Nov. 28, 2022

Why You Should Care About Soil Health

Why You Should Care About Soil Health
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What’s one big change we can make that can make our food healthier, make farming more lucrative, draw down carbon in the atmosphere, and reduce climate emigration?

That’s today’s big question, and my guest is Sasankh Munukutla,another fellow in our series with the 776 Foundation

Sasankh is the Co-Founder of Terradot, a satellite and AI-based gigaton-scale, soil-carbon sequestration verification system.

Sasankh originally hails from Singapore and grew up across countries as a third-culture kid and a future global citizen attending international schools. Before college, Sasankh took two gap years and served as aCommander in theSingapore Armed Forces. Once at Stanford, he completed his undergraduate degree in Computer Science with distinction as a Terman Scholar, Phi Beta Kappa, Tau Beta Pi, and with the Stanford Award of Excellence.

So, you know.

As you’ll hear, Sasankh is deeply passionate and thoughtful about the intersection of technology and social impact. He’s worked in the refugee space, on accessibility, and is a major force for organizing in the tech for good space. Something we can all get behind.

Here’s the deal:

Globally, soil has the potential to sequester up to 1.85 gigatons of carbon per year but soil degradation threatens our ability to feed a growing population, and soil desertification will result in 135 million soil refugees by 2050.Fun!

That’s where Sasankh and Terradot come in.

For farmers, Terradot will incentivize adopting sustainable agricultural practices that sequester carbon, improve soil health, and enable participation in soil carbon credit markets.

On the other side, for carbon buyers, Terradot can eventually providehigh-integrity carbon removal credits while allowing them to verify and monitor the permanence of carbon removal – an essential piece of the puzzle.


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Quinn: [00:00:00]What's one big change we can make that will make our food healthier, make farming more lucrative, draw down carbon in the atmosphere and reduce climate emmigration? That's today's big question and my guest is Sasankh Munukutla. Sasankh is the co-founder of Terradot, a satellite plus AI based Gigaton scale, soil carbon sequestration verification system.

Sasankh originally hails from Singapore. He grew up across countries as a third culture kid and future global citizen, attending international schools everywhere. Before college, he took two gap years and served as a commander in the Singapore armed forces. At Stanford, he completed his undergraduate degree in computer science with distinction as a Terman Scholar, Phi Beta Kappa, Tau Beta Pi, and with the Stanford Award of Excellence.

As you’ll hear, he is deeply passionate and thoughtful about the intersection of technology and social[00:01:00]impact. He's worked in the refugee space on accessibility and is a major force for organizing in the tech for good space, which I think is something we can all get behind. Welcome to Important, Not Important.

My name is Quinn Emmett, and this is Science for People Who Give a Shit. In our weekly conversations, I take a deep dive with an incredible human who's working on the front lines of the future to build a radically better today and tomorrow for everyone. Along the way, we'll discover tips, strategies, stories you can use to get involved and become more effective for yourself, your family, your city, your company, and our world.

Here's the deal: globally soil has the potential to sequester up to 1.85 gigatons of carbon per year. But soil degradation threatens our ability to feed a growing population, and soil desertification will result in 135 million soil refugees by 2050. Good times. That's where Sasankh and Terradot come in. For farmers, Terradot could incentivize the adoption of[00:02:00]sustainable agricultural practices that sequester carbon and improve soil health and enable participation in a soil carbon credit market. On the other side, for carbon buyers, Terradot can eventually provide high integrity carbon removal credits while allowing them to verify and monitor the permanence of the carbon removal. Which is an essential piece of a puzzle. But before we get to all that, I need to understand why Sasankh is doing this work, what's standing in his way, and how we can help.

Let's go find out.

Sasankh.Welcome to the show. 

Sasankh Munukutla:Yeah. Thank you so much for having me, Quinn.

Quinn:Absolutely. We like to start with one important question sort of sets the tone, which is Sasankh why are you vital to the survival of the species? And I encourage you to be bold and honest.

Sasankh Munukutla:That's a very deep question and I obviously want to be very humble here. I think we all have an important role to play in ensuring we all survive and continue as a species. But I'd say[00:03:00]my kind of way of doing that in focus has been kind of using the computer science skills I have and I've developed over college. So really tech skills and kind of applying them now to climate.

I've worked in a lot of different social impact spaces, but my main focus for the past few years has now been climate, and within that, specifically now scaling regenerative agriculture. So I'd say that's kind of the main mission that I'm working on right now. And I'd say that's kind of my way of contributing to ensuring we continue as a species, but also protect our planet, restore the health of our planet.

Quinn:It's a question I came up with a long time ago, and it's ridiculous. I realize that. Probably a question you haven't heard before. It is ridiculous. It is provocative and most people either cackle at me or they go I'm not. But then we usually get something kind of profound, which is like you are here both on the show and on the planet for some sort of reason to do something.

And you have already had such a journey and found your way to something that is super interesting and compelling and, and truly like metaphorically the root of everything we need to do, but I wanna take a quick sort of step back before we get into exactly[00:04:00]what you're working on or your journey and all this.

One specific thing that kind of stuck out to me and obviously Stanford, where you went to school and where I went to school, Colgate, very different schools. Mine's much more sort of liberal arts focused, but knowing, again through my wife and other friends who've been to Stanford, it is not just specifically like super tech heavy.

You can ask some really interesting questions there, and I saw it was an interviewer piece. We talked a little bit about a class you took called Dare to Care. Is that right? Compassionate Design. 

Sasankh Munukutla:Yeah. 

Quinn:I remember sort of reading, this is gonna date me a lot, but like reading the class booklet, which was printed on paper about different classes and Colgate had the weirdest shit too.

It was like God's and Monsters or this and this, and you're like, how is this applicable to the real life? But they were always so compelling to me. I was like, I wanna be involved in whatever this is. I want to have those discussions. What was it about that class? Was it a professor? Was it the class description, whatever it was that made you want to do it?

And then how is that applicable to sort of the journey you've gone on since?

Sasankh Munukutla:I'll start with the class[00:05:00]and then I think with the journey, I might go back a bit behind that. And then I think the class fits into the journey kind of neatly with the rest of the story. But the class Dare to Care is really compassion design and designing for people who are disabled in various ways.

And the format of the class is each week we'd have someone come in with a different disability. This can be someone you know, who is blind, for example. This can be someone who, you know, might struggle with certain cognitive tasks. And the goal of the class really was for us to really talk to people with different disabilities, really understand, you know, what they struggle with in their daily life, and try to design solutions for them.

To help them. And each week was kind of doing that in a different way. And I think for me it was really powerful and like just building up empathy for people like me who might be fully abled in different ways. We might not always think of people who have different disabilities. And to me, I found that process just so humbling and trying to think of a solution that could really help them.

But also maybe sometimes I think the important thing in designing for disability is you kind of end up with more compelling solutions that can help everyone. I think a classic example of this is like closed caption technology, which was initially developed for people,[00:06:00]who might have had hearing difficulties or have had issues with consuming media in various forms and now closed caption technology, I’d argue today, benefits kind of the whole segment of the population.

