By Catherine Brewster
Since 2007, my Reasons for Writing course for seniors has included weeks' worth of reading on climate science. A sabbatical poking around in the field—a giant Project Week, in effect—strengthened my determination to use that material as a way to say to my students: "The world really is as complicated as we're always telling you it is." These alumni/ae career journeys all include some version of this affirmation, as they work to further "sustainability" in all its critical, thorny, fascinating incarnations.
Max Cohen ’04 remembers (as do I) following the long tale of the ultimately doomed Cape Wind project while he was at Commonwealth. Though he says he didn't consider himself "a particularly sciency person" then, he was curious about both the technology and the opposition to it. Now he works for Ørsted, the Danish company that owns and operates the first offshore wind farm (Block Island) in the U.S., acquiring new leases for wind projects. "States have decided this makes sense; it's happening," he says, and offers an analogy for Cape Wind: "It was like Moses. It had to die before the Hebrews could get to Canaan."
Emmanuelle Humblet ’00 used her degrees in environmental studies and environmental policy as a consultant to airports and universities on sustainability. Seven years ago, wanting more of a hand in such efforts "from the inside," she landed at Apple, where she now assesses the tech juggernaut's progress toward its own sustainability goals. One thing she likes about the job, she says, is that she's continually learning—for instance, about safer materials ("Smarter Chemistry"), which she calls "fascinating and hard to talk about": PFAS, heavy metals, and other "forever" molecules.
Contaminants like those have been one major driver for Danya (Machnes) McLamb ’02 since the aftermath of a major oil spill in 2010 that shook the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) world. With her career just getting started, she suddenly found herself "advising teams on how to set up plastics-free experiments in the field." With degrees in chemistry and environmental health, she got a crash course through her work with Industrial Economics, Inc., in how many constituencies were involved just in "doing the science on the results of an oil spill that everybody agrees happened." Since then, she's been encouraged that policymakers now have to consider public health as well as economics when they regulate industry yet disheartened by how many laws still "protect capitalism, not health."
Plant geneticist Joanna Rifkin ’05 is "not a big fan of the current global capitalist system." They're accordingly wry about their job in Toronto researching and developing "green walls," the verdant vertical structures increasingly common in corporate lobbies and malls. Less low-maintenance than they look, the alluring walls come with "a lot of really bizarre and terrible engineering challenges that people don't think of." Mold, for instance, can run rampant and undo the improvements to indoor air quality. But Joanna is working on engineering pothos (Epipremnum aureum, the same tough little plant beloved of Commonwealth Mandarin teacher Rui Shu, profiled in our last issue) that can remove not only CO2 but also volatile organic compounds like chloroform, benzene, and formaldehyde—say, from the air factory workers breathe. Though green walls are "not going to save the world," says Joanna, the same technology holds promise for vertical indoor farming, "maybe instead of shipping all our salad from California."
Even before he found himself reading Michael Pollan in my Reasons for Writing course as a senior, Adriel Hsu-Flanders ’07 knew a lot about where salad comes from: "Food was the way I ended up where I am," he says. Studying anthropology at Reed College led to immersion in Portland's local-food movement and jobs there and at Siena Farms back in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Like Joanna, he issues a disclaimer about his current job: "I'm not working directly in food justice." It was, though, a desire for greater impact that led him to Tufts, earning a master's degree exploring the intersection of agriculture, food business, and the environment, and then to Indigo Agriculture, where he works with farmers on practices with measurable impact on carbon emissions—carbon credits Indigo can sell on their behalf. Along the way, his expertise and network have expanded from small organic farmers and James Beard award winners to data scientists and growers of commodity crops—"very smart businesspeople" whose actions affect carbon sequestration whether they're motivated by climate concerns or not.
These Commonwealth graduates share a seriousness of purpose, a vast array of interests, and a healthy sense of irony. Their eyes are wide open as they find their places in a world full of enormous questions: in Danya's words, "What are our values? Are we going to move to Mars or make it work here?" Emmanuelle observes that corporate challenges often include reducing emissions while increasing sales; she thinks back to Patagonia's "Don't buy this jacket; don't buy what you don't need" ad campaign in 2011. "You see a lot more brands talking about sustainability, but are you really going to not buy something because it's bad for the environment?"
