News Story

May 13, 2011
Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Probing the Future of Energy, Across the Disciplines

For Niall Mangan, a third-year PhD student in systems biology, interest in environmental issues started as a love of the outdoors, during a Texas childhood full of nature hikes and trips to the beach with her family. As an undergraduate at Clarkson University, Mangan heard “a lot of discussion about alternative energy and sustainability. I think somewhere in there I realized that there are a lot of people on this planet, and that the planet is really only so big after all. If we all want to keep enjoying the world we live in, we need to figure out how to live more sustainably.”

Once at Harvard, Mangan discovered the Harvard Graduate Consortium on Energy and Environment, an interdisciplinary and collaborative community of students who examine those interconnected issues from a variety of viewpoints. “The consortium has done an excellent job of providing an incredibly broad and in-depth presentation of all of the factors relating to climate change and energy,” Mangan says. “I feel like I have gotten a very full picture of how all the pieces connect in the complex picture — perhaps not all, but a very broad framework nonetheless.”

The consortium is open to PhD and ScD students from across Harvard who have finished at least one year of their graduate programs and who will maintain their focus in their primary disciplines while completing consortium requirements. To date, 33 students from five schools (and 11 departments) have successfully completed the program. Applications for the 2011–2012 year are due Monday, May 23, at 5 p.m.

The effort grew from discussions among Professor Daniel Schrag, the director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, Professor Michael Aziz, faculty coordinator of the consortium, and other faculty members. Consortium students become “more broadly educated than they otherwise would, and that perspective helps them more wisely direct their research and scholarship toward solving the most significant and urgent problems facing human society,” Aziz says. “I hope that many of them become leaders in academia, industry, government, and nongovernmental organizations and use their perspective to lead us toward making the wisest choices for society.”

Part of the consortium’s appeal is that it provides “another avenue to meet fellow scholars,” says Kevin Vora, a fifth-year PhD student in applied physics and an alum of the consortium. “It brings together PhD students from very different fields, and that allowed me to exchange points of views and learn about concerns that others may have pertaining to the climate problem that I may not have thought of. The consortium has a range of speakers and courses focusing in fields ranging from science to policy, all of which are important when looking at the current energy problems.”

“What surprised me was the number of students who are interested in the problem,” continues Vora. “I would definitely recommend applying to the consortium to anyone interested in the energy and environmental problems that the world faces.”

Once admitted, students are required to take three of four courses; next year, courses will explore energy consequences, energy technology, energy policy, and energy security. A weekly reading seminar is also offered to current and former consortium students. And each student in the program can apply for a graduate fellowship and up to $1,000 to attend conferences or other appropriate professional activities.

Mangan says her own scholarly work is on the carbon concentrating mechanism in cyanobacteria, which “do photosynthesis in the same way plants do, and they fix—or convert—carbon dioxide into sugar,” she says. “My interest in sustainability certainly drove my choice of project. I think solar energy, both photovoltaic and biologically based, will be part of our future. However, what I am working on is still at the basic science stages, and I will still be excited and happy about working on it even if it doesn't impact our sustainability in the next 10 years.”

Her experience in the consortium has made her understand “how interlinked everything is. The opportunities to meet and talk to people who are involved in research outside the typical graduate student's range of study is amazing, and the picture you have of the whole system at the end of two years is well worth the trouble of putting the pieces together,” she says.

Apply to the Harvard Graduate Consortium on Energy and Environment! Applications are due by Monday, May 23, at 5 p.m.

Read the article, courtesty of Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.

Harvard University
Center for the Environment

Address: 26 Oxford Street, 4th Floor, Cambridge
Phone: (617) 495-0368

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