So to me, just that idea of designing in a very thoughtful and inclusive way was incredibly powerful. Really shaped a lot of the other things I did where, for example, at an internship two summers later, I worked on designing technology that helps people who are dyslexic write more easily. So I think that's a way that, that has inspired me.

And now in all my endeavors, I kind of bring that thoughtful, inclusive design perspective to everything I do. 

Quinn:It's so interesting to me because, and thank you for sharing that. It's obviously a really specific class, but like you said, it is so intentional because it does end up affecting your worldview in such a comprehensive way, I guess, did you come at it more from like a humanitarian side?

Or did you come at it more of a technical side, like, I wanna learn how to incorporate this into my technical repertoire of my design? Or was it something different? 

Sasankh Munukutla:I would actually say both. So I think on the humanitarian side, I've[00:07:00]done a lot of social service in high school, working with a lot of different groups and populations, again some of the people I worked with had various disabilities in high school, and then, the summer before actually, and through my first year of college, I was working a lot in the refugee space and really thinking about, you know, how can we be inclusive in our design?

So I was releasing the humanitarian aspects with the prior work I'd done. But technically I was also curious on like, how do we actually be thoughtful in our design system and what are the design processes we can use to actually build solutions that are inclusive? So I would actually say, I think my story's always like trying to tying social impact and like technical advancements together.

And this class was just another curious way, and I feel so grateful to have taken it in my second year, right at the start of my second year of college, and that's where I'm like, again, very grateful for the Stanford opportunity. In addition to all the technical advances as you described, there's an opportunity to do courses across a lot of disciplines, and I think one way or another, those have shaped kind of my interests in how I think about the world very positively. 

Quinn:So your background is so varied, it's really cool. So correct me everywhere I'm wrong or add anything here, but from what I was able[00:08:00]to gather, you organized India's first hackathon for high school kids, seemingly built a new social network. You served a little bit in the military in Singapore, worked on language tech for refugees, which is super cool.

Worked your way up through the CS+ social good program, which I've heard a lot about in the past from other folks, worked on catalyzing fossil fuel infrastructure with satellites. How did you end up getting to soil after all of that? Was there some sort of inclination along the way? Was it the satellite part and then the soil?

Take me through that.

Sasankh Munukutla:First of all, I think I'll go back to my journey as a kid. I was actually always very interested and excited about climate. I think when I started thinking more critically about it was I was around eight or nine when Inconvenient Truth came out, the movie, and that really like jolted me into action and made me think more concrete about my personal actions, but also like how the actions around me.

Did a lot of social service related stuff through, um, high school things like organizing, recycling for e-waste, for example, in my local community, there's a lot of[00:09:00]batteries that are disposed often, for example. So was always really thinking about climate at the back of my head and trying to take actions in my own life to work towards climate, but maybe didn't necessarily see professional paths or concrete ways that I could do more serious work. So kind of viewed it as something in my personal life and and endeavors that I would do. Also being from Singapore, that's my home country and where I'm originally from, and then it moved around a bit. Singapore also, just its transformation from this small city state that maybe was very dirty when it started, unclean and now is like super eco-friendly. Super sustainable in the way it's developed and having this amazing transformation story and seeing that happen with Singapore. By the time I was born, most of that had been done. But having heard that and just witnessed all of that from, you know, elders and other folks, it was very inspiring.

So I was always very excited and passionate about climate. Maybe I had never done more formal work in this space, and then I got to doing my two years of military services, you'd identified I'd spent a lot of time kind of in the outdoors and kind of grew a further appreciation of, you know, nature and all its beauty, which maybe I hadn't done as much before, just being out there in the jungles and[00:10:00]whatnot.

Finally got to college. Was working a lot in the tech and social impact space and saw that everything is kind of connected to climate. In my first year, I worked a lot in the refugee space as you identified, and I saw kind of also the impact on climate on refugees as well and how that problem is exacerbated, worked in the accessibility spaces you identified and also saw overlaps there.

Was involved in CS+Social Goods, so kind of was organizing these different projects as well as kind of seeing ways maybe I could get my skills more involved. And I think the main turning point actually came the winter quarter. So at the middle point of my sophomore year in 2020 when I joined the Stanford ML group.

And they have an AI for climate change research division, like a specific bootcamp that you join. The whole idea is trying to use the artificial intelligence skills that you've developed and use them to kind of work on a climate problem. So the problem I worked on was using satellite imagery to map all the oil and gas infrastructure around the world.

Oil and gas infrastructure, of course, is a huge source of methane emissions, and I very much came into that space with the technical skills, but as I was working through that project, which was fascinating, technically[00:11:00]I realized that I'm actually very curious about the climate knowledge piece of things.

So I started to take a few courses, um, Inert Systems in Climate, which Stanford has great resources for, and I feel grateful to have had this space too in my academic schedule to squeeze those in too as a CS major. And as I started to do that, I got more interested in kind of thinking about we know what problems things like satellite imagery and AI can be helpful with in climate and kind of worked through that and worked on various projects. Again, started to get more involved with kind of the nature aspects of things. Did a class where, for example, I focused on illegal fishing and again, was keeping my mind going on like, what is a cool problem I can ultimately apply these technical skills to? I know I'm developing the strong passion for climate as well, just like taking all these courses. Eventually just met a mutual friend and he'd worked a lot in the farming space. Talked about how soil health is a super important problem. I dove deep into soil, then really saw that soil, like, if you care about any of the problems of our planet, you have to care about our soil health.


Sasankh Munukutla:Whether it's food security, whether it's having soil as a carbon sink, whether it's impacting the lives of all the farmers that work with[00:12:00]soil, and how that's such an important segment of the populations. What you realize ultimately the soil, along with climate is such a broad issue that touches so many different aspects that if you really care about sustainable development and social impact.

You have to care about these things. And to me, I saw soil as something that, you know, maybe had not been appreciated or was getting all the attention it was needing from a technical lens. Also had a lot of areas where I could uniquely use my skills and help contribute. So it did take me a bit of a journey to maybe find that specific problem within climate once I knew I was passionate about climate and also to build the skills to be able to work on something like this.

So it's been kind of, I'd say both a random walk, but a walk always inspired by passion and social impact. But it ultimately led me to soil and it's been what I've been working on for the past year with a couple friends. 

Quinn:I love it. Thank you for sharing that so succinctly. You can pick anything from soil to particular pollution off of tires, to, you know, any of these different things.

And it's easy from the outside to see it as a niche, right? And very specific. But at the same time, soil underlies everything we've ever done, you know,[00:13:00]and hopefully everything we will do from finding ways to feed ourselves more efficiently to storing carbon, right? Better and more prolifically. I've had this, sort of thing, I haven't been able to shake for quite a while, and I don't know, with all the different problems of higher education, so many pros, so many cons, how this could be focused this way at the undergrad level. But you talked about how do I take these technical things I'm interested in, I'm making myself more skilled at, what's a problem I can focus them on?

It's one thing to have political science majors and CS majors and history majors, all of which are really important. And part of what we focus on here is again, these sort of huge systemic problems and how do we view them as those and affecting people to also opportunities to make something better, right?

