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Grace Tucker '17 is a program coordinator for the coastal resilience team at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Washington, DC. In this role, she conducts science and policy analysis related to coastal resilience, natural infrastructure and flood mitigation.

At CALS, Grace majored in environmental and sustainability sciences, with a concentration in water resource policy and management. She also minored in law and society.

Here, she reflects on how her experience at CALS helped shape her career path.

What do you enjoy about your current position?

As a program coordinator for EDF’s coastal resilience team, I get to interact with everyone and get a high-level look at all of our projects. It’s really inspiring to see all of the innovative, collaborative work being done by the brilliant people at EDF and our partner organizations, and to be a part of the team. I learn something new every day.

What kinds of projects does your team tackle?

My team specifically focuses on coastal resilience — finding ways to reduce risk for coastal and riverine communities that are facing more extreme weather, sea level rise and flood risk. For every dollar invested in resilience-building and hazard mitigation, six dollars are saved in future disaster recovery costs (source).

The solutions we want to build will use nature as part of flood protection and will include communities in the decision-making process so both people and ecosystems can thrive.

How did your experience as a CALS student prepare you for your current professional role?

I loved my CALS experience, but it wasn’t always easy! One of the highlights of my sophomore year was managing to pass Organic Chemistry — it only happened because I asked every question I could think of after class or during my professor’s office hours. In a work environment, it’s better to ask one or two clarifying questions to make sure you do a project correctly than to put in hours of work on something that is not what your boss wanted.

Many people in my major were friends throughout our time at Cornell, fostering a great academic community, but I was also constantly meeting new people in CALS classes and across the university. I had ample opportunity to practice remembering peoples’ faces and names, which is a soft skill that’s been helpful while working at an organization with nearly 800 staff members and for professional networking.

Between being on the Women's Varsity Rowing team and my academic work, I was constantly receiving and processing feedback while at Cornell. Over time, it was easier not to take every note too personally and to use that feedback to grow as an athlete and a student. Now, I expect that everything I write will have a lot of changes when it comes back to me, but the final product will be stronger, and I’ll be able to make something better the next time. Being a CALS student made me more comfortable with change, something that will serve me well for the rest of my life.

If you could re-do your undergraduate experience, is there anything you would do differently?

I think my biggest regret is not studying abroad or finding another international experience to immerse myself in a different culture. I applied for a CALS Global Fellows Program fellowship one year but wasn’t selected. I do travel a lot now and am considering graduate school abroad, but it would have been fun to do as an undergrad!

What advice do you have for students who are considering a career in the environmental science and/or sustainability sectors?

Find ways to magnify your impact — whether by working for a large organization whose changes can cause ripple effects throughout an industry, or by engaging directly with local community organizations. Don’t be afraid to take a critical look at your institution and find gaps in expertise that your skills could fill.

If you were in a position to hire recent CALS graduates, what qualities would your organization look for?

EDF has 10 summer interns every year from Cornell and also several fellowship and post-doc positions, thanks to a generous grant and partnership with the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. We always want to hire people who are highly self-motivated, excited to learn and willing to take on challenges. My biggest piece of advice is to make yourself as useful as possible. A good employer will recognize and reward you for the value you bring to the team.

Don’t be afraid to reach out via email and LinkedIn to potential employers. Just because an organization isn’t advertising, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be open to a candidate who would be a perfect fit for their team or a specific project. The pandemic has forced employers to be more flexible, so remote opportunities may be more feasible now.

For example, my team was already spread out over several offices and utilized videoconferencing technology quite a bit before COVID-19, so now we’re just doing everything on video or phone. But I do miss all of the informal interactions and passing conversations with my office colleagues (and also, the free coffee!).

Header image: Tucker in her home office, where she has been working remotely since the start of the pandemic. Photo provided

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