May 18 2015

With Commencement happening this week, members of the Class of 2015 reflect on their time as Mailman School students and share their plans for the future.

Erika Eitland recounts her journey to student leader and organizer of the Mailman School contingent at the People’s Climate March as well as her ambitions for her coming role as doctoral student at Harvard and beyond:


After leaving a sterile stem cell research lab, I came to vibrant New York City with the determination to focus more on my passion for people. I worked for several non-profits dedicated to improving food access and housing quality for disadvantaged New Yorkers. These experiences combined with my unique Indian-Norwegian heritage made me increasingly interested in the environmental determinants of health, specifically in urban areas. My mother's family is from Kolkata, which is a city under threat of rising sea levels.

Hearing Dr. Joseph Graziano talk about how science could directly benefit populations around the world immediately had me hooked. The clear droplets I had been analyzing in my undergraduate stem cell lab research could not thrill me like environmental health sciences would.

During my time at Mailman, I worked at Public Health Solutions, where I was responsible for hosting community meetings that connected local organizations and farmers' markets. I put these new communications skills to work with Students for Environmental Action to create partnerships with local community organizations and develop a new lecture series known as SEA of Thoughts. In the fall, I helped spearhead the People's Climate March efforts at Mailman, organizing over 175 students, faculty and staff to take part in the largest climate march in history.

My mentors really believed in me, and I was given the opportunity to present a testimonial at City Hall, attend a weeklong meeting with leading climate scientists in the U.K., and even apply my statistics skills to analyze housing data to look at energy insecurity in the U.S. Last summer, I worked with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory doing research on climate information services ethics, which translated into my thesis.

The most important moment in my public health career came when Columbia awarded me to the Fund for Public Health Leadership. This scholarship made it possible for me to attend the Mailman School and follow my dreams. I have been accepted to Harvard’s Doctorate of Science Program in Environmental Health. I am very excited to research international sustainable infrastructure and the impacts of environmental exposures on health. I will be focusing on sustainable infrastructure, specifically how we design healthier buildings both environmentally and socially.  My long-term plans would be to teach. I love academia but I have found "knowledge is power," and I want to empower vulnerable populations around the world. I could see myself starting "EHS Without Borders" or "Teach Without Borders"—something that really focuses on capacity building in areas with limited access to this information.