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Will Claudia Sheinbaum’s time in Bay Area show how she governs in Mexico?

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As Mexico’s President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum prepares to step into her new role facing a host of political challenges, former colleagues from her time in the Bay Area say they expect her to approach these issues much as she did her scientific research — with a fact-driven approach shaped by her formative career as an environmental scientist.

While Sheinbaum is being celebrated worldwide as both Mexico’s first woman and first Jewish president, many have raised concerns about how she will establish herself as a leader after a win largely fueled by her promise to uphold the platform of her predecessor and mentor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Sheinbaum will inherit the hefty debt of Mexico’s state-owned oil company while also seeking paths to implement renewable energy projects in an oil country. She also will step into her role amid historic numbers of migrants and rampant cartel violence.

But 30 years before her election as Mexico’s first woman president June 2 — before she was even a politician — Sheinbaum spent four years working in the Bay Area. Between 1991 and 1994, she conducted research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on energy use in Mexico while pursuing her Ph.D. in energy engineering from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, said Matt Nerzig, manager of outreach communications at Lawrence Berkeley.

During her time in Berkeley, Sheinbaum engaged in scientific and policy discussions with fellow researchers, and took courses through UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies. Those who knew her during and after her time in the Bay Area describe her as intensely scientifically curious and driven to find the “why” of any problem.

Sheinbaum is “a very motivated person who wants to understand what is going on and why,”  said Ashok Gadgil, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley who worked alongside her at Lawrence Berkeley. They shared overlapping research interests of energy use in developing countries, Gadgil said.

Gadgil and Sheinbaum were frequently in the same meetings and conversations because of their shared energy interests — often asking the same questions of each other, he said. They would speak about energy efficiency, how energy affects emissions and what was happening with energy use in the developing world.

“She was a pleasant personality — but intense, not flippant,” Gadgil added. Sheinbaum was “really curious, wanting to know what is underlying, what is really happening, why is this data showing this.”

Gadgil described Sheinbaum as having an intensity of personality and strong scientific curiosity, with a drive to understand the data behind a given issue. This focus extended into creating “serious fact and evidence-based policies,” he said, then asking how these policies influenced the trends in the data.

“That’s a good question to have as a head of state,” Gadgil added.

As she enters a challenging political role, Gadgil predicted that she will not become inflexible or tied to a dogmatic viewpoint as president, but rather base her approach on facts. The “shining” quality of her leadership is her commitment to the scientific method, he added.

Ruling party presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum leaves the polling station where she voted during general elections in Mexico City, Sunday, June 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
Ruling party presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum leaves the polling station where she voted during general elections in Mexico City, Sunday, June 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) 

“She’s not driven by ideology, but by evidence,” Gadgil said. “She will be very skillful in balancing the needs of economic development, the needs of climate science and environment.”

Sheinbaum is a “disciplined” person, said Harley Shaiken, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and former chair of the Center for Latin American Studies. “She is smart, decisive and her values, I think, resonate with improving the lives of ordinary Mexicans.”



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