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What does the S in STEM really mean? LSA has a long legacy of investing in it’s science students whether it’s biology, chemistry, hard maths, or the environment.
Where did their science degrees take them? Clean energy contract work, environmental law, and corporate research—wildly-varying fields of work. But the common denominator among these individuals is an overarching desire: to drive societal changes that can make a positive impact on our world.
“I'm always happy to help out other Michigan students.”
Meet Andrew Fowler.
2014 LSA graduate and Environmental Studies major, Andrew is now based out of Lakeville, MA, serving as regional counsel to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Andrew didn’t grow up knowing he wanted to be an environmental lawyer. But he did grow up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, on the outskirts of Detroit, and everyday on the way to hockey practice, he’d pass by what remained of the city’s hayday: industrial sites where the environment steadily reclaimed more ground.
“You drive past fields that are trapped pavement, crumbling factories, and you see that they're really suited for redevelopment,” Andrew explains. “[These sites] are by canals, they’re by rail lines, they have good energy infrastructure. So I was curious, even when I was a kid, of what can be done? What can be done to help make sure that redevelopment occurs where it's most advantageous for the industry, rather than continuing to push out into green territory.”
Andrew entered U-M and quickly discovered environment-focused classes he enjoyed and excelled at: mining and mineral resources, geochemistry, toxicology, geophysics. But he still wasn’t satisfied.
In his junior year, Andrew took a course entitled Environmental Law, taught by then Vice President Sally Churchill. He credits Churchill for guiding him, as she has guided many other students, into the environmental law field by providing students a digestible, edifying class. After graduating from U-M, Andrew continued on to Vermont Law School, which provided the “immersive environmental setting” he needed.
“If you're working for a mission that you believe in, it really doesn't matter exactly what role you're playing."
“The one thing I will say about education at any point is the real importance of listening to connect,” Andrew reflects. “In lecture halls, it's easy to take your notes and study for the test. But the real value that Michigan's culture leads to, and grad schools lead to, is for folks to absorb lectures and coursework with the intention to connect disparate topics and disparate themes. Where this cross connection between different disciplines can be incredibly powerful and connect people and connect systems.”
Andrew references a principle fundamental to the liberal arts: the value of multidisciplinary learning, the importance of a holistic approach, and the need for a flexible, multifaceted education.
“That's where I like to think I ended up in life,” Andrew affirms. “Not the engineer, not the scientist, not the pure lawyer going to court, but an advisor to a regulatory agency, which is Massachusetts DEP. [I’m in a position] that sees both the nitty gritty and the high-level goals and challenges: both the forest and the trees.”
But this isn’t a position Andrew dreamed of as a child, nor even in his undergraduate or graduate experiences. He was focused on making a positive global impact and discovered that the environment was a conduit to achieving that mission. He believes that it’s this commitment that led him to his current role.
“If you're working for a mission that you believe in,” Andrew advises, “it really doesn't matter exactly what role you're playing. When people ask what do you want to be when you grow up, you don't have to stick with ‘I need to be a statistician’ or ‘I need to be a doctor working for Doctors without Borders. There are so many ways to be successful, and attaching your identity to one particular role may not be the most fruitful. Instead, focus on the mission that you want to further.”
To connect with Andrew directly, message him on LSA Connect now.
Meet Nick Scherer.
A self-employed energy analyst, Nick graduated from LSA in 2010 with a degree in Economics. He continued his education with a sustainability certification from UCLA and a Masters of Science in Engineering Management in 2017, with a Concentration in Energy Systems.
But for Nick it was a job with an energy-focused company that opened up his eyes to his career path.
“[In undergrad] I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my career,” Nick reflected. “I knew I’d probably be best in an analytical role, because I was proficient in spreadsheets and databases already. Outside that, I basically just knew I wanted to be in a field where I could make a positive impact.”
Nick began by working in healthcare and fundraising, but quickly found himself in the clean energy space working within energy efficiency, in what's specifically called “demand response”. He explains that's basically where large facilities are paid to reduce their usage during peak demand hours, like during summer days.
“I found that clean energy work interesting,” Nick said. “Then I saw the other opportunities throughout the space. I worked in energy markets, energy management, renewables, and energy storage.”
Having found his field of choice, a space where he could apply his analytical skills towards making a positive global impact, Nick began searching for a position and company where he could see himself long term. However, this proved more difficult than he expected.
“Corporate just didn't didn't work for me,” Nick explained. “There was too much office politics and personality clashes, and [I didn’t feel] my work was well understood compared to more routine and operational roles because it's much more project-based.”
So, over the past year, Nick has made the transition to independent contract work. He utilizes online job databases to search for companies and positions in need of his unique skill set, and when he finds them, he applies, sends proposals, or reaches out directly.
