Alumni Spotlight: Centering Humans in Asia’s Energy Transition
Srishti Mahajan is an energy specialist at the Asian Development Bank in New Delhi, where she leads clean energy projects to support countries in the Asia Pacific region transition to a low carbon economy and to mobilize finance to support these initiatives. Mahajan is also a 2022 graduate of Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy (MPA-ESP) at the School of International and Public Affairs. Following her graduation, Mahajan worked at Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), where she provided technical and analytical support on subjects such as clean energy access and net-zero energy transition, among other responsibilities.
For Mahajan, the MPA-ESP program helped broaden her perspective on the human impact of her chosen career. “It redefined my pursuit of sustainability, anchoring it within a tapestry woven from diverse threads—technology, policy and above all, the intricate human dynamics that underlie every endeavor,” she says. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What interests you about the sustainability field?
My interest in sustainability stems from my nomadic upbringing in India. I moved across seven provinces in 16 years, experiencing a wide variety of cultures. I vividly remember adapting to rice-centric diets in states where paddy fields painted the scenery, or donning silk garments in regions famed for sericulture to ward off the cold.
Those moves significantly influenced the path I chose during my undergraduate years. My exposure to diverse cultures, climates and ways of life steered me toward environmental engineering. In academia, I explored the intricacies of air, water and soil, viewing these subjects not only as engineering challenges but also as critical components of policy and sustainability landscapes.
Can you give us a quick overview of your previous work experience and educational background?
My career is grounded in my dual expertise as an environmental engineer and a renewable energy engineer. I began my journey as an analyst, crunching data and numbers to demonstrate the feasibility of implementing decentralized renewable energy systems in India. I then transitioned to a role with a grant-making organization where I oversaw projects focused on how renewable energy could positively impact the health, education and livelihoods of rural communities.
Following my studies at Columbia, I ventured into the international arena of climate mitigation with SEforALL. Presently, I am with the Asian Development Bank, where I work to facilitate the adoption of emerging and innovative technologies to expedite energy transition in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region.
Why did you decide to pursue your MPA-ESP at Columbia?
My initial tech-focused perspective on sustainability, shaped by my engineering background, underwent a significant transformation. In the past, I firmly believed that introducing a technology such as solar in peri-urban and rural areas would solve both electricity shortages and other challenges of inequality and poverty. I saw electricity as the key to unlocking opportunities and boosting income levels. And it is.
But beyond technology and economics, I discovered a complex human element that defies easy categorization. This realization dawned on me during a visit to a community that was benefitting from a solar installation, a project I had overseen. The MPA-ESP program served as a gateway to a panorama of perspectives, enriching my understanding of sustainability beyond the confines of technology.
What were the most valuable skills you took from the program, and how have they translated to your professional life?
One of the most striking aspects of my current role at the Asian Development Bank is the ability to forge connections on a global scale—both in understanding challenges and devising comprehensive solutions. The exposure I gained opened my eyes to the strategies pursued by the U.S. and also to the initiatives undertaken in Europe and Africa. This global perspective isn’t just valuable; it provides insights that enrich the way I design and implement projects. This perspective adds immense value, offering a unique vantage point through which I proudly contribute to our team’s endeavors, particularly as we engage in projects here in India.
Where would you like to see your career take you?
My focus is on my current position. The vast landscape of the Asia Pacific region beckons, brimming with untapped potential for driving energy transition. This region holds the key to substantial advancements, and it is precisely where the most impactful work lies. I am committed to positively impacting the energy transition within the region.
What advice would you give to current students?
As you embark on your academic journey, remember to savor the experience. Take it one step at a time. While the notion of networking is emphasized, I urge you to focus on something more profound—cultivating genuine relationships. Seek connections that endure beyond the surface, ones that are built on shared experiences and mutual understanding. Engage with individuals not solely to expand your professional circle, but with the intention of forging meaningful bonds. Have an authentic desire to connect, learn and grow alongside your peers. And lastly, be kind—it doesn’t cost a thing.
Laura Millar is a program manager for Columbia University’s Sustainability Management and Sustainability Science programs.