State of the Planet

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Student Spotlight: Sustainability Grads Explain What They Learned and What’s Next

In 2020, five students — Maxwell Goodman, Cyrus Hadavi, Juan Martinez, Priya Mishra, and Carla Singson — received departmental honors for their academic excellence in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development. We asked them about how they became interested in Earth Institute programs, and how the program impacted their academic and professional journey. 

Q&A with Maxwell Goodmanmax goodman headshot

What drew you to the Sustainable Development Major or Special Concentration?

I wanted an academic program self-organized around a set of problems rather than a set of standard procedures within a discipline. I wanted to be able to try on different approaches to achieving a positive impact and find one that fit the way I like to think/work. I was initially self-designing an econ-centric major in sustainable development at a different school, when my friend and mentor Cameron McMahon encouraged me to apply for transfer.

What was your favorite class in the Sustainable Development program and why?

The best lectures I attended within the program were given by Barnard Professor Sevin Yildiz in Cities in Developing Countries. She did a fantastic job of showing the expansive diversity of urban problems and solutions, and the folly of planners imposing their universal concepts onto local realities without first listening deeply for historical/social context. My favorite class overall was the Bangladesh capstone workshop, because it allowed us to get concretely into the interplay between the process of environmental science and its application in humanitarian scenarios.

 What is your next step? Do you know what sort of jobs or graduate work you wish to pursue in the field of sustainability?

I just started work at Cloud to Street, a flood mapping company (co-founded by a Columbia post-doc) that specializes in using public satellite data to help relief organizations and LDC governments respond to and monitor disasters. I was thrilled to be offered the job because it will allow me to develop my interest in GIS, while promoting climate resiliency in vulnerable areas of the world. (Plus my title has the word “scientist” in it!) In the long run, I hope to make a career out of assembling scientific resources and building decision tools to help policy-makers deal with the consequences of climate change.

Q&A with Cyrus Hadavi

Cyrus Hadavi with posterWhat drew you to the Sustainable Development Major or Special Concentration?

I was really interested in the Sustainable Development program because of the diversity of the courses. In the program, I did not focus on one area, but instead enrolled in a wide array of classes, which helped me develop a problem-solving mentality. Satyajit Bose, who teaches the class Economic and Financial Methods of Sustainable Development, emphasized the importance of this. He constantly reminded the class not to focus too much on one or two metrics when making a decision, but focus on solving the problem holistically considering a variety of factors. 

What was your favorite class in the Sustainable Development program and why?

My favorite class was Challenges of Sustainable Development. Lisa Dale is a fantastic lecturer and gives a great overview of the different schools of thought in sustainable development. We were able to apply what we learned using real world case studies, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the smog in Singapore from Indonesian fires. 

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

I think my greatest accomplishment at Columbia was writing my thesis. I developed my thesis when I worked in a lab on Staten Island studying ticks and Lyme disease during my sophomore summer. I actually joined this lab after the program sent students an email about this opportunity, so look out for those! I studied how social networks impact the use of preventative practices against Lyme disease on Staten Island, NY. I had to create a survey and complete that survey with 110 residents on the Staten Island Ferry. However, I was given a lot of support and feedback from my advisor and mentor and am now in the process of preparing my thesis for publication.

Cyrus Hadavi doing fieldwork

What is your next step? Do you know what sort of jobs or graduate work you wish to pursue in the field of sustainability?

My immediate next step is working as a middle school science teacher with Success Academy as I apply to medical school. After medical school, I want to work to increase access to health care in low-income areas. Since the 1970s, the percent of children with obesity has tripled, and in the last 15 years the percent of children with diabetes has increased over 50 percent. These increases have led to worse outcomes for patients as they face comorbidity for many illnesses, including COVID-19. I want to work to increase equity in terms of healthcare in urban areas and improve health outcomes for children.

What tips do you have for students who wish to complete the sustainable development program?

Take a variety of classes. Take a class you know nothing about and learn how the topics covered in the class are related to your other interests in the program. Also, get involved in research and write a thesis. The research I was involved with and the eventual thesis I produced were some of the meaningful experiences I had at Columbia. 

Q&A with Juan Martinez

Juan Martinez headshotWhat drew you to the Sustainable Development Major or Special Concentration?

I was drawn to the sustainable development major because, at the time when I was applying, I was becoming more aware of the climate crisis but I did not have the in-depth knowledge to speak and act on the topic in a productive manner. The Sustainable Development curriculum had all of the components that I wanted to learn more about: science, politics, and sociology.

What was your favorite class in the Sustainable Development program and why?

My favorite class was the Workshop in Sustainable Development because it was the only class that provided working experience. I was able to work directly with county officials and communities that are facing the greatest risks due to climate change. This class put into perspective the need for an interdisciplinary approach when addressing complex issues of society.