Be inclined towards action. It seems like it would be so much more productive and enduring to young students or wanna be students to focus these things instead of, I'm a political science major, I'm a CS major, whatever it might be, and say what[00:14:00]is the system or opportunity that you're working on, and what are all the different things to take underneath that?

So where is the major on deforestation? Where is the major on soil? Right? Where is the major on fungal disease or whatever it might be? And then what's the history classes you have to take underneath, what are the economic classes you have to take? What are the AI or CS classes you have to take underneath?

You're really focused on something practical, but at the same time building in all the hard science and the soft science, which kind of drives me crazy underneath. So you have the fullest grasp of this thing, cuz it does seem like there's so many folks like you who are so thoughtful and intentional about checking a lot of those boxes along the way.

But at the same time, I think we see again and again, a lot of folks starting, for instance, random tech company. Without the Ian Malcolm to go, your scientist never thought about whether they should. Right? Who's the person who's saying like, hold on a minute. Who’s this gonna affect and who's gonna profit from this question?

It seems like, that would be so interesting. Right. And I wonder if that's something that would've appealed to you. It almost seems like[00:15:00]you tried to design it that way yourself with everything you did.

Sasankh Munukutla:I think there's like pros and cons. I think the way I describe it is I think the advantages, I've kind of like tried to carve that on for my own, where like at different points in my academic journey, whenever I felt very strongly about a topic or something, I very much am someone who's excited by kind of having a problem to solve and then trying to learn everything you need to be able to solve that problem.

So in the case of like soil, for example, I did not have any background in soil. So I started, you know, sitting in on soil science courses at Stanford. So I think for me, I really like that way of learning where like you pick a problem and you try to like, you know, pick all the courses that you can and you know, you'd be a bit creative and get them to fit different requirements for your major.

And sometimes you need to put petitions in for things and say, Hey, actually count this course. It does serve this learning objectives. And that's another way, just like the place I've gone to school, super, super lucky that they're very often very flexible and understanding of, you know, making exceptions to the course plan.

I would say the cons sometimes. If you're not thoughtful, intentional about how you're creating those topics, you might leave students with the idea that these are the only topics to solve. And I[00:16:00]think I would still want a system where maybe here are examples of some pathways we think you should take or look into, and like here's an example of maybe how you can take four or five courses across different disciplines that can help you solve this problem.

But we don't wanna necessarily be prescriptive on saying that these are all the problems to solve. And I think being very intentional and thoughtful in that balance is super important. To your idea of actually doing this, I've also been very passionate about education and thinking through education at various points of my life.

And I actually believe in Finland, they do some version of this, not at the college level, but actually even at the middle school, late elementary school level, where they kind of set different pathways and they kind of have all your courses serve as elements to this one pathway. And it's been super effective for them to get students to engage in a variety of disciplines because now they actually see, oh, okay, like all these six courses I have to take.

In elementary school and I don't maybe have as much choice on what to take. They all contribute to this like, you know, project or theme that I'm working on. So, if I'm not mistaken, Finland has been doing that for a while and I think they've seen great success in that space. I'm absolutely for it, I think it's really important that we[00:17:00]build and we build education systems that encourage students to be interdisciplinary and encourage students to see the connections between things. And I think that's a culmination of leaving students to their own and kind of encouraging them to do that. But also, showing some maybe pathways or having them get a taste of that at least once, where it's maybe a bit more organized for them and then giving them the freedom to kind of carve that out for their own.

Quinn:Yeah, I think you're right. I mean, it's, it's certainly not on any one of us. None of us have the comprehensive lived experience to say, here's the five problems that matter. Right. It's not true. I mean, we only cover five or six verticals within each of those is 7,000 different problems, and hunger can be very different in the US than it is in sub-Saharan Africa or whatever it might be.

Singapore 20 years ago, whatever, whatever it might be, how much has changed there? Yeah. I love that idea of like you're saying, sort of saying these are some representative pathways and the type of classes you might pick along the way, and just sort of painting a picture for folks of a more practical application of your time at these sorts of places.

I think it's easy in the US.[00:18:00]And understandable now to look at, do we forgive college loan debt? Do we not? Who's being preyed upon for this debt? Who's not? You almost see more of a societal payoff, right? If we're training more people to just be comprehensive and philosophical and ethical, but also learning the hard science and saying, well, they're gonna work on something that's costing us, but at the same time, that could benefit the whole.

But obviously, like you said, there's enormous pros and cons to all those things. Let's talk for a minute about soil, shall we? It's important. It's not a nice to have like some of these things. It's gonna be really important if we want to, for instance, keep feeding everyone much less, store a bunch of carbon away.

It's affected by all of these different choices we've made. Like anything like chemotherapy, right? Really great. Also really harmful. Fertilizers, really great, also really not so great and a thousand different reasons. Talk to me about how you got to using satellites for carbon removal essentially to measure soil.

Cuz it is[00:19:00]definitely one of the more tricky problems we're gonna have to really work out because for everyone, sort of, there's few major tenets of this carbon offset, plus carbon removal market for it to actually stand up on its own and to actually be functional and practical in some way, which is additionality and verification and are they actually being removed.

So talk to me a little bit about how you landed on that and where you and your partner are going with the work you're trying to do?

Sasankh Munukutla:I mean, once just diving deeper into soil, I think as you said, it touches so many things and it's so important to restore our soil health and in restoring soil health, let’s say there's several parts.

One, as you identified, having the soil serve as a carbon sink, so trying to sequester carbon into the soil. One, improving also soil health as a result of having more carbon and organic matter improves fertility of the soil fundamentally. So that helps with things like proving the yield, which leads to things like us able as a species, being able to feed more people and improves our food security.

There's also aspects of soil desertification, which can displace communities, so also improving[00:20:00]soil health can help, I guess, with that as well. Really, there's a lot of different problems that are connected to soil. And what you realize is some of the practices, thankfully, that we need to adopt to actually improve soil health.

The lowest hanging fruits, they already exist. We already know what they've done. The sciences audited them for many years, and that's kind of basically regenerative agricultural practices, for example, is, uh, cover cropping, which is basically not leaving the fuel fallow after you grow the main crop. So that's an example of grow another cover crop, let's say a pigeon pea, for example, in the off season as well, which you don't necessarily always harvest.

And as a result that just, you know, has more input, seed into the soil, shows that the soil is not left on its own, which improves soil health in different ways. So just thinking about that, you realize that, okay, the science exists, these practices exist, but why aren't they widely adopted? Why isn't everyone doing them?

And then that's where you start to learn that. There's several things at play. One is just knowledge and training. Being able to actually train farmers around the world, especially farmers, you know, who might not always have the highest education level. Access to training, for example, is another huge[00:21:00]issue.

Then you also realize the main reason is there haven't really been financial incentives or incentives to adopt these practices. And for a lot of farmers farming knowledge is very ancestral, very driven by, you know, what your neighbors are doing, what your parents, your grandparents, everyone before them has done so in order to change these practices, there's a bit of risk right at the very start. There's sometimes some upfront costs for cover cropping. For example, you might need to buy an extra set of seeds, and as a farmer, when you're maybe operating just at the margin, you might not wanna take that risk on, especially if you don't feel supported, you don't see anyone else around you do it.

