Big Ideas guest lecturer Wendy Schmidt advocates for a sea change

On a recent morning, UC Berkeley students taking the College of Letters and Science’s Big Ideas “Oceans” course came in from the rain, shook off their umbrellas and gathered in Pimentel Hall to hear from Wendy Schmidt about more than just a few drops of water, but a sea change.

“We cannot control the vast powers we observe in nature,” said the Graduate School of Journalism alumna, who is president of the Schmidt Family Foundation. “But we must seriously contemplate where we stand in relation to the planet that sustains our life. The earth and its oceans don’t need us — we need the ocean.”

Wendy Schmidt

Schmidt Ocean Institute co-founder Wendy Schmidt in discussion with students after her guest lecture at UC Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

A passionate advocate for the health of the world’s oceans, Schmidt was invited to speak — and meet with students after class for further discussions — by Professor of Earth and Planetary Science Jim Bishop. Together with her husband, Eric, who is executive chairman of Google, she founded the Palo Alto-based Schmidt Ocean Institute. Its goal is to advance ocean research and exploration through intelligent observation and analysis, innovative technologies and open sharing of information.

During her lecture, Schmidt spoke of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. She immediately responded to the disaster, sponsoring an XPrize to drive rapid improvements to the process of cleaning up oil spills; the prizewinner devised a process with a recovery rate of more than three times the existing standard. Schmidt is currently sponsoring an XPrize competition in the area of ocean acidification.

“Wendy and the team at the Schmidt Ocean Institute are world-class,” says Bishop. “It was a great pleasure that she was able to enrich our class. My students are still talking about her lecture.”

Schmidt is firm in her belief that we can’t care about what we don’t know. She has at the core of her advocacy a commitment to building awareness and supporting innovative action through open communication. “There is a powerful force in ongoing communication among people who are learning, across the world,” she said. “That changes the conversation.”

Gathering with students after the lecture, Schmidt drew out their study interests — in architecture, science communications, non-human organisms, atmospheric science, among others — and urged each of them to take up the charge of building our knowledge of the oceans, and rebuilding our relationship with the planet.

She encouraged students to join her in channeling their own big ideas, technological connectedness and passion for science into the challenge, saying, “We are the last generation to have the chance to do something about this.”