Australian peat sediment helped Cheryl Wilson hone her career goals. A current student in the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy (M.P.A. E.S.P.) program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, she has possessed a passion for environmental science and current policy issues throughout her academic career. She was introduced to scientific research while studying abroad at the Australian National University; there she collaborated with researchers inferring short-term ecological responses to environmental fluctuations from biological and chemical indicators in the peat sediments of an ancient lake in the Australian mountains. This research sparked Cheryl’s interest in paleolimnology, which uses lake sediments to reconstruct past environments and climates.
As an undergraduate and master’s student at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, Cheryl examined the ecological changes associated with long-term climate fluctuations, using one of the longest terrestrial sediment record ever recovered from the Canadian Arctic. The results of this research, in which Cheryl examined the last three interglacial periods, contribute to the understanding of ongoing climate change by placing the current situation in the context of long-term, naturally mediated climate fluctuations.
“It was while studying the long-term trends in climate and getting an understanding of modern climate change that my attention began to shift towards climate policies in addition to the science,” said Cheryl. She decided to apply her passion for studying environmental science to the exciting potential for policy to convert scientific understanding into tangible action. It is her belief that the challenge in addressing environmental degradation and climate change is not a lack of scientific understanding but rather a lack of effective policy.
Cheryl was drawn to the M.P.A. E.S.P. program, which is jointly administered by the Earth Institute and the School of International and Public Affairs, because of its mix of science and public policy courses. “Few other programs place emphasis on scientific understanding,” said Cheryl. After graduating from the program in May 2010, Cheryl hopes to utilize her newfound skills in communicating science to non-scientists; she hopes to gain practical experience to understand how private organizations respond and react to environmental policies and initiatives and ultimately help develop climate and energy policy that integrates this knowledge.
Cheryl’s career ambitions and her decision to study in the M.P.A. E.S.P. program reflect her experience with science field studies and the environmental initiatives she took on while in college. At Queen’s University, Cheryl brought her interest in environmental issues out of the classroom and founded and organized an on-campus organization called Graduate Students for Environmental Sustainability. Through this group, Cheryl negotiated a composting program in her building, developed a sustainability audit for several departments and held an environmental campaign about sustainability in the workplace. This practical experience gave Cheryl the opportunity to learn about the successful implementation of sustainability projects, complementing her environmental field research experience and setting her up to be a successful candidate for the M.P.A. E.S.P. program at Columbia.
While Cheryl was attracted to the M.P.A. E.S.P. program because of its unique integration of environmental policy and scientific understanding, she also was drawn to how the program teaches students how to communicate science to non-scientists, which Cheryl has found to be an extremely valuable skill. “With my background, I particularly feel that having a broad understanding of the environment is essential for those who use policy to protect it,” said Cheryl.
In the M.P.A. E.S.P. workshop, Cheryl is part of a student team working on the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which is a comprehensive climate and energy bill that is currently working its way through the U.S. Senate. “This is an exciting time to be studying this legislation, as changes happen every day, and the world waits with anticipation to see how this bill will proceed,” said Cheryl. Her group has researched the efforts of the federal government to promote clean energy, efficient technology, pollution reduction and an economy based on sustainable practices, and has recently been focusing on approaches for successful implementation, including a staffing plan, budget and timeline.
Cheryl has also learned from the diverse perspectives of her fellow students in the program, who have training and experience in areas such as government, law, finance and private business, as well as science and policy. She has also benefited from the knowledge of her professors, who have practical experience in the environmental field. “The professors fill the role of mentor to the students, which is an indispensable tool for young professionals navigating through this emerging field,” said Cheryl.
After graduating next May, Cheryl plans to gain work experience in both the private and public sectors and help influence the way that society, government, and businesses deal with environmental issues. She would like to understand how private firms adapt to environmental policies, and then eventually go on to apply this knowledge in a position with the federal government of Canada or an intergovernmental organization that specializes in the design and implementation of climate and energy policy.