Commonwealth may not have been the only incubator for all of these alum careers, but most of them talk about our science curriculum in shaping their path. For Danya, "it all started with Annalee" Salcedo's chemistry classes, "the first time in my life where I was experiencing what I sort of considered to be my thing." Emmanuelle's memories of Commonwealth are dominated by fencing and physics teacher Farhad Riahi. Max wrote a Chemistry paper on different power sources for cars, which Rebecca Jackman deemed a B+; years later, reviewing "the grown-up version of that paper, a big report on alternative fuels for buses," he found himself thinking, "This is kind of a B+ paper. It should have gone into more detail."
For Max and others, it was sometimes harder in the world outside Commonwealth to know how much detail and rigor were expected. In his first job, Max's boss chastised him for doing a regression analysis rather than a bar chart ("No one has time for that"). Danya describes simplifying presentations that she knew would be given to clients with less technical background, taking out certain supplementary statistical analysis in anticipation of questions about why a single answer can't be pinpointed. On the other hand, for Adriel the legitimacy of carbon credits depends on deep dives into numbers: Indigo's are based not only on models but on soil sampling that's extensive enough to validate the models' calculations on how much carbon is stored, with both the cost of sampling and the remaining uncertainty priced into the credits.
Max traces his respect for keeping sight of "the forest and the trees"—essential for forecasting wind capacity for decades ahead—to his history and English as well as STEM courses at Commonwealth. In his consulting days, he came to realize that "people can be so smart and so good at what they do, but they do get siloed, and the big-picture guy is a job and a skill that requires its own expertise." Joanna, who double majored in classics and biology at Amherst, compares the genetic puzzle solving they love to both chemistry and Latin. Moreover, "being exposed to so much Latin and Greek so early" impressed on them that even people who lived so long ago "were just people," and a sense of the vagaries of history informs their thinking about plants. You can denounce agriculture's Green Revolution of the 1960s, Joanna points out, only if you don't remember the fears of global famine at the time. Now, because "a lot of rapacious corporate practices" have given transgenic, aka genetically modified, plants a bad name among people who believe in small-scale organic farming, it's harder to convey why we shouldn't close the door to the engineering of crops like salt-tolerant rice. "It would be great if we could grow all our produce on small organic farms, but..."
The question Joanna points to has come up in some form for all five graduates: how big is big enough? Sometimes, big industries, as Adriel puts it, "can move the needle faster" than governments can, and after several years of "selling produce mostly to rich white families and the fanciest restaurants in Boston," he now sees "the shift coming as agriculture companies acknowledge and internalize currently externalized costs (their carbon footprints), thus driving the price of credits up." For Max, offshore wind's numbers are compelling because while it's more expensive and involves more stakeholders than solar, a project once it's built can make a big dent in emissions all at once, rather than one rooftop at a time. President Biden's goal for offshore wind power generation is 30 gigawatts by 2030, which, says Max, "is ultimately up to the states, but that's around what's being planned now." Adjusted for the variability of wind, that's enough to power 13 million homes.
Joanna majored in biology (despite, she says, struggling with it as a ninth grader at Commonwealth) partly because they had "always been interested in how evolution works." That seems no less true of Danya, Max, Adriel, and Emmanuelle: Adriel's work also touches research into alternatives to traditional row agriculture—cover crops and other regenerative practices he knows from his career with small producers. Max is used to the idea that the wind projects he's working on now won't be built until the 2030s. Emmanuelle appreciates the way she now has to spend less time convincing people to care about sustainability than she once did: "Now the conversation can be more about how to make a difference." Both she and Danya talk about how "figuring out why something didn't work" can be just as interesting as reporting on successes. None are naïve about the challenges of the coming decades of life on Earth, but all seem sure to find them interesting.
Catherine Brewster is an English teacher and twenty-one-year veteran of Commonwealth School. This article was published in the Summer 2022 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.