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Alumna is chosen as a 2014 Gates Cambridge Scholar

Victoria Herrmann ’12 will pursue a Ph.D. in polar studies at Cambridge University beginning in October.

Victoria Herrmann ‘12, a former Carnegie Junior Fellow and a 2013-14 Fulbright scholar, was recently named a Gates Cambridge Scholar for 2014. She is one of 40 Americans to receive the honor, and will be joined by 55 additional international Gates scholars at Cambridge in October.

In the UK, Herrmann will pursue a Ph.D. in polar studies at Cambridge’s Scott Polar Institute. She hopes to compel action against environmental injustices through research, writing and visual art, specifically focusing on Arctic communities affected by climate change.

Herrmann, who studied art history and international relations at Lehigh, has an academic resume replete with prestigious achievements. In 2012-13, as a Carnegie Junior Fellow, she studied domestic and international climate policy in Carnegie’s Climate and Energy Program in Washington, D.C. She was a co-author of several publications, including Rethinking Urban Mobility: Sustainable Policies for the Century of the City, which discussed the need for cities to “work together with national governments to create environmentally and financially sustainable urban transport systems.”

A native of Paramus, N.J., Herrmann was active in student life at Lehigh. As president of Green Action at Lehigh, she led a Reusable Take Out Container petition drive in Lehigh’s dining halls, which resulted in the university replacing Styrofoam containers with more environmentally friendly plastic containers that could be reused. She was also president of the Association of Student Alumni (ASA), a member of the Council of Student Presidents, and, through the LU/UN Partnership, she served as a delegate to the United Nations for Tarumitra, an Indian environmental NGO.

Herrmann took the time to speak with University Communications about the Gates scholarship, her passion for advocacy and her professional goals.

What was the selection process like for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, and how did you first learn about the opportunity?

I first learned about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship through my own research. I wanted to complete a Ph.D. in the UK and was searching for scholarship opportunities that fit my personal and professional ambitions. When I came across the Gates, with its commitment to improving lives and academic prestige, I knew I found a winner on both fronts.

The selection process was quite arduous, and began in earnest last spring with contacting potential research advisers at Cambridge. Finding a compatible adviser at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Dr. Michael Bravo, I spent the summer refining my written application—namely a research proposal and personal essay. After many revisions and rewrites, helped by friends, family, my boyfriend, coworkers, and faculty, I finally submitted it at the end of October. At that point, Gates had received a little over 800 applications, and soon thereafter went through two rounds of shortlisting to get down to 90 interviewees. Surprised to get a shortlist e-mail, I flew to Seattle at the end of January for my interview. The interview, although only twenty minutes, was incredibly nerve-racking: sitting across the table from Cambridge professors, accomplished former Gates scholars, and prominent Gates Foundation staff.

What will you be studying at Cambridge?

I will be pursuing a Ph.D. in polar studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute. My dissertation will aim to demonstrate how visual imagery creates and sustains contested, often unjust visions of Arctic development and governance.

Gates Cambridge alumni have a reputation for being involved in fascinating and compelling work in a variety of fields. How does it feel to be a part of such a prestigious group?

Looking through the list of Gates Cambridge alumni is both intimidating and exciting. From the executive director of the Department of Homeland Security to a Simon Institute research fellow who has just led a breakthrough study on genetic mutations associated with arthritis, Gates alumni across the world are living up to the Gates Foundation’s mission: to improve the lives of others. And I think that, in the end, is what makes them all so awe-inspiring, that these scholars have used the education and experience Gates afforded them to give back in their respective fields.

I’m humbled, and admittedly thrilled, to be joining such a group of intelligent, dedicated and compassionate people. I only hope that I use this opportunity to its fullest.

What were some of the projects you took on as a Carnegie Junior Fellow? How did the experience shape your perception of domestic and international energy and climate issues?

I mainly worked under Shin-pei Tsay on climate change, urbanization and transportation policy from a global perspective. I research, wrote and published on critical climate issues that cities across the world are facing today, including rising sea levels, mitigating carbon emissions, and adapting built infrastructure to a changing environment.

Working at an international think tank…challenged some of my basic preconceived notions on energy and climate issues. Coming from an activist background, both on Lehigh’s campus and through local campaigns in Pennsylvania, climate change was often framed as a local issue with grassroots solutions. [This approach] makes such a large problem more manageable and allows for meaningful successes on the ground even while there is policy inertia at national and international scales.

