State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

, , , ,

MPA Alum Focuses on Marine Conservation

olivia kemp
Olivia Kemp poses with a group of female fishers in Madagascar.

Olivia Kemp, a 2013 alumna of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, is using the skills she developed in the program, along with her professional experience in international relief work, to develop her career focusing on conservation, food security and sustainable development. As the sustainable fisheries program manager for Blue Ventures, Kemp is working with local communities in Madagascar to create a focus on community-led marine conservation.

1. What is your current job?
I work in Madagascar with a non-profit called Blue Ventures. I am the sustainable fisheries program manager, and I work with local communities here to support conservation and sustainable fisheries efforts. The villages I work in are among the poorest and most isolated in the country, if not the world. I spend a lot of time with octopus on the brain – as that is the main fishery in this region, (and because they are fascinating creatures!). Most of my colleagues are young conservationists with environmental science backgrounds and a love for scuba diving. Our main goal here is community-led marine conservation, but the organization strives for an integrated approach, and other initiatives include mangrove restoration (blue carbon), family planning/health, women’s empowerment and community aquaculture, to name a few. I regularly write for our organization’s blog.

2. How did you find your current position? What resources/methods have you found the most useful throughout your career?
I discovered the organization’s work on a poster at a conference in New York and then reached out through some contacts I knew. Throughout my career, professional and personal connections have proven the most successful method of moving into new positions, particularly in international work. Having some prior international work experience always helps, though, including volunteer work. I have worked in international development for seven years now, but my first two years were mostly volunteer based. While these experiences on my CV have helped me, I find I still need to reach out to someone I know to really guarantee an interview. It also helps to head into the deep-field early on in your career. Leave the head office jobs for later in your career, when work-life balance becomes more of a priority anyway.

For jobs in international development, a few websites are handy, such as ReliefWeb and DevEx, and of course these days everyone advertises through social media. Being in the right place at the right time also helps, even if that means you intern/volunteer for a several months in the geographic region where you want to work and network once you get there. I think it also helps to be very flexible and be willing to pick up and move your whole life to the other side of the world within a matter of weeks (something I have done multiple times!).

3. How did your professional goals develop during and after the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program?
My current job sits at the intersection of conservation, food security and sustainable development. These were definitely my professional goals while at SIPA, and I am grateful they all came into alignment, in such a beautiful coastal setting no less!

I came to SIPA and the MPA-ESP program with a desire to shift my career track in a different direction. I knew I wanted to eventually return to work in the developing world, where I had built my career, but I also knew that I wanted to work on more sustainable, long-term solutions to poverty alleviation. Humanitarian work focuses mostly on the short-term fix, and rarely integrates environmental issues into strategic planning. This began to frustrate me, particularly working in places such as Darfur with multiple, unaddressed environmental challenges that contribute to conflict and food insecurity. I chose the ESP program as it offered a balance between environmental science and sustainable development. The program certainly helped reaffirm my goals to be part of creating sustainable solutions to poverty, rather than temporary ones. Upon graduating, I focused my job search on environmental organizations in the developing world.

4. What skills and experiences from the MPA-ESP program have you found to be most useful in your professional career so far?

As someone coming to the program mid-career, I was looking for exposure to international policy experts and cutting edge science. The program offered access to the scientific minds of The Earth Institute and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, exposing me to research that I still draw on today in my current role, particularly in relation to emerging climate change science. The access to public lectures and lunch-time talks by visiting scholars and writers was also something I seized upon, having been out of the academic world for a decade, and this was a valuable part of my SIPA experience.

During my time in the MPA-ESP program, a couple of courses particularly influenced me and steered me in the direction of my current work. One of those was the Marine Conservation Ecology class in the Department of Ecology, Evolution & Environmental Biology (E3B), taught by Joshua Drew and Elisa Bone. And the other was International Political Economy of Biodiversity, under the expert guidance of Laurence Tubiana. Both of these courses, and many others, delivered me key skills in critical thinking on the challenges of biodiversity conservation planning in complex settings. And of course, surveying reef fish in a pristine marine protected area of Belize with my marine ecology class is an experience I will never forget — graduate school doesn’t get much better than that!

5. What skills and tools do you hope to acquire through your current job?

This is my first position within the marine science and fisheries sector, so I am admittedly on a steep learning curve.  We are currently working on supporting the fishery through Marine Stewardship Council certification, the world’s leading eco-label for sustainable seafood, which has also been a great opportunity for me to develop new skills. Half the world’s seafood comes from developing countries, yet very few of these fisheries have the capacity to have sustainability management practices in place.

Graduating from Columbia gave me the confidence to strike out into something new and challenging, and really see how my diverse skill set could be applied. I hope to become a confident conservation planner for community-managed, sustainable small-scale fisheries. The world’s oceans are arguably the most critically vulnerable ecosystem to the impacts of climate change, and I aspire to contribute to this field.


Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy 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.

Since it began in 2002, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program has given students the hands-on experience, and the analytical and decision-making tools to implement effective environmental and sustainable management policies. The program’s 682 graduates have advanced to jobs in domestic and international environmental policy, working in government, private and non-profit sectors. Their work involves issues of sustainability, resource use and global change, in fields focused on air, water, climate, energy efficiency, food, agriculture, transportation and waste management. They work as consultants, advisers, project managers, program directors, policy analysts, teachers, researchers, and environmental scientists and engineers.

Visit our website for more information:


Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Maureen Coffey
9 years ago

Community aquaculture and aquaponics are actually the only long-term developments that will allow humankind to deed another seven billion on top of the existing seven today. We are losing top-soil at an alarming rate, leading to (or sometimes caused by) desertification and deforestation while over-fishing has decimated a lot of species beyond (immediate) repair (I remember that the species going into fish-fingers when I was a kid differ from today’s – and not by choice!). One day these communities will thrive and become prosperous because they own the wherewithals to feed the world, just like some nomads became rich since they sit on the oil fields.