About Bret Harper
Bret Harper has lived in four beautiful environments: San Diego, Honolulu, Boulder, and the San Francisco Bay Area. He jokes that his parents decided to move away from San Diego when he was eight because "They figured that the only place better than where we were was Hawaii." In Honolulu, he surfed and studied his way to high school graduation at Punahou School in 2001 (too late to cross paths with fellow alum Barack Obama).
In those days, Harper had interests, but not a career plan. "When I look back, it becomes obvious to me that I was always interested in renewable energy because I was running around to wind farms, making videos, explaining to people how wind energy works. But at the time, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I did a summer internship in an engineering firm and did well, and everyone said it was a good field to be in, so that's what I signed up for when I went to college."
‘It was very helpful to be in an intensive program and to learn how to do research.’
Harper chose the University of Colorado partly because he wanted to live in Boulder. CU's Environmental Engineering Program had several tracks, "such as air and water, but I didn't want to make any of them my career, so I proposed that I do renewable energy instead.
"They didn't have a major like that, but they said go ahead and put together your coursework. I think that was possible because it was such a small department. I combined all the classes that I was interested in and added independent projects to supplement when there were no classes in an area I wanted to study. It was a very organic process; I just did what interested me."
While at CU, he became a SOARS protégé, doing research with NCAR scientists. "That was an integral part of making me who I am. Professionally, it was very helpful to be in an intensive program and to learn how to do research, write a paper, and interact with top scientists. On the personal growth level, I got introduced to lots of my peers who I'm still in very close contact with, and that makes a good network of people all over the country who are becoming successful in the atmospheric field."
For grad school, Harper chose the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California Berkeley. Although he had never lived in the Bay Area, the move meant he was going home.
‘Getting to know people of my tribe and take that journey with them to bring the culture back . . . opened up a new way of seeing things for me.’
Harper is Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo in heritage, and the northern side of San Francisco Bay was the home of these tribes. Contact with Europeans brought the tribes to the brink of extinction: the Coast Miwok tribe dwindled to only 14 people in the 1800s, and the last native speaker of the Coast Miwok language died in 1978.
It was two men of European descent who kept the language from disappearing completely, Harper explains. In the mid-20th century, "one anthropologist took it on himself to record and document the language, and he passed the work on to [UC Berkeley linguist Richard Applegate]. Working with [Applegate], we've been able to bring the language back. The anthropologists have been very helpful in teaching us the pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, but it's very refreshing that they acknowledge that it's our language" and that new words need to be invented.
"I also learned about singing, dancing, baskets, doing ecological restoration. Whether you're learning the language or learning how to plant a garden, it's just amazing to me how interwoven all that knowledge is. Getting to know people of my tribe and take that journey with them to bring the culture back, that felt really good. It opened up a new way of seeing things for me."
After finishing his M.S. degree in 2007, Harper joined Black & Veatch as a renewable energy consultant. Then he decided to go home again, this time back to Honolulu. He enjoys his job at ARCADIS. He's also learning outside of office hours—but from Hawaiian canoe paddling, sailing, his studies of Coast Miwok and Hawaiian, and gardening, rather than academic studies.
"I'm not doing any research, and I'm not really interested in going back for a Ph.D.," he says. "I'm learning a lot through paddling and the Hawaiian language. A lot of traditional environmental knowledge is encoded in things like that. There's a whole rhythm and knowledge of how to work together to move through the ocean quickly and efficiently. You use the Hawaiian language to give commands, to name things, and say prayers. I find that fulfilling as a sport and as a spiritual practice.
"To have a first-hand experience of the ocean, what it means when there are three different swells from three different directions, how the ocean changes over the course of a year, and how it interacts with the wind as well—there are different conditions every time you go out. You develop a different kind of knowledge."