Jeffrey Shaman has long had an affiliation with Columbia University, and this past July he assumed the role of interim dean of the Climate School. Dean Shaman’s knowledge of climate issues runs deep: As a researcher, he studies the effects of climate and weather on human health, employing mathematical and statistical models to understand and forecast the transmission dynamics of infectious disease. During the Covid-19 pandemic, his team built one of the first models to demonstrate the epidemiological properties of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and project its spread.
In addition to his role as dean, Shaman, who received his Ph.D. in earth and environmental sciences from Columbia, is also a professor in the Climate School and at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.
We sat down with Shaman to learn more about his research career, get his take on the Climate School’s future, and the impact he believes the school will have on addressing the climate crisis.
You’ve been at Columbia since the late ’90s. Could you tell us a bit about your background?
I studied biology and math in college. However, I didn’t begin graduate school—at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, as part of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences—until I was nearly 30. In my 20s, I had explored some other fields, such as ecology, immunology and music, but none of them really took.
What inspired you to devote your career to the study of heath and climate?
When I started at Columbia, I was intent on pursuing a doctorate that incorporated more physics and math. I had majored in biology during my undergraduate studies, and worked in ecological and immunological research, but I didn’t find myself sufficiently inspired by those fields to commit to a Ph.D. At the same time, I didn’t want to wholly abandon biology. At Lamont, I gravitated toward climate, atmospheric science and hydrology, yet I wanted to combine that work with biological, and in particular human health, outcomes. The dissertation topic I chose, meteorological and hydrological drivers of mosquito abundance and mosquito-borne disease outcomes, was very transdisciplinary. I found this topic very motivating.
The Climate School is entering its third year. What excites you about the school? What is your vision for it?
I believe in the premise and promise of the Climate School—that we can help advance and accelerate the transition to more just and equitable carbon-neutral economies across the planet. I wouldn’t have taken the position of interim dean if I didn’t believe in my core that a well-positioned Climate School truly can contribute toward this endeavor. The problems posed by climate change and our unsustainable exploitation of resources are enormous. They vastly exceed the capacity of any one school or university. Indeed, these problems require input and effort from us all. However, the Climate School can be at the vanguard of this effort: developing new science, scholarship and technologies; supporting the transfer of solutions to markets and societies; advancing climate communication; embedding a justice lens in societal thinking; co-producing knowledge with communities, policies with governments, and international accords on the world stage. These efforts can affect a range of sectors and topics: food security, water security, waste management and the circular economy, environmental policy, green economies, climate finance, the built environment, urban planning, climate law and justice, energy storage, coastal resilience. And this list is far from exhaustive.
What sets the Climate School apart in terms of preparing students and young researchers to become leaders in the climate field?
I believe the Climate School’s greatest impact will be realized through its educational programs. Most of our students—particularly in our master’s degree programs—want to work in the solutions space. They are not training to be climate scientists. They want to learn how to address the crisis effectively; they want to advance climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience; and they want to accelerate these efforts in fields as diverse as environmental justice and climate finance. As our programs and course offerings expand in the coming years, we will be graduating hundreds of master’s students each year. These talented, energized and informed individuals will be developing the policies, technologies, markets and social contracts that better steward and maintain our environment and climate system, while helping to lift people around the world out of poverty. It is through our graduates that we amplify our impact.
We seem to be at a tipping point when it comes to climate change across the world. What can the Climate School do to have a real impact?
Our impact is principally through education, the advancement of research and scholarship, and the translation of research and scholarly advances into practice. This last piece, which aligns with Columbia University’s Fourth Purpose, includes activities such as building better batteries and bringing them to market, partnering with local communities to co-develop resilience in coastal areas, and advising governments on the development of food security plans.
The school recently announced exciting new faculty appointments. How might they help support this vision?
The Climate School is still in its early stages and growing rapidly. Our recent hires work on coastal resilience and urban planning, climate and environmental law and justice, climate finance, food security, conservation biology, climate dynamics, paleoclimate, and adaptation and resilience. These are critical areas of expertise that our students need in order to become leaders in their fields.
How is the Climate School helping to promote an inclusive environment, where students from different backgrounds feel heard, valued and empowered?
Providing and promoting an inclusive environment for our students is a core, critical tenet for the Climate School. Our most recent student body is 40% international and the rest come from 18 states across the U.S. These students have a diversity of disciplinary and educational backgrounds, and are drawn to our master’s program for different reasons—some want to work in climate finance or climate justice, while others want to serve in government or to pursue research. These different backgrounds and ambitions imbue our student body with a broad range of perspectives, which is essential for challenging critical thought and enriching the student experience. Further, in response to student feedback, we have expanded our course offerings to include climate justice, climate communication, and environmental law, and have expanded our events series. We are also looking to increase our scholarship opportunities so that anyone, from anywhere in the world, can afford to attend the Climate School.
What advice do you have for our students in terms of maximizing their experiences, academic and otherwise, during their time at the Climate School?
As cliché as it sounds, carpe diem. Take advantage of the programs, events, research and scholarly opportunities the Climate School and Columbia University offer. And, of course, balance your work and fun—make the most of New York City.