State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

“Wash your hands!” and Other Advice for Undergraduate Students from Columbia Graduate Students

By: Deborah Sachare

“Acquire skills—not just knowledge, talk to everybody about your interests, and learn to drive a manual car,” were some pieces of advice given by PhD students to undergraduates at a recent brown bag luncheon presented by Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development.

S. Xiah Kragie shared very practical advice with the students from her travels. She learned that driving a manual car is an important skill for field research: “You don’t want to be caught on a mountainside in Peru not knowing how to shift.”  Xiah is a first year PhD candidate in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Her research focuses on working with communities to prevent exposure to soil lead contamination from mining activities in Peru. Before coming to Columbia she spent two years in the Peace Corps in Honduras as a rural water engineer. She has also worked at the Center for Disease Control on global drinking water, studied arsenic contamination in Bangladesh, and researched air pollution from coal combustion in Beijing.  Xiah stressed to students the importance of acquiring skills during your undergraduate years, as knowledge can only get you so far.

Amelia Paukert, a fourth year PhD candidate in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, talked about her research on carbon capture and storage that recently took her to the Sultanate of Oman. While there, she studied a system of naturally occurring carbon capture and storage.  Prior to starting her PhD, Amelia spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow in Almaty, Kazakhstan working on the implementation of international water rights treaties. Amelia became interested in her program because it allowed her to bridge her two passions, Geology and International Relations. Undergraduate students were interested in hearing about the intersection of science and policy in Amelia’s work.

International Relations is a major part of work for David Ganske, who is a first-year Master of International Affairs student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) concentrating in International Energy Management and Policy. Prior to arriving at SIPA, he served as a Small Enterprise Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, where he primarily assisted microfinance banks in financial management and outreach to the community. When David returned to the United States, he joined Astrum Solar to manage operations for residential and commercial solar power projects. Following SIPA, he hopes to merge his interests in renewable energy and international development to provide electricity to those in need.

By speaking with graduate students from across the university, undergraduates begin to think about the graduate opportunities available to them early on and can be more strategic about the courses, internships and field experience they pursue. Some additional advice from Xiah? “Go to graduate school only when you have a specific reason to go, avoid debt if at all possible… and wash your hands!!” The room filled with laughter as the Masters in Public Health holder didn’t miss a beat in promoting clean hands.

This “Brown Bag” event was the last of five scheduled for the 2012 spring semester. New Brown Bag events will be held again next academic year and be tailored for undergraduate students interested in Sustainable Development.  While they are hosted by the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, all undergraduate and graduate students in the Columbia and Barnard communities are invited to attend.

Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems, offered through the Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the Sustainable Development Major and Concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health.

To learn more about the Major and Special Concentration in Sustainable Development, please visit our website or contact Jessica Crespo, Program Coordinator, at

Deborah Sachare is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute. She is a student at Barnard College and will graduate in 2014 with a degree in Environmental Policy.

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