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Seniors Present Independent Thesis Projects at Eco Fellows’ Symposium

This year’s Eco-Fellows’ Symposium featured presentations by five senior Eco Fellows as a culmination of their participation in Spence’s rigorous three-year environmental leadership program. 

Created by Ecology Program Director Dr. Brandon Kraft, the program affords students the opportunity to explore sustainability through an interdisciplinary lens beginning in their sophomore year. During the first two years of the program, Eco Fellows grapple with topics in global environmental governance and environmental justice. Coursework involves a combination of case studies, behavioral interventions, data analysis, and internships. In their final year, students engage in an independent project of their choosing and present their findings to the Spence community. The symposium, held at the 412 Brizendine Center for Ecology, is in its second year. “This is the chance to celebrate them and their journey this year and throughout the program, and to learn some really great ways that we ourselves and our community can be more sustainable,” said Kraft.  

From creating an eco-friendly alternative to flushable wet wipes, to ranking the sustainability of coffee shops around New York City, Class of 2022 Eco Fellows––Leigh B., Tessa D., Paloma G., Annie K. and Mercedes U.––focused on projects that reflect their academic interests and care for the environment.

Curious about climate migration in Ghana, Annie examined complex datasets and scholarly theories of migration before narrowing her focus. “It became very clear to me that literacy rates throughout Ghana differ drastically throughout the country and that literacy rates for women are consistently lower than for men,” Annie said. “I wanted to know if literacy rates in various regions across Ghana impacted migration levels.” Using myriad sources of data and incorporating control variables such as gender and age, Annie then created a linear regression model, which revealed a statistically significant correlation between migration and literacy rates in Ghana. “This has been a very exciting and thought provoking field to do research in,” Annie concluded.  

Paloma’s love for coffee, and curiosity about the environmental impact of her own consumption,  led her to focus on conducting a sustainability audit of 24 coffee shops across New York City. She used this information to create a user-friendly website that aggregates her findings in one place, allowing consumers to make educated decisions about the shops they patronize. Paloma decided to survey coffee shops across the city, asking them a series of questions from ‘Do you have an automatic lighting system?’ to ‘Do you offer plastic bags?’ She also created a weight distribution system that enabled her to analyze the impact of each choice on the environment and generate the rankings she shares on her website. “I wanted to make a resource to inform people…and align their consumer decisions with their personal beliefs,” Paloma said.

Inspired by her interest in the impact of pollution on sleep, Mercedes decided to create an environmental justice podcast, “Unsustainable.” “I wanted to accomplish two things with my thesis, and that is to have influence and interactions,” shared Mercedes. “I wanted to start more discussions on environmental justice issues that weren’t necessarily spoken about on a daily basis.” The result of her podcast has been exactly that, Mercedes added, noting that she’s had many productive conversations with listeners who wanted to know what they can do to help solve these issues.

Budding entrepreneur Tessa shared that she created an alternative product to flushable wet wipes after learning of their negative impact on the environment. Because they are non-biodegradable, they create microplastic/fiber pollution in oceans, threaten marine life and damage sewers and wastewater plants. “The solution has been to create a spray that transforms any bathroom toilet tissue into a durable wet wipe,” explained Tessa, who developed the Sani-Fani Wipeless Spray in partnership with her mother. Through this project, Tessa says she realized that “female entrepreneurship can be something bigger than I ever thought. It can be something where I share my passions and I use my education to do something different, and I'm so glad to be able to share my product with the world.”

After researching the scientific connection between memory retention in adults with dementia and their engagement with nature, Leigh created and implemented her own curriculum, Greener Pastures, aimed at helping to slow the progression of brain disease. Focused on ecosystems such as glaciers, rivers and oceans, “my curriculum is a structured engagement with all five senses and is rooted in science,” said Leigh, who worked with student volunteers to engage in virtual sessions with adults with dementia.“We made meaningful connections, learned interesting facts about the earth and the ocean, stimulated memories and became farmers and environmental artists for the day,” Leigh shared.

Congratulations to all five Eco Fellows on their impactful projects that truly embody Spence’s mission and “the lifelong transformation of self and the world with purpose, passion and perspective.”