Climate and Society Alumni Work Together to Build Coastal Resilience
The MA in Climate and Society program at the Columbia Climate School is known for taking a uniquely interdisciplinary approach to teaching climate change’s causes, impacts, and solutions. The program brings in students from a broad variety of backgrounds, and prepares them for similarly diverse fields afterward.
Two 2022 alumni now working at Urban Ocean Lab — a think tank focusing on developing policy for coastal cities — provide a great example of what this looks like in practice. Madeleine (“Maddy”) Traynor started out in agriculture before coming to the Climate School, and is now leading a major research project at Urban Ocean Lab, whereas Shangtong (“Sandy”) Li is applying her art background toward communicating the organization’s research to policymakers and the broader public.
In the interview below, they tell us more about what they’re working on, and how the diversity of the Climate and Society program is one of its greatest strengths.
To start off, please tell us a little about your background before you came to the Climate School.
Sandy: I studied sculpture in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I was making materials out of waste because I was concerned about the environment, but I really didn’t know anything about why climate change is happening and how the Earth’s systems work. I really wanted to have a more in-depth scientific understanding of our planet.
Maddy: My background is in land-based regenerative agriculture. I’ve worked on both rural and urban farms, and I have also worked in nonprofit communications and design in the environmental space. Before grad school, and definitely during the Climate and Society program, I started to shift my focus to ocean-based climate solutions. A big part of that was my initial interest in regenerative ocean farming. It’s been really great to focus a lot of my fellowship research here at Urban Ocean Lab on seaweed and shellfish farming.
How did you both end up at Urban Ocean Lab?
Maddy: I joined in May 2022, just two days after graduating. During the Climate Society program, I focused on coastal resiliency and ocean climate solutions, in addition to honing my writing and communications skills. One of my favorite courses was Resilient Coastlines, with Kate Orff. She is one of the advisors at Urban Ocean Lab, so I was exposed to Urban Ocean Lab’s work and I was just really excited to have the opportunity to join.
Sandy: I was onboarded at the end of January , so I’m very, very new. But I worked with the Waterfront Alliance through our program’s capstone, so I had some experience in how climate change impacts coastal cities, and that’s how I got to know Urban Ocean Lab and their work. It was a nice coincidence that we both landed here.
Could you talk about what you each do in your roles at Urban Ocean Lab?
Maddy: When I first started, I focused quite a bit on communications and design. But for most of the last seven months, I’ve been very focused on research and policy writing for our regenerative ocean farming memo and fact sheet. We published a fact sheet last December on regenerative ocean farming — which we define as seaweed and/or shellfish farming with no freshwater, feed, or fertilizer — and our policy memo just came out in early March. It’s been really fun to work on. Pretty much the entire team has helped contribute to the process, but I’ve been leading the research and stakeholder outreach efforts. We did a full literature review and interviewed over 65 individuals, from ocean farmers to policymakers, scientists, advocacy groups, etc. I’ve honestly loved that process, just getting to talk to people, learn about what they’re doing in the field, better understanding the challenges across the industry for both seaweed and shellfish farming in the U.S., and what potential policy levers can be used at the local, state, and federal level.
Sandy: I’ve been working with Maddy on the regenerative ocean farming policy memo. I’ve been working on the roll out and making sure that the materials facing the public are accessible. I also collaborated with the designer to present the information in a digestible way for people who won’t have the time to read a lot of things, but will be able to understand the material with a simple graphic. I act as a translator in a way, to communicate scientific and policy information to people who don’t necessarily have those backgrounds but also want to learn more.
Is there a particular graphic that you’ve been excited to work on, Sandy?
Sandy: We developed this one graphic about the very long and convoluted process that ocean farmers have to follow if they want to get a permit to start regenerative ocean farming. They have to go through at least 11 different agencies, and the permitting process can take up to five years. So in our graphic we are trying to convey all of these numbers and obstacles and the long and cumbersome process — all in one glance.
How has the Climate and Society program has helped you in your current roles?
Sandy: Having a diverse cohort was really helpful. Our classmates came from different backgrounds — some of them are more science-focused, some are more art-focused, like me and Maddy — and it’s really cool to see the different kinds of skill sets each of us brings. They have inspired me a lot, and the possibilities for collaboration are endless. Especially working at Urban Ocean Lab, I’m really lucky to have Maddy. It is wonderful working together.
Another important component of our work that we learned from the Climate and Society program is knowledge co-production. I had a graduate research assistantship with Professor Christopher Zappa at Lamont, and his research emphasizes co-production with Indigenous communities in Alaska. Our policy memo is also a big co-production project with farmers and different stakeholders across ocean farming industries. And I think this process is really important, especially in climate change research, because climate change is happening to all of us, and we can’t just have one perspective. We need to have multiple perspectives from multiple people because we’re all being impacted in different ways.
Do you have any advice for current or prospective Climate and Society students?
Maddy: Talk to as many people as you can to learn about different opportunities and figure out what ignites a spark for you. Figuring out where that spark is can really help you hone in on where you might be able to contribute your skills in a way that’s meaningful to you and beneficial to the climate movement.
Now that the regenerative ocean farming policy memo is published, what comes next for each of you?
Maddy: I’m working on some case studies with a few of my teammates that kind of look more closely at local policy levers that can help overcome some of the barriers to the regenerative ocean farming industry. We’ll be publishing that set of case studies in the next couple of months, and are going to be hosting an event at the end of March. Urban Ocean Lab is also working on a framework for a Blue New Deal for coastal cities.
Sandy: For the Blue New Deal, we’re researching a lot about what it means for a coastal city to be more climate ready — what are some of the policies and practices city governments can implement, and what are the benefits to the communities? There’s a strong focus on making sure equity is included in this process. We’re really trying to come up with best practices for a climate-ready coastal city.