April 6, 2010
Catherine Ryan, Sustainable Infrastructure Research Analyst, Terrapin Bright Green
In simple terms, what did your life look like before you worked with Terrapin?
I was a graphic designer for corporate identity and marketing for about 4 years before I just got tired of doing work that had no real social mission. So, I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Thailand. At least that’s the long story short.
Describe your “Ah-Ha!” moment that shaped your decision to work in this field?
I actually had three “Ah-Ha!” moments that formed my decision. Though they were more like puzzle pieces that had to all fit together before I could figure out my next step.
The first was when I realized that most of the social and economic obstacles encountered by the people I worked with in Thailand had distinct links to environmental degradation, both in their communities and across the greater landscape.
My second moment was when I realized that many developing communities use the successes of U.S. industrialization as examples of how to develop, while ignoring the mistakes we’ve made. And we’ve made many. Yet, rapid modernization for some people and governments is still considered more urgent than sustainable development. This realization helped me decide to work in the U.S., rather than abroad, because I figured if there are people, communities, and countries out there looking to follow our example, then we better set a good one.
My third moment came about a year later when I was in graduate school, charged with writing a paper on the economics of natural resource management. I could pick any topic. My research started with the economic implications for Thailand of deforestation and teak logging in Myanmar. I read dozens of articles on relevant issues, yet somewhere along the way I got side tracked (surfing on Google) and ended up writing a paper on green roof tax credits for stormwater abatement in the U.S. I had never heard of green roofs before then, but it was the perfect amalgamation of my interests, addressing social wellbeing and environmental resource management, in the context of urban development, and in the U.S.
How did you transition into this career? Meaning, what courses did you take?
When I came back from Thailand to the U.S. in 2005, I knew I wanted to make a career change, but I still wasn’t clear what that might be. I was looking at graduate school programs in nonprofit management, social policy, and cross-cultural communications when I stumbled across the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. They offer an M.A. in Sustainable International Development.
The moment I saw this program, I knew it was the next step I needed to take. It’s a generalist program, so there was room for me to get to know a little bit about all the different perspectives of sustainable development: environment, economics, gender, policy, culture, human rights. Within each context, I was able to focus my interests, such as urban ecology, environmental equity, and water rights and water management. And for courses of interest that weren’t available at my school (renewable energy, green building, urban planning), I found out what literature professors at other universities were recommending to their students and read that on my own. Everything just fell into place. Had you asked me when I first started grad school, I thought I was on track to work in human rights and refugee resettlement. I could never have imagined that only months later I’d be writing my thesis on Stormwater Mitigation for Sustainable Urban Watershed Management in Mexico.
What was your biggest fear before starting this position with Terrapin Bright Green?
I’ve been labeled a “tree hugger” by some friends and family, and have been told that “green” is just a fad that will die soon enough. But understanding the potential social, economic and environmental impacts of sustainable urban development, I remain confident in my decision to pursue this path. For the first time, I have entered a field/job that I am confident is a good fit for me. I have had no doubts. It’s exciting, new, cutting edge, constantly changing, in the news, although I didn’t realize any of this until after I returned from 8 months of graduate research in Mexico; I was surprised and excited upon my return see how many more people had become familiar with green building, green roofs, biofuels, etc. So, I didn’t have any fears. Well, perhaps one: NYC is cold! I’m used to weather in California, Thailand, and Mexico.
I did have a couple concerns, though. At first, I was concerned to not have any scientific or engineering skills, and while I wish I did have more knowledge in such fields, I’ve quickly learned that my experience as a graphic designer has proved invaluable to my current job. I also acknowledged that because I was changing professions, I would likely have to take an entry-level job to get into the type of work I really wanted to do. I accepted this as a possibility, as I was eager to learn as much as I could, but remained determined to find a job that really embraced sustainable development. So, now my salary is half as much as it was when I was a graphic designer, but I’m a much happier person, leading a much richer life, in a very exciting field of work that also happens to make for interesting conversation.
What have you learned from your experience?
Being confident, open minded, and having a strong work ethic are more respected in the work place than knowing everything. This is a young field and you’re not expected to know everything, as it is constantly evolving. Working in an intellectually stimulating environment is one of the greatest perks.
What do you love most about what you do?
I love that work is a melting pot of ideas, technologies, projects that are constantly evolving and, in some cases, actually being implemented; I’m always learning something new; counterparts share similar ideals, at least with respect to sustainable development. And I love that everyone I meet seems to have different opinions or ideas related to this field that they’d like to share with me. There’s always good conversation to be had.
What have you accomplished that makes you most proud of?
At one point I had considered being an architect until I realized that I didn’t actually want to design buildings, I just wanted to advise people on how to design their buildings and, just maybe, even to participate in related policy development. At the time, I didn’t know that kind of job actually existed, but now I am working for a company that does exactly that! It’s a great feeling to have followed my instincts, even when I didn’t know where it was taking me, and to come out exactly where I needed to be.
I’m also kind of proud of the 90-page report I’m finishing up for the NRDC on the environmental sustainability of algae-based biofuel production, a topic I knew little about before starting this job. It’s been a very educational experience.
In your mind, who would be a great fit for this company/product/service/team?
A creative thinker who is resourceful, inquisitive, and open minded. Someone who’s willing to put in extra time on a project, not to impress your boss, but because it’s the right thing to do, for the client, for the company, and for pushing the broader goal of sustainability.
What advice would you give to GreenHomeNYC readers who want to transition into a “green career”?
I would say, do not under estimate the value of your previous work experience and, if you’re serious about making the transition, then I’d also say, read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Know your industry. Just because you don’t have a degree in renewable energy systems doesn’t mean you can’t work in that field. Learn as much as you can from books, periodicals, colleagues, volunteering, community work groups, conferences and expos.
Interview conducted by Olivia Eckfeld