As many students and young professionals reflect on all the things that they saw, heard, and did to celebrate the planet during Earth Month, they might look to their future and wonder how they could pursue a career in sustainability or environmental science even if that was not a primary focus of their formal education as a STEM or non-STEM student. I have some great news! Starting now and continuing over the next decade, there will be many new entry points into sustainability careers that will require a wide variety of skills, not only STEM.
I believe that there is no one “right” path to pursue a career in sustainability and environmental science. The best advice I can offer to mentors or teachers is to help young students understand that there are many possible paths and educate them on how to recognize these paths if they are truly interested in an environmental career.
For example, last summer, I was advising third- and fourth-year high school students interested in STEM. When I started talking about the need for creating sustainable cities and how the ideal future city would not only be smart and digital but would also need to sustainable, the students told me that they hadn’t associated STEM with sustainability. We spent the rest of the summer learning about the role of data in urban transportation planning and how this can lead to a greener, cleaner, and sustainable city.
I was able to share with my students through multiple examples that indeed there is a strong connection between STEM skills and sustainability, and that future roles in sustainability—roles that might not even exist today—will call upon a diverse variety of skills. I hope I was able to inspire at least a few of my students to take their love of science, math and data analysis and apply to their future education path. And who knows— these students now in their teens could take on a variety of roles in creating the green cities of the future.
As someone with more than a decade’s experience in the sustainability field, I want to help increase awareness about sustainability job paths. Choosing a STEM career does not necessarily mean getting locked into becoming a computer programmer—one can get creative about matching their desired skills to achieving sustainability goals. On the flip side, technology plays a crucial role in reversing the impacts of global warming on the planet. For example, pursuing studies in AI and machine learning, could allow you to contribute to the sustainability goals by building better algorithms to make sure our data centers use less energy or operate to maximize the use of renewable electricity from the grid. Globally, the cost of solar energy has dropped by more than 80 percent over the last decade. This was possible due to advances in technologies for production and materials. This is a great example of how research in science and technology can directly contribute to creating a sustainable planet.
There is no one “right” path to pursue a career in sustainability and environmental science. We must help young students understand that there are many possible paths and educate them on how to recognize these paths if they are truly interested in an environmental career.
My own career is a good illustration for people who are or might soon be at an early decision-making stage in their education or job path. As a teen living in India, I didn’t know that my love for nature could be converted into a science-focused career. My parents had a big influence on my career choice. Both scientists—my father is a mechanical engineer and mother is an agronomist—they have devoted their lives to conducting research to solve the problems of rural India while implementing principles of sustainability in their daily lives.
After completing my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in India, I decided to pursue a masters and PhD in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Florida where I won a NSF fellowship to participate in an interdisciplinary program to study water and wetlands. A green-chemistry course during my graduate work introduced me to the concept of lifecycle assessment—the science and engineering of calculating environmental impacts. And this was a perfect match because it allowed me to combine my love for mathematics and analytics and environmental science—all while calling myself a mechanical engineer. In that course of study I learned an important lesson: to create sustainable products and processes, you need to be able to quantify the impacts, because quantification is a critical part of going greener. That’s how I found my path to Siemens—I found a very good fit as a sustainability lifecycle engineer evaluating the lifecycle environmental impacts of Siemens products.
In my 10 years at Siemens, I’ve also learned that often I need to set my love of STEM aside and use my soft skills—people skills, talking skills, emotive skills—to communicate with a diverse audience that includes internal and external stakeholders. So young people also need to be aware that in their future careers, they will most likely be working in these overlapping spaces of science, tech, and soft skills or people skills, because engaging with people and building consensus to improve the environment is half the battle.
I do think that anyone interested in working to solve climate and environmental problems must have some love for technology, or at least not be averse to technology. Technology is a vital part of the whole climate discussion, and it will play a crucial role in solving climate problems. When we think about climate and environmental technology we think of solar arrays, LEED buildings, and digitalized factories. But technology also includes just about anything you could find at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES)—new things that are not only about making life easier but that are also focused on energy efficiency. This is technology that we use every day.
Lastly, and just as important as the science and soft skills, I’d also say that creativity and flexibility are essential skills for career in sustainability. The engine behind technology is creativity. Never think your ideas are strange—they’re simply ideas that haven’t been tested yet. We’re going to face problems in climate science that we haven’t even thought about yet and we’ll need to be really creative to solve them. Flexibility or the ability to “learn to learn” is also a great skill to develop. As the field of sustainability grows every day, be open to new ideas and be creative as you apply learnings and skillsets to solve climate problems no matter what discipline you’ve trained in.
Published: May 13, 2021