Photo Courtesy from Rita Kampalath

Article From UCLA Samueli Newsroom

For Rita Kampalath M.S. ’05, Ph.D. ’10, every day is Earth Day as the Los Angeles County’s chief sustainability officer. But when she first came to UCLA as a graduate student, Kampalath said she didn’t have a clear vision for her career. Through her research and the mentorship she received, however, she found a sense of purpose to complement her love of science.

“My time at UCLA taught me a few things,” Kampalath said. “First, I wanted to continue to be challenged intellectually — to find opportunities to continue to learn, grow and stretch my understanding. Second, it really taught me how important it was to me to spend my time working toward a purpose and mission.”

After getting her bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Columbia University, Kampalath pursued a master’s in the same field and her doctorate in civil and environmental engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. She chose to center her doctoral research on developing a better understanding of one of the most toxic metals in the world — mercury.

“I’m proud that my research added to such an important body of knowledge — one that I hope will allow us to better protect natural systems and all the living things that rely on them,” she said.

Kampalath joined the research group led by Civil and Environmental Engineering Department professor and vice chair of graduate affairs Jennifer Jay.

“I came to find a through line to the work that I find most meaningful,” Kampalath said of Jay’s mentorship that helped her understand how to leverage science to support social good. “It’s basically this: helping people and communities. As an engineer, particularly a civil or environmental engineer, your work is almost always about the built systems that people rely on for basic needs.”

Influenced by her early experiences seeing communities in India with a strong connection to and reliance on the environment, Kampalath said she felt that it was a natural choice for her to pursue a career that can help improve the environment, with a particular focus on sustainability.

“As a kid, I was lucky to be able to travel a fair amount with my parents, and visit rural India, where my mom grew up in a house without running water or electricity,” Kampalath said. “Seeing the vast contrasts of people’s lives, and literally between the lives of me and my first cousins had a big impact on me, and I think that focused me, maybe subconsciously at first, on work that would support people.”

“Everything has an impact — be it from taking shorter showers, replacing your turf with native plants, buying an electric vehicle, taking public transit or biking, or eating less meat and throwing away less food,” said Rita Kampalath.

Following her academic journey, Kampalath worked as the science and policy director at environmental nonprofit organization Heal the Bay, where she spearheaded advocacy and research projects on water quality. She also took a position at Geosyntec Consultants, working on stormwater management. In 2017, she joined the Chief Sustainability Office in the county of Los Angeles as a sustainability program director. As the head of the unit since 2023, she leads a team of experts tasked with implementing the county’s sustainability plan — an initiative with 12 cross-cutting goals to address environmental, social and economic issues that affect more than 10 million residents across 4,000 plus square miles.

“Policy guides so much of our work in the public sphere,” Kampalath said. “I was lucky to be given the opportunity to make the leap from a more straightforward engineering career to one that combined science and policy, and I haven’t looked back since.”

Kampalath said she envisions a future where the county can lead by example: addressing broader sustainability challenges specific to the region such as homelessness, traffic, and environmental justice and equity, as well as newer and growing challenges around climate resilience and biodiversity.

“While we have some massive challenges to tackle, we also have some incredible strengths in all the people who are committed to the goal of creating a sustainable and equitable Los Angeles,” Kampalath said.

Under Kampalath’s leadership, the Chief Sustainability Office is said to have achieved a number of goals that included phasing out oil drilling, adopting a climate action plan and drafting a community forest-management plan centered around shade equity and climate resilience. Kampalath said she hopes these early wins will put the office on track to meet some of its most ambitious sustainability targets, such as sourcing 80% of water locally by 2045 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Angelenos have an important role to play in creating a more sustainable future, according to Kampalath, who emphasized that many of the county’s sustainability goals are dependent on personal choices.

“Everything has an impact — be it from taking shorter showers, replacing your turf with native plants, buying an electric vehicle, taking public transit or biking, or eating less meat and throwing away less food,” Kampalath said. “Don’t get overwhelmed or discouraged if you’re not perfect right away or all the time. Think about habits you can adopt and start incorporating them into your daily life over time.”

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