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Former IT engineer now studying sustainability at ASU

David Yu on a beach
May 02, 2014

Motivated by the desire to make an impact, School of Sustainability doctoral student and Neely Foundation grant recipient David Yu made a courageous decision that has changed the course of his career.

Yu was born and spent his formative years in Seoul, South Korea. As a teen, he immigrated to the Canadian province of British Columbia with his family. After graduating from Centennial High School in Coquitlam, a suburb of Vancouver, he enrolled in the engineering science program at Simon Fraser University.

Life after graduation was comfortable for Yu, who began working as an engineer and quality assurance professional in the IT industry. Though he made a decent living, he began craving a change.

“I wanted to have more impact than being just one of many engineers in a big company,” Yu says. “I wanted an exciting career that allowed me to contribute and make an impact, even when I’m 60 or 70 years old.”

With his sights set on a new occupation in either environmental policy or sustainability science, Yu resigned from his job of seven years to pursue the graduate degree necessary to attain it.

The environmental policy courses offered by the Lee Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore beckoned Yu back overseas. As he neared the completion of his master’s in public policy, his adviser recommended that he consider the doctoral program at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability. He highlighted the school’s connection to reputable scientists like Dr. Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, named as one of the most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. As a distinguished sustainability scientist with the Global Institute of Sustainability, the late Dr. Ostrom collaborated closely with Dr. Marty Anderies, a senior sustainability scientist who now serves as Yu’s mentor.

Not only was the School of Sustainability the first of its kind, it seemed like a natural complement to Yu’s interest in environmental policy. He was particularly impressed by the curriculum’s transdisciplinary approach and emphasis on concepts like complex adaptive systems, resilience and social-ecological systems – so he enrolled without further ado.

Was it worth leaving a comfortable, well-paying engineering position? Says Yu, “That was six years ago. I am happy with the decision I made. I am happy that I ended up at ASU’s School of Sustainability pursuing a PhD in sustainability.”

Yu expects to complete the doctoral program by May 2015 and begin his pursuit of a tenure-track assistant professor position in an environmental studies program. The school’s distinctive approach to complex concepts, which he plans to share with future pupils, gives him great confidence in his candidacy. He also intends to advance his research and produce valuable knowledge long after he graduates.

“I strive to be a multi-method sustainability scientist,” Yu says. “I hope to apply diverse methods like mathematical modeling, behavioral experiments and case study analysis in order to examine the world’s most pressing problems from multiple angles.”

David Yu is a recipient of the 2014-2015 Neely Foundation Grant for Graduate and Undergraduate Research. The focus of his research is the resilience of small-scale social-ecological systems, such as village irrigation systems, to global changes. He aims to investigate the institutional dimensions of the adaptive capacity of small-scale irrigation systems to climate change through a behavioral lab experiment.