Working directly on national and multinational policy initiatives makes you confront the big issues head-on, a task both exhilarating and overwhelming. Working on cities and climate change gave me a good balance of both perspectives—solving climate and energy issues both from the bottom up and the top down. In this way, I was able to keep my activist roots of everyday, local change while concurrently working towards larger, more comprehensive answers to this generation’s—and the next’s—biggest problem.

Do you think that the world's governments are doing enough to address issues related to energy and climate change?

Of course, the world’s governments could and should be doing more to both combat climate change stressors and ameliorate climate-induced human rights abuses. Neither the United States nor the international community through United Nations Climate Conferences has made any substantial commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the more pressing issue is their lack of commitment to help local communities, from the Inuit in the Arctic to towns in the Chesapeake Bay, adapt to new climate realities that threaten their economies, health, culture and overall well-being. My research aims to highlight these policy deficiencies, particularly in the Arctic indigenous experience, and hopefully move policy makers today to much-needed, immediate action.

What was the next step in your career after completing your term as a Carnegie Junior fellow?

After completing my Junior Fellowship (and a brief vacation trek in Borneo), I moved north to Canada as a Fulbright Grantee. Splitting my time between Ottawa and the Arctic, I’ve used my Fulbright Grant to research the movement of indigenous peoples for recognition in global climate change negotiations, using the Inuit Circumpolar Council’s experience surrounding the 15th UN FCCC in Copenhagen as a case study. As a subfield of research, I am exploring the political power of the visual imagery mobilized by native groups at negotiations, particularly photographs of melting ice and endangered wildlife. While in Ottawa, I’m also completing a master’s in international affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. In my spare time, I’ve presented at a few conferences across the country and published some articles and a book chapter on environmental policy and indigenous rights.

You have previously mentioned that the wide range of activities and academic opportunities you took on at Lehigh really helped prepare you for that Carnegie opportunity. How have you used those experiences to continue to grow as a leader and a researcher?

The research and academic skills I acquired through the international relations department’s rigorous curriculum, my honors thesis project, and the Eckardt Scholars Program prepared me to take on the demanding research projects at Carnegie last year and currently in Canada as a Fulbrighter. I’ve been able to build on the solid foundation built at Lehigh to become a more analytical, independent, inventive and resolute researcher and writer through papers, conferences, interviews and further coursework.

Beyond academics, my passion for leadership and volunteering fostered at Lehigh continued in Washington, where I volunteered at Higher Achievement and sat on the Mentor Advisory Committee, to Ottawa, where I volunteer with several local groups and head an after-school environment program for at-risk youth. The leadership, scholarship, and research experience gained at Lehigh all helped tremendously in the Gates application process.

Which faculty and staff members at Lehigh have had an especially profound impact on you?

The entire faculty of the international relations department—Professors Rajan Menon, Arman Grigoryan, Kevin Narizny, Chaim Kaufmann and Henri Barkey, and, of course, Miss Jo [department coordinator Jo Engel]—all had a profound impact on my intellectual, professional, and personal development. Professor Chad Briggs, a former Lehigh international relations professor and friend whom I’ve kept in touch with over the years, has been an incredible mentor and has pushed and supported me to accomplish what I have beyond anyone else.

Chad Davis of the Lehigh Fund, who I worked with in ASA, and Seth Goren, the former director of Jewish life and associate university chaplain, helped make my time at Lehigh meaningful beyond the classroom and helped me grow as a person and, perhaps more importantly, as a leader. Without any of them I wouldn’t be where I am today, and I am grateful beyond words for all that they have done.

What advice do you have for students looking to pursue careers in public policy or continue their research through fellowship opportunities?

Don’t be afraid to push yourself, and be confident in what you can accomplish. Be innovative in how you approach problems, entrepreneurial in finding opportunities, enthusiastic about your work and its potential, and, above all else, don’t settle for the status quo. Any career in policy or any fellowship application requires ingenuity, dedication and a commitment to your personal ambitions and to those you have for the world in which you want you and your children to live. Opportunities are always out there to improve humanity, whether that’s in scientific research, public policy or journalism—the best advice I can give is to not let them pass you by.

Story by Karl Brisseaux '11

Posted on Wednesday, February 19, 2014

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