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Student Spotlight: Understanding Science to Support Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Adaptation Policy

By Maria Gracia Aguilar

With over 13 years of experience as a project manager on disaster risk reduction, climate change, and sustainable development projects, Elaine R. Angeles is currently part of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program (MPA-ESP), Class of 2019. After working in NGOs and the private sector and coordinating projects for the United Nations World Food Programme and Habitat for Humanity International, Elaine looks to continue her education to interconnect science and policy making in developing countries, particularly the South East Asia region.

Elaine R. Angeles, MPA in Environmental Science and Policy student.

MPA-ESP alum Maria Gracia Aguilar talked with Elaine to learn more about her background, work experience, and what led her to graduate school.

Can you tell me about your work experience before coming to MPA-ESP?

I started in the non-profit sector and then went to work for three years with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Just before coming to the MPA-ESP program, I worked for the Asia-Pacific Office of Habitat for Humanity International. My key areas of work were focused on project partnerships and knowledge management. While each project varied depending on the organization, they were all focused on sustainable development, disaster risk reduction, or climate change.

Each of the posts I held taught me a different set of skills and experiences. For example, the main focus of the WFP is food security and nutrition, but I managed projects that mainly concerned disaster preparedness and response and climate change adaptation, focusing on food availability, community readiness, and the community’s ability to prepare for disasters. During my work in Habitat for Humanity, I helped low income countries develop projects and link with institutional donors. There, my focus was project design and proposal writing to help package the information so countries could communicate clearly their needs and objectives to the donors.

How do these experiences shape what you consider the most pressing sustainability issues are right now?

Growing up in the Philippines and getting my bachelor’s degree in political science exposed me to several natural disasters and different social problems. My work has also taken me to different countries and exposed me to diverse issues that are being tackled around the world, allowing me to see the connections that exist between them. In WFP, I became aware of how climate change is making food security more complex, making those who suffer from food insecurity more even vulnerable. Developing regions like Asia-Pacific are also getting hit by disasters constantly, increasing their vulnerabilities. This is why I consider that disaster risk management is one of the most pressing issues right now.

Has growing in the Philippines influenced what you do? And how?

When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, I remember standing in an air base meeting the victims of the disaster with other volunteers. We were holding food packages when airplanes landed with hundreds of people coming from the affected areas. Most of them had lost their properties or livelihoods. And many of them had lost family members. This was really life-changing for me and led me to think there must be something I could do. After a few months, I started working for the UN and focusing on disaster risk management and climate change.

What brought you to the MPA-ESP?

On a personal level, living in the Philippines exposed me to poverty, public health issues, lack of access to education, shelter, and livelihood opportunities. I also worked with NGOs and government agencies that dealt with hunger, malnutrition, and disaster risks. Disasters exacerbate the problems that poor and under-served communities face. Often, these communities resort to negative coping strategies or actions that put pressures on the environment. I had a lot of whys, and knew that to find answers I needed to first understand the science behind these things and then learn how to translate scientific knowledge to policies and actions.

Also, during my work at WFP I saw that there were scientists working on these issues, as well as new technologies and innovations. However, there were still many problems in taking the knowledge to the communities and translating the science into concrete actions they can take part in. I consider this an area that needs more work. For example, we need to help farmers use the data that is available and plan out when to plant their crops, what type of crops to plant, etc.

What has your experience been like during the summer semester? What classes or activities are you looking forward for the fall and spring semesters?

In the beginning, the summer semester was a bit overwhelming because it is a lot of science. I had to remind myself that this is what brought me to this program. Science was not my area of expertise. It was really challenging for me, but I really enjoyed it. I like Climatology particularly because I learned about the Earth’s climate system, the interrelationships among oceans, ice, land, and atmosphere, and how extreme events like drought or cyclones occur. It is important for me to understand these things because I come from a high-risk region, and, in the future, I want to use this knowledge to help stakeholders make better decisions and deal with climate change impacts.

For the upcoming semesters, I’m excited to use and apply the science that we have learned to develop policies or influence decision-makers towards what is actually needed.

What are your expectations after graduating from ESP?

I definitely want to go back to the humanitarian and development sectors. I want to contribute to developing policies at national, regional, and global levels. It’s important for those coming from high-risk devaxeloping countries to have a voice, be equipped to incorporate our unique contexts, and come up with appropriate ways to address some of the problems we face. I believe this program is helping me achieve that goal.

Follow the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy on social media: FacebookInstagramTwitter. To learn more about MPA-ESP, join us at one of our upcoming online or in-person information sessions. Register here

Maria Gracia Aguilar is an alum of the MPA-ESP Class of 2018 and current Research Assistant for the Earth Institute. Maria Gracia is as a climate change and sustainability expert with international experience.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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