State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Student Profile: Nathan Chan

After graduating from college with a dual degree in earth and environmental engineering and English literature from the California Institute of Technology, Nathan Chan searched for a program where he could effectively apply his technical skills while gaining knowledge and experience about management and policy. He found he was looking for in Columbia’s Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy (M.P.A.-E.S.P.).

The M.P.A.-E.S.P., housed in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia, is a unique 12-month program that combines environmental science with policy analysis and management principles, preparing students to be problem-solving professionals in government, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. Now, more than ever, the world needs responsible leaders to address environmental problems such as the increased levels of greenhouse gases warming the planet, the rapid extinction of species, and the holes in the ozone layer.  The environmental science and policy program incorporates more science into its curriculum than any other M.P.A. program currently offered at SIPA, with the goal of educating students about the unintended consequences of human activity so that they may responsibly manage human interaction with natural systems and develop integrated solutions to our increasingly complex environmental problems. “This is an intensive program,” says Steve Cohen, director of the program, “but designed to equip students with the policy, management and scientific skills needed to become effective environmental managers.”

The M.P.A.-E.S.P. program also emphasizes the development of practical skills necessary to understand the formulation and management of public policy. The students apply their theoretical knowledge and functional skills each semester in the Workshops in Applied Earth Systems Policy Analysis and Management, in which they undertake analytic projects for real-world clients and have the opportunity to develop professional and vocational skills. “My desire to be an influential leader inspired me to join this program, where I hope to learn the skills necessary for addressing serious environmental problems,” explains Nathan.

Nathan’s workshop focus is the Global Warming Wildlife Survival Act, a bill that was introduced in both the House and the Senate in 2008.  “The Act interests me because it seeks to tackle such an expansive problem—managing imperiled species under uncertain future conditions,” says Nathan. The chief advantage of the workshop experience is the practical training gained by working on real problems where student analyses and reports may have an impact on actual public sector operations. “The Act requires extensive understanding of scientific issues, political contexts and social perceptions, which makes it delightfully challenging to analyze.”

Students are drawn from a range of backgrounds in science and policy, and bring their diverse experiences to the table to develop holistic solutions to environmental problems.  “I think that the amount of student interaction and the immense wealth of information we offer to one another is one of the greatest strengths of this program.” In the workshops, and in every core course, students learn to work in groups in order to tackle problems, write papers and make presentations. “I have been most surprised by the immense diversity of my classmates in terms of experiences and interests,” says Nathan. “We all have very unique backgrounds, but we have been brought together because we share a common goal.”

Nathan has his own unique story, bringing motivation and a rich background of experiences to his work with his peers. A native of Pasadena, California, Nathan was the president of the Caltech chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World and oversaw education and outreach projects. He also served as an undergraduate representative on the Caltech Sustainability Council, where he met with leaders from human resources, procurement, housing, food services and other campus departments to find ways to make the university more sustainable. During his four years as an undergraduate, he also completed four independent environmental research projects. Two of those projects were carried out in Tuebingen, Germany, and Kanpur, India, where Nathan studied microbial contaminant transport and aerosol deposition, respectively.

M.P.A.-E.S.P. graduates are creating a new profession of earth systems problem-solvers: individuals who are prepared for leadership positions in local, state and federal government agencies, as well as in nonprofit organizations and the environmental divisions of private corporations. They are also well-suited for designing cost-effective programs and implementing policies. Most importantly, a deep understanding of earth systems informs their work, allowing them to craft the kinds of solutions necessary for our increasingly complex environmental problems.


The M.P.A. in Environmental Science and Policy is offered through Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Prospective students interested in learning about the program are encouraged to visit

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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