With the knowledge that sustainability and climate action are defining issues of our times, Barnard is committed to playing a leadership role in this arena. Whether through the environment and sustainability major, sustainability initiatives, or the College’s climate action vision, Barnard’s programs and faculty (read about the campus’ wastewater testing here) are proactively facing the future. Barnard has also graduated many of the world’s most successful environmentalists, some of whom are featured below.
Catherine Cardelús ’96 | Plant Ecologist
An ecologist who specializes in the rainforest canopy ecosystem, Catherine Cardelús arrived at Barnard convinced she would become a medical doctor. That changed after she took a class in evolution. “I did not know that it was possible to do research until [former biology professor] Helen Young invited me to work in her lab on the pollination biology of Silene latifolia,” said Cardelús. “Then she mentioned that one could go to the tropics and work in the forest as a field assistant. I went to Costa Rica and discovered what I was going to do for my career.”
Cardelús, a professor of biology and environmental studies at Colgate University, has spent more than 20 years studying the biodiversity of rainforest canopies and forest conservation in the tropics. “When I started researching in the rainforest, I learned very quickly that we have much to learn and that we are losing it faster than we can study it. Now I study more about how humans use forests and how important it is to maintain forests for everyone,” Cardelús said.
Just as she now teaches in two departments, Cardelús was a double major in biology and ancient Greek language at Barnard. “I started developing my interdisciplinary chops — in both the sciences and humanities — as an undergrad, which trained me to work across fields,” she said. After Barnard, she worked with graduate students at La Selva Research Station, thanks to funding from the College’s Grace Potter Rice Fellowship. “Barnard codified my confidence and determination,” she said. She has put that determination into understanding the world’s ecosystems and learning how best to live sustainably.
Leslie Cooperband ’82 | Soil Scientist-Farmer-Cheesemaker
Leslie Cooperband has been committed to agricultural sustainability and climate change mitigation throughout her career. The path to her current role as co-owner of Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, alongside her husband, Wes Jarrell, began in Barnard’s biology department. “Biology is at the foundation of all the work I have pursued in my life, both academically and now as a farmer-cheesemaker,” she said.
It was this very interest in biology that led Cooperband to her doctoral studies, where she spent some time researching in Costa Rica, studying cattle nutrition and nutrient cycling in silvopasture systems — the integration of leguminous trees, livestock, and forage into a single system on a site to improve pasture productivity. “This research,” she said, “is gaining recognition as one of the top 10 agricultural practices that will help reduce carbon emissions.”
In 1997, Cooperband joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was the department of soil science’s first female professor. There, she became an expert on composting and organic amendment effects on soil quality. “Composting is an important strategy for removing organic wastes from landfills and for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “If readers have some land, they can set up a home composting pile and compost their food waste and yard debris.”
Cooperband’s research has been critical to farmers seeking to improve their soil quality. The practitioner publications she produced on composting while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are still in use today.
Whether in academia or farming, Cooperband is not afraid to blaze a new trail. “Given that I pursued a career in which men dominate, my academic life at Barnard was the only time that I had a female mentor, Julia Chase,” she said. “She was my advisor and was instrumental in getting me an internship with Roger Payne, one of the pioneers of whale research, working with humpback whales in Maui.”
Cooperband’s focus is now on the 80-acre goat dairy and farmstead creamery she and her husband, a fellow soil scientist, own on the outskirts of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where she manages the business full time. They practice what they preach: The couple’s goats graze and browse in rotational silvopasture, and with their herd’s milk, they make award-winning cheeses.
Rhea Suh ’92 | Environmental and Community Leader
Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, Rhea Suh grew up hiking, camping, fishing, and skiing. “Environmentalism was as much a passion as it was a way of life,” said Suh. She decided that a Barnard major in environmental science would be a natural extension of that passion.
“The choice to study environmental science in New York City, particularly in the late 1980s, exposed me to the reality that the environment, as a place and subject matter, is so much bigger than the great outdoors and so much more complex than conservation work alone,” said Suh, who went on to get a master’s in public policy. “Confronting the realities of pollution, toxic landfills, urban blight, distressed waterways — in addition to realizing that the concentration of so much of this pollution was within low-income communities of color — was a profound awakening for me to the justice issues that have always been intertwined with environmental issues.”
Suh’s life reflects her commitment to social justice and the environment. She serves as president and CEO of California’s Marin Community Foundation, a nonprofit grant-making organization, which awards funds to a broad array of environmental, education, medical and social issues. Her earlier professional accomplishments include major conservation and sustainability gains, such as managing the creation of several new national parks — Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Boston Harbor Islands and the Presidio Trust; the expansion of national sites commemorating the stories of Indigenous people and people of color — Hono‘uli‘uli, Bears Ears, Wing Luke Museum; and the protection of millions of acres of wildlands in Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia.
She credits Barnard for much of her success. “I am not sure I would have had the courage to be a science major if I hadn’t had the support and context of being at an all-women’s college,” said Suh. “I wasn’t particularly good at science in high school, but having the guidance of the incredible faculty, and the context of learning science with other women, helped build my confidence.”
The advocacy skills she learned at Barnard were empowering. “My environmental science major gave me the foundation to work on a complex array of conservation, environment, and climate issues, as well as the ability to be an advocate, in each of my roles, for equity and justice,” said Suh.
Climate change is a major global issue, but it’s not a hopeless one. Below are some sustainable steps that people can take, right in their own backyards and communities:
- Lower your own carbon footprint by reducing your food waste, taking more mass transit, and phasing out your consumption of fossil fuel.
- Donate your time and money to help your own community — and in particular, those in your community who are most at risk — to prepare for and respond to climate disasters.
- Advocate for policies and actions that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
- Remember and follow the advice of Barnard alumna Margaret Mead, Class of 1923: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”
—MICHELE LYNN ’82