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Smith Medalist Brenda Ekwurzel: ‘Stay Curious for Life’

Alumnae News

The climate scientist is one of four remarkable alums who will be celebrated on Rally Day, Thursday, Feb. 22.


Published February 14, 2024

Brenda Ekwurzel ’85 is considered one of the country’s foremost experts on climate change.

She is director of climate science for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit that uses rigorous, independent scientific data to create a healthier, safer world. She is one of four alums who will receive the 2024 Smith College Medal at Rally Day on Thursday, Feb. 22, in John M. Greene Hall beginning at 1:30 p.m. EST. The event will be livestreamed on Smith College’s Facebook page>. Members of the Smith community are also encouraged to participate in this year’s financial aid fundraising challenge. Specifically, throughout the month of February the board of trustees is matching dollar for dollar all gifts up to $500,000.

As Ekwurzel studied geology at Smith in the early 1980s, she became increasingly interested in the consequences of a changing climate. After graduating from Smith and receiving her Ph.D. in isotope geochemistry from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, she spent several years on the faculty at the University of Arizona in the hydrology and water resources department. In 2004, Ekwurzel joined the Union of Concerned Scientists, where she contributes to research on the influence of fossil-fuel producers on global average temperatures, sea level, and other climate indicators. A frequent media commentator on climate change and U.S. climate policy, she has appeared on CNN, ABC News, Good Morning America, and NPR and has been cited by the Associated Press, The New York Times, Reuters, USA Today, and The Washington Post. In 2019, she testified before Congress about the climate crisis. She is a co-author of the fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) Volume II, as well as Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living.

Here, Ekwurzel shares her thoughts on getting people to understand the consequences of climate change, causes she hopes Smith graduates will pursue, staying curious, and her reactions to receiving the Smith Medal.

What is your proudest accomplishment?
“I had the opportunity to collaborate with a researcher who spent years analyzing data from annual reports of major fossil fuel companies that produced and sold their product for energy use from the middle of the 19th century to the 21st century. We included collaboration with international researchers to modify a simple climate model to incorporate this unprecedented data. The results demonstrated that a significant amount of the increase in global average temperature, particularly since the mid 20th century, could be attributed to the top carbon producers. The peer-reviewed publication, of which I was lead author, was recognized as the top downloaded climate article across all Springer climate journals. This initial work created opportunities to expand the research with other lead authors and experts in ocean acidification; western United States and Canada wildfire activity; and sea level rise.”

What Smith lesson continues to impact your life today?
“One Smith lesson I learned was seared into my memory over the course of two poignant moments. These two events happened early in my days on Smith crew when I was still learning how to row. One day, we won our race! As our team celebrated the win our coach walked up looking unhappy. Our coach was a man of few words, so we all listened intently when he spoke. Coach told us he knew we could row vastly better than we did during this race. This race was not a ‘win’ in our coach’s scorecard just because we happened to row against a slower team. We needed to work together to make the rowing shell surge on race day, too. After another race, we were disappointed we lost. But as we quietly put our oars back in the racks, Coach walked up with a wide smile and gushed, ‘That was the best row I’ve ever seen you accomplish! In my mind, you all won. It just so happens the other team was faster today.’ I learned that we have little control over external factors, so we should hold ourselves to our own metrics of success. In this example, our goal was to be the best team we could be together.”

What advice do you have for seniors graduating this year?
“Stay curious for life! It often brings joy and can be advantageous. Expand your experiences, explore educational opportunities to grow your abilities because the challenges that arrive over a lifetime often require diversity of ideas, knowledge exchange, and deep listening.”

Do you have any special memories of Rally Day at Smith?
“I remember the festive hats and excitement as we gathered in John M. Greene Hall. Graduation felt more real and just around the corner. Rally Day gave me the sense that more adventures could be in store for us in our future beyond the Grécourt Gates.”

What does being honored with the Smith Medal mean to you?
“I am deeply honored by the multidisciplinary values the Smith Medal symbolizes. Philosophy, art, and economic classes outside my Smith major formed a broad foundation I have drawn upon over my career. As I work to help address the challenges of accelerating climate change, it is clear that collaboration with experts in those and other fields is required to find innovative solutions. Historically, scientists have also been philosophers and artists as well. I’ve become increasingly aware that our more recent scientific approach adds to the thousands of years of human learning and adapting and the value in that wisdom.”

Rally Day is a celebration of the many ways Smithies have changed the world. What do you see as major issues today that you would like to see Smithies tackle?
“What if the class of 2024 took the opportunity to address the major issue that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared in March 2023: ‘Human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unequivocally caused global warming.’ Ask your professors and fellow students about this urgent challenge from the perspective of your major academic discipline. For example, what have people in your field done that has contributed to or lessened the pace of climate change? How can practitioners in this field best apply skills to repair damages? What traditions in this sector have been considered impossible to change—and is that still applicable today? And then ask yourself, what are you willing to exchange to help the places, people, and communities you cherish to become more resilient in a warming world? As you embark on your journey through life toward the certain reality of a slightly warmer world, or, possibly, one that grows dangerously hotter, what role can you play to contribute to your vision of a better world, in small or great ways, that aligns with your values?”

In conjunction with Rally Day, the Smith board of trustees is planning to collectively donate $500,000 in support of student scholarships. Why is it critical to support Smith philanthropically?
“Student scholarships help ensure that all the brilliant students accepted to this school can embark upon a Smith learning journey, regardless of their socio-economic background. I personally benefited from an experiential learning opportunity that was made possible by a scholarship from the parents of a former Smith student. Smith faculty took a group of us students to a field research area that involved fossils of marine life high up in the rocks, as we looked down at the current sea where similar life dwelled. The professors didn’t present it to us straightforwardly, as information might be presented in a textbook. Rather, they took us to spots where we could discover key evidence: clues to the story of how this landscape evolved. They asked us questions with each different site visit, and we would respond based on what we learned in classes combined with what we saw in person, while they encouraged us to explore possibilities with each new evidence revealed. Imagining an underwater environment just from the fossil record of what was preserved is a challenge. Seeing different types of underwater environments today in the same location helped us see the similarities and the differences. It gave me a sense of deep time: that what we see today may not be what will exist in the future. This scholarship inspired me, because I got to practice my own process of discovery and drawing conclusions—and found out that science could be fun and rewarding!”