Student Spotlight

Elise Myers, PhD Candidate in Earth and Environmental Sciences

Elise Myers

Where did you grow up? 
Baltimore County, Maryland. If you visit, the Baltimore Aquarium is incredible, and the Inner Harbor area is great for a casual day by the water!

What drew you to your field? 
Since I was very young, I have been obsessed with marine science. I would check out all the library books that I could carry about the ocean and the organisms living in it. In high school, I joined an environmental science team for a competition, and specialized in aquatic sciences. Then, in college, I was a geochemistry major. During a summer internship, I realized that improving water quality would drastically improve the health and safety of people. It was then that I changed my focus to water quality.

How would you explain your current research to someone outside of your field? 
When it rains, sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants can become overwhelmed by the excess water volume. They can then discharge partially treated or untreated sewage into the Hudson River. Epidemiological studies have shown that contact with water contaminated by human sewage causes higher rates of illness (particularly gastrointestinal issues) in humans. I am trying to predict the persistence of sewage-derived bacteria in the water, because we then can better inform people and limit the risk of exposure during recreational activities on the Hudson River.

What is your favorite thing about being a student at Columbia GSAS?
The Students of Color Alliance (SoCA). It was revamping itself when I started my studies here, and I immediately joined the board as communications director. Through SoCA, I have found a community for support when dealing with the unique challenges of being a student of color in an academic space. This year, I have stepped up to be one of SoCA’s co-chairs, and am excited about what we can do to support students of color and foster community!

Is there a common misconception about a topic in your field that you wish you could correct?
The impact of plastic straws on overall plastic pollution in the ocean. While plastic straws do contribute, they are a small part of a 150-million-metric-ton problem. (Also, we should remember that plastic straws are important for the quality of life for people with disabilities.) The conversation should focus instead on how can we each reduce our overall plastic consumption: shopping with reusable bags, bringing our own cups to get our morning coffee, etc. Our plastic footprint is much greater than the straws that we use.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
On paper, it would be graduating from MIT in just over four years with a bachelor’s and master’s degree. But to me, one of the most important ways that I have contributed is by fostering diversity and inclusion in STEM fields through mentoring, advocacy, and outreach. At Columbia, I’ve supervised research experiences for two undergraduates interns, and recently mentored five students in the GSAS Summer Research Program. I am an active participant in science outreach through Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and use social media both to share science and to promote awareness of issues related to diversity and inclusion.

What is your favorite blog or website?
When I’m in the lab doing routine tasks, I will often turn on a podcast. I’m a big fan of More Perfect, Radiolab, Freakonomics, and Naked Oceans. I appreciate that each of these podcasts will explore a (sometimes controversial) topic in-depth.

Where is your favorite place to eat on or around campus?
My kitchen. I love learning from cooking shows, and am always trying different seasonal recipes. I recently bought a pressure cooker, and that was a game changer. Cooking and baking is just like science, except you get to eat something (ideally) tasty at the end!