Environmental commitment leads to Udall award

By Karen A. Grava, CLAS Today

Blame a car tire for Katherine Tsantiris’s career choice. As a 16-year-old high school student, she had to hike for more than an hour into a conservation area in Costa Rica to work on a project saving turtles. The site was remote. There was no electricity, no houses, no boats, no cars.

But civilization – including a car tire — was evident. “When I walked outside, my jaw dropped. The beach was covered in trash. It was at that moment I realized that no matter how far from civilization a place seems, the effects of human degradation still manage to reach it. I walked down the beach with a new commitment to the environment,” she says. “I realized that while people are destroying it, only people can save it.”

Tsantiris, a junior in CLAS, is a winner of the highly competitive 2011 $5,000 scholarship from the Morris K. and Stewart L. Udall Foundation for college students committed to careers related to the environment, tribal public policy, or Native American health care. She is also a member of Phi Beta Kappa, a New England Scholar and the winner of a four-year academic excellence scholarship.

A junior majoring in environmental science with a dual concentration in marine science and resource economics, Tsantiris hopes one day to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, using science to influence public policy.

“The health of marine mammals is a lens through which we can survey the health of marine ecosystems and measure some of the most significant environmental issues we face today, from chemical pollutants in our waters to climate change,” she says.

A scuba diver, Tsantiris, who grew up in West Hartford, has spent summers in Greece, where her father, Leonidas (head coach, UConn women’s soccer), grew up on the remote fishing island of Icaria. Environmental degradation there is rampant and Tsantiris is working to spread environmental stewardship on the island.

Last summer, she contacted the Archipelagos Institute for Marine and Environmental Research on a nearby island and is now working with it to draft a report about the degradation on Icaria.

She has also done summer research on marine mammals on a nearby Greek island for the Tethys Research Institute and spent a summer at the University of Michigan doing basic research in molecular and cell biology.

Tsantiris has also been active on campus as a member of the EcoHusky group and an intern in the Environmental Policy office. There she has worked to get sneakers recycled, been involved with a number of initiatives to improve environmental policy on campus and spearheaded work to get people who attend UConn’s basketball and football games to recycle.

“Kathy is passionate about the environment,” says Rich Miller, director of environmental policy. “She’s also a great communicator. She is well-informed about environmental policy issues and the underlying science, so I often ask her to draft everything from environmental outreach materials to grant applications and donor solicitations for UConn’s Campus Sustainability Fund.”

The environmental projects she has been involved with have taught Tsantiris that public policy is just as important as knowing the science of the environment, she says.

“Reversing environmental decline requires effort from all sectors of society. It is the complexity and the urgency that motivate me. Environmental science is not a field of its own; it is the meeting point of every field. It is the anthropology, sociology and political science; it is biology, marine science and chemistry.”

So it’s no surprise that her favorite course at the University so far has been “The Politics of Oil.”

“UConn is a really great school, with a lot of great professors and a lot of great opportunities,” she says. “UConn is giving me an amazing education.”

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