The Staff Spotlight series features Earth Institute staff members from across the Morningside, Lamont and the Irving Medical Center campuses. The series is intended to highlight the important work our staff members do to keep the Earth Institute running smoothly and to support our mission of guiding the world onto more sustainable paths.
Ismini Etheridge is special assistant to Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Below, Etheridge shares some of the highlights of her work.
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
My day-to-day work varies, as I work on a myriad of projects and tasks to support the director for the Center of Sustainable Development (CSD), such as: compiling COVID-19 data, assisting with research, logistics, maps and writing projects, helping run events, and attending fascinating meetings and conferences, both at home and abroad, with the director.
Which part of your job do you enjoy most?
The people! I have truly remarkable coworkers, not only within my immediate team, but also within the entire Center for Sustainable Development. I think one thing that really sets CSD apart is that everyone is working on unique projects, topics ranging from education to infectious disease and public health, to happiness and wellbeing. At the same time we are all fervently rooted in the common goal of advancing the critical and interdisciplinary work of sustainable development. I feel very fortunate to work in an environment where I am profoundly proud of and inspired by the work my colleagues do every day.
Did your background prepare you for your present job?
Yes — and in many ways that I would not have expected it to. I came into my current job immediately after finishing my undergraduate studies at Cornell. I studied global development with a focus in sustainability and applied economics, and was heavily involved in sustainable design groups, international research projects, and social entrepreneurship. Working for Jeff Sachs, who wrote many of the books I used and loved in college, was both a professional and personal dream.
I also think the more mundane features of my life and upbringing prepared me the most. My mother is an anthropologist and my father is a geographer, and they were always very intentional in pushing me to see the world through an unfiltered and deeply empathetic lens. I think being encouraged to grapple with issues of inequality and unnecessary human suffering from an early age influenced almost every part of my studies, career goals, and personal life. I always, always reflect on what a big part individuals in my life have played in my “background.” Growing up in a multicultural family and in a beautifully diverse, small city, I felt I had a strong community of mentors who were champions of social and environmental justice in big ways and small. I’m so grateful for all of them, and for the ones I continue to gain through my work at CSD and the Earth Institute!
What is one project you worked on recently that you really enjoyed or want to highlight?
I spent most of the last year helping turn a series of Professor Sachs’ lectures into a book, “Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions,” which came out in June 2020. The book traces patterns of human migration and global-scale change from the early Paleolithic era to what Jeff terms the current “digital age,” and examines how the interplay of geography, technology, and institutions has shaped these changes. Helping prepare the manuscript was a pretty remarkable crash course in the last 70,000 years of human history, and I had the opportunity to learn GIS and make some maps for the book, of global climate zones and geographic boundaries of early empires, for example. I also learned a lot about the publication process and got to work with some great colleagues at Columbia University Press.
What are your hobbies?
I love hiking, biking, running, anything outdoors. I also love to garden, although that’s been a harder hobby to maintain in the city. I have been playing classical piano since I was five and was a huge band geek in middle and high school. My roommate and I recently squeezed a little electric piano into our living room. If anyone has a spare cello or saxophone, please let me know!
Judy Jamal is a coordinator in the Director’s Office at the Earth Institute, Columbia University.