Taking the long road

In 2008, I was hopeless.  College? How was I supposed to know what to study?  My nature-photographer father ‘s voice rung in the background, telling me to follow my passion.

The thing is, art was my passion. Art schools were out of my family’s budget, and coming from a family where both of my parents were artists, I was able to witness the ups and downs of the art world. I knew committing my college degree to art would not be the wisest choice. My mother urged me to take up writing. In her opinion, I wrote “terrifically,” and I had a “god-given talent,” but, writing was not my passion, and frankly, I never believed her. I loved traveling, learning about new cultures and meeting new people, but I heard that the chance of nabbing a job in the field of anthropology was slim to none.

I didn’t want to spend days in a studio making art or writing, because that would deprive me of nature’s elements. And studying cultures would lead me to a lab or minimum-wage fieldwork. But, I did know that I loved the natural world. From childhood, the outdoors felt more like home than my actual house. My memories are filled of games played in fern-laden oak forests, adventures in reed-walled marshes and fresh water ponds filled with minnows, and crabbing along the dunes of the Atlantic coast. As a child, I established a deep soul-enriching connection and understanding of the natural world.

At home in nature.

At home in nature.

I didn’t know what to I wanted to study. I wanted to focus on an area that would teach me how to improve the existing world, but no major seemed to fit me. I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I couldn’t find anything that sparked my interest.  So, in the fall of 2008, I ignored my inability to muster more than a B- in science or math, and took up an Environmental Studies major at Stony Brook University Southampton.

Well, by the spring of 2009, I knew I was not ready to embark on an environmental major. Not only was I barely passing my classes that were mainly science- and math- based, but most of the information I was learning was disheartening. I saw no light at the end of the tunnel. I could not overcome the anxiety I experienced when I learned about the statistics of our future planet. It all sounded so bad. I left Stony Brook University Southampton and went to Suffolk County Community College where I began my Liberal Arts degree.

Let me take a step back to the time before I attempted an Environmental Studies major. My first experience of understanding the spiritual and philosophical aspect of the natural world dawned on me when I was sixteen. My high school gave students an opportunity to travel to India for ten days. This trip shocked my understanding of life.

Before this trip, I was like most other teenaged girls. I read fashion magazines, wore horrific make-up, bought cheap clothes and jewelry in order to fit into the newest trends. I was falling into the superficiality that American consumerism offers. I became interested in India after a class on world religions I had taken that year, and Hinduism captured my interest the most.

In Hinduism, there is a great respect for other living things. Cows are worshiped, and there are an infinite amount of gods, goddesses and deities who represent all parts of the physical and spiritual world. Well, India woke me up from my superficial stupor.  My first encounter with India was the smell of cremating bodies that filled the vents of the landing jet. I cried when we finally got on our tour bus. Naked, malnutrition-bellied children pounded on the side of our bus with their handicapped mothers, signaling for food with their empty palms and stick-like fingers. They ran along the bus, through the heavy crowds, as we drove away.


The streets of India.

The streets of India.

But, among the dirt, there was beauty and hope in the people. Women adorned themselves in vibrant colored saris and jewel encrusted gold chains and nose-rings.  The culture was so strong here. Yet, I was enraged by the injustice. Half of my clothes were made in this country. My garbage was taken here, left to be searched through by those pot-bellied children. But, why were they succumbed to this life of starvation and sickness when there were fields of potatoes, okra, peas, curry, and sunflowers not far from the city? Mainly, for money. This trip was a turning point. I witnessed the ugly reality consumerism and globalization has created for other people in this world, and they do not deserve it.

One stop in Isabella's journey through Brazil.

One stop in Isabella’s journey through Brazil.

During the three years after this trip, I continued to travel. I came across once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to travel to some of the most amazing places on Earth. I found myself swimming with seals in the Galapagos, starring at ancient glaciers in Patagonia, Argentina, and even nearly encountering a jaguar in the Amazon Forest in Brazil. My highest point of awe was in Brazil. I was one of eleven students from around the world who were accepted into a backpacking/study abroad program there. We traveled through multiple provinces in the Northern area of the country to study the ecology, geography, culture, and forms of sustainability present there.

