Alum Talks Systems Thinking for Sustainable Development

by |November 12, 2018

By Alana Masciana

“What will I do after I graduate? How will I get where I want to go?” These are questions students often worry about, and they are questions the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development sets out to address in our alum spotlights.

Our most recent interviewee, Anna LoPresti, graduated from the sustainable development program in 2016. Like many undergraduates, Anna was not sure exactly how her studies would relate to a career post-graduation. We got in touch to ask how it all came together.

Oxford University Graduation. Photo: Anna LoPresti

After graduating from Columbia, Anna undertook graduate studies at the University of Oxford, where she received her Master of Science in Environmental Change and Management after producing a dissertation on community-based climate adaptation in Colombia. That was a year ago.

Since then, she has begun working as a Policy and Data Analyst at SDG USA, a non-profit focused on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in the United States. (You can find their most recent project, The Sustainable Development Report of the United States 2018, here.) SDG USA is directed by Jeffrey Sachs, a former faculty member of the sustainable development program, and one of Anna’s professors at Columbia.

When asked about the most challenging and rewarding parts of her work, Anna told us they were one and the same. “The thing I enjoy most is also a challenge: working on the SDG framework, which covers such a wide range of topics. With issues from climate to education to inequality, it is impossible to be an ‘expert’ on all of the SDGs. Still, working at that scale has given me a better understanding of how different sustainability outcomes are connected. When researching a topic like renewable energy, I can explore its connections to public health, environmental justice, climate change, economic development, etc. Having that latitude is unique.”

The focus on latitudinal, systems thinking was established for Anna far before she began working at SDG USA. In fact, she spoke about this sort of broad thinking as being central to her undergraduate experience; it was one of the things she took with her going forward. “I think organizations are starting to recognize that this kind of approach is necessary for long-term resilience (environmentally, socially, financially, etc.). However, there are still many cases where systems thinking is seen as an inconvenience or inefficient, and the sustainable development program equipped me well to explain and advocate [this kind of] approach in those cases.” Anna stressed the Sustainable Development Capstone course as being particularly instrumental:  “Because it’s structured around a concrete project, it gave me a clearer sense of how to take what I had learned throughout the program and apply it in practice. I took the class with Radley Horton, who is a great professor and set an example for me of [the impact of] working in interdisciplinary ways.” Other specific skills she highlighted as essential takeaways from her undergraduate degree include literature reviews, writing for technical and general audiences, public speaking, and statistical/data analysis through Excel and Stata.

Up next, Anna will be working on the launch of the United States Sustainable Development Solutions Network (US-SDSN), an initiative for US universities that will be formed as part of the SDSN, a secretariat operating under the auspices of the UN secretary General intended to support the achievement of the SDGs.

Tree Planting. Photo: Anna LoPresti

Finally, before signing off, Anna left us with some tips for current sustainable development students: “Because it encompasses so much…the Sustainable Development major can feel overwhelming at first. I recommend reflecting on what part of sustainable development is most interesting to you and finding your niche within the field. I focused on climate change and ecology, so when I graduated, I felt like I had a broad understanding of sustainability as well as a more specific skill set. Also, don’t shy away from quantitative classes or writing a thesis, and get coffee with people, myself included! It’s how I narrowed down my interests, kept in touch with professors, and got my current job.”

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 cshimkus@ei.columbia.edu.

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.

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