Q&A with Dickey Center associate director Melody Burkins

by Autumn Dinh | 1/9/18 2:00am

Melody Burkins A&S’95 A&S’98, an environmental studies professor and associate director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, has a rich background in the intersection between science and policy. She is passionate about applying science to solve global challenges and investing in the education of future generations to raise awareness of the importance of civil engagement and environmental sustainability. She has experience working in academia and government and has worked toward the attainment of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals in both fields. She was also the chair of the first majority-female U.S. delegation to the International Geological Council in South Africa in 2016. She earned both her M.S. and Ph.D at the college studying the antarctic ecosystem.

How did you first become interested in international studies?

MB: I've spent some time as I grew up living in France and have toured Europe a little bit in the past. When I went to graduate school, I was drawn to opportunities to go and work in other places to learn about them. I’ve never studied international studies specifically — my focus is on science but part of my wanting to study science was to travel. As I got to a senior level of my career in science, people would consult me because of my policy background to work on international issues of science and policy.

Do you have a field that you’re most interested in?

MB: What I’m most interested in is the intersection between science and policy. When I was just doing science, I’d be fascinated by a glaciologist and a geologist coming together and talking rather than people in just one discipline. When I moved from science to policy and went to Washington, it was fascinating to me to see how science worked in policy and how governance is how all those interests come together. I just love the idea of seeing that whole picture through policy. However, I’m most drawn to the environment — it’s my history, my scientific background. I’m drawn to how that is displayed in issues of governance. Generally, it’s how science, evidence, governance and people work together to create a better world. I believe that science applies to global challenges, and when you apply evidence, you can make the world a better place for everyone.

Have you ever found it difficult to move among disciplines of study?

MB: I think it’s important to me to focus on the science first. My Ph.D. gave me credibility and showed that I could study something in depth and follow through. I have advice for students who want to do a lot of things: Make sure you have a grounding, something you care about. It doesn’t have to be a Ph.D., but something that can say, “I completed it, I have a degree in it and I know how to do work.” You have to prove yourself to a certain level and then you start to think about where you want to apply that.

Why did you choose to focus on earth and ecosystem studies of the Antarctic Dry Valleys in your doctoral studies?

MB: Honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing. I wanted first to be a doctor, and then everyone was being a doctor, so I wanted to be a geologist as I loved the outdoors. I came to Dartmouth to become a geologist and study mining. I still love crystals and mines and ore deposits. Then I felt like I was limited, and I wanted to do other things as well so I debated leaving and doing something else. Professor Ross Virginia, back when I was a student in the 1990s, would just take students to Antarctica, so since I’d always loved traveling I just told myself that I could do a Ph.D. in Antarctica. I joined his team, finished a Ph.D. in environmental studies and fell in love with Antarctica. Part of my passion was because I’d always loved the outdoors, soil, mining, climate changes, so I was thinking about how can we be more sustainable with mining. Environmental studies is a major that lets you explore a lot of different ideas and sometimes travel to very interesting places and meet interesting people with different perspectives.

What do you think about Americans’ current reactions to climate change?

MB: It’s part of why I teach. I think that what people believe is informed by a lot of the data and people they’re exposed to, so I can’t make someone believe that climate change is real, but I can teach them the facts that I believe in and ask them to push back and argue for their perspective. When you start looking at the credible facts from the good resources and good scientists, a lot of people come to a conclusion that something is happening. I feel we need to do more of that and we need to do that in a way that not only scientists are involved but also the people outside of science. It’s hard, but that’s why we need to do all we can and we must start at the local level.

Could you talk about your work to advance the progress on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals?

MB: This is about policy and diplomacy informed by science. The SDGs are interesting teaching tools: They’re happening in science, they’re happening in international relations, they’re about security and governance. The SDGs is the system that moves the world forward, and what you do is work out measurements to work toward these goals. My interest in sustainable goals is the same as my interest in good things — maybe you don’t have to believe in it, but it’d be nice to see people getting together and say it’s good to have resilience to poverty, it’s good to have clean water. I think what the SDGs do is open up a ground for people to work together toward these goals. I also ask students to question if the SDGs are feasible because I think it’s important for everyone to not just believe what they hear but also you have to feel comfortable about what the information means.

How feasible do you think these goals are?

MB: Organizations are putting funding, resources and people toward specific goals like clean water, and they’re all connected to a larger global group. The important thing is that you have to start locally. People are thinking about them and implementing them in their own way. If it’s too specific, it’s not going to work with every community.

I’m not sure that the SDGs are going to work — I just like the idea that global leaders come together and actually ask communities to give them their top priorities, and they synthesize these priorities into these 17 goals, and now we’re thinking how we’re going to move these forward in the next 20 or 30 years. There are not many things that are better than that right now.

Can you tell me about your experience working as chair of the first majority-female U.S. delegation to the International Geological Council in South Africa?

MB: Never had a woman chaired a delegation to my knowledge, so I told myself that I should say something about that. I also recognized that there had never been more than one or two women in a delegation, even though there are many powerful women in geological sciences, so again it was an opportunity for me to build the delegation. At the event, people didn’t entertain some really hard questions about issues concerning underrepresentation and voices. I felt that the language wasn’t proper, so I voiced my idea. The first reaction I got was, “You don’t understand. Wait four years, and maybe we can change that.” I looked back at my group of women, and they were all horrified. I felt so powerful with the support of this group of women that I felt really comfortable to stand up and talk about what I care for. It’s important to talk about underrepresented groups. This committee that I just stepped off of is still a majority-women delegation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Correction Appended (Jan. 9, 2018):

The Jan. 8 article "Q&A with Dickey Center associate director Melody Burkins" has been updated to clarify the duration of Burkins' time in Europe and the description of her interests.