A systems thinking approach to facilitating environmental change

Lisa Brunie '06

Lisa Brunie '06, Environmental Engineer

Major: Environmental Studies

Concentration: Ecosystem Science

Advanced Degrees: Masters of Science in Environmental Systems Management, Pratt Institute

Employer: Alcoa

Reflecting on my career, I’ve truly come to understand that environmental change requires engagement, awareness, and that advocacy can take many forms. I've worked in the public and private sectors, for Fortune 500 companies, a consulting firm and government agencies. I've found that no matter the organization, changing the way people think about their environmental impact, getting support from all levels of operation, and providing tools necessary to reduce that impact is fundamental.

At Mount Holyoke, I found my passion for the environment and majored in environmental studies with a concentration in Biogeochemistry. I was given the opportunity to intern for Jill Bubier in New Hampshire, and in Canada, where I participated in research on ecosystem exchange and impacts of nutrient addition on a wetland.

After graduation, I worked for a few months as a research associate at the Earth, Ocean, and Space Center at the University of New Hampshire. I loved the science and field work but I would say my “career” really started when I began to work on environmental management systems and learn more about environmental regulations. This transition occurred early on when I took a position with Canon (the camera and copier company) as an environmental associate.

At Canon, I was responsible for implementation and operation of the Company’s environmental management system (EMS). I was charged with overseeing this program for all locations in North America. Implementing the EMS for Canon involved analyzing the company’s activities, the potential environmental risk associated with each activity, and establishing goals, objectives, and programs to reduce that risk. It required educating all employees on how their job could impact the environment while trying to change the culture to incorporate environmental concern when making business decisions.

Through this program we provided environmental awareness training to all employees (which included discussions on climate change, recycling, and pollution prevention), improved recycling at Canon facilities, enhanced consumer take-back programs, reduced energy and water consumption, shifted modes of transportation away from air, and redesigned products and packaging to decrease waste.

From there, I went on to manage compliance improvements and permitting for private waste transfer stations for the New York City Department of Sanitation, obtain my masters degree in environmental management, work as a Principal Scientist for a consulting firm focused on water and waste-water improvements, and manage portion of the Organics Collection Program Pilot Program for the City of New York.

Through these opportunities, I’ve had the chance to learn more about city planning, utilize my science background in conducting various types of natural resources surveys and focus on interpreting scientific and engineering information for the general public. I’ve been fortunate to work on programs helped to transform the way a city functions and put a dent in the overall environmental impact.

As part of the Organics Collection Program, I was able to help change the way people and a city handle their waste by building a program from the ground up and by focusing on community engagement and education.

Recently, my family and I moved away from New York to Iowa, where I currently work for Alcoa in a senior environmental role. I am excited about my work here and I look forward to moving the facility to the next level of environmental responsibility by increasing environmental awareness and hopefully using my past experience to implement projects to improve storm-water management, experiment with phytoremediation, and improve recycling.

Although, I may not have the most traditional of career paths and no longer work in the science field, each of my work experiences has provided an opportunity to witness real change, and my science background has continually helped in my career by instilling a systems-thinking approach. The scientific approach or way of thinking has been invaluable in understanding how these “systems” (i.e. companies, agencies, or communities) operate, in creating programs that lessen their impact on the environment, and in connecting with the people or neighborhoods at the ground level and at the very top of the organization.

I truly believe that change is possible and I’ve seen firsthand that a city or a company can make a difference. There is a long way to go but we can get there by engaging the people and communities where we live and work and by having people in all avenues of work promoting environmental awareness.