On the eve of Commencement, members of the Smith community gathered to hear from this year's honorary degree recipients.
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Athena Sofides ’19: Environmental Activism
When Athena Sofides ’19 emailed a law firm in New York City earlier this spring as part of her senior year networking strategy, she didn’t expect it would be the start of her next chapter.
The head of the firm invited her in for a conversation, and Sofides quickly realized that the meeting was more than just a courtesy visit.
“I sat down with the lawyers there, and they started asking me questions like ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ and I realized: This is a job interview!” says Sofides, who hails from Brooklyn and is majoring in environmental science and policy at Smith.
After graduation, Sofides will begin work as a paralegal and liability researcher with the Lanier Law Firm in Manhattan. Among the projects she’ll be working on will be supporting the firm’s efforts to pursue justice on behalf of individuals who have allegedly suffered serious illnesses after using a weed killer manufactured by a multinational company.
Her new position will allow her to draw on all of her Smith experiences, from student climate-justice organizing on campus, to off-campus internships in hospital emergency rooms and public health research labs.
“I’m excited,” Sofides says. “I really like the work that Lanier is doing on environmental justice.”
She arrived on campus as a member of Smith’s inaugural STEM Posse with plans to study biological sciences—as well as strong interests in writing and public health.
Smith’s environmental science and policy major provided a framework for connecting all of those pursuits. “I had always seen biology and environmental science as separate,” Sofides says. “But here, I realized that they were intertwined and that I could look at biology from a cultural perspective.”
Her senior thesis, “Embodied Toxicity in the Plasticene,” illustrates her interdisciplinary approach. Building on research she began last fall in a special studies class at a University of Massachusetts public health lab, Sofides’ work combines health sciences, political and feminist theory in exploring the environmental impact of toxins contained in plastics.
In her new job with the law firm, Sofides will also be using a broad public-health lens. For example, she’ll be exploring the use of a corporate practice known as “manufacturing doubt” in the ongoing litigation.
“It’s what big tobacco did when the science came out showing smoking was bad for our lungs,” Sofides explains. “They came up with their own studies covering up the harm of their product. A tobacco executive was quoted as saying ‘doubt is our product’ to compete with facts.”
Reflecting on her time at Smith, Sofides says she will miss the many opportunities she has had to engage with fellow students and faculty.
Her Posse Foundation network has been a vital support. “I am grateful for my Posse mentor and fellow members of Smith’s first STEM Posse,” Sofides says. “Posse has been a consistent support system for me throughout my time at Smith.”
If there’s one key lesson she’s learned during the past four years, it’s how to recognize and pursue her passions.
“I feel more confident and aware of what’s really important to me,” Sofides says.