These Two Black Girls are Killin’ It in the Environmental Science Space

Does your love for Mother Earth run deep? Do you have a hard time finishing the day without counting your carbon footprint? Become one with nature and consider rockin’ it out as an environmental scientist.

By Najja Parker

Jannice’s Story

Photo courtesy of Jannice Newson

Chemistry, biology, and physics? Sure. But a field of study that combines all those and then some? Jannice Newson had no idea that was even a thing.  Or how much that thing (environmental science) would become such a huge part of her life. “[As a kid] I was outside, but not really with trees or plants,” she remembers. “I was usually on the basketball court or playground, but I never went on nature walks or anything like that.”

That all changed when she started high school, and her environmental science teacher really put her on to the field, which defines as, “the study of the effects of natural and unnatural processes and of interactions of the physical components of the planet on the environment.” She liked it so much that she signed up for an internship at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “I took another environmental science class there and also did a project,” she says. “From there, I realized this was something that I was really interested in and decided to stick with it.”

When it came time to apply to colleges, Jannice, 21, kept her eye on the schools that specialized in her newfound love, ultimately deciding on the University of Missouri in Columbia, to which she scored a full ride. Not all her family and friends were as hype for her choice of career path, though. “When I told people my major and they didn’t know what it was, they just thought it was a bad idea. They [would tell me], ‘You shouldn’t do that. You should be in business. You should be a nurse,’” she recalls. “My mom is really supportive. She’s like my cheerleader.”

A beast in the books, Jannice devours — and excels — in classes such as hydrology (the study of Earth’s water), meteorology (the study of the atmosphere), limnology (the study of fresh water bodies), and ecology (the study of organisms’ relationship to their environment). But soaking up all that information in a field predominantly run by white males isn’t always easy. Jannice is one of the only Black students in her department, and that has come with a few difficulties, such as not being able to relate to some of the other students and having other students assume she’s not interested in the same things they are.

Keeping up with other people who already know a lot about the field has been a challenge at times, too, she admits. “Missouri is a farming state, so a lot of [students] may have grown up on a farm or near a farm. Sometimes I’m like, ‘What happens on a farm?!’ I don’t know,” she laughs. “But I think I’ve done well with it because I go to tutoring and reach out to my professors, so I can grasp the concept, too. I’ve never been afraid to seek out people who know more than me.”

Jannice has also gained hella skills from her internships. She continued her work at Chicago Botanic Gardens, evaluating more than 240 different species of plants for a big project about shoreline restoration. She got major props for her presentation, which helped her get a mention in one of CBG’s articles on the program. Plus, she’s spent the last two summers interning with the University of Michigan, where she’s worked on aquaculture efforts to grow shrimp to sell commercially, and with the Great Lakes Commission to help with its source water initiative.

In case you haven’t noticed, water quality is her thing.

“There are a number of issues of pollution with water and being able to access water,” Jannice says. “It just presents a lot of problems that are still in the process of being solved.”

So, when all the craziness with the Flint water crisis went down, Jannice was feeling outraged, but at the same time, she wasn’t that surprised. “From seeing it in the news, I wasn’t really that shocked because I’ve learned about so many other cases with environmental racism,” she says. “I was in Flint [in July]. We did some volunteering where we loaded cases of water into the trucks and passed them out. [There were] about 40 people in the program, and we just wanted to be of service.”

And that’s not the only way Jannice gets involved. She’s secretary and treasurer of the Mizzou Black Women’s Initiative, and she’s a part of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and the McNair Scholars Prep Program. She’s even become an ambassador for the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, a role that lets her help recruit potential incoming first-years. She takes extra pride in exposing Black girls to S.T.E.M. “I want to do more because in that position, I’m able to create some recruitment materials for first-generation college students and generate lists of different groups that we can reach out to instead of the students that they typically reach out to every year,” she says.

Now that she’s a senior, Jannice plans to continue slaying the game with her capstone project on improving water quality. With bachelor’s degree in hand next May, she’ll be headed off to graduate school for her master’s in environmental science. Then, she wants to focus on science outreach, possibly as a program manager.

Ready to show off your #BlackGirlMagic in the lab like Jannice? Jot down these notes: “Don’t be deterred by people who think you shouldn’t be an environmental scientist. If you’re interested in it, go for it. Try to get involved with something environmental related, or even start something yourself that could be more of an inclusive space for you to foster your interest with other people like you. Just be all you can be.”

*Editor’s Note: Jannice graduated in May 2018

Kelsi’s Story

Photo courtesy of Kelsi Eccles

It’s as if Kelsi Eccles was born to hold it down for the environment. No seriously, her birthday is the same day as Earth Day.

