How SBU alumni are doing their part to save our planet from the impact of climate change.
By Liza N. Burby
Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Recently, New York City has taken action to alleviate this crisis with the creation of the Governors Island Center for Climate Solutions. Stony Brook University has been named one of four finalists hoping to become the anchor institution that will guide this vital endeavor.
Stony Brook and our alumni have long been on the front lines of this battle for the planet, with our faculty and graduates from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) and their work leading the way. But for this fight to succeed, it must be fought on multiple fronts, through education, policy and community building, areas where our alumni are already making an impact. Here are just a few of our many dedicated alumni who are doing their part to save our environment:
Andrew Glinsky, MA ’19 (marine conservation and policy) is helping to protect sea turtles as a research associate at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation in Florida. As part of his research, he inventories loggerhead sea turtle nests to determine hatch success. He also helps release hatchlings that may be stuck inside.
Another marine conservation and policy graduate, Shannon Davis, MA ’17, is now an aquaculture welfare specialist in Rochester, New York, for Global Animal Partnership. As the first person to work within the realm of fish welfare for the organization, she’s building groundbreaking standards and regulations for ethical aquaculture practices.
Celeste Stout, BS ’13, MA ’17 (a double major in marine vertebrate biology/psychology, with a master’s in marine conservation and policy) is a fisheries management specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Maryland. In this role, Stout evaluates whether a species should be added, removed or reclassified in status on the Endangered Species List.
Also based in Maryland with NOAA is David Novak, PhD ’09 (marine and atmospheric sciences), who serves as the director of the Weather Prediction Center. He’s responsible for the overall provision of national forecasts of heavy rainfall, snowfall and hazardous weather.
Across the country in California, Kolby Jardine, PhD ’08 (marine and atmospheric sciences) is a scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he works in the Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division. He studies plant and microbial metabolism with a focus on how tropical forests play a major role in regulating Earth’s climate.
ACROSS THE GLOBE
Jonah Ratsimbazafy, PhD ’02 (anthropology), a renowned primatologist and conservationist, is the founder and president of the Groupe d’Etude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar, an organization that advocates for the protection of Madagascar’s lemurs and other wildlife. He leads a team of 20 Malagasy staff who work with the community to preserve the last remaining rainforests linking the northern and southern regions of Madagascar.
Fanny Cornejo, MA ’15 (anthropology), who’s completing her PhD at SBU, is country director for the Rainforest Partnership, helping the organization protect rainforests from the ground up. She’s dedicated to conservation activities to protect forests and raise public awareness for Peruvian primates, mainly for the critically endangered yellow-tailed woolly monkey.
Acacia Leakey, BE/MS ’18 (mechanical engineering) has been instrumental in her role as technical initiatives manager at the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya, where she has been working on developing sustainable off-grid technological solutions for African economic development. She’s actively continuing the Leakey family tradition of conservation and activism. (She’s the grandniece of the legendary Richard Leakey.)
Lisa Broughton, MA ’09 (public policy) has been helping Long Islanders save energy for more than 16 years as the energy director and climate action coordinator for Suffolk County, New York, where she initiated the Long Island Women in Energy program and helped to lead the county in solar adoption policies and energy conservation.
In New York City, Fareen Islam, BA ’13 (environmental design, policy and planning), a project manager at Van Alen Institute, works with community-based organizations, elected officials and philanthropic groups to lead public realm projects and urbanism initiatives that aim to build community-centered resiliency and environmental justice throughout the city and the region at large.
Corey Cohn, BS ’00, PhD ’06 (geology and earth and space sciences/geosciences, respectively), a senior science and technology adviser for international programs for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science in Washington, DC, works to foster agreements that promote cooperation and accelerate science with partners across the globe. He’s currently working with the Office of Nuclear Physics to help facilitate international collaboration on the Electron-Ion Collider being built at Brookhaven National Laboratory, striving to have the right mechanisms in place so that collaboration can occur unimpeded.
Kyle Whyte, PhD ’09 (philosophy) is the George Willis Pack Professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, teaching the next generation about environmental justice. His research has improved the quality of ethical guidance available to United States’ policymakers and scientists who work collaboratively with Indigenous peoples on preparing for climate change. Whyte currently serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
Supporting Communities in Adaptation and Relocation
As a climate adaptation specialist for The Nature Conservancy in Poughkeepsie, New York, since 2016, Michael McCann, PhD ’15 (ecology and evolution) is tasked with helping New Yorkers adapt to the dual threats of a hotter, wetter future due to heavier rainfalls, rising sea levels and more intense coastal storms. He said that applies to every county in the state, all of which have faced climate disasters in the last decade.
The objective is promoting long-term responses that will keep people safe from flooding and allow our ecosystems to continue to adjust to the changing climate. “So if a flood plain is currently an undeveloped existing wetland, we think that should be protected,” McCann said. “But my work is more focused on the flood plains that already have some development in them.”
That means for communities across the state where the risk of remaining in those wetlands or flood-prone areas is too great, residents are voluntarily making decisions to retreat and relocate to higher ground. McCann’s role is to enable that relocation through a voluntary federal buyout program. Statewide over the last 30 years, more than 1,500 homeowners have participated.
“We’re trying to help communities lead this as much as possible, trying to find ways that we can help them get access to funding and match them up with technical expertise and to convene the partnerships, whether it’s bringing together different government agencies or government agencies with the nongovernment stakeholders,” McCann said. “Especially regarding retreat, it has to come from the community. As much as we realize this is an adaptation approach, it’s not right for everybody and the timing isn’t always right. Nobody should force it upon you. So we try to find ways that we can support communities who want to engage with these problems and think about whether or not these are the right adaptation approaches for them.”
All of this requires good communication, his main role at The Nature Conservancy and a skill McCann said was a key part of his PhD program at SBU.
“I was a TA for many semesters. I taught a course in undergraduate bio. I would take trainings from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science,” McCann said. “So there were so many opportunities to not just gain the knowledge, but also figure out ways to communicate complex things to a lot of different audiences, which I think is really what’s key to my work now.”
Ultimately, McCann believes what needs to be communicated about climate change is that no single person can solve it. “So get rid of all of your guilt. The solutions to climate change require systemic changes that are outside the hands of any particular community member,” he said. “But what we can do is vote for leaders who believe that climate change is real, who prioritize responses to it, who realize it’s not a trade-off between climate and jobs and that these are actually complementary things. But I think for our sanity’s sake, find that project that can get you to see what your local environment looks like and make a small difference, like a beach cleanup. That also helps you to find other people who care for their local environment, which gives you a sense of community just knowing there are other people who think like you.”