State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Honors Students Talk Future Goals After SDEV Program

By Chandler Precht

In spring 2017, three students from the Undergraduate Sustainable Development Program, Elana Sulakshana, Sophia Rhee, & Jonathan Young, received Departmental Honors and two students, Elana Sulakshana & Saradiane Mosko, received Phi Beta Kappa Honors. We spoke to them about their undergraduate experiences and their plans for making a sustainable future.

Q&A with ElanSDEV_Dept_Sulakshanaa Sulakshana Departmental Honors & Phi Beta Kappa Honors

What skills and tools have you acquired through the program?
Through my coursework I have gained various concrete skills, such as conducting statistical analysis, programming with R and Stata, and making maps with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). In addition to these tools, I have learned how to think holistically, traversing disciplines from climate science to sociology, ask challenging questions, critique existing paradigms, and envision the world I want to inhabit.

How have you applied what you’ve learned in the program so far?
I have applied my skills and knowledge from the major in environmental history classes (my other major!), my job at The SDG Academy (the education component of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network), and various other internships and projects.

What was your biggest accomplishment associated with sustainability while in the sustainable development program?
Working on my senior thesis for the past eight months was an arduous, inspiring, maddening, gratifying, and an invaluable learning experience. My project, with mentors at NYU, focused on climate change adaptation. After Hurricane Sandy destroyed lives and livelihoods up and down the East Coast in October 2012, the future of coastal communities in New York and New Jersey emerged as a major question. Most neighborhoods decided to rebuild in place, but a few called for the government to engage in “managed retreat” and purchase their homes. My thesis compares the choices of rebuilding and relocating at the neighborhood and individual level. The results are centered on statistical analysis of a survey targeting homeowners in 11 towns and neighborhoods across NY and NJ nearly four years after they were severely impacted by the storm.

Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular sustainability related activities have you engaged in with your fellow Sustainability Development students?
The work that I am most proud of over the past four years has been with Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (CDCJ). CDCJ is a fossil fuel divestment campaign that calls on Columbia University to rid its endowment of coal, oil, and gas investments. I joined divestment because I spent my first year learning (in sustainable development classes!) about the catastrophic damage that fossil fuel companies have wreaked on our earth. Divestment is one strategy to attack the moral license with which these companies pollute and destroy lives and livelihoods.

In addition to divestment, I was also involved in the Greenborough Special Interest Community, which is an on-campus living space for students who are passionate about environmental issues and community.  As part of the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program, I led freshman on a four-day bike trip through Upstate New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey for three years.

What do you intend to do professionally after graduation?
Through Columbia’s Jarvis and Constance Doctorow Fellowship, I will be pursuing a one-year Master’s degree in Nature, Society, and Environmental Governance at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment. I’m interested in working at the intersection of climate change and migration from a legal perspective and in a local context, but who knows what I will learn next year and where it will take me!


Q&A with Saradiane Mosko
Phi Beta Kappa HonorsSDEV_Dept_Sadi

What skills and tools have you acquired through the program?
It is difficult for me to pinpoint the exact skills that this program has given me, mostly because they are so numerous. I know that I am leaving as a better writer and communicator. Many of sustainable development’s challenges are related to misinformation, lack of education, and bad communication. Fortunately, this department has done a great job of teaching me how to wade through that confusion and articulate information in a more understandable way.

I came to Columbia already aware and passionate about environmental issues, but the sustainable development program has expanded my view of them dramatically. Now, I have a much deeper understanding of the intricacies of sustainability as well as a better grasp on its broader implications. I have especially learned about how environmental problems are linked not only to each other, but also to other seemingly unrelated fields such as food security, national security, healthcare reform, the refugee crisis…the list goes on.

How have you applied what you’ve learned in the program so far?
I know that I apply what I have learned in this program in a variety of ways, but I am not totally aware of what all those ways are yet. I am sure that as I leave Columbia and join the working world, they will become clearer to me.

One way that I do know I have used my improved communications skills is when talking to friends and family who are not involved in sustainable development. I think that I am much better at explaining environmental issues to and conducting constructive conversations with people who care less about sustainability than I do.

