Prof spotlight: Keimowitz advocates environmental action

Keimowitz is pictured above with some of the equipment she uses to conduct her research in the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences. Her work focuses on how certain contaminants, such as arsenic and manganese, interact with lakes and shallow groundwater. Courtesy of Tori Lubin.

Associate Professor of Chemistry Alison Spodek Keimowitz smiled at me from her desk in Bridge Laboratory Sciences 216. On the floor below us, a laboratory with neatly compiled equipment exhibited her extensive research on metal contaminants.

Keimowitz described herself as an environmental chemist, meaning that she thinks of pertinent questions regarding the natural world and uses chemical techniques to answer them. “I wanted to do environmental chemistry because I care about environmental issues, and I wanted my work to be directly applicable to important questions,” Keimowitz explained.

It is no surprise that chemistry classes in high school proved to be Keimowitz’ forte. However, she has always fostered a love of diverse academic disciplines. “As a kid, I always thought I wanted to be a fiction writer,” she said, highlighting the wide range of her interests.

Keimowitz’ career as an Environmental Studies and Chemistry professor at Vassar is rooted in a background of STEM studies at Wesleyan College and a Ph.D. from Columbia University, where she focused on environmental contamination. “I have always been a really big fan of STEM in a liberal arts context,” she explained. “I think that ability to work directly in a close relationship between students and faculty with a lot of hands-on experience is a really great opportunity.” When the chance to teach at Vassar arose, “It was basically my dream job,” she concluded.

A position as an analytical chemist after college cemented Keimowitz’ interest in pursuing research, but a three-month bike trip around the country with her now husband ultimately guided her to the ideal graduate program. Keimowitz started pursuing a postgraduate degree in physical chemistry, but she soon realized it was not the right fit for her. It did not fulfill her hopes of doing research that applied directly to environmental issues—or allowed her to be outside.

Up until that fateful bicycle excursion, “Maybe like a lot of Vassar students, I had done a lot of what was expected of me,” Keimowitz said. “I think without having taken the time and the risks of that slightly crazy bike trip I would have felt like I had to stay in the program I had started. Instead, I left that program, without knowing what came next.” Ultimately, Keimowitz ended up in a course of work and study much more suited to her interests. In keeping with her love of the environment, she also spent time working for the environmental activism-focused NGO Greenpeace.

Keimowitz’ teaching reflects an acute understanding of and passion for environmental issues. The growing climate crisis has spurred Keimowitz to explore new ways to engage with her students. “I’m more aware of talking about my own feelings about the environment with the students than I ever have before,” she said. In the midst of worsening environmental conditions, Keimowitz has taken steps to integrate social concerns. “With the class I am teaching this year we are spending more time not just talking about the science, or the social science, but how we respond as people,” Keimowitz emphasized.

For Keimowitz, environmental studies should stress not only scientific principles, but also advocacy and collective action. She cited a quote from the Pirkei Avot (a sacred Jewish text) to summarize her perspective on each individual’s role in protecting the environment: “‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).’” In other words, “We don’t need to each be taking it on ourselves to do the whole project, but neither are we free to ignore it,” she clarified.

In an article published by Slate Magazine a year ago, Keimowitz explained how she prevents herself from succumbing to climate nihilism (Slate, “I Felt Despair About Climate Change,” 09.03.2018). In her interview with The Miscellany News, Keimowitz elaborated on her approach to intense emotions that come with thinking about the deterioration of the planet. Her four main strategies include engaging in activism, meditating, connecting with others around the issues and allowing for distraction when thinking about these concerns. “It’s okay to take breaks,” Keimowitz noted. “I don’t have to think about [environmental issues] 24/7.”

These approaches apply to students as well. “I would encourage Vassar students to join either student organizations or broader environmental organizations and really throw themselves into advocating for systemic and structural changes,” Keimowitz recommended. She emphasized that “broader engagement with some systemic and cultural issues is more important” than changing one’s consumer habits. She also integrates meditative practices into her classroom and brings in guest lecturers so she and her students can connect with other environmentalists.

Although Keimowitz considers the current global environmental situation to be bleak, she remains optimistic about recent initiatives such as the Green New Deal. “For the last several years, a lot of people who do what I do have been raising the alarm and nobody’s listening. I feel like something has changed in the last year, and people are listening more,” Keimowitz said. “That’s actually helped me a lot to not feel quite so frustrated.” Her philosophy continues to keep her grounded, even as difficulties abound. Despite hardships, she concluded, “We have to use whatever we have to fight for what we care about.”

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