Thushara Gunda and Nicole Jackson in front of a PV panel

Sandia Climate Community Series: Thushara Gunda

November 30, 2023 9:35 am Published by

This interview is part of the Sandia Climate Community Series.

Thushara Gunda, a systems research analyst in Sandia’s Energy Water System Integration Department, approaches climate-change research as a complex puzzle of scientific, social and cognitive issues. Gunda believes there is a lot of room for individuals to get involved in the fight against climate change. She encourages education and inclusion while accepting that the issues related to climate are nuanced and ever-changing.

Her early childhood in India serves as a constant reminder that our global environment and human experiences are more interconnected than they may seem. We all need access to basic resources and a feeling of safety, so Gunda intertwines these human aspects and perspectives into her research to achieve a holistic, systems approach.

Gunda received a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia, where she focused on environmental thought and practice. She then attended Vanderbilt University for her master’s and Ph.D. degrees, studying environmental engineering with an emphasis on water.

Prior to graduate school, Gunda lived in Texas, where she was an environmental consultant working to remediate groundwater systems. Her experience in Texas inspired Gunda’s return to school to study the social dimensions of climate change. During her Ph.D. program, she worked with cognitive psychologists, behavioral economists, and ethnographers to broaden her awareness of the diverse perspectives required in climate-change work.

Gunda’s recent leadership in Sandia’s Climate Innovation Tournament bolstered her fervid desire to partner with fellow researchers at Sandia.

“I saw the innovation tournament as an opportunity to create a formal mechanism to engage with each other, especially adjusting after the pandemic. We all needed a network. The tournament provided a gentle nudge to engage in research across divisions. It reinforced that Sandia staff have a wide perspective on how we approach different issues related to climate and that people truly care,” said Gunda.

Gunda is passionate about her research. She has a spark of excitement, an optimistic tone, an openness to educate others, and a willingness to partner across many disciplines. She is also at the forefront of a new generation of climate-change research driven by hopeful change and an understanding that no one can make an impact alone because we are all inherently connected.

Read Gunda’s interview below to learn more about her projects, her definition of climate security, and how she hopes to inspire others to join the fight against climate change.

Why are you passionate about climate change?

Thushara Gunda
Thushara Gunda on the Soda Dam Hot Spring outside of Jemez Springs, New Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Thushara Gunda)

My passion for climate change stems from my interest in water resources. I was born in south India and spent half of my formative years there. We then moved to northern Virginia when I was nine years old. When I started at the University of Virginia, I was originally on the premed track since I thought I wanted to be a doctor. But, as an elective, I started taking environmental science courses and quickly fell in love with environmental science, which shifted my priorities for what I wanted to study.

One reason I resonated with the environmental discipline is because it helped me connect the dots between my childhood in India and things we see here in the United States. I distinctly remember one of my first environmental science courses was about fluoride in water and how too much fluoride can make your teeth yellow. I remember a light bulb going off thinking, “That’s why my dad’s teeth are yellow,” because the well in the part of south India where we’re from had a lot of naturally occurring fluoride.

Those kinds of things helped me realize that studying the environment is a way for me to honor both of my cultures — where I come from in India, but also my current home in the United States. It just clicked for me. The natural environment is one thing that we have in common regardless of language; we are all heavily shaped by our local environments.

Water is where I started, but you can’t talk about water without talking about the environment. For those of us in the environmental space, climate change and environment are incredibly interconnected.

What does “climate security” mean to you?

For me, climate is all-encompassing with regards to not just connections with the natural environment, but also the cascading impacts to different physical and social infrastructures. The security piece adds a unique element. When we talk about security, we’re not just talking about the immediate livelihoods that could be impacted, which tends to be a common lens outside of our national lab complex. Instead, at Sandia, we’re trying to be mindful of potential risks and vulnerabilities across scales.

Certainly, all of these blizzard events and wildfires are impacting energy security within the nation, but we are also looking more globally. Climate change is going to be challenging since it can aggravate existing tensions, leading to conflicts and migrations. So we have to look at everything as a delicate system.

What climate-related challenge are you most excited to work on?

