Jeffrey Fralick was one of the first students to graduate from Columbia University’s Sustainability Science program in May 2020. The timing probably could not have been worse. It was near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Fralick remembers several job opportunities evaporating as the economy contracted.
In the interview below (which has been edited for length and clarity), Fralick explains how he made the most of the situation, finding work where he could before eventually ending up at a job that perfectly matches his skills and interests. His story is a reminder that the path between graduate school and a dream job is not always a straight one, but with passion and persistence, you can find your way to where you want to go.
The last time we spoke, you were just graduating and you were thinking of growing hemp on your family’s farm. What happened after that?
Well, the hemp farm did not exactly come to fruition. I think that was a lofty goal. But we have been able to incorporate some smaller, sustainable farming practices. I convinced my parents to do an acre of sunflowers for a pollinator garden that is adjacent to our crops as a natural means to insect-control, and I try to get them to till as little as possible and incorporate cover crops.
After graduation, I was able to continue working as a research assistant on a project with Sustainability Management Professor Lynnette Widder to track dust from bauxite mining until January of 2021. Right around that time, I was hired at Solv LLC as an environmental scientist in support of a contract with the Department of Homeland Security.
What was that job like?
The day to day was mostly making sure that any proposed actions were in compliance with federal environmental regulations, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act. Part of this process involved coordinating with state and tribal historic preservation officers to ensure that any undertakings involving construction and/or ground-moving did not impact historic or culturally significant sites.
Part of the job also involved conducting environmental compliance audits of various federal facilities and helping to prepare categorical exclusions and environmental assessments for projects, as needed. I also got to work on some climate resilience-specific projects, such as preparing the appropriate NEPA-documentation for solar-powered microgrid systems in areas prone to extreme weather events. I think one of my personal highlights was getting the opportunity to review the Department’s Climate Action Plan.
Did your experience in the Sustainability Science program come in handy in this role?
There were moments when I could apply some of the specific graduate coursework from the Sustainability Science program. On a more frequent basis, I could use some of the GIS skills I had learned in my ‘GIS for Sustainability Science’ class to produce maps as part of the NEPA process. For example, mapping the area of potential effect to assess whether a proposed undertaking would affect any historic properties. Additionally, ‘Sustainability in the Face of Natural Disasters’ emphasized the importance of constructing resilient critical infrastructure and how to respond to extreme weather events.
I think my prior experience as a graduate research assistant with the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State Office of the Attorney General helped prepare me for this role by introducing me to the broader realm of environmental law. With this job, there was an additional element of enforcement of environmental laws since I got to conduct in-person inspections. At the OAG, I’d say my focus was more on, ‘Here’s what the law says, and here’s what can or should be done from a science perspective.’
Tell us about what you’re doing now?
Currently, I’m a climate risk analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund. Broadly speaking, that means I use climate science to assist in assessing financial risk. I get to do all the climate research and writing that I love, but it’s through more of a financial lens that I’m not traditionally accustomed to. I’d say it is basically my dream job.
One of my favorite things that I get to do is help draft comment letters in response to agency proposed rules or requests for information. My team has recently been really involved with the SEC climate disclosure rule, which would require publicly traded companies to disclose information about their greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks. During the comment period, I worked with Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law to draft a comment letter about the physical science of climate change. In the letter, we discussed the science behind climate change attribution and detection, climate models and downscaling, and emission scenarios, and addressed [and dismissed] claims from the opposition on the accuracy of models. It felt like a true full circle moment for me where I could apply everything I learned during the SUSC program, and even got to work on the letter with Radley Horton, who was my advisor in my first semester, along with several other experts at Lamont.
I’m also involved with the Initiative on Climate Risk and Resilience Law (ICRRL), which is an joint-initiative between EDF, the Sabin Center, NYU’s Institute for Policy Integrity, and Vanderbilt Law School that focuses on addressing the consequences of climate change.
Recently, I wrote up ICRRL’s debut annual report, and helped to write three supplemental sections of the initiative’s Electric Resilience Toolkit, which is meant to support policymakers and stakeholders on issues around electric sector regulation and climate resilience planning.
You mentioned that you’re seeing things through a financial lens now. Could you talk more about how that lens is helping you see things differently?
I’m so used to approaching climate change with a science lens — for example, here are the processes by which we know how and why greenhouse gases warm the planet. Unfortunately, it does not seem like the science itself is really galvanizing people, corporations, and governments to make changes at the rate necessary to avoid total climate catastrophe. I think if we want to see action, assigning a monetary value to climate-associated risks and impacts before they occur is a place to start.
What do you think is next for you?
I would love to stay in my current position for as long as they will keep me. This space is rapidly evolving, and I am certain there will be more opportunities to comment on climate risk and financial regulation, especially since it is a big priority of the Biden administration. With more and more record-breaking extreme events making headlines across the country, climate risk has gotten a lot of interest from investors. It is a really exciting (and emergent) space to be in, and I am thrilled to get the opportunity to help shape it.
This past January, I also started a graduate certificate in GIS at the George Washington University and plan on using that coursework to bolster my analytical skills to produce compelling visualizations of climate risk.
This summer, I have also (virtually) reconnected with Lynnette Widder as a teaching associate for Hungry City Workshop, which has been great.
Do you have any advice for students who are interested in following a similar path?
If you come from a more traditional science background but have an interest in climate finance and ESG, I would probably encourage you to take more Sustainability Management courses.
The other advice I would give is to really focus on what interests you and to let those interests and passions drive you forward, but to be patient if there is a detour along the way. When I graduated back in 2020, the job market had taken such a hit from COVID. I was lucky to secure a job when I did, where I was still within the environmental sector, but with less of a climate- and sustainability-focus. But in the back of my mind, I always thought, “I’ve got to get back to what I want to do.” And now I feel like I’m finally where I should be.