State of the Planet

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Meet the Students Studying Trans-Boundary Sustainability Issues in the Middle East

This summer, nine Columbia University students and nine students from Tel Aviv University will take part in a fieldwork course focused on environmental sustainability in the Middle East. From June 4-18, students will travel through Jordan and Israel to learn about how the two countries are cooperating on environmental issues and managing shared natural resources.  The students — led by Professor Bridget Regan, who teaches in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program — will spend one week in each country as part of a course called NECR K4260 Regional Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East.  The course is a collaboration between Columbia University’s Earth Institute and School of Continuing Education, and the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University. A non-credit iteration was first offered two years ago.

The students in the course come from different academic programs, cultures, and countries. Together, they will learn about the management of shared natural resources such as water, environmental and biodiversity conservation efforts, how climate change is affecting the region, and much more. Read more about the students below.

Faith AltmanFaith Altman
Faith is a first year graduate student pursuing an M.S. in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. She received her bachelor’s degree in Law and Justice, Economics, Government and Communications from American University. Faith is looking forward to expanding her knowledge of how to manage regional natural resources (specifically water) in a way that builds sustainable peace in the Middle East. She hopes to be able to apply what she learns to help her native home state of California. Faith is also the Co-founder and CEO of Cyprus: Connecting and Empowering the Leaders of Tomorrow (C.E.L.T.) for Peace, which received a grant from the Davis Projects for Peace for a conflict resolution project in Cyprus.  She hopes to gain first-hand experience on trans-boundary conflicts from social, political and environmental perspectives.

Natalie Avneri
Natalie pic
Natalie completed her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Education, and after teaching the subject at the high school level for several years she decided to pursue graduate studies at the Porter School for Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University. Natalie is currently working at one of the biggest waste water treatment plant in the world. She lives in Tel Aviv but envisions herself going back to the United States, where she was born.


Fahoum Headshot

Fahoum Fahoum
Fahoum is a Palestinian-Israeli peace activist and a graduate student, pursing an M.S. in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. Born and raised in Haifa, he helped establish and represent peacebuilding initiatives and organizations, including the Coexistence Program at the Israel Tennis Centers. He received a Presidential Fellowship from the Open Society Foundations to examine the potential use of sport as a tool for development, peace, and the advancement of civil society in the Middle East. As a research assistant at Teachers College, Fahoum focuses on cross-national comparative analysis on environmental issues between Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. In this fieldwork course Fahoum intends to observe the effect that scarce resources have on the Middle East conflict, and the different ways in which third parties could intervene.

Torsten Pic

Torsten Frey
Torsten is currently doing a master’s degree in Environmental Studies at the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University. After finishing high school and completing his military service in Germany, he completed a bachelor’s degree in International Business Management at Hochschule Furtwangen University in the Black Forest. His thesis was written in close collaboration with sustainability software provider PE International AG (now thinkstep AG) and after graduation he joined the company. Torsten also spent 1.5 years in China, studying Mandarin at Xiamen University and later interning with a small sustainability consulting company in the Shanghai area.

Vjosa Isein
Vjosa Isein_pic fixedVjosa is currently pursuing an M.S. in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. She holds a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies, and a Professional Certificate in Investor Relations from New York University. Vjosa currently works as a Strategic Management Consultant, predominately within Public Sector and Risk & Compliance. She will be participating in the fieldwork study program with the hopes of expanding her understanding of environmental issues in relation to conflict from an inter/intra-state perspective. She intends to expand her understanding of power politics as it relates to environmental development, sustainability and the disbursement of natural resources in the region. Specifically she is concerned with water policies, clean water development, technological advancements within the agriculture sector and how political and military actions within these fields impact society on a day-to-day basis.

Rafael picRafael Khazani
Rafael grew up in Iran. After leading a fruitful career in the field of Telecommunications, in 2014 he became a student in The Porter School for Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University and this led to his new career path: in March 2015 he began working as the manager of the Community Gardens in the Herzliya Municipality. Rafael also volunteers for the biodynamic bees forum — which belongs to the Urban Sustainability Laboratory in the Porter School — and has volunteered for various social causes over the years.


llana Leizin

Ilana picIllana was born in Voronezh, Russia and moved to Israel with her family in 1992.She completed a B.A. in Industrial Design, Art and Cinema in private college and in the Open University. She has been interested in environmental issues from an early age; after working in the fashion industry and seeing first-hand how destructive the field is to the environment, she decided to pursue a master’s degree at the Porter School for Environmental Studies. Her thesis is on upcycling and the changing roles of designers and consumers in sustainable fashion. She is involved in many local initiatives, such as the Transition Towns movement, local cooperatives, and urban agriculture. She is interning with The Israeli Bike Association, a non- profit organization that promotes urban bicycle culture.

