It takes the entire planet to save the planet, argues Taylor Vahey ’23. As Bryant University’s first sustainability coordinator, Vahey’s helping to ensure that the university does its part in this global conversation — and, going forward, that it comes together to help lead the fight.
“I believe that climate change will be the biggest global challenge my generation will face in our lifetime — and I also believe that it's one of the biggest opportunities we have in terms of economic growth and creating entrepreneurial solutions that change our world,” says Vahey. “Part of Bryant’s mission is to prepare students to excel in the new world they’ll be living in after graduation, and sustainability will be a key part of all of our lives.”
Sounding the alarm and answering the call
Vahey’s new position, she says, is a chance to give back to the school that first sparked her climate awakening. Looking for an interesting opportunity and a chance to broaden her horizons, she took a research assistant position at the end of her junior year with Charles J. Smiley Chair Professor of Science and Technology and Vice President for International Affairs Hong Yang, Ph.D., to assist in his study into how ancient and modern organisms adapt to their environments and climate.
She didn’t realize it at the time, but the experience would forever change how she saw the world around her and shape her professional future. As a research assistant, Vahey helped to design curricula and experiential learning programs on climate change and sustainability — and as she learned more about the topic, she was increasingly drawn in.
“It was like an alarm started sounding inside of my brain. It really opened my eyes to the seriousness of this global problem and how it connected to my life.”
The pivotal moment came, appropriately enough, when Yang introduced her to the idea of climate “tipping points,” critical thresholds that, when crossed, lead to large, accelerating and often irreversible changes in the climate system that have severe impacts on human society.
“It was like an alarm started sounding inside of my brain. It really opened my eyes to the seriousness of this global problem and how it connected to my life,” she says. “I began to realize how critical this issue really was and started to see how I could make a difference.”
Under Yang’s tutelage, Vahey threw herself into her work, studying climate research, analyzing climate change-related curricula, interviewing education leaders, and preparing content for social media, presentations, and publications. She also traveled with Yang and his team to Clarkia, Idaho, to collect fossil and sediment samples for a climate change research project.
The recipient of a HerStory Award, bestowed upon individuals who help to create a more equitable and empowering environment for women at Bryant University, Vahey’s newfound dedication to climate education led her to take up a leadership role on campus while still a student. Together, she and Alexandra Fluegel ’23, who also worked with Yang as a research assistant, presented their work at Bryant’s annual Women’s Summit — the first current students to present at the event — and launched the university’s first Earth Day Symposium.
The pair only expected about 50 attendees at the event and were elated when nearly 200 showed up. “It was really a positive surprise to see the interest from our community that day, and we saw that we needed more opportunities to show our students how interdisciplinary sustainability is and how it connects to their career interest and their passions,” Vahey says.
After graduation, Vahey continued to speak on climate change, including at the Columbia Climate School, but also wanted to make a difference back home. She advocated for the creation of the sustainability coordinator position and when the opportunity arose to make a difference at her alma mater in an official capacity, she jumped at the chance.
An Entrepreneurship major and graduate of the Bryant Honors Program, Vahey says her education in bringing people together to creatively address issues is a great fit for her new job.
“After all,” she notes, “Entrepreneurs are, by nature, problem solvers, and the climate crisis is one of the largest problems there is.”
Solving the biggest problems
In addition to leading the university’s Sustainability Committee, a coalition of students, faculty, administrators, and staff committed to considering and implementing new ways to create a greener Bryant, and presenting at Bryant-wide events such as the annual Day of Understanding, Vahey is also working to address sustainability in other ways, including helping to launch the Bryant University Climate Change and Sustainability Speaker Series. Co-sponsored by the Office of Sustainability, the Provost Office, and the NASA RI Space Grant Consortium, the series seeks to bring together diverse voices across a range of fields and industries to discuss how we might forge a better, more sustainable future.
“Entrepreneurs are, by nature, problem solvers, and the climate crisis is one of the largest problems there is.”
This semester’s speakers have included Associate Professor of Finance Cathy Zheng, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor of Finance Huan Kuang, Ph.D., who discussed their research into evolving attitudes about climate change in the finance sector; Bryant alumna Courtenay McHugh '01, climate and energy director at Nike, who spoke about decarbonizing the supply chain; Lecturer of Biological and Biomedical Robert Patalano, who shared how climatic and environmental change has affected human evolution and how man-made climate change is currently impacting food security around the world, and most recently, Sir Oliver Hart, co-recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, who led a talk on how shareholders can be more active in shaping environmentally sound corporate policy.
Showcasing that diversity of experience, Vahey argues, speaks to the heart of the climate struggle — especially for college students preparing for their careers. “It’s important to demonstrate that this work isn't solely the area of scientists and climate change activists,” she says. “The aim is to discuss what we can learn from one another and get people thinking about what they can do to be part of the solution.”
She hopes the talks spark future conversations — and further the robust discourse already going on at the university. “We have so much strong, interdisciplinary research coming out of Bryant related to sustainability being conducted by both students and faculty — in science, in business, in health, in public policy, in so many other areas,” Vahey notes. “We also have a strong presence of alumni that are working in sustainability and are eager to share their work and what they’ve learned.”
As she plans for the future, Vahey is also reaching for the stars, literally. Bryant currently has a STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System) Silver rating in recognition of its sustainability achievements from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) — a good start, Vahey observes, but it also means there’s room to do more. “A university like Bryant is involved in so many different areas, from research, to energy, to buildings and land use, to food and dining, and community engagement, so there are always opportunities to make changes for the better."