What was your biggest accomplishment associated with sustainability while in the sustainable development program?
I can think of two accomplishments. The first is my senior thesis. Although I did not write an official thesis for my sustainable development major, I wrote what I call a “fake joint thesis” for my dance major. I explored how the arts, but specifically dance, could be used as a tool to better communicate environmental information to non-scientific audiences. My research introduced me to many excellent dance artists and organizations that are working in the field of sustainability. Also, it allowed me to find some connection between my two generally separated majors.

The second accomplishment that I am most proud of is my senior capstone project. My team was lucky enough to work with The Climate Museum. We were asked us to research issues surrounding the challenges and solutions to communication about climate change. This work allowed me to pull from but also add to the information I had gained while writing my thesis. I was fascinated by the work my group did and I hope to keep researching these topics in my post-grad life.

Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular sustainability-related activities have you engaged in with your fellow Sustainability Development students?
I was co-leader of the EcoReps Composting Committee for two years. Through this position, I helped to organize the campus’ composting efforts in residence halls. It was exciting to see the program expand and to get more people interested in compost.

In the summer of 2015 I did the SEE-U Jordan program, which was one my favorite experiences from my time at Columbia. Jordan is a wonderful country and I loved learning about its ecosystems. I was especially interested by my individual project in which I researched theories about how climate change played a role in sparking the Arab Spring.

In March, I started writing for Reducetarian, an organization committed to reducing global meat consumption. I most definitely pull from my sustainable development training as I write about the benefits of reducing meat consumption for both the environment and human health.

Unofficially, I constantly engage in sustainability-related activities. I always try to make eco-friendly actions in my daily life, and I frequently encourage (or maybe annoy) my friends and residents (I am a Resident Advisor in the residence halls) to do the same.

What do you intend to do professionally after graduation?
After graduation, I plan to live in New York and continue pursuing both of my passions for dance and sustainability. The specifics of this are still in flux, but I expect myself to be freelancing as a dancer, choreographer, writer, and sustainability practitioner. I am very excited to have no long-term commitments for the first time in my life. It is a little scary, but I know that it will be a great chance to explore.


SDEV_Dept_RheeQ&A with Sophia Rhee
Departmental Honors

What skills and tools have you acquired through the program?
Throughout classwork and beyond, I have touched upon skills such as research, scientific analysis, qualitative data analysis, marketing, resource management, and even legal argumentation. Above all, the sustainable development program has allowed me to think broadly and across disciplines, both theoretically and practically, from local to global.

How have you applied what you’ve learned in the program so far?

First, I apply what I’ve learned every day in evaluating how I live and see the world, which has made the sustainable development program invaluable. Otherwise, various work experiences – from researching at the Earth Institute to interning at the regional cap-and-trade program as well as at an environmental law non-profit – has allowed me to apply my research and writing skills across different fields and through different mediums towards a larger social good.

What was your biggest accomplishment associated with sustainability while in the sustainable development program?
My biggest accomplishment was the yearlong senior thesis project, where I travelled to Mavota, Tanzania to explore the relationship between communities and extractives governance. Not only was it academically rigorous, it was a major accomplishment to be involved in the planning and development of an independent research project abroad. It required cumulative research, data analysis, and a larger theoretical framework to hone in on a specific issue, while also interacting with local villagers and examining their perceptions and needs.
Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular sustainability related activities have you engaged in with your fellow Sustainability Development students?

An activity includes Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, which brings like-minded students from sustainable development to campaign for Columbia’s divestment from fossil fuels as well as bring forward issues of social justice. In addition, the project in the Capstone Workshop with the Watershed Agricultural Council allowed my group to engage with local sustainable forestry and water quality issues that link the Catskills to NYC.

What do you intend to do professionally after graduation?

After some time traveling and working in Brussels at the European Parliament, I intend to obtain a graduate degree in the area of environmental governance. I hope to link my studies in sustainable development with my political studies at Sciences Po to work at the crux of politics and development. Professionally, I hope to continue working internationally, whether in projects or policymaking pertaining to energy, resources, and the environment.

For more information regarding the Undergraduate Sustainable Development Departmental Honors, please click here

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

Chandler Precht is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is an undergraduate student at Barnard College.



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