Nelson Institute class of 2012: Q&A with graduating students

May 16, 2012

Nearly 200 environmental studies students are just days away from becoming the newest alumni of the Nelson Institute, energized by the possibilities of a more sustainable future and their role in building it.

We caught up with eight graduating members of Nelson Institute undergraduate and graduate-level academic programs to ask about their fields of study, highlights from their time at the university, and advice for students following in their paths.

Erica Bickford

Erica Bickford

Hometown: Kittery Point, Maine

Graduate program: Ph.D., Environment and Resources; certificate, Transportation Management and Policy

What drew you to this program? My research looks at air quality impacts of freight transportation. Because my work cuts across atmospheric science, transportation and policy, the interdisciplinary Nelson Institute and its related certificates were a perfect fit for my course of study.

Favorite class or professor: My advisor, Tracey Holloway, is my favorite professor. She's a very active and engaged advisor, encouraging me to apply for workshops, summer programs, awards and fellowships.

Favorite memory from your time here? Being a part of the Nelson Institute student representatives was a highlight. As a rep, I really became engaged in the Nelson community, and it's a great community to be a part of.

What advice would you share with future graduate students? The most important things for a positive graduate school experience are finding the right research project and the right advisory fit. If you're not invested in your research project, it's going to be a long way to the graduation finish line. Finding an advisor you can communicate with, who is available when you need them, and who supports your academic and career goals can make the difference between an okay graduate experience and a great graduate experience.

What’s next for you? I defend my Ph.D. this summer and in September start a yearlong Congressional Science Fellowship in Washington, D.C. I'll spend the year working in the office of a member of Congress, learning about the policy process and how I, as a scientist, can better serve the science needs of legislators and the public.

Matt Covert

Matt Covert

Hometown: Spokane, Wash.

Graduate program: Master's degree, Environment and Resources

What drew you to this program? I figured out in my [political science] undergraduate work that I was really interested in environmental issues and policy. In searching for grad schools where I could pursue that overall interest, I was intrigued by the Nelson Institute's flexibility and emphasis on interdisciplinary environmental education.

I am also pursuing a master's in urban and regional planning, which is perfect because I ended up focusing on the land use policy of urban agriculture for my master's thesis in the Nelson Institute. The planning degree is a great complement because it is more oriented toward building specific professional skills, while the Nelson Institute was great for exposing me to diverse ideas and concepts.

Favorite class or professor: Harvey Jacobs' Land Use Policy and Planning. I learned so much in that class; it got me interested in planning as a profession, and I learned that I was fascinated by things I never even considered before.

Favorite memory from your time here? The experiences that stand out the most to me were the graduate student retreats sponsored by the Doris Duke Conservation Fellows. I have loved every one of them. It is such a great opportunity to see and connect with people you might not see very much during the semester, and it's vital for maintaining a sense of community among Nelson grad students.

Advice for future students: Start your thesis early, if you are doing one. My advisor (Harvey Jacobs) got me started on the idea-generating process at the end of my first semester, and I think that early start did more than anything to make my thesis a meaningful process.

What’s next? Hopefully I will be finishing my urban and regional planning degree next May, at which point I will try to get work here in Madison. I've built a lot of great connections here and I would love to stay a while longer.

Kelsey Kohout

Kelsey Kohout

Hometown: Fennimore, Wis.

Majors: Biological aspects of conservation, environmental studies

What drew you to the environmental studies major? I was an elementary education major with an interest in water quality and chemical management of swimming pools in regards to public and environmental health. I decided to focus away from elementary education and to the environment after sitting down for the first time with Tristin Marotz (the best advisor) and seeing what UW-Madison and the Nelson Institute had to offer in regards to an environmental education. I've loved every minute of it and never looked back!

Favorite class or professor: Participating in the Community Environmental Scholars Program was a wonderful experience for me. We touched on so many interesting topics relating to community-based environmental topics while preparing for a professional career. I also greatly enjoyed Marty Kanarek's Introduction to Public Health class. Each class period we got the opportunity to learn from experts within the various fields of public health. This class sparked my interest in how the many chemicals and materials we use every day in the environment may eventually affect our health.

