MPA-ESP Alum Serves as Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellow

by |December 8, 2015


For Justin Mankin (MPA-ESP ’10), the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program helped expose his passion for environmental science. Mankin is currently serving as an Earth Institute postdoctoral fellow and research scientist, where he is focusing on climate variability.

1. What is your current job?
I’m an Earth Institute postdoctoral fellow and research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Center for Climate Systems Research at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. I’m on a two-year fellowship that funds my research on climate variability and change with an aim to inform people’s decisions about how best to respond to stress from climate impacts. The substance of my work is scientific research: asking questions about the world and finding ways to meaningfully test hypotheses. However, an increasingly important part of my job is communication of my scientific findings to the public and to stakeholders.

2. Do your current job responsibilities align with the professional goals that you originally had when you began the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program?
Yes and no. My professional goals evolved tremendously during my time at SIPA. And the MPA-ESP program was pivotal to launching my present academic career by exposing me to the science that should underpin good policy. But the MPA-ESP program is explicitly geared towards training the next cadre of environmental professionals, not the next cadre of academics. So when I first began the program, I thought it would be a terminal degree, and I would leverage my training into a position in the non-profit world where I’d explicitly focus on ameliorating environmental damages. However, after the summer term, I realized my passion for environmental science and wanted the opportunity to dig deeper into the science to which I was exposed. During the fall term, I acted on that impulse and applied to PhD programs in environmental sciences. Without the MPA-ESP program, I would have never have never pursued scientific research as a career.

3. What skills did the program teach you that have proven useful to your current position?
Practically, policy-literacy is coveted in the sciences, particularly those sciences with significant policy implications, such as climate change. My work on global warming is linked directly to my experience analyzing and evaluating environmental policy in ESP coursework and workshops. These experiences inform the questions I ask as a scientist and the means by which I answer them. It was also my first exposure to graduate-level environmental—and in particular, climate—sciences, which was a critical step for being competitive to earth science PhD programs.

4. What skills and tools do you hope to acquire through this job?
As a research scientist, my days are spent asking questions, identifying hypotheses, and testing them. Essentially, I spend each day constructing tests to prove myself wrong, which can take its toll; it requires resilience and training to do effectively, and that’s precisely the skill- and tool-set I’m honing in my present work. I get to work with the best researchers in the world on questions of how water availability will change in the future world, and how we best evaluate the different means to answer such questions. My position allows me to work with and learn from some of the best scientists in the world. Just being able to share results with these scientists and garner their critical feedback is arguably the best training I could ask for.  More practically, I’m learning how to pursue important research questions and publish and communicate their answers to general audiences and stakeholders.

5. How did collaborating with your fellow students on class projects benefit you professionally and personally?
Research on climate change, particularly at the Earth institute, is intensively collaborative. Because of the MPA-ESP workshops, I have experience managing deadlines, expectations, and deliverables around big, complex projects. So at least in my profession, the collaborative nature of the MPA-ESP directly prepared me for my current work. Personally, the collaboration with my fellow ESP-ers was great—probably my favorite aspect of the program. There’s something powerful about the shared experience of intense work under intense deadlines for building lasting friendships. I really value my friends from the program and it’s been amazing to see the diverse and important work they’ve undertaken since graduating.

6. What kinds of environmental initiatives do you hope to start in your role?
Here’s the challenge with scientific research: objective, reproducible, and transparent (and, ideally, correct!) results are the goal. I want to understand the mechanics of climate impacts without passion and bias. For me, this means I’m uncomfortable with advocacy for any particular policy solution—to do so would undermine my goal of objectivity. So I don’t start environmental initiatives in my work. I do, however, think there’s an imperative to ask relevant questions, informed by the informational needs of good policy. While the evaluation of policy can be a scientific endeavor itself, it’s just not one I’m involved in. That said, there are a number of environmental research initiatives I’m leading: I’m currently studying the California drought and the means by which we measure it, future global water availability given people’s patterns of water consumption, and how proper estimates of the range of forms a world with global warming can take can actually help, rather than hinder, robust adaptations to climate change.

7. How do you intend to utilize your degree from the program to further your career?
The policy training I received in the program was critical to bringing me to this point, and in bringing me back to the Earth Institute as a postdoctoral fellow. The MPA-ESP program instilled on me the human consequences of environmental damages and the importance of policies to reduce them. But a good environmental policy requires rigorous identification of the environmental problem itself, which is the realm I’m involved with. This question of utilizing my MPA-ESP degree in academic pursuits also reinforces something important for me—my research isn’t simply academic. It’s heavily shaped by what I learned in the ESP program and the informational needs of policy are—informational needs I know because of my training in the program. As I move forward in my academic career, more and more academic departments are looking for inter disciplinarians: Scientists who can leverage economics and social sciences to answer the most pressing questions about the fates of things we value as the climate changes. I would not be so well-placed to pursue answers without the training I received in the MPA-ESP 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 Earth Institute.

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 741 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.

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