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

My biggest accomplishment was having the opportunity to represent Columbia at McGill University’s sustainability research symposium. This forum invited students and scholars to discuss the sustainability challenges we face today in order to develop solutions. I was proud to showcase my poster on marine plastic pollution, which was awarded poster recognition.

Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular activities (internships, student organizations, etc.) did you engage in?

I engaged with Sprout Up, a student-led club that engages with 1st and 2nd grade students in underserved communities to teach students about the environment so that they may become young environmental stewards. I was in this club my entire Columbia career, and it was one of the most rewarding club experiences I’ve had the pleasure to be part of because we were able to directly engage with students in a classroom environment. I would recommend that you be as active in extracurricular activities as possible; the Earth Institute has many events and programs outside of the classroom that make the sustainable development major quite dynamic. 

What is your next step? Do you know what sort of jobs or graduate work you wish to pursue in the field of sustainability?

I began to work with CIESIN before I graduated as a part-time research assistant and  I plan to continue to work at CIESIN for the time being while I study for the GRE exams. Ultimately, I would like to continue my academic career by pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning and design.

Q&A with Priya Mishra

Priya Mishra headshot

What drew you to the Sustainable Development Major or Special Concentration?

Going into college, I really did not know what I wanted to major in. I knew I wanted to take a path that would allow me to help people, but I didn’t quite know what that looked like. When I was browsing the Columbia major bulletin, I came across the major and immediately fell in love. I saw how the interdisciplinary approach was woven into the fabric of the program and immediately signed up for two introductory classes for the upcoming spring semester.

What was your favorite class in the Sustainable Development program and why?

The major was honestly so enjoyable to progress through so this is a really difficult question! I’ll give you my top three:

The Social World with Teresa Sharpe is a class I think everyone should take. It really showed how the reality around us is totally socially constructed and who it benefits and harms in the process.

The SEE-U agroecology summer course taught by Amanda Caudill and Shahid Naeem was delightful. Both professors were incredibly intelligent and we spent the summer visiting different farms and learning about food production. 

Finally the capstone project was one of my favorite classes at Columbia. Seeing real-world applications of what we learned in the major and getting to meet with actual clients and help them was the best! 

What was your biggest accomplishment while at Columbia?

I’d say that my biggest accomplishments were the production of my short film, “Bath Bomb” and the completion of my thesis. Through the help of my loved ones, and my brilliant advisor Jacqueline Klopp, I managed to do both in a way that I am really proud of. My thesis was on changing portrayals of gender roles in Bollywood film, and even though I was rejected by 14 different mentors, it all worked out in the end. If you’re passionate and really believe in something, never give up on it!

Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular activities (internships, student organizations, etc.) did you engage in?

I also did an internship at Planned Parenthood the summer before my last semester, and it was such a heartening experience. Everyone there was brilliant and kind, and I was able to see the direct impact I had on people in my community — whether it was helping community members register to vote, having discussions with teens about what was happening with reproductive healthcare in the Trump administration, or teaching people how to discuss these issues with their loved ones. 

What tips do you have for students who wish to complete the sustainable development program?

You should also always, always take advantage of office hours, especially for your TAs. The TAs I’ve had for my sustainable development courses have been the only reasons I have been able to do well in classes that I was struggling with. The TAs are oftentimes kind, brilliant, patient, and helpful, so please go give them a visit if you’re ever feeling confused!

Any other thoughts or reflections you would like included?

Lately I feel like we are seeing a shift from the sustainable development department and its students from focusing on mostly environmental factors to more social, and even cultural, factors. Sustainable development can only truly be considered such if it focuses on helping and improving the lives of society’s most vulnerable. I encourage the department to add more courses on Black and Indigenous history to its course list and figure out more ways to teach students about not only communicating with the most vulnerable people on their needs, but also collaborating with them to help solve their problems. 

Q&A with Carla Singson 

Carla Singson headshot

What drew you to the Sustainable Development Major or Special Concentration?

I was definitely drawn to the solutions-focused orientation of the program. Coming from the Philippines, I’d been deeply interested in finding ways to reconcile environmental conservation with socio-economic need.

What was your favorite class in the Sustainable Development program and why?

Lisa Dale’s seminar Climate Change: Adaptation and Resilience is an eye-opening initiation into the world of climate action. It ventures beyond traditional initiatives to reduce emissions, and brings you up-to-date on contemporary debates within the climate movement. Professor Dale is an incredibly knowledgeable guide, and her curriculum touches on everything from the varying definitions of biodiversity to global cooperation on climate refugees. Most importantly, she genuinely cares about your learning and makes sure you know your stuff!

What tips do you have for students who wish to complete the sustainable development program?

Be as hopeful as you are critical, and look for inspiration everywhere. Join clubs (never too late), lean into the SusDev community (it’s there!), and write a senior thesis.

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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