What’s exciting about graduating in environmental studies at this time? The opportunities and options are endless. A degree in environmental studies isn't tied to one particular job or position; you can use it in so many ways.

Advice for future students: Get involved in activities and programs involving the environment, work hard, take advantage of all opportunities, and network! The more people you can connect with the better. Don't be afraid to get to know the Nelson Institute advisors and coordinators. I feel so lucky to have had such a supportive group behind me during my time as a student.

What’s next? Applying for environmental jobs around Madison. I would like to get more experience working before returning to graduate school.

Jessica Long

Jessica Long

Hometown: Raleigh, N.C.

Graduate program: Master's degree, Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development; Certificate on Humans and the Global Environment (CHANGE)

What drew you to these programs? The Nelson Institute drew me to UW-Madison from North Carolina because of its extensive network of excellent faculty, its collegial (rather than competitive) atmosphere, and its commitment to applied and interdisciplinary problem solving.

I'm also pursuing a second degree in economics and I've found that my training in the Nelson Institute has prepared me to identify problems where I might use an economic tool set, think about ways that an economic angle might interface with other perspectives on the problem, and make better assumptions and ask better questions about interactions between economy, ecology and society.

Favorite memory from your time here? I remember going with a car full of other Nelson ladies to Mirror Lake State Park on a sunny Saturday during my first semester here. I'd nervously moved to Madison without knowing a single person, and I was relieved to be with a friendly group on an impromptu field trip. We spent that day botanizing, picnicking and chatting about classes, struggles and hopes, and at that point and many times since then I've been extremely grateful to find myself in such good company here.

Advice for future graduate students: I'd advise other students interested in environmental studies to remember that they cannot solve everything, especially not within the scope of a graduate degree, and to think of their degree more as a chance to practice skills and learn ways to think that will help with a lifetime of problem-solving after leaving the institute.

What’s next? I'll be continuing graduate work at UW-Madison in economics and geography for a few more years until completing a Ph.D. Ultimately, I'd like to be a researcher and teacher on topics like rethinking consumption, resource allocation and well-being.

Cynthia Novak

Cynthia Novak

Hometown: Madison, Wis. 

Majors: Community and environmental sociology, environmental studies certificate

What drew you to the environmental studies certificate? I knew the environmental studies certificate would be a great fit with my chosen major, community and environmental sociology. I believe the certificate and all of the individuals involved in helping me achieve it have strengthened my understanding of environmental issues beyond what I would have learned solely with my major. 

Favorite class or professor? This is tough, as I have truly loved all of my classes and professors. I believe Cal DeWitt’s Principles of Environmental Science was my favorite. Besides the endless etymology of words, we were able to extend our learning outside of the classroom with hands-on, informative field trips. It was an endless exploration of environmental science.

What’s exciting about graduating in environmental studies at this time? More than ever I believe we need to pay special attention to environmental issues and work toward a sustainable environment. I’m simply excited with the prospect of being a part of these ongoing efforts.  

Advice for future students:  I would recommend getting as involved as possible on campus and with the Nelson Institute in particular. These may be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and could very well impact or change the path of your future careers and lives. Also, remember that community and public health are important facets of environmental studies. Take Laura Senier’s Public Health in Rural and Urban Communities (Community and Environmental Sociology 533) class if you are able – it’s very relevant.

What’s next for you? Dream job down the road? I’m working on finding employment and considering a part-time Law School program. My dream job would find me working in disadvantaged communities helping empower community members to build a better life for themselves and future generations. Beyond that, I hope to volunteer abroad through some of the programs sponsored by USAID Volunteers for Prosperity.

Casey Sweeney

Casey Sweeney

Hometown: Green Lake, Wis.

Majors: Biological aspects of conservation, environmental studies, Spanish

What drew you to environmental studies? What drew me to the environmental studies certificate and eventually to the major was how the classes, topics and faculty all stimulated and aligned with my interests. I find that in most cases my Spanish major complements and supports my environmental studies major. I think we as humans are the most crucial part of the environment and knowing Spanish allows me to learn how other places tend to fill their role in the environment.