Oh, there’s so much. Currently, we have a project called Water Intersections with Climate System Study (WICSS). It’s an internally funded effort aimed at clarifying the role of water within our critical infrastructure — with an emphasis toward clean-energy transitions.

Another challenge focuses on my data science and information science areas of interest. I’m excited about connecting some of our current research regarding disinformation with emerging discussions about climate security and climate treaty monitoring. Understanding possible touchpoints between climate and information sciences is a unique capability at Sandia that I am excited to contribute to.

What unique perspective or capabilities does Sandia bring to address the climate crisis?

Part of the reason I’m here at Sandia is because I love the fact that the work is not siloed. We look at global security, national security, information sciences, and material sciences. Sandia is so diverse in capabilities that invariably we’ll find a touchpoint to both foundational and applied activities. Our only limitation is our creativity. It’s fantastic that we can do all this work in-house. We can collaborate with other people and just ping someone in a different group and say, “I’m thinking about this idea. What do you think?” And invariably they’re on board. That’s awesome.

What does the nation (or world) look like in the future if we are successful in addressing climate change?

In my ideal world, we would be much more conscious of the impact we have on the natural environment. We also need to be aware of the assumptions we make about the natural environment and the way we execute our activities. A lot of folks interact with the natural environment and forget how much we depend on environmental services.

For example, soils purify water through the percolation and infiltration processes. When you have lots of soil degradation from different causes, that means we have to put in the cost and the resources to purify that water to the same level. In an ideal world, as we move towards this carbon-neutral transition, having an increased awareness of our dependency on the natural environment is critical. We need to know how our actions could impact the environment.

I did a brief stint as an environmental consultant, which helped energize me to come back to school, in part because almost everything I was doing was trying to fix something that would have been way cheaper if we had prevented it in the first place.

What is your vision for integrating energy equity and environmental justice into Sandia’s climate-security efforts?

I think it just naturally fits. A lot of climate security is prompting us to consider how we develop solutions at multiple scales — from a single household to a city, as well as broader regions, such as states, nations, and the globe.

One thing we know from the equity and justice world is that communities with the least resources are the most vulnerable to climate change. If we want to be successful with developing climate solutions, we need to start by helping those who are most vulnerable. That work naturally dovetails into the mission and priorities for equity and justice.

If you were trying to recruit or inspire somebody to work on the problem of climate change, what would you say to them?

I would say any idea is welcome. Right now, we are in the midst of a fantastic revolution where folks are not only acknowledging that climate change is an issue, but they are also appreciating the complexities of how climate could impact society and how society can help us to be more sensitive to carbon emissions.

So whether you’re interested in developing a technology or working with a community, there are needs along the entire science and engineering spectrum across the physical and social dimensions. We need solutions across the board.

We also need ideas, and we need passion. One thing I emphasize to anyone interested in the climate-change space: everyone is welcome. We recently stood up an internal community of practice called Analytics for Climate and Earth Sciences (ACES) to help facilitate idea sharing across Sandia. Whether you’re interested in art, communications, or widgets, it’s a whole-body problem that requires a holistic approach.

How can we educate and involve more people in addressing the climate crisis?

We need to make it personal. Everyone has a different way of viewing the climate crisis. I know many folks who were galvanized to action by thinking about what the world would look like for their children or grandchildren — that certainly resonates with a lot of people.

For others, it’s just considering what you do in your free time. A lot of us in New Mexico tend to be outdoors-oriented, so making sure that the environment is protected is important for many.

One thing we frequently overlook is that it’s easy to vilify our impacts of climate change and make people feel guilty. When I was in grad school, there was a fair bit of discussion about the emotional stress associated with working in the climate-change domain. As researchers, we care a lot, and our research was indicating the large burden our lifestyles were posing on the planet.

When we say things like, “We need to reduce emissions,” it’s hard to justify getting on a plane to go to a conference where I will be talking about important climate research. It’s worth recognizing the climate crisis as a very nuanced issue.

Invariably, almost everyone you talk to cares about our environment. We must find the values that resonate with people and effectively connect our activities to things they care about. Climate-security priorities and objectives are so broad and integrate well with our research at Sandia, the [national] labs complex, and across the world. It’s an opportune time for many to make a fantastic and much needed contribution to this pressing issue.