Sustainable Development Alum Embraces Shift to Physical Sciences
By Alana Masciana
Sara Lytle is an alum of the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development. She graduated in 2018 with a dual BA from Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies (“Sciences Po”). We caught up with her as she prepares to begin graduate school in environmental engineering, and asked about her experiences at Columbia and her transition from the social to the physical sciences.
What was your first step after graduating from the Sustainable Development program?
After I graduated, I took a vacation and a very long nap! I went back to Reims, France, where I received my BA in Social/Political Science, to reminisce at all my old haunts. I also got to see my partner’s university in the south of France. Overall, it was an incredibly nostalgic experience that helped me appreciate all I have done in the last four years. Shortly after that, I shipped off to NASA’s Advanced Computing for the Earth Sciences boot camp at the University of Virginia, and now I’m an intern at NASA GISS. After my internship wraps up, I’ll head to Columbia’s Earth and Environmental Engineering Department for graduate school research on remote sensing and hydrology. I won’t be too far from SDEV since I will TA Professor Dale’s Environmental Policy and Governance course.
Was there a particular SDEV course or experience that inspired you to enroll in a master’s program in the natural sciences?
There were three academic events that spurred my enrollment in the hard sciences. First, I took linear algebra in my first semester at Columbia, even though I had convinced myself for many years prior that I was not a “math person.” I passed the class and fell in love with matrix math. Second, the next semester, I took GIS for Sustainable Development with Professor Dara Mendeloff and fell in love with the software side of environmental science—and even later TA’d for the course. Finally, during my search for a summer internship (in which I was rejected from around 35 places before getting positive news!), I received an offer from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to make a database for the Polar Geophysics department, an experience that cemented a passion for both computer science and the physical sciences.
What has been the greatest challenge in your shift to the natural sciences?
The greatest challenge I’ve tackled has been a mental shift after years of undervaluing myself in the classroom, particularly in mathematics, following a primary school education that favored males over females. It takes constant self-affirmation to break the inane feeling that my voice belongs less at the conference table, or that I should stick to the humanities. Additionally, I have found incredible scientists that not only teach, but actively mentor, including Dr. Indrani Das, Dr. Chris Small, Dr. Marcus van Lier-Walqui, Dr. Kerry Key, Professor Kytt MacManus, and Dr. Robert Farrauto, to name a few.
What skills do you think you will gain in the program and what do you think will be your next step career-wise?
I can’t wait to learn the ins and outs of research, from writing for publications, to the nuances of continually keeping abreast of new information in the field, to fieldwork itself. I’m hoping to take several computer science courses so that I can eventually create a machine-learning program that will allow people to better predict the effects of natural disasters by calculating defoliation of tropical environments, specifically in Puerto Rico. After I complete my master’s, I’ll most likely work towards a PhD, but I’m unsure whether it will be in engineering, geophysics, or even computer science!
What aspects of SDEV do you feel best prepared you for graduate school?
The most helpful part of the Sustainable Development program was the flexibility of the curriculum. While there are no official “tracks” in the major, there are multiple ways to fulfill requirements, which allows you to focus on your interests and try that “scary/weird/challenging” class. While in the program, I took multiple graduate level computing, engineering, and physical science classes—which fulfilled some prerequisites and gave me the necessary experience to decide on a physical science track. Additionally, through these courses, I met many of the professors that I have relationships with today.
How do you think participating in the Dual BA added value to your academic pursuits as a SDEV student?
Being involved in the Dual BA program ensured that every class I took at Columbia was one I was interested in and led to some interesting choices, like taking a remote-sensing course at the same time as a cryptographic literature course. My involvement in the program also forever destroyed my ability to see things in a vacuum. Every academic topic, whether social or scientific, comes with persistent social implications for women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, people of differing socioeconomic statuses, local communities, etc. In the end, the dual degree forces you to ask, “Who or what does this plan, policy, or technology really support?” And I’ve found that I am often uncomfortable with the answer.
Were you involved in any groups on campus while you were a student?
I was involved in the Student Union for Sustainable Development as the Director of Academic Affairs and I served as the co-President of CU Bellydance. I also volunteered off-campus for multiple organizations, and I hope to do more of this during my graduate degree.
What do you think is the most important sustainability/environmental policy challenge and has that changed for you over time?
Up until this past year, I fell into the trap of believing in “cure-all” solutions for planetary degradation, whether it was recycling everything, eliminating red meat production, or another individualistic take on sustainability. Unfortunately, it will take much bigger changes than any of these; 71% of CO2 emissions come from just 100 companies globally, and sustainable government regulations are constantly rolled back or vetoed in favor of corporate growth. So, for the United States, at least, it will take education—starting in the earliest primary school years—to change the way our population prioritizes, and subsequently, votes.
What tips do you have in the Dual BA program for students interested in pursuing sustainable development?
- Hold tight to the values that brought you into this program. You would not have gotten accepted if you did not have a passion for changing the world and helping others. Stick to those values, even if your path to realize them veers from your original plan.
- If you plan to study or work within the social sciences, take a couple of physical science courses (and vice versa). You only get to do undergrad at Columbia once.
- Find faculty members that interest you and ask them for a coffee before you need something from them.
- If you can, take your core classes in the summer and save the more difficult ones for the fall and spring semesters. Doing this allows you to focus more on Sustainable Development coursework without being overwhelmed (it also allows you to enjoy the core classes much more than you might otherwise).
Do you have any advice for students who wish to turn to the hard sciences?
I have a piece of practical advice: apply to everything. Over time, job rejections get significantly easier to take, and each application provides an opportunity to strengthen your cover letter and polish your interview skills. My first job offer involved computer science and glaciology—two subjects I knew nothing about—but I applied anyway, and that job became the catalyst for my shift to environmental research at Columbia. If you have an interest, try it out. If you find you love what you’re doing, commit to doing it. Before I made the shift to the physical sciences, I kept thinking that if I didn’t, I would always wonder, and maybe regret, not trying. Do some soul-searching and ask yourself: what is actually holding me back?
Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems. It is offered through the Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the sustainable development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health. To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, visit our website or contact Program Manager Cari Shimkus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alana Masciana is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is an undergraduate student at Barnard College.
* Responses have been edited for this post.