Favorite environmental studies class or professor? I will borrow a quote from visiting professor John Francis: “My favorite is what I am doing now.” John’s capstone course is my favorite. He was somehow able to incorporate messages I have been learning not only my entire college career, but my whole life, into his class.

Advice for future students:  Do not be afraid when your interests or career choices are changing. Within environmental studies there are so many topics covered that it is incredibly easy to fall in love with all of them. Try internships, volunteer organizations, summer jobs, anything that you can see yourself doing in the future. That way, if you do not enjoy it, you can choose something different.

What’s next? In August I will be moving to Cuernavaca, Mexico, for a year, where I will be doing volunteer work through Young Adults Global Missions. There I will obviously be making use of my Spanish but more importantly bringing over some concepts and ethics I gleaned from environmental studies. I will learn how to live simply by our standards and hopefully get a glimpse of how our actions here affect everyone globally and vice versa.

Roland Wang

Roland Wang

Hometown: Hong Kong, China

Graduate program: Master's degree, Water Resources Management; Certificate on Humans and the Global Environment (CHANGE)

What drew you to these programs? The appeal of the Water Resources Management program was the prospect of working with renowned faculty on a group practicum with a handful of smart, dedicated classmates on a water issue of local importance. I was also drawn by the fact that the experiences gained from the practicum will have real-world applications. Once accepted into Water Resources Management, I enrolled in CHANGE, which turned out to be the best decision I made in my curriculum. I was able to draw on insights from both programs and apply them to one another. To say the least, the CHANGE program helped to shape my academic and professional interests toward the field of international water management and water conflict resolution.

Favorite class or professor? Local and Regional Approaches to Sustainability and Vulnerability, which is taught in the spring by Professor Samer Alatout for the CHANGE program. The class highlighted the concepts of framing, context, narrative and discourse among a handful of perspectives across the fields of environmental sociology and science and technology studies. Such perspectives have significantly changed how I understand local and global environmental issues.

Advice for future students: The Nelson Institute is as much about the great faculty, staff and courses as it is about being part of a community. While it's not always easy to find the time, attending any one of the numerous weekly environmental events around campus is a great way to make connections and broaden your perspectives.

What’s next? I'm waiting to hear back on two Sea Grant fellowships. In the meantime, I'm applying for various positions in the public and private sector.

Chad Zirbel

Chad Zirbel

Hometown: Kaukauna, Wis.

Majors: Biological aspects of conservation, environmental studies, physical geography

What drew you to the environmental studies major? I was drawn to the major because of the way it complemented my other majors. My environmental studies education has allowed me to become more interdisciplinary, which makes it easier to reach out and interact with people outside my own field of study. I hope to use this skill to reach across disciplinary boundaries and facilitate research that requires interdisciplinary collaboration.

Favorite class or professor? One of my favorite environmental studies courses was American Environmental History with William Cronon. I enjoyed how this class looked at the relationship of humans and the environment through time. It was interesting to learn about how humans have impacted the natural world, but also how the natural world influences people as well.

Favorite memory from your time here? Being a Nelson Institute undergraduate student representative and being able to interact with a diverse group of students who are all interested in different aspects of environmental studies.

What’s exciting about graduating in environmental studies at this time? In a world where more complicated problems exist than ever before, having an interdisciplinary education will be extremely beneficial. Not only does environmental studies prepare students who can tackle many of the major environmental problems we now face, but it also makes them better equipped to confront a large variety of problems because of the ability to reach across disciplines.

Advice for future students: Get involved in the Nelson community early on and take advantage of the many resources it has to offer. The Nelson Institute has an arsenal of people who are willing to help undergraduates network and find new opportunities in a variety of fields; you just need to put in the effort to seek them out.

What’s next? Next fall I am starting a Ph.D. program in plant biology at Michigan State University. I hope to someday have a career in either academia or as a research scientist in government or at a non-profit. Either way, I hope to have a balance of research, applied work and education as a part of my job.