Recent graduates lead latest push toward 100% sustainability at island institute
New, more efficient LED lighting fixtures at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Santa Catalina Island use 70% less energy than the fixtures they replaced. The recent installation of LED lighting will significantly reduce the center’s total energy use. (Photo: Ann Close.)

Recent graduates lead latest push toward 100% sustainability at island institute

Alumni Natalie Kra and Sage Tyler, both of whom graduated from USC Dornsife with degrees in environmental studies in 2017, return to the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center to oversee lighting efficiency upgrades. [6 min read]
ByJessica Dutton and Sean Connor

Natalie Kra and Sage Tyler learned valuable lessons about sustainability at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Now, as newly minted professionals, they have returned to help the institute realize its goal of becoming 100% sustainable.

This summer, Kra and Tyler led a massive overhaul of the lighting system at the institute’s marine laboratory on Santa Catalina Island. More than 1,700 lights were upgraded throughout the island campus, including a variety of LED retrofits and custom lighting solutions. The result is a new lighting system that uses 70% less energy and significantly reduces the total energy consumption at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center.

Below, Kra and Tyler, both of whom graduated from USC Dornsife in 2017 with bachelor’s degrees in environmental studies, talk about their sustainability career paths and what it means to bring their skills home to USC and the USC Wrigley Institute.

How did you get interested in sustainability?

Tyler: “I grew up with a strong interest in sustainability because my dad was a high school educator. He taught Earth sciences and biology for 30 years and introduced several environmental sustainability education programs in the Bay Area.”

Kra: “From a very young age, I’ve felt connected to the outdoors, and I’ve always loved animals. My pursuit of environmental studies stemmed from wanting to protect nature, and that eventually expanded into a passion for ‘all things sustainability.’”

How did USC Dornsife and the Wrigley Institute contribute to those interests?

Tyler: “As I was applying to colleges, the Wrigley Institute was … a large part of why USC felt like such a good fit. My experiences at Wrigley were far and away the most impactful and memorable part of my time at USC. I came to the lab on Catalina Island with a few classes, and then I was part of the Environmental Studies program’s scientific diving course here, which was one of the most awesome things I’ve done in my whole life. Wrigley also gave me my first practical application of things I was learning in school. I worked on aquaponics and alternative fuel projects, where I started to feel like there were real things I could do with my knowledge to benefit the world. I feel like Wrigley was a transformative place for me.”

Kra: “I came to the Wrigley Institute in freshman year for a spring break program on sustainability and food. That’s where I built my first aquaponics system, and I was fascinated by the whole issue of food and sustainability. I later came back as a summer intern to build the research aquaponics system in the greenhouse. Being here was really hands-on learning and a nice break from the traditional classroom structure. Wrigley is a special place, and when I look back, it was one of the most impactful experiences for me as an undergraduate.”

Tell us about your current jobs.

Tyler: “Today, we are both project managers at Optima Energy Inc., where we lead sustainability and energy efficiency upgrades to properties. I wanted a job where I could make a real impact. I’m learning to apply step-by-step processes to benefit communities.

Interestingly, in my interview last year, my supervisor mentioned an upcoming project with the USC Wrigley Institute and that they do lighting at the [University Park] and Keck campuses, too. The fact that there was a USC connection I could so readily become a part of was awesome.” 

Natalie Kra ’17, right, and Tyler Sage ’17 led USC Wrigley Marine Science Center’s lighting upgrade as part of their work at Optima Energy Inc. (Photo: Maurice Roper.)

Kra: “What led me to this job is that it addresses sustainability on a broad scale, focusing on general efficiencies to improve living spaces and buildings. There’s also a lot of measurable results that we get through this work. We can read the numbers in savings and project those impacts into the future. That’s been very powerful for me — to see those changes and know I’m helping make them happen.”

Can you describe the recent lighting project at the USC Wrigley Institute?

Kra: “Over a year ago, Optima was approached to find lighting solutions toward Wrigley’s goal of being 100% sustainable. Sage and I started with a full audit of the property, every lightbulb, every location. Then we proposed recommendations. In this case, there were many specific factors we took into account. For example, we made custom lighting colors and included dark sky products to avoid light pollution because the lab is in a sensitive environment. There were also a lot of logistics to consider because it is on an island.”

Tyler: “Our goal was to make every single light more efficient. First and foremost, there’s an element of economic and energy savings – 40% to 70% or more for each light. But beyond that, we’re also improving the lab’s light quality and appearance. We wanted to improve the entire lighting system to benefit everyone that uses it to study, work and live here.”

How did it feel to return to the USC Wrigley Institute?

Kra: “Coming back to the Wrigley Institute and seeing all the projects that were happening in 2015 and how far they’ve come, how proactive and involved the institute is about ‘walking the talk,’ that’s really cool. It also makes me feel good about the work I’ve been doing and how far I’ve come since I was here as a student.”

Tyler: “On our first trip out for this project, we were giddy with excitement to be back at Wrigley as professionals. It’s easily been my most rewarding project to date, and every project is rewarding because we don’t do a project that doesn’t save energy and benefit everyone involved. But this particular project allowed me to feel a sense of coming full circle in what I am doing.”

Where do you go from here?

Kra: “I’m actually going to graduate school this fall to study sustainable food and business at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I have this passion for sustainability and food and efficiency, so I hope to be able to consult in that and help people become more sustainable.”

Tyler: “For now, I’m continuing to grow and apply my skills in this position. Eventually, I’d love to have a company of my own. I’m interested in working at the forefront of environmental technologies and new ways of thinking about how they can intersect with other industries.”

(Editor’s note: Some answers edited for length and clarity.)