Seeing is Believing: The Road to Climate Science
The water was so clear I had only to bob at its surface to observe the metropolis below: towering corals crowded by technicolored fish. Like most six-year-olds, I was not satisfied to merely look. Goggles firmly attached, I explored underwater worlds in the Lakshadweep Islands, three hours’ flight from my hometown in India. Here, I learned the meaning of “sea level rise” and “extreme weather events,” phenomena already lapping at low-lying islands’ shores in the early 2000s. Seeing this unfold as a child, I became acutely aware that society’s wellbeing is inextricable from the wellbeing of the natural systems we inhabit. Growing up in India, Mexico, Germany, Bolivia, and the US made clear to me that climate change would not abide by national borders, nor by political timelines. Today, I strive to bridge the gap between science, policy, and industry in the pursuit of an environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive and equitable society—ideas I have incubated since childhood.
Committed to addressing complex problems, I am pursuing an MS/PhD at Cornell University in Atmospheric Science as training for work in applied climate science. My research focuses on global climate change patterns and solutions available to address their impacts, especially through sustainable development. I draw on climate science, international policy, economics, data science, and effective communication. My ultimate goal is to advance climate policies that alleviate inequality by promoting green growth, community resilience and adaptation. Thankfully, the country (and the world!) are waking up to the reality of climate change, which threatens to render our planet unrecognizable within our lifetime.
Looking around me, I am grateful for the number of organizations that have popped up to respond to this crisis. I remain frustrated, however, by the lack of organizations that bring together the most critical tools available for solving this mammoth problem: scientific research, policy understanding, advanced data science, diverse voices for diverse ideas, and youth participation. With the help of the TopTal Future Female Leaders Scholarship, I hope to bring these pieces together to drive comprehensive climate policy in the US.
Zooming Out, Zooming Forward
After studying the global decline in coral reefs as an undergraduate, I turned my attention from studying how the ocean has been impacted by anthropogenic change to exploring how the ocean itself might be used to advance global climate mitigation and adaptation goals. How can we leverage existing ocean processes, along with strategies developed by coastal communities, to promote environmental restoration? My MS thesis investigates using marine microalgae to co-produce renewable energy and sustainable food while contributing to negative emissions. This semester, I am conducting field research on the role of negative emissions in Hawaii’s efforts toward carbon neutrality by 2045. In addition to conducting quantitative analyses, I am interviewing local legislators, conservation practitioners, laypeople, and indigenous groups on their engagement in relevant policy processes. Many of my MS methods are inspired by my work last summer with the consortium of scientists that produced The Applied Climate Assessment for Preparedness and Resilience. In my capacity as research analyst, I helped apply global climate change projections to local and regional scales in the US. The final report provides resources for practitioners to guide them understanding, mitigate, and adapt to climate threats. In the months since, I have worked to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the federal policy landscape, especially as it relates to ocean and climate systems, and incorporate this understanding in my scientific work.
A Woman’s (+Others) Place is in...
the House, the Senate, and the Org.’s that Guide Them
I study Climate Science—a field that, although changing, remains dominated by white men and is shields itself from climate activism. Especially in circles focused on decision-making in response to climate change, the lack of women and minorities is stark. Dedicated to social equity, I am invested in increasing representation in STEM. Perhaps more pressingly, I believe these voices are indispensable if we hope to achieve ambitious climate goals: arguably the most complex challenge facing humanity, climate change requires a dynamic smorgasbord of ideas.
My plan is two-fold:
1) Develop a women- and minority-led think tank that supports capacity-building in STEM relevant to climate action and drives policy-making in environmental justice. In particular, this piece would focus on recruiting bright individuals from underrepresented demographics who have diverse interests in policy, industry, and the environment. Recruits would enroll in a boot camp on data science and environmental policy—this ensures folks maintain unique perspectives but share a common foundation for data-driven environmental justice policy. This think tank would set to work responding to US environmental policy needs, working closely with members of the US Legislative Branch, as well as industry representatives, academics, and others.
2) Draw on the unique talent-base of the organization to run free-of-charge training programs and mentorship for young girls and students from underserved demographics. I want to be able reach youth from underserved demographics as they develop their academic and personal passions and encourage their interests in climate action, and STEM more broadly. I also want to harness the brilliant ideas so many young people have about how to address climate change. This second piece would be accomplished through an online publication for and by youth on environmental solution-building, the Millennial Voices Project. As an undergraduate, I tried to launch this piece of my larger project. It garnered a lot of interest, especially from youth, but because I lacked the kind of guidance I could receive from a program like TopTal, the idea never fully launched. I made a short Claymation that describes how this would work! Give it a watch, and don’t judge the production quality too harshly—it’s the first Claymation I’ve ever attempted!
Leading From Behind: My Experience as a Mentor
In many ways, my desire to serve as a mentor for youth from underrepresented groups comes from the desire that I had had access to such a mentor when I was a high school student. Enrolled in an underfunded Arizona public school, STEM never seemed like something I could excel in. Lacking role-models and self-confidence, I entered college vaguely interested in science but did not declare a STEM major until well into my sophomore year. Although I am content with where I am now (a graduate student in Atmospheric Science), I can’t help but wonder what competencies I might have today had I begun to pursue STEM earlier in life.
