Emilie Ma, Contributing Photographer

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences hosted its second Increasing Human Potential Symposium on April 11, featuring University, policy and industry leaders who shared their insights about sustainability. 

The event took place across Davies Auditorium and the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale. Intended to promote cross-collaboration between different fields and industries, guests at the symposium included executives from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, NASA and the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, among others.

The program commenced with opening remarks by University Provost Scott Strobel and Paul Turner, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. This was followed by discussions with industry executives and an exhibition of faculty research and student ventures, showcasing the university’s dedication to sustainability initiatives on its campus and across various industries.

“We are here … to discuss topics such as climate change, biodiversity loss, issues that are… the defining issues of our time,” Strobel said in his speech at the symposium.

In their statements, Strobel and Turner emphasized the imperative of exploring interdisciplinary endeavors that catalyze sustainability and increase human potential. 

Strobel referenced the existing collaborative programs established by the university, such as the Planetary Solutions Project which partners with FedEx, Southwest and Boeing to mitigate climate change. Such projects were designed with the purpose of “training the leaders of tomorrow and convening the leaders of today to address these issues,” Strobel said.

Following these initial remarks, a plenary session featuring former NASA chief scientist James Green, and NRDC president and CEO Manish Bapna covered issues of sustainability and climate change policies.

Green called to attention the critical role planetary exploration plays in government climate policy. For instance, by understanding the trends on Earth’s surface, such as water management, ocean salinity and atmosphere composition, countries around the world can understand what resources are available and implement policies accordingly.

Bapna further expanded on the vital connection between sustainability and law, citing recent policies, such as the Clean Water Act, the Inflation-Reduction Act of 2022 and the Paris Agreement, as crucial steps towards widespread adoption of clean energy and ecosystem preservation. 

“We are at an inflection point,” Bapna added. “Where we as a community must think about building this different structure around clean energy.”

Bapna acknowledged the unequal challenges different countries face in living up to international accords such as the Paris Agreement. He proposed that countries share technologies and offer help to each other to mitigate the global effects of climate change. 

A panel discussion about various industry initiatives to encourage sustainability followed, moderated by Stuart DeCew, the executive director of the Yale Center for Business and the Environment. 

Kelly Levin ’02 ENV ’03 ’09, chief scientist of the Bezos Earth Fund, spoke about her experience with technological innovation and the problem-driven nature of seeking climate change solutions. 

She emphasized the urgency of taking action now, as extreme weather, ice caps and rising sea levels change landscapes around the world. She noted the need for radical systemic transformation, from energy production to urban planning and land management, using a diverse set of perspectives. 

“With every transformation, there is no silver bullet,” Levin said. “It’s going to take many leverages of change coming together, [such as] leadership from governments, corporations… policymaking, legal action, financial incentives and philanthropy.”

Ryan Dings, president and CEO of New Haven climate technology incubator ClimateHaven, discussed sustainability initiatives as economic opportunities, as well as moral imperatives. He advocated for a “silver buckshot” approach that included a wide range of climate technology solutions and innovative business models to create a regenerative economy. 

“We have to invent this future that we want,” Dings said. “We have to think of the thousands of technologies that we’re going to need in order to get there.”

He described how New Haven is uniquely poised for the expedited growth, trajectory and scalability of climate technology solutions, given the support of the University. 

“[This] is an incredible opportunity to put that money to work, invent these solutions, deploy them at scale and ultimately reap the benefits from it and build prosperity for ourselves and all the people that are in this fight,” Dings said.

Brian Osias ’99, managing director of the Three Cairns Group, an investment firm centered on accelerating climate action, also underlined the importance of making data-driven investments, grants and strategic initiatives to facilitate transition to a low-carbon economy. Osias noted the efforts of Three Cairns in expanding Yale’s certificate programs and scholarships in sustainability, as well as encouraging market design changes to promote favorable capital growth.

According to Osias, given that commercial capital has historically been limited in projects based in the Global South, kickstarting green energy infrastructure projects in these regions is critical to paving the way for the private sector to embark on large-scale projects in renewable energy. His group is dedicated to bridging this gap, providing the initial capital to funding such early-stage projects. 

The featured speakers, with interests ranging from local action in New Haven to regional activity in the Global South and global climate mandates, all highlighted the importance of working together across disciplines and sectors to tackle complex sustainability challenges. 

“It has to be truly multidisciplinary in how we think about it; we can’t just associate this push to decarbonize with the amazing scientific breakthroughs that are so critical, but are just the start,” Levin said.

In her closing remarks, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Lynn Cooley underscored that seeking planetary solutions driving sustainability is a priority for the University.

“What makes Yale … very well-prepared to participate in this challenge is our commitment to interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving,” Cooley said. “The ideas are here, the will is here, we just need all of us to contribute in the way that we can.”

The evening reception hosted at Tsai CITY showcased projects pursued by faculty researchers and students, ranging from vegan leather to a shared medical data platform. The event spotlighted the variety of efforts made by the academic community to drive innovation and sustainability.

Attendees at the symposium ranged from local residents to Yale students, alumni and faculty. 

Kevin McCarthy, a New Haven resident with over 30 years of experience in climate legislation, noted the complexities surrounding climate policy, but expressed optimism about the insights shared at the symposium.

The symposium also drew interest from students at Yale with interests in sustainability, including Adi Kulkarni ’26 and Miriam Huerta ’24, who work with Schneider Electric to analyze the impact of photovoltaic solar panels on gas emissions in buildings, and Ravish Dubey, a postdoctoral research associate at the Yale School of the Environment currently researching the applications of low-cost sensors to test carbon dioxide concentrations around the city.

“We are lucky to know so much about this topic now, including many of the needed solutions, and Yale has played a key role in that,” said symposium attendee Alexander Posner ‘19, who works in the climate change think tank Climate Solutions Fund. “I’d say, the biggest remaining hurdle is to turn that into reality.”

The symposium was organized by Vishal Agrawal ’96 GRD ’96 MED ’02, Shah Karim ’81 GRD ’87 ’07, Richard Kayne MED ’76, among other alumni from Friends of Yale from Industry, as an initiative in response to the pandemic to facilitate students’ professional development and amplify the impact of the ideas that emerge from collaboration between the University and alumni-led organizations.

“Every student has a lot of potential here, and I am in awe and humbled by what I hear,” Kayne said. “Some of it is innate talent, some of it is opportunity, and the university creates opportunities so brilliantly that it’s a privilege to participate [in these events].” 

Agrawal and Kayne both encouraged collaboration to bridge generational and sectoral gaps while approaching long-standing issues such as climate change.

“Yale is such an amazing place to be, to meet people who are coming in because they want to help make the world a better place,” Agrawal said. “The opportunity for students to be a part of that discussion is real.”

Friends of Yale from Industry was established in May 2020.