Student Spotlight: Christine Ow
Christine Ow is a current student in Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program. Originally from Singapore, she graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2022 with a B.A. in political science and minors in global studies, Korean and environmental systems and society. After she graduates from the ESP program this May, Christine will be joining Bluefield Research in Boston as a consultant working at the intersection of water and technology.
What made you choose ESP?
I came straight out of undergrad and as an international student there are a lot of factors that come in when you reach senior year. Do I get a job or do I go to grad school? It was a mixture of me being a little bit afraid of entering the job market but also, more importantly, I knew I wanted to do environmental work. I wanted to explore the intersection of development and water. I didn’t feel that my undergrad gave me enough skills, experience or knowledge to break into this industry specifically.
With that in mind I started looking for programs and Columbia. SIPA [Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs] specifically has always been top of my list because I knew it was known for development, but I didn’t want to commit to a two-year program. I found the ESP program, a one-year program, and spoke with the assistant director at the time, Stephanie. She said that based on my interests, this sounds like a program I would really benefit from. I applied to Columbia and haven’t looked back, and it’s been a fun-filled year so far.
What were some highlights of your experience with the program?
This has been a year of highlights. Moving to New York City and experiencing everything the city has to offer has been so cool. The field trips that we did in the summer are something that were genuinely really fun. I had not gone on a field trip since middle school so it was a really surreal experience. But also, it was very informative and I really liked how we were able to practically see what we were learning in the field, especially when we were focusing on urban ecology and how the city was adapting to climate change. When it comes to classes, water is my specific interest and very fortunately Columbia does have a Water Center as well as professors in water.
What have been your favorite courses?
My favorite class up to this point has been my water governance class. The reason why I liked it is because it was my first dedicated class just for water. This means going really into depth into the systems and when it comes to managing water, what are the difficulties. The professor did a really good job organizing the big themes that we had to talk about as water is a very complex issue. Going to this class made me realize just how much more complex it is. It also reaffirmed my love for the issue and my desire to break into the industry.
The other class I really liked was my data analytics and visualization class, and this is because it was challenging. I felt that when I came to grad school, I came with the mindset that I wanted to push my boundaries and to learn new things. I knew that for my personal growth it was really important for me to understand what coding is. It was a great introduction and it allowed me to be more aware of what the capabilities are and, truth be told, it also made me a bit curious to in the future learn [more] at a slower pace.
What are your big picture interests?
My interest is in water. It’s a very niche field when it comes to the environment. I am the only one in our cohort of 52 that explicitly centers on water as my main focus. The reason is because one, I don’t think it gets enough attention, and two, I grew up in a water-scarce country. I’m from Singapore — it’s an island country, so we don’t have fresh water. We’re a very small country that doesn’t have our own natural freshwater source. So ever since I was a child, it’s always been hammered into my mind the idea of water scarcity and the potential crisis that might befall as a result of it. Singapore is very developed and we are very water secure, but an appreciation for water is something that I’ve had since I was a kid. When I was exploring what was my niche in the development space, I found that people were not talking about how water underlies all forms of development. This is critical conversation because billions of people in the world don’t have access to water. Many of these people are in the United States, which is shocking to many people. With Flint, Jackson, most recently East Palestine and Philadelphia, water is an important field that people don’t talk about enough. I’ve kind of made it my personal mission to break into it.
In pursuit of that, I am currently working as a graduate research assistant with the Columbia Water Center where my research is specifically focused on Indigenous water access. I’m building a database to allow researchers to get a more comprehensive overview of which communities have access to water and which communities don’t, and more importantly, why they don’t have access. I’ve been working on this for a couple of months now and it’s been a challenge because of the lack of information and the fact that everything is very dispersed, but it’s also been very rewarding and with the Columbia Water Center I’m trying to see where this research can go in the future.
Where do you see yourself going into the future and what are your immediate plans after the program?
I am very excited to share that I recently signed a job offer with a research services and consulting firm in Boston called Bluefield Research. They do research and consulting for the water sector! I was not anticipating I would go the private sector route, to be honest. I was not anticipating becoming a consultant or a research analyst for the private sector. I always thought I was going to go nonprofit — my goals were EDF or WRI, but this opportunity came up as I was applying for jobs and I really like the company. I also think it’s important to be in tune with what the private sector is doing because water utilities especially are incredibly private and many solutions to the water problems we have can come from the private sector. That is what I’m looking forward to in the immediate term. I’ll be starting in the summer and be specifically working on digital water, which is like cyber security and the intersection of water and technology. This is another new frontier that I am excited to explore.
Way into the future though, I know life will take its course and things will change and my ambitions might change, but right now my big goal is to eventually work for the United Nations on their development work centering on water, and maybe pursue a PhD somewhere along the road. But for now, I’m looking forward to wrapping up the program strong and getting set up in Boston!
What do you want people to keep in mind concerning the climate change crisis?
Climate change is happening and the environment is getting a lot more attention and it’s great. However, it is really important for us to think about the environment as a fundamentally intersectional thing — it’s a challenge that we need to tackle through many means. It will be impossible for us to address our challenges today and into the future if we continue to work in silos. I represent a very niche corner of the environmental sector that is finally opening up and involving ourselves in greater conversations about the climate. My call to action to anyone who is a part of the Columbia community is: when you think about the environment, don’t just think about energy, sustainability, etc. — but also try to see where the intersections are. Create relationships with people working in these other fields, so that there is a collective movement and everyone isn’t trying to strive for the same goal using a different approach. If we can all come together and work as one collective machine, it will be way more powerful than our individual efforts.
Saj McBurrows is an intern with the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program.
Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Climate School.
Since it began in 2002, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program has given students the hands-on experience, and the analytical and decision-making tools to implement effective environmental and sustainable management policies. The program’s 1,112 graduates have advanced to jobs in domestic and international environmental policy, working in government, private and non-profit sectors. Their work involves issues of sustainability, resource use and global change, in fields focused on air, water, climate, energy efficiency, food, agriculture, transportation and waste management. They work as consultants, advisers, project managers, program directors, policy analysts, teachers, researchers and environmental scientists and engineers.