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M.S. Sustainability Science Student Aims To Make Scientific Models Accessible For Communities

A current student in Columbia’s new M.S. in Sustainability Science program, Isabela Brown has a background in mathematics and environmental modeling. She spent the past two years building a national ship emissions model for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Isabela is interested in the way in which model construction itself determines who has agency to make sustainable change. She sought out a graduate program that would assist her in intentionally integrating social, political, and scientific frameworks into environmental models and consultations. Columbia’s M.S. in Sustainability Science program, in which she is a student in her first semester, offered that and more. The program’s part-time option has allowed Isabela to continue working as an environmental scientist at Eastern Research Group.

What drew you to the Master of Science in Sustainability Science?

When models are created with only specific audiences in mind, they become unusable to a large portion of people. In this way, scientific tools inadvertently determine who the decision-makers are and what decisions they can make. Because of this limitation, scientific tools must be developed with socio-political, cultural, and economic frameworks in mind. The context of these tools is every bit as important as the scientific achievements within them. I sought out a program that would help me marry these two aspects, which are essential to creating sustainable change. I found that in the Columbia’s M.S. in Sustainability Science.

What do you intend to do professionally once you achieve your degree?

I hope to create air quality and greenhouse gas models that can bridge the gap between community groups and larger regulatory bodies. There is a lack of individual ownership and personal connection to many sustainability issues. While we must continue to push governmental bodies to enact sustainable policy, we also must acknowledge that institutional action is usually persuaded by the pressures of individual communities. In creating community-oriented tools, we will also be able to create communities who are informed on sustainability issues and who see the effects of their actions on a larger scale.

What do you think is the most important sustainability challenge?

I think the greatest sustainability challenge is to comprehensively quantify and describe the effects that one’s own carbon footprint has on one’s own health, finances, and resources. Even when individuals understand that climate change is important, they have not been given the tools to adequately address it in their own lives. Instilling individual responsibility surrounding this topic is the greatest issue we face.

What skills and tools have you acquired through the program so far?

One of my favorite things about this program is how varied the skills we acquire are. I have been able to evolve my modeling skills to understand and model climate systems. In addition to that, I’ve been able to learn how large scale climate model results are compared and obtained, where uncertainties and certainties lie within these models, and how the socio-political systems interpret and shape these. I’ve become very interested in the way that certain frameworks allow for greater change than others, and the role that different institutions play in achieving the sustainable development goals.

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

The Sustainability Science program has reignited my love of research and my interest in distilling complex scientific issues into clear and communicable messages. Many people in my life care about sustainability, but are not familiar with the underlying scientific processes that describe it. This program has taught me to value of taking time to make sure individuals understand, and thus can act on sustainability issues. As such, I’ve started a small newsletter among friends and family in which I research and answer some of their climate-change-related questions. I hope to expand the reach of this in the future.

Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular sustainability-related activities have you engaged in with your fellow Sustainability Science students?

Recently, my Sustainability Science peers and I have begun talking about, and planning, the evolution of this newsletter idea into a larger social media presence. We hope to create a platform that explains scientific concepts or questions related to sustainability and climate change in layman’s terms with scientifically backed research. We all come to the table with expertise in such diverse backgrounds and an interest in keeping science in the conversation when it comes to climate change. While we are still in the beginning stages of the project, I am excited to see where it goes.

What is your favorite class and why?

One of my favorite classes I’m taking is the Earth Institute Practicum, taught by Alison Miller and Alix Schroder. Each week a different lecturer from the Earth Institute discusses their work on the frontier of applied, science-based, sustainability research. Through readings, discussions, and prepared debates, students get a sense of the complex dynamics of sustainability in action. I love that this class roots itself in the challenges that come with the implementation of sustainability. It gives real-world examples of researchers who have accomplished projects regardless. This class pushes its students to examine and debate their own beliefs with scientific research.

How do you intend to utilize your degree from to further your career?

I intend to use my degree to create a career out of building models that bridge individual communities and larger sustainable policies. People need more tools to see how their actions impact the world, and vice versa. However few models allow for scalability between individual, community, and national effects. This program has allowed me to develop prototypes models that address that, and I’m currently working on one in my Climate Science for Decision Makers: Modeling, Analysis, and Applications class. I hope that my work and this degree will encourage communities to incorporate scientific modeling into their decision-making.

How has collaborating with your fellow students in projects in the classroom benefited you professionally and/or personally?

I really enjoyed collaborating with my peers in preparing for debates in my Earth Institute Practicum class. A recent debate considered the rebuilding of repeatedly flooded houses in flood zones. I learned so much from my peers, who held backgrounds in a vast array of topics. I entered the project thinking from a purely scientific stand point. But they taught me to consider the topic from multiple perspectives: that of the business person, the debater, or the international or national policy makers. Working with them, I learned the importance of crafting an argument geared towards our audience, rather than just spouting facts.

What do you think is the most beneficial aspect of the Sustainability Science program with regards to your career?

This program instills a mindset that can be applied to any project. Even for those highly involved in creating environmental change, it is difficult to not get too bogged down in the details of today, while ignoring greater plans for the future. Since I’ve been in the Sustainability Science program, I’ve been able to approach new modelling projects with a greater sense for the questions that will be asked in the future, while still appealing to those asked today. I know that this skill set will allow me to develop my career toward greater community-based projects.

The M.S. in Sustainability Science, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, focuses on the scientific methods and tools that can be used to observe, monitor, and respond to environmental impacts. Visit our website to learn more.

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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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