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How Rutgers Is Forging the Next Generation of Climate Change Problem Solvers

Training program created in wake of Superstorm Sandy brings graduate students from varied disciplines together to solve real-world climate problems

As a child, Dan Blanco watched low-income neighborhoods in his native Chicago flood during storms while the more affluent enclaves did not. Now, he is pursuing a doctoral degree in atmospheric sciences at Rutgers so he can further explore – and find ways to diminish – the often inequitable ravages of climate change.

Fatematuz Zohora Nishi, who grew up in a disaster-prone coastal area in Bangladesh, is also at Rutgers because of her concerns about changing climate. She is earning a doctoral degree in earth and planetary sciences so she can better understand sea level rise and inform endangered communities with her research.

Josephine O’Grady, a first-year graduate student at Rutgers, has set her sights on earning a degree in the master of public policy program at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. A native of Bay Head in Ocean County, O’Grady studied marine life in nearby Barnegat Bay from the time she was a girl and wants her professional work to intersect with the many community environmental organizations she grew up with.

Blanco, Nishi and O’Grady are part of a cadre of Rutgers graduate students in a special initiative at Rutgers that is one of the first in the nation. They are among the newest participants in the Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience (C2R2) graduate certificate program, where top students from a variety of scientific, engineering, public policy and urban planning backgrounds are trained and work together and then placed into partnerships with local municipalities confronting real-time issues brought about by climate change.

“If we want to have a real-world impact on finding solutions to climate change, we are going to need people who can talk both to other researchers and also talk to the people who are actually having the problems,” said Robert Kopp, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences. Kopp, who also serves as director of the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub, a new 13-institution, National Science Foundation-funded partnership led by Rutgers, founded C2R2 with several Rutgers colleagues following the impact of Superstorm Sandy. “Our goal is to produce next-generation researchers whose science is deeply guided by those conversations, and also to produce the critically important leaders who foster those conversations and help link climate research to real-world climate action. Many of our students want to do science that is useful in the near-term, not just the long-term.”

Started with support from the National Science Foundation and hosted at the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences (EOAS), the C2R2 certificate program is a collaboration between EOAS, the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, the Rutgers School of Engineering and the Rutgers School of Graduate Studies.

“The professionals who will solve the climate problems of tomorrow are our students,” said Jeanne Herb, another founder of the program and associate director of the Environmental Analysis and Communications Group at the Bloustein School. “Through C2R2, our students acquire the knowledge and practical skills needed to become leading researchers and practitioners tackling the critical challenges of coastal resilience.”

Herb said the program is deliberately designed to force students to take on unfamiliar subjects, including a course on science communications, and become familiar with novel environments. During a two-week boot camp, students and professors travel to coastal communities in six different New Jersey counties, conducting scientific fieldwork and meeting with community officials.

“The professionals who will solve the climate problems of tomorrow are our students.”

Jeanne Herb
Rutgers Environmental Analysis and Communications Group

Students in the program have served several coastal communities in New Jersey, preparing detailed analyses addressing climate challenges for Atlantic Highlands, Keansburg and Perth Amboy. The plan drafted for Perth Amboy involved elements of oceanography, biology, landscape architecture, urban planning and public policy that would address the natural hazards and climate change effects threatening the city. Students recommended taking a “green infrastructure” approach such as retrofitting existing buildings to be more resilient and sustainable. Lisa Auermuller, the assistant manager for the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station’s Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve in Tuckerton who teaches a course on climate risk and resilience, said she would like students to look at resilience as more than just the ability to bounce back from adversity. She wants students to come up with ideas that will leave citizens and their communities in a stronger position than before. “In this program, I also want them to consider multiple perspectives,” Auermuller said. “What does it mean to communicate science? What does it mean to work with a municipality or with stakeholders? And how can our work benefit more than just our own learning but really be put into use in the community?”
Lisa Auermuller and C2R2 students
Doctoral students Fatematuz Zohora Nishi and Dan Blanco discuss their coastal climate resilience models built during a recent class led by Lisa Auermuller (left). Photo by Lucia Mostello/Rutgers University.

During a recent class, more than a dozen students peppered a virtual visitor, Angela Andersen, the sustainability coordinator for Long Beach Township on Long Beach Island with questions about her experiences post-Sandy as well as present efforts to protect shorelines from erosion.

Ben Goldberg, a student in Auermuller’s class who is in his second year of a master’s program in city and regional planning at the Bloustein School, said he plans to help cities implement resilient designs.

His journey in the years after college – where he worked as an organic farmer, managed a farmers market, formally studied agroecology and worked as a cook in sustainably minded restaurant kitchens – led him to be in the right place and program, he said.

“Climate change is the defining issue of my generation,” said the Washington, D.C. native as he looked soberly around the classroom at his peers. “I believe there are changes coming that people are not ready for. This program gives me inspiration that I will be able to help.”

Other founding faculty of C2R2 include Clint Andrews, a professor and associate dean for research at the Bloustein School; Carrie Ferraro, who originally served as administrative director for the program and is now assistant professor of professional practice in the Math & Science Learning Center at the School of Arts and Sciences; Jie Gong, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the School of Engineering; and Rebecca Jordan, now a professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University.

