MPA in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) professor Benjamín Bostick began his Columbia career as a researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, specializing in geochemistry. His research centers on the coupled biogeochemical cycling of carbon, iron, and sulfur. He now teaches the Environmental Chemistry course in the ESP program, where he examines the delicate balance of different ecosystems, and how to preserve that balance through different sustainability measures.
1. Why did you choose to teach at Columbia in the ESP program?
I joined Columbia in part because if its interest in international environmental issues, including those of the Earth Institute and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). I am excited to be a part of the Environmental Science and Policy program at SIPA where we can teach students fundamental scientific principles, and how we have applied them to some of the pressing policy issues of our time. In the end, I hope to provide our students with the tools and insight needed to be successful stewards of our society and environment.
2. What is new in your area of geochemistry?
There is an increasing recognition that our ever-changing environment is a complex system, with its many parts interacting in unforeseen ways. In chemistry, this complexity includes myriad elements and chemical components, but this complexity is just the beginning. Chemical processes are inexorably tied to physical and biological processes that compete with, or complement, them. To properly characterize the chemical evolution of our environment is challenging; we need to directly observe environmental processes within this complex system, and yet we need to understand the mechanistic and molecular basis for those processes.
3. What is your favorite part of your job as a professor?
I love working with students. Students come in with optimism that is sorely needed if we are to address the complex problems that we face as a society. As a professor, it is my job to provide the perspective that these students need to use this optimism to impart change. I like most to see them succeed.
4. What do you believe is the greatest benefit that the ESP program has to offer its students?
It is an incredible challenge to train students to be experts at all of the facets of environmental science and policy. The MPA-ESP program provides a foundation for a successful career as a proponent of both people and our environment. To do so, students need a multidisciplinary education based in fundamental sciences that extends to the human factors that affect how we act. ESP students receive a training that spans these disparate subjects, and teaches them the collaborative nature of problem solving needed to address environmental management.
5. What advice would you give to your ESP students for when they eventually go on to work in the field as public managers and policymakers?
I would encourage students to define the problem, the fundamental processes that are relevant to it, and the boundaries of the problem (the population that will be considered, the timeframe for a management decision and duration of the expected remedy). The human factors that are most significant limitations or considerations to reach an effective solution can only be addressed once we understand this foundation. Last, remember that humans are a part of the environment, and the ecosystem. We should not divide discussions into an “us” and a “them” or “the environment” in the solution.
6. What kind of research are you doing now related to environmental geochemistry?
The earth surface is shaped by a complex network of physical, chemical and biological processes. These processes affect the most fundamental properties of the earth surface, including the composition and structure of the land, water and the atmosphere in which we live. My research seeks to identify and characterize the key chemical processes within this complexity, and to examine how these key processes influence our environment. To reach these goals, I currently am focusing on expanding our understanding of the coupled biogeochemical cycling of carbon, iron, and sulfur. These ubiquitous elements are central to life, and exert strong control on the partitioning and cycling of both major and trace elements in the environment.
My research examines the chemical and biological processes that affect environmental quality at the molecular level with a focus on the effect of mineralogy and solid-phase speciation on solid-solution partitioning. In practice, molecular studies frequently involve the study of model systems that contain one or a few ions, minerals, and well characterized microbes in controlled laboratory conditions. Such studies offer unparalleled mechanistic descriptions of environmental chemical processes (encompassing thermodynamics and kinetics), but environmental research often needs the context of more complex natural systems and larger scales. To address this need, we also perform molecular-scale studies of soils, sediments across a variety of environmental gradients, and integrate traditional geochemical investigations of aqueous systems with the molecular studies of the solid-phase needed to conclusively identify and characterize solid-solution partitioning.
Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Earth Institute. Throughout this one-year program, students are immersed in courses that combine Columbia University’s hands-on approach to teaching public policy and administration with pioneering thinking about the environment. During the summer semester, students learn the fundamentals of environmental science, while in the fall and spring semesters, they focus on the policy and economics necessary to becoming successful environmental analysts and managers. Visit our website to learn more about the program.