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Rising Star Shows Passion for Sustainable Development Abroad

By Jessica Sotomayor

Alyssa Menz GoatAlyssa Menz’ upbringing and interests have shaped her enthusiasm and fascination for environmental policy and human-environment interactions. Her studies in sustainable development and learning experiences abroad in Jordan, the Middle East and Kenya have further fueled her passion for international environmental policy and conflict resolution. After graduating from the program, Alyssa hopes to continue her sustainable development senior thesis research on sustainable bushmeat farming in Kenya.

1. What drew you to the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development?
I was born and raised in upstate New York, in a small city surrounded by the Catskill Mountains. Growing up I participated in environmental and ecology-focused summer camps and field studies courses, and explored nature independently with family and friends. As I grew up, my fascination with ecology and environmental biology broadened into a fascination with human-environmental interactions. The sustainable development major at Columbia allows me to explore how natural resources can aid in development and further explore the interface between farms, food and nature.

2. What areas of sustainable development are you most interested in, and why?
I am interested in environmental policy and conflict resolution/negotiation strategies. I feel that in order to effect real change in the world, an interdisciplinary approach is required that incorporates both a scientific understanding of environmental and sustainable development issues, as well as negotiation and conflict resolution tools to assist in moving through the complex political and cultural differences that often cause, prolong, and in some cases intensify local, regional and global conflicts.

3. What skills do you hope to acquire through the program?
I hope to acquire:

  • an interdisciplinary understanding of the field of sustainable development;
  • knowledge of sustainable development theory and practice;
  • sustainable development field study experience;
  • an understanding of the complex issues of sustainable development and their relationship to the interactions between natural and social systems.

 4. How do you intend to utilize these skills, and your degree, once you graduate?Alyssa Menz Sunset
Right after undergrad I hope to continue my sustainable development senior thesis research on sustainable bushmeat farming in Kenya. In the near future I intend to pursue graduate school and then a career in international development policy, with an emphasis on conflict resolution through the lens of international environmental policy. I would very much like to be a part of efforts that help to foster regional cooperation and that help to create joint, integrated management strategies for critical environmental issues that plague water-scarce areas of the world.

5. What is your favorite class in the program so far, and why?
It is impossible to pick one favorite class, as I have enjoyed all of them! However, I have especially enjoyed the field study courses that I have participated in:

  • SEE-U Ecosystems in Jordan Program (6 weeks)
  • Earth Institute and Porter School of Environmental Studies Regional Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East Program (3 weeks)
  • Environmental Biology and Sustainability in Kenya Program (12 weeks)

These three sustainable development programs helped me develop first-hand experience with key environmental issues, gain an understanding of the scientific method and its theoretical underpinnings, conduct original fieldwork and hypothesis-driven research, and develop my scientific writing and presentation skills.

At Columbia, my favorite sustainable development courses have been the Sustainable Development Senior Thesis Seminar, Science of Sustainable Development, and GIS for Sustainable Development.

 6. Beyond the classroom, what, if any, extracurricular sustainability-related activities have you engaged in?
I have been engaged in several sustainability-related activities, including the following

  • Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences Coral Reef Ecology Program: examined the coral reef ecosystem and many of the organisms that inhabit and sustain it; learned the basics of corals and their growth, reproduction and recruitment; gained experience with techniques used to monitor and evaluate coral reef ecosystems; gained experience collecting and comparing scientific data; learned laboratory techniques marine biologists used to analyze corals and food chains; and developed an understanding of the anthropogenic factors that impact coral reefs.
  •  Marine Studies Lab Intern, University of South Florida: developed an understanding of current issues in the field of Physical Oceanography; assisted with research related to sustainable port systems; and assisted with preliminary development of a sustainable port operations on-line course.
  • Center for Biodiversity and Conservation intern, American Museum of Natural History: conducted research on green sea turtle population conservation; and gathered and analyzed quantitative data on the morphological diversity of green sea turtles, including color and pattern variation of shells and heads.

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 special 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 Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, visit our website or contact Program Manager Jessica Sotomayor at

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