Alexandra Fluegel ’23 and Taylor Vahey ’23 are on a mission. As student researchers assisting Harvard Radcliffe Institute fellow, Dr. Charles J. Smiley Chair Professor of Science and Technology, and Vice President of International Affairs, Hong Yang, Ph.D., they’ve spent the last year learning about the existential threat posed by climate change, the desperate need for urgent action, and the steps people can take to save the planet. Now they’ve decided to make their own stand by organizing Bryant University’s first annual Earth Day Symposium on Climate and Sustainability.
Scheduled for April 21, the symposium will bring together students, alumni, faculty, staff, and members of the community who want to make a difference with the resources and knowledge they need to reimagine a planet in crisis. “We’ve known about climate change since scientists first began talking about it in 1827, but now our window of opportunity to do something about it is becoming increasingly limited,” says Vahey.
“The more people that understand what we know about climate change and are committed to — and excited about — finding solutions, the better,” Fluegel agrees.
The pair says the symposium is a natural extension of what they’ve learned under the tutelage of Dr. Yang. “The more we learned about climate change, the more urgently we realized the world needed to respond and we wanted to be part of that,” says Fluegel. “I feel like everything we’ve done up to this point has led us to this.”
“The more we reached out to people and spoke to them about getting involved, the more overwhelming ‘yeses’ we heard.”
Hosting an event on their home campus, Vahey says, is a way to inspire local change that can help make a global difference. “We've had the opportunity to present our research in a lot of different venues, but I think there's something really special about sharing it with our home college institution and making it matter here,” she says.
The new symposium is a point of pride for both students. “I think it’s important that this is student-driven because it shows that these issues are important to us as a generation, and that we can explore them in ways that are meaningful to students,” says Vahey. Fluegel credits Yang with encouraging their efforts but also allowing them to make their own decisions. “When we were first planning the forum, we asked Dr. Yang, ‘What do you think we should do; what would you want this to be like?’ And he asked in return, ‘Well, what do you want it to be like?’” she remembers.
With the reins firmly in their hands, Fluegel and Vahey reached out to the connections they made through their research — and were stunned by the positive response. “The more we reached out to people and spoke to them about getting involved, the more overwhelming ‘yeses’ we heard,” says Vahey.
The resulting conference will include a range of diverse presentations, discussions, and workshops. Bryant professors will lead sessions on sustainability, climate education, and a demonstration of climate visualization using the university’s virtual reality lab. Local business owners will discuss the role environmental concerns play in their work and the decisions they’ve made to help ensure a better future. Dr. Andrew Knoll, Fisher Research Professor of Natural History at Harvard University and winner of the 2022 Crafoord Prize — one of the world´s most prestigious science awards — will deliver the keynote address.
“Bryant has the opportunity to be a leading institution in higher education in how they respond to climate change, and how they prepare students to confront it in the future.”
Vahey and Fluegel are especially excited for a young alumni panel, where Maeve Kiley ’21, Gabrielle Ritzer ’21, Josie Schofield ’21, and Max Shepard ’22 will discuss their transition from Bryant to the workforce and the sustainability-related roles they’ve taken on in their careers. “We thought it would be really valuable for students who might be considering this path to hear from them,” says Vahey. “There are so many jobs in this space right now across every industry, even for people who might not have specialized in this area.”
That’s the greater message of the conference, Vahey says: Every single person has a role to play in building a better world. “This is a really important, and really timely, discussion and it’s important for everyone to be part of it and learn more,” she notes. “Bryant has the opportunity to be a leading institution in higher education in how they respond to climate change, and how they prepare students to confront it in the future.”
In order to take that leading role, adds Fluegel, we need to learn how to work together. “Having the opportunity for everyone to network with one another strengthens all of us as a whole,” she affirms.
The symposium, she hopes, is a first step towards creating new momentum in the climate movement on campus and beyond. ‘When we started our research, one of our biggest goals was to make an impact at Bryant,” Fluegel states. “Organizing this conference, which we hope is the first of many going forward, makes me feel like we’ve started to create that legacy.”
To register for Bryant University’s first annual Earth Day Symposium on Climate and Sustainability, click here.