8 questions for Jeffrey Shaman, interim director of the Columbia Climate Institute
Jeffrey Shaman, who has long been associated with Columbia University, served as interim dean of the Climate Institute in July. Dean Shaman’s knowledge of climate issues is deep: As a researcher, he studies the impact of climate and weather on human health and uses mathematical and statistical models to understand and predict the spread of infectious diseases. During the Covid-19 pandemic, his team built the first model to demonstrate the epidemiological properties of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and predict its spread.
In addition to serving as dean, Shaman earned a Ph.D. in earth and environmental sciences from Columbia University, where he is also a professor at the Climate Institute and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.
We caught up with Shaman to learn more about his research career, his thoughts on the future of climate schools, and the impact he thinks schools will have on solving the climate crisis.
You’ve been at Columbia University since the late 1990s. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I studied biology and mathematics at university.However, I didn’t start graduate school—at Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, as part of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences—until I was almost 30 years old. In my 20s, I explored a few other fields, such as ecology, immunology, and music, but none really clicked.
What inspires you to work on health and climate research?
When I started at Columbia, I had every intention of pursuing a PhD that incorporated more physics and mathematics. I majored in biology during my undergraduate studies and did research in ecology and immunology, but I found myself not inspired enough by these fields to commit to a PhD. At the same time, I don’t want to give up on biology entirely. At Lamont, I am leaning toward climate, atmospheric science, and hydrology, but I want to combine this work with biology, specifically human health outcomes. My chosen thesis topic, meteorological and hydrological drivers of mosquito abundance and mosquito-borne disease outcomes, is very interdisciplinary. I found this topic very motivating.
Climate School is entering its third year. What excites you about school? What is your vision for this?
I believe in the premise and promise of Climate Schools – that we can help drive and accelerate the global transition to a more just and equitable carbon-neutral economy. I would not serve as interim dean if I did not believe that a well-positioned climate academy could actually contribute to this effort. The problems posed by climate change and our unsustainable extraction of resources are enormous. They are far beyond the capabilities of any one school or university. In fact, these issues require input and effort from all of us. However, climate schools can be pioneers in this effort: developing new science, scholarship and technology; supporting the transfer of solutions to markets and society; promoting climate communication; integrating a justice lens into social thinking; co-creating knowledge with communities, and with government and jointly develop policies and international agreements on the world stage. These efforts can impact a range of sectors and themes: food security, water security, waste management and circular economy, environmental policy, green economy, climate finance, built environment, urban planning, climate law and justice, energy storage, coastal resilience. This list is far from exhaustive.
What is unique about Climate Schools in preparing students and young researchers to become leaders in the climate field?
I believe that Climate Schools’ greatest impact will be achieved through its educational programmes. Most of our students (especially those in the master’s degree program) want to work in the solutions field. They are not trained to be climate scientists. They want to understand how to respond effectively to crises; they want to promote climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience; and they want to accelerate these efforts in areas ranging from environmental justice to climate finance. As our courses and course offerings continue to expand in the coming years, we will graduate hundreds of master’s students each year. These talented, dynamic, and well-informed individuals will develop policies, technologies, markets, and social contracts to better manage and preserve our environment and climate systems while helping people around the world escape poverty. Through our graduates, we extend our impact.
We appear to be at a turning point when it comes to global climate change. What can climate schools do to make a real impact?
Our impact is primarily achieved through education, research and academic advancement, and the translation of research and academic advancement into practice.The last article agrees with Columbia University fourth purposeincluding activities such as making better batteries and bringing them to market, working with local communities to develop resilience in coastal areas and advising governments on developing food security plans.
The school has recently announced exciting new teaching appointments. How can they help support this vision?
Climate Schools are still in their early stages and are evolving rapidly. Our recent hires work in coastal resilience and urban planning, climate and environmental law and justice, climate finance, food security, conservation biology, climate dynamics, paleoclimate, and adaptation and resilience. These are the critical areas of expertise our students need to become leaders in their fields.
How can climate schools help promote an inclusive environment where students from all backgrounds feel heard, valued and empowered?
Providing and promoting an inclusive environment for our students is a core, key principle of Climate Schools. 40% of our newest student body is international, with the remainder coming from 18 U.S. states. These students come from different disciplinary and educational backgrounds and are attracted to our master’s programs for different reasons – some want to work in the field of climate finance or climate justice, while others want to work in government or do research. These diverse backgrounds and ambitions infuse our student body with a broad range of perspectives, which is essential for challenging critical thinking and enriching the student experience. Additionally, based on student feedback, we have expanded our course offerings to include climate justice, climate communication, and environmental law, and expanded our event series. We also want to increase scholarship opportunities so that anyone, anywhere in the world, can afford to attend climate school.
What advice do you have for our students to maximize their experience, academically and otherwise, while at Climate School?
As cliche as it sounds, carpe diem. Take advantage of the courses, events, research and academic opportunities offered by the Climate Institute and Columbia University. And of course, balance work and play—and make the most of New York City.