Mid-way through our 45-day trek, we arrived to Chapada Diamantina National Park. The park is located in the Chapada dos Veadeiros, an ancient plateau with an estimated age of 1.8 billions years, and is the highest plain in Central Brazil. We hiked through rain and mist for three days. On the fourth, the skies cleared and we came to one of the highest plains in the park. Below, we saw a beautiful valley that looked like it never ended. The valley’s rock walls were lined with gushing waterfalls, casting rainbows in their mist. It was like being at the top of the world. The air was so clean. The sight around me was breathtaking. I remember thinking, This is how the world should be.

Now back to my college story: With my time at Suffolk County Community College drawing to a close, I knew I wanted to find a way to objectify and communicate how beautiful the world is, and what it has to offer us outside of food, water, and gas.  I graduated from Suffolk County Community College with an Associates in Arts degree in 2010. Back to the drawing board it was.

I decided to look back at Stony Brook University. After a short phone call, I discovered that I was still a Stony Brook student. My mind was somewhat set at ease. I immediately began searching through the majors. Anthropology: no. Art: no.  Coastal Environmental Studies: I wish. English: no.

Then, I found a major I had never heard of before: Environmental Humanities. The major consisted of writing, literature, philosophy, social science and environmental art & aesthetics. Everything I loved was encompassed in this major, and all of it was centered around the environment. I felt like this major was made for me. To this day, I do not regret taking the long road to discovering my passion. Now, almost seven years after I began my endeavor into getting a higher education, I am studying how to communicate environmental issues through design and art. I couldn’t have imagined a better way for me to invest my years of education.

Isabella hiking in Argentina (far right).

Isabella (far right) on a hike in Argentina.

By Isabella Bartoloni
Sustainability Studies Program ’15
Environmental Humanities Major

Finding fossils and my niche in paleo-ecology

Anna Weiss, fossil hunting in Africa.

Anna Weiss, fossil hunting in Africa.

One of the most exciting aspects about paleontology is being able to see the changes the Earth has been through over the last 4.6 billion years and understanding that there is a relationship between climate, environment and life. There has been much recent work in both paleontology and ecology showing that understanding organisms’ response to past intervals of environmental change can inform modern conservation efforts.

(For two really excellent quick reviews, see the Conservation Paleobiology Workshop report and Looking forward through the past: identification of 50 priority research questions in palaeoecology.)

As a paleo-ecologist, I study ancient ecosystem functioning. Specifically, I am trying to understand how reef communities responded to and recovered from an episode of global warming known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which occurred about 56 million years ago.

The onset of the PETM occurred rapidly and lasted a (geologically) short period of time yet the effect on the planet was huge. This time period is associated with elevated CO2 levels, a 5-8°C increase in global temperature, ocean acidification, and reef collapse. The PETM is an especially interesting period of time to study for two reasons:

  1. The intensity and sudden onset of human-caused, or “anthropogenic,” CO2 emissions (primarily from our burning of fossil fuels) best mirror the rapid and strong pulse of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere naturally during the PETM. Although current emissions release is faster than during the PETM, overall projected CO2 release and temperature rise during these two separate periods are comparable in ecological magnitude.
  2. Reef systems face a crisis, but not extinction, during the PETM, contrary to their reaction to other periods of disturbance.

The issue of coral bleaching and extinction has been looming on the horizon for sometime now. Thankfully, recent research is showing that not all hope is lost: corals may be able to adapt and survive what is being called the Anthropocene, or the era of human-induced global change. This makes the fact that reefs were able to endure the PETM all the more interesting and relevant. Most paleo-ecological studies have used mass extinctions to model future ecological change, but I’m a little more optimistic.

I’ll be using both statistical methods and fossil data to better understand how and why corals survived this episode. Additionally, I hope to determine whether there was an ecological threshold before their decline and what the process of recovery looked like in the ancient oceanI already have promising preliminary results, and will head out to the fossil sites this summer to see these communities that have been preserved in time.

I will also work with modern reef ecologists to better understand reef ecosystem function and how paleo-ecological studies can be of most benefit to them. During my time in the Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program, I enjoyed discovering that the field of Sustainability Studies is extremely innovative and multidisciplinary. I’m excited to have found my niche at Stony Brook University, and it is one in which I can combine my love of geology with my passion for environmentalism.

Anna Weiss combined her love of geology with her passion for environmentalism to find her ideal career path.

Anna Weiss combined her love of geology with her passion for environmentalism to find her ideal career path.

By Anna Weiss
Sustainability Studies Program ’13
Anthropology Major; Paleoanthropology focus
Geology and Sustainability Studies Minors; Earth History focus
Today Anna is pursuing a Ph.D. in Paleontology at the University of Texas at Austin

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