Maggie Woodruff

Maggie Woodruff possesses a kaleidoscopic curiosity that’s propelled her interests in everything from swimming to social justice. Whatever the pursuit, she’s done so with passion and purpose. In May, the UCI anthropology Ph.D. student completed her J.D. at the UCI School of Law. In July, she passed the California Bar Exam, enabling her to practice law in the state. And when she completes her doctorate in 2024, she’s planning to use her dual graduate degrees to tackle complex social issues.


Woodruff’s undergraduate years spanned a volatile time in America’s history as the Black Lives Matter movement gained significant momentum, and the tumultuous 2016 Presidential election occurred. The events fueled in Woodruff a desire for justice which took root through her major in anthropology and minor in criminology at Rutgers University. An undergrad course with a professor who would become a trusted mentor bridged humanities and sciences and cemented Woodruff’s decision to pursue graduate studies through dual degrees. 

“When I was looking for an institution that would support combined graduate degrees, Irvine stood out for its interdisciplinary studies program,” she says. “Here, joint degree programs aren’t just tolerated, they’re encouraged and embraced by faculty across disciplines.”  

She applied and was accepted to UCI’s Program in Law & Graduate Studies which allowed her to pursue a J.D. from the law school concurrently with a Ph.D. in anthropology from social sciences. 

Her research focuses on how people share space, specifically under the inciting factors of threatened habitability, like global climate change, and unknown habitability like outer space. 

“I intend to study the governance of public space through the lens of legal advocacy for unhoused people in California,” she says. “I want to understand public space as: a legal construction that lawyers help clients navigate, a material reality that is transformed through processes of ecological dispossession, and an aesthetic and affective ideal of "order" that is systemically enforced. In other words I'm asking - how can we be kinder neighbors to each other?” 

“I’m curious about how different groups of people - citizens, non-citizens, lawyers, activists, state actors, corporations - negotiate competing histories and relationships with their environments,” she says. “I imagine using each degree to inform the other in theory and practice. Through engaged research with an eye towards practical policy, I hope to bring grounded interdisciplinary solutions to modern issues.”

To start, she spent her first year on campus in the anthropology department. Taking courses and getting to know the faculty helped her establish an early system of collegial support on which she’s leaned throughout her time on campus. 

“People who identify and are identified as 'other,' whether by their ethnicity, sexuality, ability, or something else, can feel compounded isolation in intense, rigorous academic environments,” she says. Woodruff, who identifies as queer, credits faculty and fellow students with helping her find a sense of belonging by being authentically themselves, which encouraged her to do the same. 

During her time in law school, Woodruff similarly established camaraderie with fellow students and faculty, including Swethaa Ballakrishnen, assistant professor of law. “Professor Ballakrishnen helped me hone my areas of interest and encouraged me in finding my academic path and personal voice,” Woodruff says. 

“Maggie is one of the most thoughtful and committed students I’ve had the chance to work with,” says Ballakrishnen. “Much like their subject of inquiry, the affective space that Maggie navigates is telling in itself of their promise as a multifaceted scholar/thinker/doer.”

Perhaps more important than academic success, Ballakrishnen points to Woodruff’s zeal for justice as to what sets her apart: “They feel most keenly the ways in which this world is flawed, and commit most staunchly to finding ways to substantively change it without relying on existing scripts. This ability to stay intellectually expansive and curious while simultaneously grounded in practical analysis and possibility speaks to immense promise: I can’t wait to witness and celebrate all the ways in which Maggie is going to change the world!”

Kim Fortun, professor of anthropology and another mentor of Woodruff’s, agrees. 

“Maggie is exceptionally adept at thinking about problems through different frameworks, and in moving between theory and practice. She also has a deep commitment to justice and inclusive prosperity,” says Fortun. “She'll do really important work with her combined expertise and degrees." 

In that vein, Woodruff envisions herself being a clinical professor at a law school, where she could both practice and teach. Wherever she lands, advocacy will need to be a part of the landscape: “I like advocating. That’s a huge reason why I went to law school… I think there are many ways to be an advocate - you can be an advocate as a teacher, as a lawyer, or as a researcher.”

With two major accomplishments checked off in that direction, Woodruff’s excitement to be a changemaker is palpable. 

“I still feel like that 18-year-old who heard anthropology could be anything and was like ‘that sounds great - I don’t have to choose - I don’t want to choose!’ Anthropology and law allows me to approach complex problems and try to make an argument from it and move something in some direction - not just discuss the problem, but maybe try to approach it and alleviate it in some way. That’s what the dual degree is for me: many tools in my toolbelt.”

-Kara Roberts for UCI Social Sciences

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