Kapuscinski named chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists

by Carter Brace | 11/11/15 7:56pm

Environmental studies professor Anne Kapuscinski has spent her career breaking glass ceilings. She was the first female Ph.D. candidate her doctoral advisor had ever had and the first female professor in the University of Minnesota’s fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology department, which had only seen two women receive master’s degrees in its entire 40-year existence.

“When a female student who came in was assigned to me, her mouth would almost drop when she came into the room because she didn’t realize the professor would be a woman,” Kapuscinski said.

Now, Kapuscinski has achieved another first — being named the first female chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based public advocacy group. She was elected chair in May and began her tenure on Oct. 28. Kapuscinski, however, said she does not let the novelty of being the first woman in this role distract from her work.

“First, I’m doing this as an intellectual and as a scholar and as a scientist,” Kapuscinski said.

Even when Kapuscinski announced her appointment to colleagues, she never mentioned that she would be the first female chair.

“Maybe that says something about [Kapuscinski’s] modesty or the fact that she doesn’t view herself as the first woman chair,” environmental studies department professor Andrew Friedland said.

Kapuscinski first worked with the UCS when she was invited to speak at a workshop in 2001 on biotechnology and agriculture. The invitation led to her appointment to the UCS Board of Directors a few months later, and she has been active ever since.

“The board members realized they didn’t have anyone on the board whose own work was at the intersection of food production and the environment,” Kapuscinski said.

Kapuscinski said that she finds her work on the board to be rewarding.

“Although I usually have to put in the time on nights and weekends, it’s really worth it,” Kapuscinski said.

The board decides the overall direction of the UCS. As chair, Kapuscinski will preside over board meetings, meet monthly with UCS President Ken Kimmell, speak on the organization’s behalf and convene outside scientists to work with the organization.

She was also a member of a UCS Strategic Planning Committee that formed a five-year plan with five goals for the organization.

The goals range from reducing carbon emissions and creating a clean energy economy to reducing the threat of nuclear weapons while ensuring the safety of nuclear power to reforming the United States’ agriculture system. One goal in particular — ensuring non-politicized science in the country’s democratic process — is of personal importance to Kapuscinski.

“We can’t have a vibrant, functioning democracy without science being a major part of our decision-making,” she said. “If we allow some of our leaders to muzzle, deny or distort the science, we start to be on the route to undermining our democracy. This is something that matters deeply to me. My family immigrated to the [United States] in 1960 — my father lost his whole family in World War Two, and one of the reasons we came to this country was because it was a beacon of democratic processes and freedom of expression.”

At Dartmouth, Kapuscinski also has a range of responsibilities. As the inaugural Sherman Fairchild Professor of Sustainability Science, Kapuscinski fosters activities relating to sustainability across the curriculum. This work includes overseeing the Sustainability Solutions Café, a series of lectures and discussions that is now in its fourth year at the College.

“The Sustainability Solutions Café filled a niche that we weren’t serving in the past,” Friedland said.

Kapuscinski also runs a research program with two large grants. In her research, she makes sure to include undergraduate students. At any one time, Kapuscinski may have anywhere from three to six undergraduates involved in her projects.

On top of all this, Kapuscinski also teaches “Environment and Society,” an 84-person introductory course.

Students in the course praised her willingness to devote individual attention to each student.

“She’s a wonderful person, especially given the fact that she takes time to get to know each of us and is clearly invested in each individual student,” Catherine Rocchi ’19 said.

Megan Larkin ’19 agreed, emphasizing how Kapuscinski studied the attendance sheet to learn each student’s name.

“The class gives me a chance to have conversations and learn together with a room full of bright, talented students,” Kapuscinski said. “We do a lot of things to develop their strategic thinking skills, because every student in that class is going to, at some aspect in their lives, have an important interaction with the environment.”

Kapuscinski said she sees herself as a mentor, advising students on jobs, internships and graduate school.

Though she has mentored both male and female students, Kapuscinski has become a significant mentor for the latter.

“Women have tended to gravitate towards me, because even though there are many more women in science than when I was their age, it’s still not even, and they’re still looking for role models,” Kapuscinski said.

Kapuscinski said her new role at the UCS will further her goal to inspire female students in the sciences.

“The fact that I’m the first woman chair allows me to showcase to women scientists that women have what it takes to play this leadership role.” Kapuscinski said.

As UCS chair, Kapucinski also hopes to inform young people who are aspiring scientists about the organization.

“I noticed when I first moved to Dartmouth that a lot of [undergraduates] who were interested in the intersection of science and public action were often not aware of entities like the Union of Concerned Scientists,” she said.

Kapuscinski is also involved in the online, open-access, non-profit journal Elementa: Science of the Antropocene, which Dartmouth co-founded with five other universities. She serves as editor-in-chief of the journal’s sustainability transitions sub-section.

“The majority of journals being published by publishing houses still charge high subscription charges,” she said. “Dartmouth is trying to create an alternative model that will not have this paywall.”

Kapuscinski, who started her undergraduate years at Swarthmore College as a biology major intent on medical school, said that even when she realized she did not want to be a doctor she retained her love for biology.

Later when on an exchange program to Pomona College, Kapuscinski took a seminar where she conducted a project on dams.

“I got fascinated by how we have situations where humans decide to alter the environment and the intent is to meet an important human need, but the action ends up having these unintended harmful consequences on the environment,” she said. “So I began asking myself, does it always have to be one way or another? And that got me interested in environmental science.”

Kapuscinski’s current work examines algae as a feed for farmed fish, and she has been particularly notable for her work on genetically modified fish.

“She is a well-known, well-regarded scientist in her own right, with her expertise focusing on sustainable ecosystems,” Kimmell said.

Friedland echoed Kimmell, emphasizing how her research has the potential to translate into policy that affects real people.

“She’s done a really great job of pursuing scholarship that has a strong and immediate public impact,” Friedland said.

Kapuscinski said she hopes her expertise in environmental studies can help in her position as UCS chair.

“The other thing I can do is to elevate a little bit more of the work that UCS does on its food and environment program,” she said.