Alumni Spotlight: Sage Solomine Raises Funds for Big Cat Conservation
The Alumni Spotlight series includes interviews from Earth Institute alumni about their career paths, how they became interested in Earth Institute programs, and any advice that would be useful to current and future students.
Sage Solomine always knew that she wanted to work in conservation, and that she wanted to focus on protecting wild cat species — especially big cats.
After graduating from Columbia University’s Master’s in Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) program in 2019, she got a job with the Wildlife Conservation Society. She worked in development there for almost two years, focused on fundraising for species conservation. During this time, Sage also volunteered at donor events held at the Bronx Zoo. She found this experience inspiring and learned that she actually loves fundraising work, particularly due to the contagious and endearing passion that the donors expressed for the animals and for wildlife conservation.
During her childhood, Sage was always outside or visiting local wildlife societies with her mom, learning as much as she could about the animals. Her interest in big cats during her childhood was in part inspired by zoologist Laurie Marker and reading about her work with cheetah populations. As a result, when it was time for Sage to pursue an undergraduate degree, she chose Cornell University, where Marker is a professor-at-large, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in animal science with a minor in international studies. From Cornell, Sage did an internship in conservation science with cheetahs and realized that she could do more to protect big cat species through policy and leadership work. That’s what led her to begin looking into the MPA-ESP program as a next step.
Columbia University’s MPA-ESP program stood out to Sage compared to similar programs largely because of the pace. As an intensive year-long program, she would get more for her money than she could expect from typical two-year masters programs, and get back out to the job market — and more importantly, back to protecting wildlife — more quickly. Additionally, because Sage had focused on science during her undergraduate program, she was excited about the opportunities to expand her skillset by learning more about finance, communication, and policy as offered by Columbia’s MPA-ESP program. These transferrable skills set her up well for applying to jobs.
Sage says she feels grateful for all that she learned about finances and management in the program. She remembers a course with Lucius Riccio that taught her to think critically about how to make processes more transparent and efficient, which is important in her conservation work. Sage also remembers that Sara Tjossem pushed her to think outside the box and become a better problem solver by approaching a problem from different angles (e.g., think about solutions from a science perspective versus an economics perspective versus a policy angle). Sage found Tjossem to be a fantastic mentor, along with Adrian Hill, who helped Sage develop crucial professional skills and prepare for the job application process.
Sage also learned a lot about international and US governmental agencies in the MPA-ESP program, as well as the value of partnerships. The lessons about how to communicate with these agencies in their language and how to write policy have been very useful for her conservation work.
Sage currently works as the grants manager for institutional giving at Panthera, the only nonprofit focused on all 40 wild cat species. Most similar nonprofits only have the resources to support conservation of “big cat” species; Sage finds it exciting to be able to fund conservation of smaller wild cat species as well. Her role as grants manager involves fundraising, with a focus on support from government and foundations. Her position represents a link between scientists and donors, which means that she can be close to the science without working her life around being in the field. However, she does get to go to the field on occasion, when donors would like to see the work that they are funding. For example, she recently joined donors who fund puma conservation on a visit to field sites in Washington state, where they saw their contributions to protecting pumas in effect. They also met with local partners from Indigenous tribes like the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, who provide input on policies and work with Panthera to increase connectivity and the genetic viability of pumas (or “cougars”) on the Olympic Cougar Project. These trips allow Sage the opportunity to engage with the science, which she really appreciates. She also loves that she gets to spend some time on the job out in nature, hiking and exploring.
Sage was able to get her foot in the door at Panthera because she got a communications-focused internship with Panthera during her spring semester in the MPA-ESP program. During the internship, she worked on social media, writing blogs and press releases. This internship opened doors for Sage that led to her first job at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and later allowed her to return to Panthera in a different role. Sage never expected to love working in development and fundraising so much, but the grueling job search process taught her that in addition to the importance of being persistent and not getting discouraged, it can also be beneficial to be open to different types of roles in conservation. You never know how much you may love a job until you give it a chance, and for Sage, working towards protecting wildlife — especially wild cats — is the priority, and there are many ways to contribute. This is why Sage felt that the diverse skillset that she developed between her undergraduate work and the MPA-ESP program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs prepared her to achieve her goals.
In the future, Sage would like to continue to grow with Panthera and eventually transition to a leadership role from which she can work more on grants than fundraising. She would also be interested in pursuing a director position at a non-profit at some point in her career. Regardless of where she ends up, and in what role, her priority is consistent: she would like to continue to work toward protecting big cats.
Sage advises future MPA-ESP graduates to remember to be open-minded to all opportunities. “Think creatively about different ways to work toward your goals and contribute to what you’re passionate about,” she says. “You never know how things will work out for you. Additionally, be persistent and work hard to make meaningful connections with people. Make sure to utilize the resources available to you in the MPA-ESP program.”
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.