So there are all these barriers. And then as you dive deeper into that, you realize that, okay, what are ways we can create more incentives? And as you identified carbon kind of removal and offset revenue is great, but why isn't that flowing into soil and encouraging farmers and providing that incentive?

And then that's when you realize the real issue is the measurement piece. Because right now with soil carbon, the traditional way is, you know, you take a soil core, you dig it into the ground, you kind of take a soil sample, then you pass that off to a lab, hopefully that lab is close. Often it's not. So you have a lot of time delay there.

[00:22:00]You have additional maybe shipping costs, transport costs there both environmentally, but also in terms of just the actual monetary amount. So there's all these barriers to taking these soil samples. Really scaling them and they typically only happen every five, six years. So I think the way I think about it is if you're trying to measure your soil health to specifically soil carbon, it's like right now you have a bank account and you can only check that bank account every five years, which just does not create a system that would have trust.

Right? As you dive deeper, you realize that measurement is a really important problem and if we can have a measurement system that you know is scalable, that is cheap, but also is highly accurate and you know, people trust, there's a lot of integrity with it. A, we can suddenly bring in carbon offset financing, so bring in carbon removal credits, for example, pass that onto farmers to create this financial incentive to adopt this practice.

Continue this practice because as you've identified, permanence is super important. We don't want to, you know, have a farmer adopter practice at the start that's gonna help the soil health and then ditch the practice two or three years later. So that's where having this continuous financial[00:23:00]incentives and being able to monitor the soil health time is super, super important.

So that's where measurement kind of becomes this key piece to  unlock this whole ecosystem of getting carbon financing to farmers and encouraging them to adopt these practices. And also providing the financing for training, which I think is another piece that is really, really important, when we're trying to scale, sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

So that's where we realized, okay, measurement is a key lever. That's something that needs to clearly improve. I obviously from my previous research experience have experience working with satellite imagery, have experience kind of working with AI and applying that to satellite imagery. So that's where we really were excited about using that piece of technology.

And that's what we've kind of been working on, building a soil carbon measurement system again. Once you unlock measurement, you can bring in trust. You can monitor the carbon and soil on a more regular basis. You can verify that the practice is continuing to happen. You can also really to get a step ahead, detect if there's any events that might influence soil carbon adversely ahead of time and over time, maybe even identify what practices are best to a specific region.

So there's all these exciting directions that you[00:24:00]go when you start with measurement. And how it kind of unlocks this whole ecosystem to really encourage and scale what we know scientifically works. 

Quinn:I love that. Thank you. Thinking about what you said, what I would love to do for folks, cuz you know we've got people who've never thought about soil here who are work in public health.

We've got soil nerds, we've got AI nerds across the spectrum here. What I would love is give me sort of the two to three sentence description of exactly what you guys are doing, and then let's talk about how that, like you said, measurement is the key tenant to proving, to igniting additionality. Right, because like you were saying, so many folks don't use these practices cuz we…the upfront investment or because it changes by region or the regions are changing, right. Driving immigration and things like that. But also cuz they're expensive, which then measurement unlocks removal, hopefully. Right. And hopefully we can measure more frequently and more, uh, robustly over time. So gimme sort of the description and then hopefully we can take through each of those pieces[00:25:00]to really understand the cascading effects of what you're trying to do.

Sasankh Munukutla:Quick description of what we're doing is we're building a global solar carbon measurement system using set imagery, ai, and process based modeling. And this is to basically encourage and incentivize farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural practices around the world.

Quinn:Great. So it's hopefully building sort of this two-sided marketplace, right? Farmers benefit and everyone else benefits once we're able to build the system on top of it. Let's get into the nuanced nitty gritty for a second. How the hell do you measure carbon and soil with a satellite? Talk to me like I'm a, like a very small child here.

Sasankh Munukutla: 

Firstly with satellite imagery. It's important to think that it's not just like the visible spectrum, but it's really, remote sensing is a more technical word for it, which is it's the entire electromagnetic spectrum. So, Having bands across the different electromagnetic spectrums. And what you can do with that is you can measure a lot of properties of the soil.

You can measure a lot of physical properties, for example. You can measure how much yield there is, how much you know, residue is left in the soil, things like that. So it's really identifying a lot of the inputs[00:26:00]that could affect soil health, using remote sensing and using the entire spectrum of the electromagnetic bands.

And then it's using. Artificial intelligence of just basically training a computer, training models to be able to identify these patterns and these signatures, uh, from this data that will correlate with soil health. And then it's finally feeding all of this into a process based model that simulates kind of the biogeochemistry of the soil.

So these process based models have been around for a while, but typically they're manually configured and it's a whole process to kind of work through them. So it's kind of improving the inputs to them as well as optimizing those models to be able to estimate and measure the carbon and soil. As closely as possible, and then use ground truth samples, so real soil samples to really see that what you're doing is as close to the ground truth as possible and as accurate as possible.

Then an important piece is also to quantify the uncertainties, just to know that if you're off, how much are you typically off by? And I think that these are all important pieces to make sure that the credit or the service you're ultimately providing is high integrity. 

Quinn:That's super helpful. I understand about 10% of it, but I'm 90% very[00:27:00]excited.

One of the key elements of measurement is going to be in working in, like you were saying, building in those uncertainties, things like that is this element of trust among all players, whether it's farmers in different regions or, or the finance folks, regulators, whatever it might be. And that's gonna involve some sort of, I assume, whether it's country by country, region by region, standardization of those agreed upon factors, right? Some sort of saying, okay, this measurement is something that can be transferable among other folks so that later the pricing is relatively apples to apples. Like you said, there's gonna be uncertainties. How does that work? So I guess, how do you work with the broader ecosystem of folks that are trying to do that?

Sasankh Munukutla:Yeah, I think trust, as you've identified, is a key component for kind of all the stakeholders in this, in this ecosystem. And I would say one big way is obviously trying to work with the scientific community, so like actively collaborating with them. Like we have quite a few, soil professors as well as remote sensing professors on campus.

So[00:28:00]we're very much working with them and I think that's the way that we're trying to build a lot of trust in the academic community and also just understand things from a fundamental science perspective before we kind of do anything or claim anything. So I think that's a really important piece. I think the other thing is there are these organizations called carbon registries, and they set standards for what is a legitimate carbon credit, what are legitimate methods that are allowed. So whatever we're trying to do, we're trying to make sure that we work with these carbon registries to make sure we're approved. Their independent organizations, typically nonprofits that kind of identify criteria and set out methodology, and here's what works, here's what we'll accept, here's what we need to see.

For example, they often want the methods that you use to be peer reviewed or openly published. So those are all important pieces that I think really bakes in trust and I think they're a good leveler. But to your point, I do think that one of the aspects that can be worked on and improve upon is creating these benchmarks.

Um, this comes kind of an idea from the AI side, but like in the AI side for example, there are these benchmarks where you kind of release a data set and you allow anybody to submit a solution, and[00:29:00]that way you can see how everyone does on this benchmark data set. So everyone's working on the same thing.

