From the Ground Up

An environmental geologist on climate change close to home.

One of our newest faculty members, Dr. Bernice Rosenzweig, joined Sarah Lawrence in fall 2020 as the first OSilas Endowed Professor in Environmental Studies. Bernice hit the ground running at SLC, embracing its trademark interdisciplinary approach: her students connect geology, earth science, environmental justice, physics, math, and more, to arrive at an understanding of climate change’s impact on where we live—and what we can do to protect our future.

Occupying a rare but essential space in the environmental sciences, Bernice’s roots are in geology and the urban environment. “Most people in the geosciences don’t study urban systems,” she explains. “There are probably a few dozen of us total that do this type of work. But with the changes to Earth systems that are either locked in or that we’re hoping to prevent, understanding the geological setting of cities and how they’re going to be affected as climate changes is really important.”

At the heart of this work is understanding how scientific processes affect people and communities, and city governments are beginning to take notice. Last summer Bernice was appointed to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s New York City Panel on Climate Change, charged with advising policymakers on strategies to protect against climate-related hazards.

“New York City floods frequently,” Bernice notes. “We had a very obvious example with Superstorm Sandy in 2012. But we don’t really think about groundwater and how it could influence flooding. So the city is starting to think about that and taking steps to prepare.”

As a contributor to a research and advisory group called The Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, Bernice’s work also has an international impact. “That’s a really cool project,” she says. “We worked with practitioners from a bunch of cities in the U.S. and Latin America to compare and contrast the different settings, identify what they could do to respond to their unique challenges, and bring to light how we can learn from each other.”

As a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence, Bernice is enjoying the unique perspectives our students bring to class and to their conference projects. One student, George Scott ’21, recorded a podcast to present his work on urban and coastal resilience. “I also had several students who wrote plays,” Bernice says. One play incorporated the science of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Another depicted how forest fires are impacted by climate change, and that student created a video where she acted out all of the roles of the play. One student wrote a children’s book on climate change.

Ultimately, Bernice’s aim is to guide her students to a place of data literacy and understanding how data interpretation can inform their lives at every level. “Climate change will be a very direct challenge for this generation,” she warns. “These students are the people who will be making decisions, whether for their city, the country, or just for their own life, like whether to buy a house somewhere. Those decisions should be informed by data, but there’s actually a skill set underlying doing that. So I want to give them an opportunity to interpret the data themselves and to use that to inform their decision-making.”