emLab spotlight: Christopher Costello

headshot of chris costello with a fish background

Describe your role at emLab.

I am the Researcher Director of emLab and also the Co-Director of the Ocean & Fisheries program.

Where did you grow up? How do you think this area had an impact on the work you do now?

I grew up in Davis, California, which is up in Northern California. It's a small town, kind of in the Central Valley. I spent most of my childhood outdoors traveling around and camping with my family, and that put me in touch with nature. I was also really interested in school and math and modeling and things like that when I was a kid. So eventually I put those two things together and that's more or less what I do now. 

What is your personal story behind why you do what you do?

For me it was never a plan, it was more like I do what I find exciting and interesting. It is definitely a privilege that I can do that. I have a passion for ideas and clever insights. I think that is what really drives me and there’s a realization that solving environmental problems means changing human behaviors, and emLab is really about how to design clever solutions to change human behaviors. It was a combination of those passions and realizations that motivated me to think about how we approach problem solving.    

What advice do you wish you received early in your career?

The first is that finding a problem is not the same as finding a solution. A lot of people think they’re the same thing, but I don’t agree with that. Solutions have to be deliberately examined and not just semi-implied by a problem. Finding problems is important, but if you think because you found a problem you can solve a problem, that is where the mistake lies. The other one is that I think you should always spend more time on thinking about what to do than actually doing it. The easy part is doing it, the hard part is figuring out exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. 

What keeps you curious about your work at emLab?

Definitely the idea of new insights inspiring new ways of thinking. For me it’s not about solving the world’s problem, but the new insights that inspire my work.  

What research topic are you most excited to tackle next?

One that I am very excited about right now is with Professor Kelsey Jack, who runs the People & Poverty program at emLab, where we’re working on a project on supernatural beliefs and the Tragedy of the Commons. It’s about how religion and other kinds of supernatural beliefs can sustain cooperation in a common pool resource setting. It’s new, different, fresh, and fun.  

What do you think makes emLab unique?

I think the main attribute that makes emLab unique is novel and interesting academic insights that are actually put into action to solve problems. I think there is a lot of the first and not very much of the second, and it’s rare for a lab to have both aspects. 

What aspect of your work are you most proud of?

The work that I am most proud of, as emLab’s Research Director, is the community. It is amazing that we are able to build a community of people that are very different, at very different levels with very different objectives in life. It’s like emLab is one working organism. 

What is your vision for emLab over the next 5 years?

There’s two: an internal vision and an external vision. The internal one is to continue to broaden and strengthen our community. It’s one of the things I am most proud of but I want to continue to diversify our community and bring in new ways of thinking. The external one is to make measurable progress on big global problems within all emLab programs. 

What kind of impact do you hope your work at emLab has on the world?

That’s a hard one. I think, at the end of the day, my answer is building and demonstrating a new model for how to tackle problems. So, it’s not so much about one solution or one paper, it's more about creating a new community and generating ideas and solutions to those ideas that are new and productive.  


Give me a one-word description of how you work.

Deliberately. It’s really hard for me to do what I’m supposed to do if I’m not deliberate and efficient. 

What is one song to describe this season of your life?

I guess I'm attracted to folk music. I like the stories, and I think there's always something you can read into it. It's sort of simple and calming. 

What are 5 things you couldn’t live without?

I can’t live without wide open spaces, like open landscapes with room to be free. Intellectual freedom is really important to me – basically the ability to think big ideas without feeling constrained. And there are lots of things that have to be true for you to have that feeling, which I do feel at emLab. Clever collaborators, colleagues, students, and co-workers at the lab. I really love handmade things, like handmade tools, for example. And obviously, my family is really important to me.

What is one of the most inspiring places you have been and why?

I'm going to give an unconventional answer and say my grandma's house. I also traveled a lot when I was young, so there are a lot of lessons that I learned there about life, how people behave, and how communities exist.

If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?

Hard question. I think I could find something to love about being just about any animal, but maybe a Hawk or a whale since they get to roam around. They get to observe lots of vantage points and there are lots of opportunities for creative problem solving.

What could you present about for 40-minutes with absolutely no preparation?

I really love teaching. It's a big part of what we do here. One of the things I love about teaching and also about research is that if you're thoughtful and kind of abstract enough about it, you could do a lecture on a cardboard box and make it interesting. At least in theory, you can turn anything, no matter how mundane, into something interesting. And I think that's a metaphor for what we do at emLab – there's no problem or challenge too simple or mundane that I think in every case, we can turn it into something interesting and important.

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