That still hasn't happened in the soil space as much where there are these large data sets around the world, but it seems like kind of the players who are building out solar carbon technology are kind of working with maybe private data sets or data sets that aren't publicly available. So I would love to see a similar movement kind of happen in the soil space where there's these open benchmark data sets and everyone can compare it to, and everyone can kind of see how everyone's performing on these data sets.

So that can be an interesting idea to kind of just increase trust and kind of also see how different methods work together. And I definitely see there's a lot of different people who are working in the solar carbon space, a lot of different approaches to solutions. So it's interesting to see how all these solutions work together and I definitely hope it's, at least from observations initially, it seems like people are very much working together and collaborating, which is always exciting as opposed to, you know, trying to keep their thing to themselves.

Quinn:I mean, I just come back to we've had such an understandable because of so many different factors and across so many, Systemic issues from democracy to public health, a breach of trust[00:30:00]in so many ways. And so I'm very, very interested in talking to and working with directly and indirectly folks who are working transparently, publicly, aggressively on building new layers of trust, especially in these problems because I think it's easy and again, understandable for folks to look at: Here's another carbon market. So IKEA or whoever, or fossil fuel infrastructure or utilities can keep on chugging along doing their thing cuz they're buying the credits. Right. Obviously your job is not to design a legislative or regulatory infrastructure that checks all those boxes that says like, no, they can't fucking do that.

They still gotta bring it down, but they can also buy this along the way until whenever, whatever it might be, no offsets, just removal, whatever it is, that's not your job. Your job is starting to build this trust with this measurement to say, my methods are valid, and here they are, pick them apart however you want because we've worked with these people and here's our uncertainties, and hopefully we can improve on them over time, through[00:31:00]collaboration, through technical improvements. I mean, Christ, the idea of like using satellites for this 15 years ago was crazy. Right? And now it's like the things we can do, like you said, see things we can't, we could never imagine. Does that come into play for you? Sort of the weight of the broader societal, like economic weight of what you're trying to work on? Can you manage to put on the, the tunnel vision a little bit and say, let me work on my problem and you guys use it from there? Or do you consider that in sort of the, the broader work? 

Sasankh Munukutla:I absolutely consider it in the broader work, and I think for me, I always like love doing this combination of like diving deep into one specific problem or action I can take, trying to understand it and know maybe that's my way of impact.

And then also the same time when appropriate, taking a pause. Thinking about what is the bigger picture, what are the different actors at play in, you know, what needs to happen at a societal level, in a systems level to create the chains that I want to. But at the same time, I think if you're not careful and thinking in that way, it's easy to get desensitized or also feel like there's too much inertia.

There's all these big things that need to be worked on. What do I work on? So I think it's actually[00:32:00]helpful for me to have both where, okay, this is one concrete way that I see I can have an impact on working with some awesome people on this. I can, you know, hopefully have a great impact here, but at the same time it, I can’t ignore the bigger picture and making sure whatever I'm doing still contributes to that big picture.

And it's also fun to kind of borrow lessons from both other lessons from, you know, what I'm doing. Can that be applied to the bigger picture? Are there lessons from the bigger picture that can kind of be applied to the work I'm doing? So I think it's, it's really helpful to be able to both zoom in to, you know, the tiny dot and the soil and still zoom out and think about the bigger picture at the same time.

Quinn:It's a practiced skill, right? I mean, when Covid exploded, you know, I, I got so many. At the same time, again, it seemed unethical for people to be calling me and asking things like, what's gonna happen? What should I do? I'm like, guys, the wrong, wrong person. But at the same time, you know, I think when you build a layer of trust, it's, and I try to stand on the shoulders of my integrity with whatever I've earned, with whatever we produce or contribute to here, people are looking for those things, saying, what can I do? How can I help? What's gonna happen? It's important to have the skill[00:33:00]of painting a North Star of this is why I'm doing this work. But then on the day to day, to bring it down to this is what I'm working on, the dot in the soil, knowing that this is up here, but not constantly thinking about it, but letting it drive those decisions, hopefully.

And that's a little utopian, but I hope that we can find more folks that can design their work, if not their entire lifestyle around that sort of thing. Going like, here's the bigger thing. Here's how I wanna spend my days. Right? How we spend our time is how we spend our days, how we spend our life. And then getting to do the actual work.

Let's do this thing, which is like becoming the best bike lane person in, in the country, right? This is what you do. Bring it to every city, or getting that algorithm right and reducing those uncertainties and making it transparent for everybody to work on. But it does take skill, right? I imagine. It can be distracting a little bit to hear all the kerfuffle all the time.

Sasankh Munukutla:It can be. But I think trying to have that balance, and I think for me it's like sometimes I'll use the mornings to read the news and that's when maybe I think a bit more bigger picture. And then during[00:34:00]the day it's more laser focused. And then maybe in the evenings it's again, maybe thinking bigger picture, reading the news, talking to friends, watching random podcasts, listening to podcasts like this, for example.

So I think that's at least a way I found balance. But I think also like you can't deny that there's an interconnectedness and both aspects are always kind of going on at the back of your head. And I think some part of it is learn, embrace your focus on the details. There's a bigger picture. The bigger picture sometimes will dominate at the back of your head.

So it is, I think also something you get used to like learning to kind of bounce both sides of the equation really. 

Quinn:So I wanna talk through just briefly and I feel like one can get nerdier than the other. You know, these other sort of tenants. Once, let's say you check the measurement box, everyone goes great, Sasankh solved it.

Congratulations. Great. We can measure all the time. And it's agreed upon. That inherently, if we can help find some way to subsidize some of these upfront costs, cuz they will be required and they'll be different everywhere, right? Of doing this type of farming, doing this type of agriculture. Inherently, if we can work on[00:35:00]the cost side, the upfront cost, that's gonna drive additionality as it is because you are improving the soil and checking yield boxes and, and, and cover cropping, and, you know, trying to reduce mono crops and things like that. You're also making it more fertile to carbon removal, so inherently, like you're just gonna unlock more additionality because the baseline is, is we're not doing much.

Right. Talk to me about the removal part. How have you gotten to, or how do you eventually get to the part where you say like, we're gonna measure it with our global satellites over this period of time to really say, it's maybe not permanent, but this is the timeframe you're sort of paying for so that we can finally build that marketplace.

What does removal, I guess, really look like and how do you get there? 

Sasankh Munukutla:In part of improving the soil health with these different practices, you start to sequester carbon. So actually the baseline isn't just things stay the same, but with the current practices we're doing, we're actually leaking out co2.

So it's actually doing nothing is contributing CO2 backup. So doing nothing is really bad in that sense. So not only are you[00:36:00]making it just equal, but you're actively drawing down carbon. And by monitoring kind of the soil health, we can see over time that you know, this increases. And for a lot of soils in the world, you can easily sequester even one to two tons of CO2 per year. And that already is a lot when you're looking at a per hectare basis. So as you monitor that over time, you're able to show a, that you know, the soil health is improving, there's carbon sequestered, but then now you're also, the farmer is gonna start to notice other benefits as well. For example, often with these practices the yield will improve. They might need to use less fertilizer, which we talked about earlier. So I think those are also aspects where the farmer starts to see how this impacts their daily life. And I think that also builds kind of the trust in the farmer that this is something that's actually improving my soil health because the carbon benefits again, might not be entirely visible to the farmer directly.

