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What draws an individual to study a particular field? Or even dedicate their entire career to it? At a recent Berkeley Connect ESPM section, Professor Alastair Iles visited the class to discuss his career in environmental science with the students. Professor Iles is hearing-impaired, so he communicated with students by typing into a Word document projected onto a screen, and graduate student mentor Patrick Baur relayed the students’ replies to Iles by typing them as well.

“What entices me to the environment is the diversity of topics that I can study and work on – it’s a huge range from food, science, law, ecology, to chemistry,” Iles began. “What also matters to me is that the environment is at the heart of our societies, whether we realize it or not, and what happens to our environment will shape our lives and futures.” Iles enjoyed hiking as a child, and circled around the environmental field from a variety of perspectives before becoming a professor. First, he was a lawyer, then a policy expert, and now considers himself to be a hybrid of a social scientist and a policy maker.

Iles asked the students to share what drew them to studying the environment.

“I had a really outdoor-oriented childhood,” explained one student. “My parents raised me with environmentally-conscious morals. They feel our position in the environment is not the focus of the world, and we need to look at ourselves as animals.” This student now hopes to help the planet by becoming an environmental policy lawyer.

Iles acknowledged the rising issue of whether animals and ecosystems should have their own existence rights. He also mentioned that environmental processes are in fact at the heart of countless issues that may not seem to be directly related to ecosystems. “It’s part of your education at ESPM to see these processes at play, and to help figure out how we could find ways to prevent further degradation,” he added.

Another student shared a specific interest in the environment, saying, “I don’t think it always has to be society against environment. I think there are ways to integrate them to make a more sustainable world.” Iles agreed, offering suggestions on possible careers that involve integrating society into the environment. His suggestions included doing scientific research, becoming a local activist, and developing policies to stimulate industry into adopting better practices.

“The environment can feel overwhelming and vast – we have so many problems surfacing now, that we may not know where to start, or whether our individual actions will matter,” Iles explained. “It’s a collective action challenge.” Iles prompted the students to discuss how they might overcome this collective problem.

Several students emphasized the importance of better education and better policy. With greater awareness comes greater improvement. “Also, taking individual responsibility instead of assuming it’s up to someone else (who might not act at all) is important,” added Iles.

Although the issues with the environment might seem too vast to tackle for just one person, big change starts with the actions of a few. And the more individuals who take action to help save the environment, the greater total effort will be going towards these vital issues. The passion of these Berkeley students for the environment is a great source of hope for the future of our planet. The future is in the hands of the young people, after all – it is up to them to make a change.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant