A Sustainability Student’s Quest for a Greener Future – State of the Planet

Brian Kim, a current M.S. in Sustainability Management (SUMA) student, was already working as a health physicist in Columbia University’s Environmental Health and Safety department, concentrating on enhancing safety measures and fostering sustainability within the university’s research facilities, when he applied to the SUMA program to further integrate his interests with climate solutions.

Courtesy of Brian Kim

No stranger to multitasking, Kim worked for the College of Engineering Leadership Academy and Center for Civic Engagement while studying nuclear engineering during his undergraduate education at Oregon State. It was this variety of experiences that helped him navigate his path to New York City and the SUMA program. As a current student, Kim is an active member of various campus organizations including RESCUE, Build It Green and the Electric Vehicles Organization.

Kim will complete the SUMA program in spring 2025. While he continues to explore opportunities within the field, his main goal is to find the best way to express his passion for the planet and make a significant impact on solving the climate crisis, which he discusses in the Q&A below.

What drew you to apply to the SUMA program?

I always knew I had a passion for climate studies but did not know quite how to express it. The wide range of natural disasters I witnessed too frequently was a catalyst for this passion. Before I moved to New York in 2021, I lived in Oregon where you could expect at least one massive wildfire each summer. After moving, I experienced the other side of the coin with Hurricane Ida hitting New York City in September 2021.

This opened my eyes to two very real things in life. (1) Never move into a basement apartment in New York City. No matter how good of a deal it seems, New York City rainstorms will make sure you regret it. (2) The powerful repercussions of climate change are right in front of our faces and have been for quite some time now. Without any climate action, it is going to get continuously worse.

I couldn’t simply stand by and watch a continuous cycle of environmental disasters unfold. Feeling an obligation to take action, I was fortunate to already be working at Columbia University when I found the sustainability graduate programs—exactly what I was looking for to expand my knowledge of sustainability and find my place in climate solutions. Over two terms in now, I have absolutely no regrets!

What initially sparked your interest in the natural sciences? 

I had a fantastic professor for a “Global Change and Earth Sciences” course during my undergraduate studies, and I remember looking forward to that class every week. I also worked as an event specialist during my undergraduate at Oregon State University, where I organized large days of service for our community. In particular, I remember the Earth Day of Service, where the Oregon State community showed up to support local environmental conservation and restoration projects. I think it was these meaningful experiences that really ignited that passion, and I am ready to further it at Columbia!

Can you elaborate a little on your responsibilities in your current role, and what it is like to work in the Environmental Health and Safety department?

Essentially, as a health physicist, I am responsible for ensuring the safe use of radioactive materials for research. This entails carrying out surveys, inspections, waste management, data analysis training and many other tasks that provide guidance and reassurance to the research community.

In conjunction with my studies, I strive to reduce the material footprint of research involving radioactive materials at Columbia University. Primarily this includes, but is not limited to, air emission monitoring and minimization, waste management and minimization and providing resources and guidance to researchers. I am also part of the sustainability working group in the Environmental Health and Safety department, which is focused on reducing the environmental footprint of the Columbia research community as a whole!

Do you have any favorite courses yet? Or notable highlights from your time?

I have thoroughly enjoyed the “Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage” course offered by the M.S. in Sustainability Science program. It opened my mind up to so many details and intricacies that I did not even know existed prior to taking this course. David Goldberg did a fantastic job of explaining all the opportunities and challenges with carbon capture utilization, which catalyzed my passion for the field in general.

I also took the “Sustainability and Urban Form” course with Allison Bridges over the summer. This was my first class as a student in the program, and it was a very fun one to kick off my experience. We even got to go on field trips to the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek to better learn about site remediation in those areas!

Do you have any advice for current or incoming students in the sustainability programs?

Get as involved as your schedule allows! There are a ton of super cool events, which is great for meeting people in the sustainability programs but also allows you to explore your own interests in the field. It is a good way to get hands-on experiences that you would not be able to get in a typical classroom setting.

The Master of Science in Sustainability Management program, offered by the School of Professional Studies in partnership with the Climate School, is designed for current and aspiring leaders who wish to pursue a career in management at the intersection of business and the environment.

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