They might often, when working with farmers who might not always be as educated, it is possible that like the climate part doesn't even matter to them when they're really just thinking about yield. And that's why I think when you're really thinking about[00:37:00]agriculture, you have to focus on yield first. So that's how, I guess, that ties into building that trust and having the farmer continue to practice over time.

And the hope is, as the farmer carries on the practice, over time there will be carbon continually sequestered. There's a lot of scientific studies to show this. 20, 30 years minimum, where until the soil reaches its capacity and after that you still need to maintain these practices so you don't go back to the baseline of leaking carbon.

So that's where it is super important to have these practices start, but also continue.  

Quinn:I appreciated the way you mentioned that some farmers either might not be educated on this and I mean, why would they have time to, you know, farming is difficult enough in this changing world and the margins are negligible, if anything.

But it gets to a really interesting point, which is, you know, I had a fellow on the show , a couple months ago, John Semmelhack, and he's sort of among the vanguard of electrification, home electrification folks in the US, they do entire home audits, but also induction stoves and air leakage and insulation, EV chargers, whatever it might be.

Heat pumps. And their whole thing is they, they don't market it as like, you have to do this for climate[00:38:00]change, or you should do this for climate change. Their company's called the Comfort Squad cuz their whole point is your living room shouldn't be 20 degrees colder than the rest of the house. Like it, we can make it more comfortable and we can reduce your bills.

And it turns out that's actually the stuff that people generally care about the most. That's their baseline. And there's a segment of people and it's a growing segment of people who give a shit, who will do more, who will put panels at least on their roof to drive their additionality to do that marginal improvement.

And hopefully that catches on. But it's always important, again, coming back to the politics side and, and the sociological side to understand that we can drive. this work and this change and normalize it often better when we don't bring up climate change, right? Or when we just appeal to what are they dealing with right now, and how can payments from a future carbon market just be sort of icing on the cake because at the least they're getting better yields, right?

On that note, people come to us and say, what can I do? People go to everybody. What can I do? I like to frame it as what can we do. And one of the things I think about is it's easy, it's super practical to[00:39:00]understand and frame it as climate change is the air you breathe. It's the water you drink, it's the heat on your back.

If you're in a redlined neighborhood or you're in India or whatever it might be, it's the storms that are probably gonna threaten your home more often or the everyday sea level rise or the drought, right? You're much more likely to already connect with and probably do something about the effects you're feeling locally, and that's where you're gonna see the most rapid, frankly, and the most specific change. You have worked and lived just about everywhere. You have spent time, like you said, in the military, out in nature, which is something maybe you didn't do as much time before and now you're here and you're working on satellites up there to dig down into the ground. 

How do you understand the need to get other folks, and again, I understand that evangelizing people and organizing isn't your business, but how do you feel like we can help people start with the things they can feel and then transfer that to other places? How do you think we can help people be more effective on a global spectrum?

Sasankh Munukutla:It's actually, organizing is some of the things[00:40:00]I do with like things like CS+ social good and like trying to get students and these communities involved in working on important social impact problems. I always think like it's important to go local, national, global and be cognizant of that there's slight differences in each of those contacts, but that there's lessons from each that can apply.

Sometimes it is a lesson from your local community. Maybe your local community is doing something super well or not doing something so well, and taking a lesson from that and maybe trying to apply that national or globally. And sometimes it's a learning from another country or another environment or another context that you've seen something very unique happen and then driving that back to, you know, your own local community.

So I always try to think of those three kind of tenets and making sure you're being mindful and thoughtful. And I very much agree with what you outline, which is this idea of being a global citizen and for maybe me comes a little bit more naturally having lived in kind of different countries and kind of worked in different places.

But I also think for a lot of people today, there's that chance just with how interconnected we are and how I would say we have a lot of understanding of different parts of the world in a way, but that maybe we didn't before, that there's that opportunity to be a global citizen to[00:41:00]lead with both humility and empathy.

I think that is also super important. And I think another thing I think about is very much using your skills and whatever skills you think you have that you can leverage for different opportunities. In my case to happen to be a lot of technical skills, kind of setting that for my undergrad and trying to apply them to different social impact problems has been kind of my way of doing so.

But I always encourage folks to just think about volunteering is awesome, fantastic, much needed, but also think about what skills can I also develop? And how can I strategically use them to kind of solve different problems? And I always encourage people that don't think that, oh, I'm studying this. That would never apply to climate, that would never apply to things like food security, that would never apply things to poverty reduction.

I always think that all problems at their core interdisciplinary, and it's kind of up to you to take that extra onus and see how you can be helpful. At the same time, I also wanna say it's important to not have like a savior complex. Um, often the criticism. Especially in the tech spaces, there's this notion of having a tech savior complex, which is thinking you can parachute to into any situation and solution.

And with the idea that, you know, this[00:42:00]app can fix anything. And I think it's really important that you don't develop that either. That you're always very humble and you're always working with communities and seeing them as partners and that you are a part of the solution, but by no means are you the entire solution.

Quinn:Yeah, I think that's helpful. I mean, that's why I try to think about it as like, what can we do? I mean, your solar panels, your EV, your satellite is not gonna solve this thing. It requires all of us, but more importantly, it does require all of us in the sense that like someone like yourself or me who have had incredibly privileged life, but lived a bunch of places, like don't have nearly the lived experience to understand why certain people want to do the work they want to do that's gonna help and check one of those boxes or contribute to checking it or why they're not, you know, you look at all the folks who didn't leave when Hurricane Ian was coming, right? A bunch of warning and then it shifts and then they don't leave.

And that's either cuz they can't, cuz they can't afford to, they're tied into some mortgage or because they don't want to. Cuz that is their sense of place, right? How long have those folks been there? And it's important to them to quote unquote write it out. And I[00:43:00]think we really have to operate with empathy on those fronts, right. To understand why people want to do those things. So I guess when it really comes down to like besides your skills and your interest in the tech side and all the different ways you've worked on the different technical elements in your social organizing within all the programs and the CS program and all that, like what itch does this scratch to you?

Why do you have to do this work? 

Sasankh Munukutla:That's a great question. I think I've always started with what local actions can I take? Like starting very small and throughout my life, what I've seen is as I've started with these small actions, I've always gotten the itch that, okay, if I've like found something, or maybe I've been able to do something that improves my life or the people of the lives around me, is there a way I can scale that?

Is there a way I can share that? And if I can be helpful to other people, the idea of service runs very innate to me, just from all my experiences between doing social service very early on throughout schooling, serving in the military in Singapore, all the work I've been doing during college that just this idea of being in service to people I think is something that's very important to me and is kind of a core value.