Meet the Climate Corps

Angel Alguera, Rutgers Climate CorpsAngel Alguera
I am a first-year Atmospheric Science master’s degree student in the Department of Environmental Sciences, and my work focuses on meteorology and applications of climate change resiliency. My professional interests include severe weather forecasting and community preparedness regarding weather-related disasters. I work with Dr. James Shope at the NJ Climate Change Resource Center to produce applied research and reports relevant to New Jersey stakeholders. I currently assist with climate change data analysis, large dataset management, and report writing.

Daniel GilkesonDaniel Gilkeson
I’m a second-year master’s student in the City and Regional Planning Program with a concentration in environmental planning. As a planner, I hope to build more resilient communities in the face of increased risk due to climate change. With the Climate Change Resource Center, I am working on a project to aid the state in an update of its floodplain buyout program, known as Blue Acres, to be more proactive and comprehensive. Prior to this position, I interned in the Community and Economic Development Office at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Association. I’m also an AmeriCorps alum, having completed a year of service working on affordable housing in Nashville, Tennessee.

Benjamin GoldbergBenjamin Goldberg
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in climate adaptation and resiliency planning, with experience in sustainable food systems. I joined the Climate Corps last summer to help develop a GIS-based food waste recovery tool, and currently support community resilience through flood vulnerability analysis. I hold a B.A. from Middlebury College and a Certificate in Ecological Horticulture from UC Santa Cruz.

Surya Jacob, Rutgers Climate CorpsSurya Jacob
I am a graduate student in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School concentrating in community development, focused on housing, land and finance, as well as pursuing the Real Estate Development/Redevelopment Certification. Prior to Bloustein, I worked as an architect and interior designer in India and Canada and am pivoting towards a career in urban planning to engage in extensive projects at the macro level. My interests include affordable and mixed income housing, urban redevelopment, and housing finance, and I am deeply passionate about climate resilience in community planning. Being part of Climate Corps is a foundational step towards helping to solve equity issues in vulnerable communities along the coastal region.

Vineesh Das Kodakkandathil, RutgersVineesh Das Kodakkandathil
I am an urban planner with five years of professional experience in community-led ecotourism development and land use and environment management planning in ecologically sensitive areas. I have worked on and conducted extensive environmental sensitivity analyses, flood and landslide vulnerability assessments, and human impact assessments with the help of GIS tools. I’m currently pursuing my master’s in City and Regional Planning at Bloustein School with a concentration in Transport Planning and GIS.

Douglas LeungDouglas Leung
I am working with the Climate Change Resource Center to identify vulnerable communities and places affected by climate-induced flooding in coastal New Jersey municipalities. I am a Master of City and Regional Planning candidate at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. As a planner, I want to develop strategies and solve problems affecting our cities and communities that enable more equitable outcomes in housing and transportation. I am also a recent Army veteran, having served as a company commander of recruiting in the northern suburbs of Chicago and as a reconnaissance platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division. For fun, I enjoy weightlifting, running, reading fiction, and board games.

Nihar MhatreNihar Mhatre
I am a master’s candidate in city and regional planning at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, focusing on urban design and land use planning. Before being accepted at Rutgers, I worked as an architect at JD Studio and had my own architectural practice, Vastu Insights. My research interests revolve around designing and developing climate change adaptation and resilience strategies to promote equity in urban landscapes. Having the opportunity to work on real-world projects through Climate Corps will be an essential step in the development of my understanding of addressing climate change issues in vulnerable regions.

Justin MorrisJustin Morris
Justin is a master’s student at Rutgers University studying discovery informatics and data sciences. He is working under Professor Mark Rodgers to develop an optimization model that will act as a decision support tool for university financial investments with the end goal of eliminating Rutgers’ scope 2 emissions. He is excited to apply his background in data analytics and mathematical programming to help the university fight climate change.

Josephine O'GradyJosephine O’Grady
I am a first-year student in the Master of Public Policy program. Through the Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience (C2R2) certification, I am focusing a significant portion of my graduate coursework on topics including coastal geomorphology, environmental justice, and hazard mitigation planning. Before beginning my studies at the Bloustein School, I received my bachelor’s degree in public health from Kean University, where I first became interested in how coastal dynamics shape lived experiences. I previously served as an intern at the New Jersey State Policy Lab and currently work for the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

Jessica Parineet Jessica Parineet
I am a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the Bloustein School with a strong interest in climate change policy and related topics. In my previous work, I gained experience in a number of dimensions of climate change issues through carbon capture storage research, urban heat island research, and community level engagement as I am currently on the Student Advisory Board for the Rutgers Office of Climate Action. I am excited to expand on my interests in environmental justice and local level resilience planning through my involvement in the Climate Corps.

Dillon Patel Dillan Patel
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in Environmental Planning and International Development. I have previously worked as an economist performing cost-benefit analysis and conducting monitoring and evaluation for renewable energy in developing countries. I have also spent a summer in western Massachusetts mapping stormwater infrastructure and working with planners to identify suitable places for green stormwater infrastructure.

Moira Sweeder, Rutgers Climate CorpsMoira Sweeder
I am a graduate student enrolled in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School. My concentration is environmental planning with a focus on coastal resilience. Before pursuing my master’s degree at Rutgers, I studied sustainability at Stockton University. During this time, I interned for the PSEG Institute of Sustainability Studies, the Jacques Cousteau National Estuary Research Reserve, and NJ Audubon. I am thrilled to now be a part of the Climate Corps, researching coastal resilience as a part of the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

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