushed. I found I could include communication, psychology, and other subjects in my research. I wasn’t just limited to hard sciences.
As a grad student, you should explore other areas even if they are outside of your department.
What do you in your free time?
I love sports and anything where I get to be outside and active. I’m currently training to run the New York City Marathon. But really, I’m just a people person. I like spending time with good friends and sharing a bottle of wine in my downtime.
What’s in high rotation on your playlist these days?
Speaking of accomplishments, what do you consider your biggest one so far?
I think my biggest accomplishment was making the choice not to let my comfort zone dictate my big life decisions.
I figured this out when I was deciding my first job, at Dow Chemical in Michigan. I was living in Boston at the time. I had many good friends and there were plenty of good jobs in Boston. I’m sure I would have had a good career and been happy there. But I decided to choose the best opportunity overall, not the most comfortable one. I was going to take the best opportunity even if it was scary. I made a conscious decision to be brave.
Who has had the biggest influence on you and your life?
My family. My parents really instilled in me the idea that as someone who had a lot of opportunities in life that I should do something to have a positive impact on the world. They have had a big influence on many of the decisions I’ve made in my life.
What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?
I really want to be working at the intersection between industry and environmental change. I want to be managing an environmental team in an organization where the company’s decisions are having a big impact on the direction of the industry and local economy in terms of environmental performance and climate change.