And there's ways[00:44:00]I can use my skills and, you know, have an impact on the world. I think that is just exciting, very deeply fulfilling. I also feel like in one sense, part of me has a more responsibility and just that I feel like I've enjoyed so many things in my life, whether it's, you know, being able to enjoy nature and I would love for future generations to be able to do that and be able to pay all that forward. So I think there's a part of me that also feels a deep responsibility that with the skills and the experiences I've been, you know, very privileged and very grateful to receive that also comes the responsibility to try to use those experiences and skills to pay things forward.

Quinn:Well, I, I love that. Thank you for sharing that. Before we get to sort of the action steps thing, and we've kind of covered that, but I want to just make a succinct list. One last important question. I read somewhere, and I tend to go a little deep on these things, whether it's the technical side or the person, whoever it is, but there's a, I think a Facebook post from a 2014 Harvard model UN thing, and it described you as a Lakers fan. Could you explain to people how you could justify being a Lakers fan? Just before we get outta here. 

Sasankh Munukutla:I'm a huge[00:45:00]basketball fan that I appreciate you digging deep. I'm a massive basketball fan and grew up watching Kobe Bryant a lot, so it was always a big Kobe fan, and his result became a Lakers fan as well.

Sounds crazy because I grew up completely outside of the US. Grew up as far as from LA as you can imagine. But there was just something about Kobe that I think always excited me a lot watching him play, watching him also grow in terms of as a character and how he became more of a team player, how he got more of his teammates on board.

I thought that personal journey was very exciting to see too. And also lastly, just the idea of the Mamba mentality and applying that intense obsession and detail oriented nature to anything you do, I know as many people might not know, is beyond being a basketball player, Kobe involved to other disciplines as well.

Ended up winning an Oscar for kind of a short animated film he made. He started to become a venture capitalist as well and was, you know, made an early investment in body armor, for example. Just seeing that intense detail nature and being able to apply that to anything you do, I think has always been very inspirational.

So that's kind of how I became a big Kobe fan growing up, playing basketball, watching him play,[00:46:00]and then kind of transitioning into a Lakers fan. And I do like to think that despite being so far removed from Los Angeles at least growing up, that I did stick through all the tough times that the Lakers have had over the years.

So I do consider myself a bit of a, a day one fan rather than a convenient fan.

Quinn:I like that. My criticism, it wasn't criticism. Open questioning is less about sort of the geographical remove. I mean, I'm ancient and grew up in the Michael Jordan era where like Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, like two biggest people on the planet.

Like there's no doubt, the NBA and of course teams like Lakers, I mean not the Nicks, but the Bulls before the Lakers and then Lakers before them. Just had a, have a reach that's like nothing else. Right. It's, it's incredible. So it's more that, it's more just like, how could you possibly be a Lakers fan? I'm only half kidding.

I spent 15 years in Los Angeles and I went the other way against LA teams, I guess. But I get it. I get it. I mean, there's so many pros and cons to these incredible athletes and, but also people who, who do these things and are hyper focused and you can learn from them. And also you can learn[00:47:00]like when is it appropriate to turn off and when is it appropriate to think about the bigger picture and things like that.

Or how do you think about legacy and should you, and what does that mean there's a lot to learn. Again, having worked at ESPN, I saw sort of all sides of those things, which is exciting. I remember the moment I met Serena Williams and I was just like, that's a superhero. We're not even the same. She's incredible and has only, and that was Christ that was 15 years ago and now, you know, is one of the greatest of all time.

I think it's important to have folks like that who you can actually watch, do the work day in and day out, right, and really learn from. So thank you for sharing that with me. I hope that wasn't too provocative. So let's, let's sum up these action steps before I give you the last little question. Then I'm gonna get you outta here to get back to your satellites.

Really get specific. What are specific ways that folks can either get involved to support your mission or just in general, I guess apply themselves and the different ways we've talked about through education or social good, or how they spend their time from your perspective.

Sasankh Munukutla:I can think of various space first and climate itself being more generally.

I think just reading a book[00:48:00]on climate, just getting like a primer. Super helpful. Two books I remember. I'll bring them up because they're on my bookshelf. I always keep them here. One is How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates and the other is Speed and Scale by John Du and Ryan Puncheon. Both are, I think, great books on overviews of climate.

By no means are they the expert book and they cover everything in in super detail. But I think if you're just starting out and you wanna understand, you know, what are all those different ways that you know are impacted by climate change, what are the different levers we have to kind of work towards climate?

I think both books are great overviews and I highly recommend them. Definitely when I was trying to get dive deeper into the space and develop a basic understanding of what is the, the overall goal, how do we get to net zero, both are great books. So I think those two books I would highly recommend to anyone just starting to learn more in the space.

Extending beyond climate. I think being very thoughtful on how you can use your skills and I'll focus a bit on tech students as well because I think that's like the area where, kind of my background, which is really think about social impact critically and often people think it's a trade-off of[00:49:00]Okay. If I wanna have more social impact, I'm not gonna work on something maybe that technically rigorous.

If I want to have work on something very technically rigorous, it means maybe I have to give up social impact and I often question that trade off. Try to think of ways where maybe, first of all, a, find the balance for yourself between both of those kind of spectrums. Like some people do, like more social impact you work, and maybe not as much technical rigor.

Some people do love more technical rigor and maybe not as much social impact. So a try to find that balance for you and the way you're gonna do that is trying a lot of different experiences that index on both. But then b, I would question this assumption that like both have to be a trade off. I think there are ways you can work on technically very interesting, unsolved problems and also work on something that's super impactful.

I think climate, for example, a lot of problems in climate change I think fit that category. So I'd encourage people A, to really think about that. And I think skills based volunteering is awesome. CS+ Social good is an organization we have here at Stanford through a variety of initiatives, classes, fellowships, finds different ways for students to work on social impact problems using their technical skills.

But it's actually part of this wider organization called Tech Shift.[00:50:00]Uh, which I've also served on the board of and Tech Shift is an international alliance of these type of organizations at the college level. So definitely reach out to Tech Shift. You, you might have a CS+ social good chapter or an equivalent organization at your university, but you can also start one as well.

And nice thing about starting one is then you can create the resources and create the movement, and that way you can have a lot of your peers together work in the social impact space. And climate, of course, is one of the strong ways you can work in the social impact space. So I'd say that's another strong concrete way.

I think the third way being very deliberate also with your education experience. So if you're technical, try to take courses across the whole board. If you're not so technical, try to push yourself to take technical courses so you really have an interdisciplinary understanding of these problems and you're really thinking with systems thinking.

So I'd say that's kind of a third concrete piece of advice I'd give to folks. 

Quinn:I love it. 

Super helpful. You won. It's, it's over, or we fixed everything.That's great. Okay, last couple questions before we get everybody outta here, and thank you for your time. I really appreciate this. It's really exciting and inspiring to hear from folks who[00:51:00]just like want to go do their job and unlock things along the way.

It's contagious. You alluded to this a little bit, but I wonder if you have a specific answer. When was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to really do something meaningful. And again, it could have been high school before high school, could have been two weeks ago the first time when you were like, oh, I moved the needle on something.

However, small that might have been. 

Sasankh Munukutla:it's a super similar example, but I would say towards the elementary school, like it was a very small thing, but I represented my class kind of for the elementary version of student council. It was very basic, but I was just like representing my class of like 20, 30 students and you know, advocating on their behalf on things like, you know, we should have longer recess times, or we should have longer lunch breaks so we can, you know, have the time to play more.

