The Alumni Spotlight series includes interviews from Earth Institute alumni about their career paths, how they became interested in Earth Institute programs, and for any advice that would be useful to current and future students.
Julia Koppman Norton graduated from Columbia University’s Master’s in Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program in 2019. We caught up with her to see what she is up to now, how her experience in ESP was, why she chose to enroll in it, and how the program prepared her for a role at the California Coastal Commission.
Julia attended the University of California Berkeley for her undergraduate degree with a major in Urban Studies and a minor in Public Policy. After earning her Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree, Julia took her talents to become a city planner for Lafayette, CA. In this role, Julia was responsible for current city planning as well as some long-range planning projects. As a small city, Lafayette did not have its own sustainability planning team, but after some time, the city started giving Julia sustainability related projects. She took over all projects related to sustainability and realized her passion for the intersection of sustainable city planning. After realizing this passion for sustainability, Julia decided she wanted to pursue a career in environmental policy.
Columbia’s MPA-ESP program was attractive to Julia due to its intensive summer scientific curriculum. She had no previous technical experience in the hard sciences and was looking for a master’s program with this skill set in order to gain a better understanding of environmental science principles that she could use to help create policy.
Coastal resilience and sea level rise are also topics of interest to Julia. How to adapt coastal areas to climate change became a point of interest after working on sustainability projects at her city planning job. Julia had a background in social sciences and so was looking for graduate programs that could connect her planning background with environmental science.
Columbia’s ESP program ended up being very helpful in learning rigorous science. The intensive summer program’s focus on environmental sciences still helps Julia when she’s reviewing technical documents. She currently has to look at many biological and geological reports and make concise summaries for technical staff in order to make recommendations on projects to her supervisors. ESP helped Julia learn how to look at scientific information quickly and translate it to the public. Additionally, the program is group-work heavy, which primed her for her current job working with different stakeholders.
Julia currently works at the California Coastal Commission (CCC) as District Supervisor for the North Central Coast, which includes areas in Sonoma, Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo counties. Before this role, Julia worked as a Coastal Program Analyst. Her work focuses on coastal resource protection and management. At the CCC, Julia reviews, analyzes, and looks at proposed coastal developments and policies in the California Coastal Zone to ensure they meet the regulations of the State Coastal Act. She works in an interdisciplinary fashion with scientists, engineers, lawyers, mapping experts, environmental justice specialists, and other applicable state and federal agencies.
According to Julia, protecting California’s coasts and ensuring equitable access to the coastline is the best part of her job. She enjoys the diverse tasks of her job including a range of issues regarding public access to the shoreline, parking, views of the ocean, sensitive habitat protection, and sea level rise. Helping California’s coastline and associated development adapt to changing natural conditions is one of her favorite parts of the job. Developing forward thinking policy solutions and projects to combat issues and protect beaches, like one of her favorites, Baker Beach in San Francisco, make her job worthwhile.
Speaking to current graduates of ESP, Julia says it’s critical to put all of your feelers out there. She emphasizes not being picky about jobs, initially. For example, when she applied to her first position at the California Coastal Commission, she was not convinced if she would like the job or if she would be a good fit, but it ended up working out well. While what you see on paper might not align with what you might be interested in, she says, that does not mean the job will not be a great fit. Ultimately, apply for lots of jobs and make sure to have candid conversations with employers to see what they are like.
If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact assistant director Stephanie Hoyt (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any questions or to schedule a campus visit.