Crunching Numbers for a Cause

Andy Zack cares deeply about progressive politics. After graduating from Wesleyan University in 2009 with a degree in political science, he worked for Habitat for Humanity; the Obama for America organization in Oakland, Calif.; and an effort to defeat Proposition 32, a California ballot initiative designed to keep unions from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes. (The work of Zack and others paid off; it lost.)

All along, Zack had expected to specialize on the policy/advocacy side. But he found himself drifting to more quantitative roles. “There was a big lack of skills in that area,” he says wryly. “Knowing how to use Excel basically made me one of the more qualified people in a lot of the places that I worked.”

Andy Zack rock climbing, one of this other passions. Photo courtesy of Andy Zack.

Andy Zack rock climbing, one of this other passions. Photo courtesy of Andy Zack.

In 2013, a job at a political polling shop convinced him both that quantitative was the direction he needed to go, and that he wasn’t going to learn those skills in the polling industry. To get the expertise he was seeking, and that he felt the progressive causes he cared about desperately needed, Zack applied to and was accepted into the University of Michigan Program in Survey Methodology with a concentration in statistics.

As a master’s student, Zack has done social media data analytics for progressive and environmental non-profits like The Sierra Club. And late last year he was awarded a fellowship with the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program, which annually supports graduate students who are interested in interdisciplinary solutions to issues of sustainability.

Zack and the other 40 or so fellows in the program will meet periodically this year to discuss pressing problems in sustainability. They’ve also broken into small interdisciplinary groups to tackle specific projects; Zack’s group is evaluating the pros and cons of an indoor gardening project that relies entirely on artificial lights and tap water.

Local gardener Christy Kaledas is using LED grow lights in the basement of the Black Pearl restaurant on Ann Arbor’s Main Street to grow microgreens and mini vegetables year round to supply local grocers and restaurants, including the Black Pearl. Zack and his group will track the amount of waste produced and water and energy used and compare it with traditional farming methods.

Based on their findings, they’ll also create a manual to guide others interested in producing fresh produce in basements and other limited indoor spaces. Zack says the information could help urban farmers, city dwellers, and others to grow low-cost, high quality vegetables.

The interdisciplinary approach of the Fellows program should help him bring a broader perspective to the advocacy work he eventually plans to do, Zack says. And this time, he’ll have the quantitative skills to make a real difference.

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