Things like that. It was super simple, but then itself, I realized I kind of have this ability, if I put myself to it, Change things and try to improve things. And I wanna see where I can go with, and that was such a super small example. But I think for me that's like the first real time around. Like there are things I can change in the world and let me[00:52:00]continue to try to do that and you know, see at what point I hit a stopping block and do hit many stop blocks around the way.

But you learn to work through them. You learn to be creative. And I think right from there, like I've noticed in really any environment, and this is always something I try to think of, is like you can be an agent of change really anywhere, and you should try to push yourself to be an agent of change, whether, you know, and it's in your student council in elementary school, whether it's even in an environment like in the military that can be super rigid sometimes you can still be an agent of change, really anywhere you go in.

I think having that kind of mentality and mindset on, you know, how can I make things better for myself, but everyone around me. I think it's just a great way to, to kind of go about thinking about things. 

Quinn:So I love that for a few reasons and I'm gonna have you add to it for a second. My son just ran for and elected vice president of his little student council association in elementary school.

Sasankh Munukutla:Congratulations. 

Quinn:It's very exciting. But you know, I know school's all over doing that type of thing, you know, right near and setting everybody up and, and it's the same thing. People going, snack machines, more recess. Right? We want more music, things like that. We're gonna have parties. What[00:53:00]advice would you have for those kids?

Nine year olds, 10 year olds, what is something they can really focus on so that they can actually, whether they make a difference and, and achieve those things is, is up to a thousand other obstacles, including like school funding, but so that they can possibly have that moment of, oh shit, I did something.

Like, what would you say is maybe the best way for them to respond to that?

Sasankh Munukutla:One is I think the source of change often comes from questions and I think one I would always tell to my younger self, and really anyone is, don't be afraid to ask questions, but also at the same time develop the habit of getting better at asking questions.

Cuz I think that itself becomes a skill on its own. So I would say above all else, the goal of education should be to train us to ask better questions. As much as there's a, you know, the saying of like, no question is too stupid. Absolutely agree with that and I think you should always ask any question at the same time, you should also work on the skill of asking better questions over time. And that's gonna start right from a young age. And I'd also say like the naivety to ask questions and the kind of the[00:54:00]humbleness and innocence to ask questions that you have as a kid is something that is very dear and precious.

And as far as possible, try to hold onto that and stay true to that as long as you can, because that's gonna continue to push you to ask questions. And when you ask these questions, that's when you're gonna try to find ways to make change. 

Quinn:I love that. Thank you for sharing that, and he will be very excited and we will push it out to a bunch of kids.

As you know, now you're out there working on satellites and soil, so it's an easy step from one to the next. Who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months? 

Sasankh Munukutla:Yeah. One is obviously my friend who I work. Very closely with this, whose name is James Knoff. I think his story is super inspiring and also how he got to working on climate and all of that I think has a very inspirational story and working, setting up a farming non-profit, for example in the Pasacal Farm Length that moves surplus food from farms to food banks.

So just hearing his story and getting to work with him has been super sweet. I've learned a lot from him and we really enjoy working together. So that's someone who's been super inspirational. I would also say there's a lot of mentors and advisors and I would feel[00:55:00]bad to say any one of their names without like listing all their names.

But I'd wanna do a general shoutout to kind of all the mentors and advisors who've supported us on this journey. And collaborators, there's so many of them that like naming one of them would be not right on my part, but I would definitely say all of them too. And I do think more broadly, Thinking bigger picture, like Stanford recently has had like a new climate school come together and I think that has also been really exciting.

And I think serving as an inspiration and trying to bring a lot of forces that already exist on our campus together. And while that's very contextual to our campus, I think that's also been. Made me deeply think about more broadly beyond, of course, the campus ecosystem at Stanford and more broadly in the world on how can we bring different institutions, how can we bring different departments, maybe folks who ordinarily wouldn't talk together?

How do we get them to talk together and sit at the same table? That I think has also been kind of as an institution, not necessarily as a person, a source of inspiration on how to think about structures more broadly. 

Quinn:Sure. I love that. Okay, last one, and you mentioned two, but maybe these will be a slightly different perspective.

What is a book you've read in[00:56:00]the past year that has either changed your mind on something or just inspired a new way of thinking. And we'll throw the other two on. We've got a whole list on bookshop and share 'em with everybody. 

Sasankh Munukutla:So there's this book called Mountains Beyond Mountains. One of my very closest friends actually gave it to me as a Christmas gift and the thing I love about the book and does not directly have much to do with climate is it's really about Paul Farmer, who is this physician, but also studies anthropology at the same time. And to me it was a really powerful way of thinking about the world where, you know, he worked a lot with in Haiti and he really thought about not just treating the disease, but also treating the patient and really thinking about all the socio and economic factors that can affect public health.

And I just thought his story and the way he worked was deeply inspirational. But it has also pushed me to be more interdisciplinary, to think about problems, whether it's climate, whether it's healthcare, with, uh, systems level thinking. So that's been a book I've, I've read a bit, I've read over the past year and it's been very inspirational, has made me really think about, you know, what are the ways we can, as individuals have impact and how pushing ourselves to be[00:57:00]multidisciplinary, I think often the problem with education, even careers, is that we're forced to specialize and I think freely we should specialize, but we should also specialize across fields. And I think this book has really showed me again to how to stay true to that mission. One very inspirational story on someone who's done incredible work.

Quinn:Yeah, Paul Farmer was incredible. I feel like that's one of those folks I came to a little later and have just learned a tremendous amount from, but also from so many of his sort of accolades along the way who are like, this is how I learned from this and this is why I do this work and how I want to help people along the way.

Pretty incredible. Sasankh, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for your time. Time. You'll never get back. So on your deathbed when you're like, where did that hour go? This is where it went. Where can our listeners follow you or your work online? Should you so choose? What do we got? 

Sasankh Munukutla:I don't really use Twitter much, but I think Twitter's a way to kind of follow me more publicly.

We don't have a website or anything yet about our stuff. When we do, we'll share that along with you to add. We're just kind of like being very focused right now. Yeah. 

Quinn:No, that's great. And Twitter might[00:58:00]not exist by the time we publish this, so. Who knows, who knows? You might have escaped. Sasankh, thank you so much, uh, for your time.

I really, uh, appreciated this. Uh, thank you for sharing all that with me. And it's really, really inspiring and exciting what you're working on because it's absolutely something that's requisite for us to figure it out, but also will help so many people in the systems, both the technical ones and the societal ones.

So it's really exciting and, excited to follow up on it.

Sasankh Munukutla:Yep. Thanks so much for having me, Quinn. This is so much fun. 

Quinn:Yeah, absolutely. 

That's it. Important, not Important is hosted by me, Quinn Emmett. It is produced by the wonderful Willow Beck. It is edited by Anthony Luciani, and the music is by Tim Blaine. You can read our critically claimed newsletter and get notified about new podcast convos You can also find t-shirts, hoodies, coffee mugs, and stuff like that at our store, at the website.

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