Nadav picNadav Leshem
Nadav has a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Economics and Political Science from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is pursuing a master’s degree with a thesis track at the Porter School of Environmental Studies, with a research focus on renewable energy in developing countries. Nadav lives in lives in Sitryya, a small village near Tel Aviv, with his family.



Bethany MacNeill
Bethany_NetherlandsBethany is a second year graduate student at Columbia University pursuing an M.S. inSustainability Management with a certificate in Sustainable Water Management. She pursued an undergraduate degree in International Human Rights and has done multiple global volunteer trips. She became interested in water management issues and humanitarian concerns at an early age when she learned that many people around the world do not have quick access to potable water. Bethany would like to gain a deeper understanding of resource management in politically and culturally divided regions, and hopes to be able to use this experience in her future career.


EvaPaulEva Paul
Eva is a first year graduate student in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program at Columbia University. She grew interested in conflict studies while taking an international law class at The New School as an undergraduate. Coming from a half Russian, half German background and living in New York, Eva is interested in studying culture as a technique and as a foundation for understanding the complex dynamics of human interaction. She hopes that participating in this program will expand her knowledge of the international conflict resolution field. During the trip, she hopes to: learn more of the deontological rules that apply to certain environmental issues in the region; understand how sacred values are shaped; and recognize the role they play in negotiation and dispute resolution.

weiwen peng
Weiwen Peng

Weiwen is a Chinese graduate student in the Earth and Environmental Engineering department at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. He loves peace and earth, and is particularly concerned with issues of environmental degradation and waste treatment. His research interests are focused on the treatment process of solid waste, waste water, and air. Coming from Asia, he is eager to explore the complicated political, economic, and social issues facing Middle Eastern countries.

Rachel_Pivnick_298A1026cRachel Pivnick
Rachel is a native New Yorker and Brooklyn resident, and is pursuing an M.S. in Sustainability Management at Columbia University; this is her second graduate program at Columbia, having earned a Masters of Business Administration in 1991. An avid traveler, she will focus on sustainable tourism practices in this richly historic and multi-cultural region. She will also study how different cultures view the environment and climate change — and their relationship to both — in order to learn effective strategies to shape tourist behavior. Rachel is also interested in the environmental priorities of each of the local cultures and the strategies used to align those priorities when disparate cultures negotiate on environmental issues.   Professionally, she has been Chief Financial Officer at New York Shakespeare Festival since 2013 and held the same position at American Ballet Theater from 2004-2013.

Hadar Urkin
Hadar is a designer from Tel Aviv who focuses on integrating environmental values into her work. She is also involved in binational initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians, regarding ecological issues that are impacted by the political conflict. These combined interests led Hadar to pursue a master’s in Environmental Studies and Research at the Porter School for Environmental Studies.


Royi pic fixedRoyi Wlodavsky
Royi studied Business Administration as an undergraduate and is currently a master’s student at the Porter School for Environmental Studies. He is writing his thesis about how to educate high school teenagers to become environmental entrepreneurs. Besides working on his thesis, Royi is also the CEO of a company called PIL, which operates several educational centers in Israel.


Lizhang Xie

Lizhang Xie_picLizhang is a first year graduate student at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering & Applied Science. After finishing his undergraduate studies in Germany, he became interested in renewable energy and decided to pursue a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering. His thesis is on the life cycle assessment of concentrated solar power. He would like to expand upon his existing technical knowledge and gain a better understanding of the social, political and industrial aspects of environmental sustainability issues. Through this trip he hopes to learn more about conflict resolution and negotiation in the Middle East, and more importantly, how the environment plays a role in the peace-making process.

dawei XuDawei Xu
Dawei is a graduate student at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, concentrating in water-related environmental issues in the Earth and Environmental Engineering program. He has a keen interest in researching the impact of political and religious powers on trans-boundary water resource allocation and availability. He is taking this summer program to enhance his understanding of the political and cultural relationship between Israel, Jordan and Palestine, which he hopes will aid his analysis of the water management issues in the Middle East.

Sheila Yochai

Shila picSheila earned a bachelor’s degree in Art from the University of Haifa and a master’s degree in Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design. She has worked both as an Industrial Photographer and an art teacher, and has been practicing architecture since 2007. Sheila has also participated in art exhibitions for many years. Through her work, Sheila became interested in ecological architecture and sustainability; this desire for more environmental knowledge led her to pursue a master’s in Environmental Studies at the Porter School for Environmental Studies.


Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

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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