Sunday, January 4, 2009

An Interview with a former Great Lakes Commission Fellow

In 2003, Jon Dettling spent a year as a fellow at the Great Lakes Commission (GLC) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Now he is working as a consultant in Boston helping companies like Nestle assess the total environmental impact of their products.

Why did you pursue the GLC fellowship?
As a graduate student in the Department of Public Health at the University of Michigan, Jon focused on the health effects of emissions produced throughout a product’s life cycle. For his graduate project he used toxic emissions data from the Great Lakes Commission and through this connection he learned about the fellowship.

Jon was really interested in better understanding how science is used in policy development. “At the university you are almost too close to a topic and you never see it become anything more than publications. The idea of taking that work to the next step and really making a difference was really attractive.” The Great Lakes Commission, a bi-national NGO that specializes in policy research and advocacy, was an excellent place to learn about how science is actually used outside of academia.

What did you work on as a fellow?
Jon found that the GLC fellowship offered an ideal balance between structure and freedom. He was able to pursue ideas that were closely related to his graduate work on air pollution, but he also had the opportunity to participate in a variety of on-going projects. For example, Jon helped organize a series of regional planning workshops. “The goal was to bring together experts from around the Great Lakes to develop a vision for restoration and sustainability for the region.” This project lead to a larger regional collaborative, which allowed Jon to observe how governors and federal agency leaders come together to debate policy issues.

How did you benefit from the fellowship?
For Jon, the fellowship provided an excellent next step after graduate school. “Compared to the first year in a more typical job at an agency, fellows at the Commission have more potential to develop a broad range of contacts. This wide network can help you transition from school and really establish your own career.”

Jon’s year as a fellow at the Great Lakes Commission actually turned into a permanent job! Toward the end of the fellowship as he was asking for letters of reference, his supervisors suggested he consider staying at the GLC. “Over the course of the fellowship you get really involved with what you’re doing, so it was an easy decision to stay.” During the next four years Jon continued working at the Commission, expanding the Toxic Air Emissions Inventory program and developing the skills that would allow him to start his own environmental consulting business.

Where are you now?
After moving to Boston in 2007, Jon established a North American branch of a small Swiss Company, Ecointesys- Life Cycle Systems. Jon’s company conducts life cycle assessments to determine the total impact of a product throughout its life, “from cradle (extraction of raw materials) to grave (disposal).” This type of analysis can help companies better measure, improve, or communicate their environmental performance. Their approach is gaining momentum and government agencies, like the California Department of Conservation, and NGOs, like the World Wildlife Federation, have begun employing the services of Ecointesys.

What do you enjoy most about your career?
For Jon, the best aspect of developing his own company is that he has the freedom to pursue projects that he finds the most interesting and compelling. He also really enjoys the people he works with, although much of his interactions with his international colleagues is through the phone and internet!

I asked Jon about how working in the private sector differed from his previous work with the Commission. “It’s different. Government agencies and non-profits (like the Great Lakes Commission) have a clear goal of improving and protecting our natural resources. In consulting, the challenge is to ensure that the environmental goals line up with your client’s profit goals. However, once everyone agrees on the objectives, resources can be mobilized and things can move forward more quickly in the private sector.”

Advice for new fellows
Jon encourages new students to turn the fellowship into their own experience. He found that the Great Lakes Commission was really open to new projects- “and it isn’t hard to fit your ideas into the Commission because its mission is so broad!”

Jon is happy to answer questions about the fellowship over email, dettling@glc.org.

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