To address these areas of inequity, I am on the Board of Directors of an education-focused non-profit, the Telluride Association, which seeks to offer transformative experiences to youth from underserved communities. This work has proven very rewarding and has allowed me to serve as a mentor to a number of high school students, many of whom I keep in touch with after the close of their summer program experience. In this role, I not only develop the programs our students participate in but also run a “preparing for college” workshop and make myself available for one-on-one mentorship sessions. Telluride’s pedagogy, though transformative, emphasizes the humanities. I therefore began looking for opportunities to apply my skills in mentorship and STEM research toward mentorship in these areas. I began down this road as an intern at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a NYC non-profit. That summer, I recognized a paucity in youth engagement so launched the Environmental Health and Justice Leadership Training. This program pairs youth (ages 13 to 20) from Harlem and the Bronx with community mentors working in environmental justice (myself included) and gives them the tools to implement their own environmental justice projects in their communities.
I have continued this kind of work by mentoring several undergraduate students, primarily women, minorities, LGBTQIA+, and other underrepresented groups in STEM. Most recently, I was selected as a Lead Mentor for the 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures program, coordinated by the New York Academy of Sciences. I am excited to begin expanding my mentoring to include high school students from around the world, educating myself on opportunities that exist for students within as well as outside the US. In addition to direct mentorship, I have served as a Teaching Assistant for two courses at Cornell: Introductory Oceanography, and Dynamics of Marine Ecosystems in a Changing World. As a TA, I held office hours to discuss course material with students, held exam study sessions, and made myself available to students who needed additional help. As a TA for the Oceanography course, I also led a class session on marine conservation at the local elementary school.
What I Need to Get There
On the last day of middle school, every kid in my graduating class was awarded a “paper plate” award—a superlative chosen to represent what our teachers hoped we might accomplish. My homeroom teacher pulled me aside for mine, instead of passing it out with everyone else’s. “Your teachers all agree,” she said, fighting back tears, “that your award is the Go-Getter—we have every confidence you will change the world.” At the time, I had no idea how I might go about fulfilling my teachers’ high expectations of me. Today, however, I know very clearly what change I want to make in the world. At a time when policy decisions have critical stakes, when what we do now will determine the habitability of our planet for generations to come, I want to support women, youth, and other underserved groups in paving the way to a green future. Because for many, it’s not a question of when they will have the opportunity to pursue STEM, as it was for me, but if. Now more than ever, it’s important we improve representation in large-scale decision-making processes. To accomplish climate action at all scales, I am convinced, we need to leverage the diverse perspectives as well as diverse talent and diverse data from various sectors in order to make sound decisions.
I’m proud of what I have accomplished so far, but I have a long way to go. For starters, I want to use next year to begin fleshing out the plans I’ve described, as well as finish my Master’s (oh yeah, that thing…). To have time to juggle both, I’m looking to be fully funded so that I won’t have to work on others’ projects (as interesting as they may be, they take time away from my other work!) or teach a course (as much as I love doing so). This means I’m looking for additional funding, part of which I hope to get through the TopTal Future Female Leaders Scholarship! (Are you a woman in STEM? Check it out and apply yourself!) What’s most compelling about this unique program is, however, the mentorship aspect. I have a lot of ideas (a LOT.) but being young and early in my career, I don’t know how to build the kind of organization I dream of. I’ve mapped out a general timeline below, but having a mentor who can guide me on how to build start-up-like think-tank and/or connect me with people of the expertise I will need in tech, policy, and industry is necessary if I am to realize this dream. I also seek to connect the worlds of climate science and data science, the latter of which I am only just entering. TopTal’s network of experience mentors could help me build connections and advise me on how to advance my own skills, as well as how to “break into” the tech/data science world and how to brand myself accordingly. The structure of the mentorship program would guide me in successively building this organization—holding my feet to the fire, so to speak. I am very grateful to TopTal for considering my pitch, and hope I’ll be selected as a Future Female Leader!
All Good Things...
Have Five-Year Plans
Attract Talent, Attract Interest (and Attract Funds!)
1) Drawing on existing and prospective networks (including, hopefully, the TopTal network!), identify talent for both organizational components: the broader minority-led think-tank, and the Millennial Voices
2) Apply for non-profit status, begin applying for relevant grants and organizational partners
3) Identify potential members for the inaugural board of directors/steering committee, drawing from climate scientists, data scientists, policy professionals, and industry specialists
4) Begin to shape the brand: create a website, logo, and mission statement
Hire a Few Dedicated, Full-Time Employees
1) From the identified talent pool, recruit applications for full-time climate science, policy analyst, data expert, and industry/government relations positions
2) Establish relationships with members of Congress, other key decision-makers
3) Recruit two or three non-profit development interns
4) Continue applying for grants, institutional partnerships
5) Establish an office in Washington, D.C.
6) Determine short- and long-term institutional goals
7) Build media presence, relationships
Roll out Youth Mentoring Program
1) Beginning with a small inaugural group (and, hopefully, some grant funding), teach a one-week ‘data science for environmental justice policy’ youth training course
2) Launch the online platform for environmental solution building, the Millennial Voices Project
3) Expand institutional connections, funding sources
4) Develop the foundations of a training course alumni network
1) Referring to feedback from the inaugural youth training camp, improve pedagogical model for second year’s program
2) Establish employee training boot camp, which will introduce all members of the organization to the foundations of data science, climate science, environmental policy, and social justice
3) Aim for a high-profile environmental justice policy “win”, thereby more firmly establishing an institutional presence in Washington
4) Hire another wave of talented women and members of underrepresented groups in STEM
5) Begin soliciting donations as part of an annual development campaign
Pave the Way for the Next 10 Years and Beyond!
1) Comprehensively review successes and failures of years since the organization’s conception; solicit feedback from employees, interns, trainees, clients, and others
2) Establish goals and benchmarks for the coming decade, drawing on member input
3) Solidify partnerships with complementary organizations and policy-makers
4) Launch exchange program between the think tank and private industries working on energy, transportation, and similar fields
Ocean Resources and Ecosystems Program
Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences
4120 Snee Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY