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. These interviews discuss staff members’ careers, their interest in our institute, and insights that might be relatable and useful for the rest of us.
This month’s spotlight is on Elisabeth Sydor, communications coordinator at Columbia’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN).
What does your position entail at Lamont?
CIESIN researches and visualizes human interactions with the environment — climate and migration, environmental stressors, sustainability issues, and more. I edit news, tweet new data sets, update the website, write blogs, develop graphic products like a bookmark or fact sheets, and I’ve made a few videos along the way. My first task when hired was to develop a collection of poverty maps into an atlas. I may edit a journal paper or assist in writing a proposal. And I love to take photos.
Please tell us some highlights of your career.
For Map of the Month I assembled a changing team of junior and senior researchers monthly to develop map stories for the State of the Planet blog. I am fascinated by the “culture” of different groups and seek out joining new teams. For our first virtual Open House this past fall I organized a public health panel showcasing our GRID3 work and IRI’s too—wild and woolly!
What aspect do you find most rewarding about your job?
I’m drawn to the people part of a story, especially the chance to support early-career researchers young and old—like when I helped an older Fulbright intern develop his personal stories of climate change growing up in an African village. Pre-pandemic, I was the unofficial welcome wagon for our international visiting scholars, eventually renting out rooms in my home.
What are your dreams and goals?
As a little girl I wanted to acquire a “world view.” I sent away for free travel kits from magazine ads, pretending I was a client of the local travel agency. Glossy brochures piled up in secret until I graduated at 16, visiting families I’d worked for who had moved away to the Midwest, West Coast, and Mexico. Junior year abroad I went to Sierra Leone, West Africa, then lived in a village for a couple months. In my twenties I travelled alone through Southeast Asia and Europe. In 2015, Chinese friends brought me over on an NSF grant to document the loss of their hometown, immersed for a month with their relatives in urban and rural settings. When Cuba opened briefly in 2016, I jumped. But I don’t need to go far—conversing with someone while waiting on line or stopping to pet a stranger’s dog can transform the most ordinary interaction into a travel adventure, even while wearing a mask. Maybe more so.
How are you staying connected during this pandemic?
Luckily I’m just seven minutes from campus, so I can easily go in to Lamont Campus for a change of work scene or pop over for the weekly outdoor coffee and cookie gathering our director, Maureen (Mo) Raymo, has started. I continued singing alto in my church choir, just a few of us masked and distant in a cavernous church with a handful of attendees. I enjoy kayaking on the Hudson and biking on a tandem (we get a lot of surprised looks) with my boyfriend Mike.
I have a book project on the side, which I developed from my master’s thesis in oral history. I interviewed New York City carriage drivers I worked with — I was a carriage driver at one point in my twenties — and I combined their stories with my own memories. I have eight remaining vacation days before June 30. All are allotted to finishing this revision, so wish me luck!
Judy Jamal is a coordinator in the Director’s Office at the Earth Institute, Columbia University.