State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Faculty Spotlight: Sara Tjossem

Sara Tjossem is a senior lecturer in the MPA program in Environmental Science and Policy, and the program’s associate director of curriculum. The program is offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Climate School.

As a senior lecturer for the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, one of Sara Tjossem’s interests is to remind people that there are some wicked problems that are not amenable to just another technological fix. Individually and collectively, she says, we need to try to bring in ethics and values, judgment and management, and sciences and political context. All of these are essential for tackling these large-scale issues.

How has your research focus shifted over the years?

After pursuing an undergraduate degree in biology, I realized I wanted to know more about the natural world. When I went to graduate school in ecology, I found I was more interested in why and how scientists study the natural world. Therefore, I ended up going from being a biology major to being interested in the history of science. I was drawn towards contemporary concerns and how humans have shaped their interactions with the natural world, more specifically how we manage the world. This led me to environmental policy. I found at Columbia that the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program is a very nice blend of my background from the sciences but also humanities and the bridging of those two fields.

How has the curriculum been adjusted to take into account students’ needs and the world’s needs?

I have been here for about 17 years. We used to talk only about environmental science and policy without talking about sustainability. Sustainability has entered into the focus of the program, but also of the students who are coming in. We have a series of core classes and because they are fundamental, these classes and topics remain the same, but the overall content changes. These changes follow faculty and current events of the year in which they are being offered. Guest speakers and adjunct faculty can quickly reflect broader trends. However, it is a challenge to find a balance between core disciplines and being responsive to multiple interests.

What are your current research projects?

One of my current research projects is to look at the creation of sustainability and sustainability science in Finland at the University of Helsinki. Specifically, how they look at sustainability as a unifying concept for a different relationship with the world. Finland was my focus because decades ago I had a Fulbright to Finland where I spent a year as a biologist. Furthermore, later I was asked to give a talk at the University of Helsinki on my research on marine cooperation. Upon reconnecting with individuals, I was introduced to the Helsinki Sustainability Institute where I began my joint project to document the history and the negotiations over what constitutes sustainability in the context of Finland.

What do you learn from your students?

With different disciplines, backgrounds and ages, students bring a renewed energy and enthusiasm. Given that our program allows me to be an advisor to students, I like to get to know their backgrounds to help them puzzle out what they would like to do to make a change for good. I emphasize that no matter if they come in knowing what they want to do or not, their year with the program is a year of exploration. I also learn what motivates them and that helps to re-inspire me and suggest directions that I should move in.

What do you want your students to walk away with?

I want them to know they are not alone, that they are part of a bigger effort, and know that there is hope for the future. We as a world are in a bit of a mess and we face massively big challenges. They are just one person, but harnessing their abilities can help foster change. It is not an option to do nothing. This program and people of like inclination are making a good faith effort. I want them to have fun while they’re taking themselves seriously. I want them to maintain a sense of hope.


Saj McBurrows is an intern with the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program.

Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Climate School.

Since it began in 2002, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program has given students the hands-on experience, and the analytical and decision-making tools to implement effective environmental and sustainable management policies. The program’s 1,112 graduates have advanced to jobs in domestic and international environmental policy, working in government, private and non-profit sectors. Their work involves issues of sustainability, resource use and global change, in fields focused on air, water, climate, energy efficiency, food, agriculture, transportation and waste management. They work as consultants, advisers, project managers, program directors, policy analysts, teachers, researchers and environmental scientists and engineers.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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