In giving herself permission to take the path less trodden (advice she also offers to others), Gypsy Achong (BS '95) has leveraged her early passion for mathematics into a consulting career focused on environmental science and technical advocacy, with stops along the way. After graduating from Caltech with a BS in Engineering and Applied Science, Achong earned an MS and a PhD from Stanford University in Civil and Environmental Engineering, where she was also a lecturer.
She has worked as a management consultant for the Boston Consulting Group, was the CEO and founder of Gift A Feast (a service that made gourmet food gift giving easier), contributed to the Business Development team at Solazyme (an algal biofuel startup) and 2050 Partners (a technical advocacy consulting company). Currently, Achong is an independent consultant in the space of environmental science and technical advocacy.
ENGenuity: What originally inspired you to get into science? How did you become interested in environmental science?
Gypsy Achong: I grew up in the Caribbean, and in the Caribbean, there is a bit of a cultural bias toward academic kids doing science and math. So, I followed that path, and particularly fell in love with math. When I came to Caltech, I was declared a math major, but then started to think about what I could do that would be practical. I was naive about the career options that were available to mathematicians, and so I started to explore the engineering department at Caltech and met Norman Brooks [James Irvine Professor of Environmental and Civil Engineering, Emeritus; PhD '54] who was actually a really important mentor to me, and he got me excited about environmental engineering. My degree from Caltech is in engineering and applied science, and I spent most of my elective credits in the environmental engineering area.
ENGenuity: How would you describe your professional contributions?
Achong: I'm really proud of the contributions that I'm making right now. I am leading a team of engineers in technical advocacy towards improving energy efficiency and decarbonizing buildings, both nationally and in California.
When I started in this role, we brought data to a test procedure development effort that showed that the current test procedure at that time did not accurately capture performance of the equipment in the field. This equipment type is anticipated to be an important piece of the puzzle for decarbonizing commercial buildings because it is an all-electric solution for heating and cooling. But for designers and regulators to trust the equipment's efficiency rating, the test procedure needed to be improved. We worked to build consensus across a wide range of stakeholders, including regulators, equipment manufacturers, and energy efficiency advocates, to come up with a solution that has become a model for testing other equipment of that type.
ENGenuity: What class or professor had the biggest impact on you at Caltech?
Achong: There were three, all in the Environmental Engineering science program. Norm Brooks was the one who opened my eyes to that field. And then Mary Lidstrom [now Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering and Microbiology at the University of Washington, Seattle], who was the environmental microbiology professor at that time. She welcomed me into her lab where I developed a passion for microbes that are environmentally helpful. And then I deeply enjoyed aquatic chemistry with Professor Jim Morgan [Formerly the Marvin L. Goldberger Professor of Environmental Engineering Science, Emeritus; Professor Morgan passed away in 2020]. He was just delightful. He pushed me to be a more stringent thinker than I might have done just on my own.
ENGenuity: How has your Caltech education influenced you?
Achong: I'm so grateful for my time at Caltech. Caltech gave me a technical basis for looking at the world that has been critically important to my career. I work at the intersection of technical contributors and business/policy-type people. The ability to understand what the technical contributors are doing comes from my time at Caltech. Over my career, I've developed a way to communicate what the technical contributors are doing and how it relates to the business and policy objectives that we have. But it's fundamentally that ability to understand the technical basis of the problem that is key to my work.
ENGenuity: What advice would you give to the next generation of Caltech students and alumni?
Achong: Give yourself permission to take the path less trodden. I know it's easy to feel a bit intimidated by your friends who have a really clear vision for where they're going and are able to follow that path. If that's your path, awesome. Take it. But if you don't know your path, give yourself the flexibility and permission to try different things. But most importantly, do something. Don't get paralyzed in trying to figure out the perfect thing. I see a lot of people spiral into a little bit of quicksand. Just do something, because with every step you take, you'll learn something more about yourself—what you like, what you don't like— and you will meet new people that will create a foundation for your next step.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Achong: I am fortunate to have found the work that I'm doing right now because there are so many aspects of it that I love. I love that I work with a lot of different people every day who all have different perspectives and are passionate about their goals. It's a fun challenge to find the approach that will bring enough people together to enable us to move forward. I still review all the reports that come out of my team, so even though I'm not doing technical work day-to-day, I'm engaged technically. I also feel like I'm contributing to a brighter future for my kids and for the next generation.
ENGenuity: What's your favorite story?
Achong: There are so many! I'm a huge reader, so that is a very hard question for me. The book that I have probably re-read the most times is Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. It's based in India, a former Commonwealth country, and I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, a member of the Commonwealth. It was an eye-opening experience for me to read Midnight's Children and realize how much the citizens of the Commonwealth share.
ENGenuity: What's your favorite destination?
Achong: I live in San Francisco, and we have a little cabin up at Donner Summit. Right now, that's my favorite destination because it's so easy to get out into spectacular scenery there, and I deeply enjoy my community of friends there.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Achong: Success in my work requires me to find common ground among different stakeholders. When I'm awake at night it's usually because I'm trying to figure out that path to the common ground that's going to move my objective forward.
ENGenuity: What gets you up in the morning?
Achong: I've got two kids, tweens, so getting them to school gets me up in the morning. But once I drop them off, I look forward to my work.