Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Cynthia RobertsAnd she was right. After spending a post-college year promoting the Clean Air Act in Washington, D.C., she landed in law school—ultimately channeling her undergraduate and graduate experiences into high-powered roles such as assistant attorney general tasked with environmental protection in Colorado and executive director of Riverbend Environmental Education Center in Pennsylvania. 

When asked about her time at Brown, Roberts immediately references Professor Emeritus of Environmental Studies Harold Ward, a chemistry professor who founded the University’s Center for Environmental Studies in 1978. Ward himself had earned a law degree from Harvard in 1975, specifically to equip him to better engage environmental issues. 

As she recalls, Ward’s insistence on students’ involvement in the local community led to Roberts’ own early forays into civic engagement during college: lobbying for the passage of a bottle deposit bill in Rhode Island and writing a senior capstone report on the oft-ignored relationship between groundwater contamination and urban zoning. 

“My education made it very clear that that an individual can make a difference. I think that was an important lesson,” she says. “And, that part of our responsibility as educated people is to get involved with issues that impact our communities.”

Roberts, who now lives in New York with her family, has continued this legacy of engaged scholarship by serving on a variety of community environmental councils and boards, including IBES’s own Advisory Council. Some of her most recent activities include working with the Friends of Scarsdale Parks to revitalize an abandoned park, participating in the citizen science program through the New York Botanical Garden, and teaching local second-graders about birds for the Audubon Society.

She and her husband, William, also feel passionately about supporting paid summer research internships for Brown undergraduates who are working on climate change and other environmental issues.

“Whatever their financial circumstances, these students can get some job experience, they can be inspired by the organization that they're working with, and they can see what works and what doesn't work,” she explains. “They can also see what additional expertise they may want to pursue after Brown, whether it's academic training, an additional skill set, or a totally different field that they hadn't even thought of.”

Roberts is optimistic about the enthusiasm for environmental science displayed by the youth that she speaks with. Whether they have their sights set on Brown or not, even high school students appear to be making vital connections between their own passions and the precarious state of the world at large.

“It is really uplifting to learn that they're very interested in environmental issues,” she says. “They may be interested in filmmaking or writing or public health, but they're all interested in contributing to create that sustainable, just future for our planet that IBES promotes.”

And with a steadily increasing number of incoming Brunonians declaring an interest in environmental studies and science, Roberts believes that the Institute’s commitment to human dignity, interdisciplinary breadth, and disciplinary depth is both well-placed and well-suited to the task ahead.

As she sees it, environmental education at the Institute produces alumni who are highly knowledgeable, intellectually adaptable, and deeply motivated to make a difference.

“You have a broad enough worldview when you graduate that you can enter almost any field or profession or community and have an impact,” concludes Roberts. 

“That's the strength of Brown,” she says.