“I have always been very interested in the outdoors and taking the steps to preserve the environment,” she says. “My mother brought [the Earth Day connection] to my attention when I was in the third grade. At the time, she didn’t know if I was if I was straddling that fence between tomboy and girly girl. I would put on skirts and fake heels but would want to play in the mud and go hunting. I really enjoyed outdoor activities, so my mom was like, ‘This Earth Day thing must really be a thing for you.’”

And when Kelsi, 25, found out the trees and grasses around her had a huge effect on her asthma, she was determined to learn even more about the world around her. “Asthma is one of those things that people blow off as common, but I thought, ‘No! I don’t want to have to deal with this.’ I wanted to figure out what was causing it and how to correct it not only in my life but in others’ as well.” So, at an early age, Kelsie got involved with all things “nature,” joining organizations like Trees Atlanta, 4-H, and Girl Scouts.

By the time, she made it to high school, she couldn’t wait to sign up for AP Environmental Science, and it’s that teacher Kelsi credits with really sparking her interest. “She did a lot to keep us outside. She helped us get involved with citizen science.”

Kelsi was hooked and knew exactly which department she was headed toward when college rolled around. There was just one problem.

“I tried to be an environmental science major when I got to the University of Georgia, but they dropped it my freshman year,” she says. “I was like, ‘Dang!’” Bummed, but not deterred, Kelsi opted to major in journalism, since she’d had some experience with reporting while in high school, and minor in environmental law.

Admittedly, though, she had no clue what she wanted to do with a journalism degree, but she pinpointed a few transferable skills that would help her no matter what career path she chose. “In journalism, you have to be able to meet deadlines and write very concisely. I wanted to build on that to effectively communicate. I felt like those were strengths that could translate across multiple fields,” she says.

And while her communications courses were interesting, she was extra hype for the knowledge being dropped in her environmental law classes. From tort law (the study of civil wrongs and their cases) to contracting (where she learned to breakdown complicated agreements) to environmental economics (the study of resources and related environmental impacts), Kelsi was deep into her studies. Her love for the field grew even stronger during a three-week study abroad trip to Australia that completely blew her mind.

“We [went] to another developed country to learn about their sustainability tactics. We learned about ecotourism and how to do it in a way that promotes the economy. We went to the Great Barrier Reef to snorkel, and it was so worth it to see all the life and [the] habitat,” she says. “And now, you hear about the coral [being] bleached due to global warming, and it’s heartbreaking. If I went back to that same spot, is it going to be lifeless? It really emphasized the importance of preserving our environment.”

Her work abroad was so influential that she and a few other students were tasked with helping UGA place Bigbelly receptacles, compact bins that store garbage and recyclables, across school grounds. “They really started to make changes. They wanted us to share our experience and different ideas to make campus more sustainable,” she says. “It’s slowly, but surely, becoming a green campus.”

But despite an amazing four years at UGA, Kelsi started to freak out a little bit, as graduation inched closer and closer. “My senior year, I started looking up statistics on employment rates out of law school and studying for LSAT,” she says. “I didn’t want to go to law school and have all this debt and it be impossible for me to find a job as an environmental lawyer where I could be on the side of the law I wanted to be on. I didn’t want to defend large corporations that said they were environmentally friendly even if they weren’t.”

So that post-grad life? It was all about Mercer University’s MBA program, where she hoped to gain a better understanding of the business side of environmental science. Unfortunately, the opportunities she’d been promised were nowhere to be found.

“[There] was really only one class that I couldn’t even take because it was offered every other spring or fall,” she explains. “To make up for it, I joined the Green Meeting Industry Council and the National Black MBA Association. I thought, ‘If y’all aren’t going to give me the environmental opportunities at the school, then I’m going to find someone who can.’”

Her persistence paid off, and she snagged two internships — one with Jones Worley, a boutique marketing firm that boasts clients such as Atlanta Streetcar and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, and another with Beazer Homes, a company that builds energy-efficient houses.

Kelsi’s determination even helped her land her current gig as a development and events manager for EarthShare of Georgia, a nonprofit that raises funds for environmental charities. There, she coordinates volunteer events, provides marketing support, and monitors campaign revenue. “I go out to giving campaigns and speak about the importance of giving back to environmental organizations,” she says. “We do the work for them, so they can continue being in the field.”

But her dream job is to become a chief sustainability officer, an executive who’s in charge of a business’s environmental programs. And with her track record, there’s no doubt she’ll make it.

To be an environmental #boss like Kelsi, “network, and think outside the box. Find your niche in the workforce, and think about different spaces where you can make an impact on the environment. You change the world by changing one thing about the world.”

Main Image: Photo: LaraBelova/


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