“Now that I've gotten there, to being self-employed, it's definitely worthwhile,” Nick affirms. “I control my hours: when I work, how I work, who I work with to a large extent. And even what I work on in many ways.”
“I control my hours: when I work, how I work, who I work with to a large extent. And even what I work on in many ways.”
However, there are some challenges to working contract. Freelance work typically operates on a per hour basis, which means it's more lucrative, but also more unstable. Nick has established himself enough that he can “pay the bills” but is still figuring out how to navigate extra downtime.
Finding work with companies can also be difficult, and Nick says most of the time he won’t receive a reply to his applications or outreach. But he has found consistent work with two companies, one with an energy management platform which Nick supports by analyzing output, and the other a government contractor in need of an individual with clean energy and environmental expertise.
“In terms of the work that I do it's generally a mix of working in spreadsheets and databases to query, validate, analyze, and report data,” Nick explains. “But some of my work is also more research-focused and also involves presentations and reports, and the third area is with improving systems and processes to be more efficient, or even automated. So my focus spans different types of analytic work; it’s definitely interesting, I don’t get bored.”
In the past year and a half, virtual work has made self-employment more accepted and integratable than ever before. Nick hopes to share his expertise and experience through LSA Connect, encouraging students to reach out.
“I've been a mentor of sorts for current students through different programs,” Nick affirms. “I'm always happy to help out other Michigan students.”
To connect with Andrew directly, message him on LSA Connect now.
Meet Kirsten Benjamin.
Kirsten grew up surrounded by an education-oriented community. While still in high school in East Lansing, she found opportunities to pursue research at the nearby Michigan State University campus, cultivating an early passion for the rhythm and detail of lab work.
When she stepped onto UM’s campus a few years later, she continued her research, focusing her time and talent toward the most diverse science degree she could find: Cellular and Molecular Biology. Complemented by a Philosophy major, she explored as many classes as she could, taking advantage of the flexibility of the liberal arts degree to cultivate a background in science and the humanities.
After graduating from LSA, and after extensive deliberation, Kirsten decided on graduate school at UC Berkeley where she spent her time working on a Biochemistry PhD. Graduating with her doctorate in 1997, she eventually moved onto a research position at the Molecular Sciences Institute, remaining in California.
During her time with MSI, in June of 2004, she attended a conference on synthetic biology at MIT, the first of its kind in the nation. Synthetic biology, according to Kirsten and genome.gov, involves “redesigning cells and organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities.”
At the conference was another UC Berkeley academic, Jay Keasling, who spoke about his goal to utilize synthetic biotechnology to cure malaria. Keasling was founding a company, Amyris, to focus on “making an infinite and very cheap supply of this antimalarial drug—artemisinin.”
To Kirsten, who had never considered going into the biotechnology industry, Keasling’s speech was captivating.
“I thought ‘wow—that sounds great, that's what I want to do’,” Kirsten explains.
And for the past fourteen years, she has. Kirsten is now Vice President of Research and Development at Amyris, working as a “biochemical engineer and sustainable bio-based product producer.”
"In the corporate world, the incentives are all aligned to facilitate, foster, and reward highly collaborative and cooperative behavior between individuals and across disciplines. I love that spirit of cooperation and collaboration.”
Kirsten’s interest in research and biology began with her work in the academic world, but she’s grateful for her role in the corporate realm.
“I found academia to be really competitive,” Kirsten explains. “Whereas in the corporate world, the incentives are all aligned to facilitate, foster, and reward highly collaborative and cooperative behavior between individuals and across disciplines. I love that spirit of cooperation and collaboration.”
Kirsten also finds gratification in the mission of her work, finding fulfillment in the vision of Amyris, and the impact of her work.
“Seeing our work go into the world and do something positive, is much more short-term,” Kirsten explains. “Whereas academia is focused on that foundational research. Which is critical, but it's hard to know whether the work that you're doing is going to lead to any sort of a practical payoff.”
When asked, how could LSA Connect have supported you as a student? Kirsten reflects back to her senior year, and the time she spent contemplating her post-grad options.
“It would have been really great for me to be able to talk to alumni and that took each of the career paths [I was considering],” Kirsten affirms. “To learn more about their experiences and the differences between the options.”
Now she hopes to be that resource for students, and encourages them to reach out to her on LSA Connect.
To connect with Kirsten directly, message her on LSA Connect now.
These individuals exemplify the value of the liberal arts education: science framed within a broader, multidisciplinary, global context. As Michigan alums they want to share their experiences, expertise, and insights with current LSA students, regardless of major or background.
Continue to explore and connect with LSA’s science based alums, and discover paths and career trajectories you didn’t know were possible.