Supporting the human side of environmental health

Nina Smoker (Master of Environmental Studies ‘18)

Nina Smoker (Master of Environmental Studies ‘18) remembers when she first became interested in environmental studies: during a winter trip to visit family in Bosnia, where she was born, she noticed especially high levels of air pollution due to a nearby thermoelectric plant run on coal. “Once I came back from that trip, I was very interested in environmental science and how it impacts health,” she recalls. After graduating college with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, Nina decided to take her education to the next level in Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies (MES) program. “At Penn, I was able to really lean into that intersection of humanities and environment and health and science—and focus on the importance of dissemination and communication,” she says.

Nina Smoker (MES `18)
Nina Smoker (MES ‘18) 

During her two years in the program, Nina was able to expand on her scientific background and explore different perspectives on human health and the environment. “I didn't feel pigeonholed at Penn. I didn't feel like I had to take certain classes, and the program team was very supportive of me creating my own concentration,” she says. In addition to environmental studies courses, Nina was able to select courses from schools across the University to study epidemiology and public health, including some from the Perelman School of Medicine. “I took a course on pandemics, funnily enough,” she recalls. “That one was really intriguing because it was taught by a veterinary health science professor, and focused on animals, humans, and the environment. It was an amazing class.”

Despite her demanding schedule balancing full-time employment with two courses each term, Nina also took on an internship opportunity relevant to both her concentration and the issue that inspired her environmental career. “That was another fun 10 to 20 hours a week,” she says of her fellowship with the US Department of State’s Air Quality Program. “I wrote my capstone on the implementation of air quality monitoring globally—not every country I wrote about had air quality standards at the time.”

Nina advises prospective MES students to enjoy their time in the program as much as possible. “Leaving work and going to class was like a vacation,” she laughs. “My two years at Penn were challenging from a work perspective, but the best from an academic perspective. I was able to participate so much in class and the professors are just so wonderful and are so knowledgeable on everything that they teach.”

Now a senior project manager for an environmental consulting firm, Nina helps clients conduct due diligence before mergers or acquisitions. “People don't really understand the value or need for environmental consulting until you explain disaster scenarios,” Nina observes. “A company doing its due diligence when purchasing another company is extremely important from a financial investment standpoint, but also from a social investment standpoint.” She credits her interest in this field to her time in the MES program: “I met the boss for my second job in the program—he scooped me up from my litigation consulting firm to work in due diligence consulting,” she says. “My most valuable asset from the MES program—aside from the knowledge, obviously—was making connections, meeting people in various aspects of the field, and getting to decide what trajectory I wanted to take in my career.” As a due diligence consultant, Nina has learned a lot about what environmental challenges look like on the ground for industries and organizations. “Going on site visits opened my eyes to different people in different types of industry. It’s really exciting to talk to the people who are making things for our country and see how hard they work every day and how much they do want to care about environment, though they might not understand how,” she says.

As she advances to a more senior role, Nina does fewer site visits and draws more on the communication skills she developed in her master’s degree. “Penn forced me to be an efficient writer. Every single class I took was very intensive on writing, so I put more energy into how to better organize my writing and portray my thoughts,” recalls Nina. “My ability to write and to read and critique other people’s writing is the reason my career has advanced as quickly as it has.” For example, she frequently finds herself on calls with dozens of other consultants representing different interests—environmental consulting is only a fraction of a client’s considerations for a transaction. “We’re all just trying to say our piece about why the work we’re doing is important to a client’s decision,” she explains. “I focus on making my communication as understandable as possible. If I'm just throwing numbers and trying to scare them away from a transaction, that's not going to do anybody any good.”

In addition to her work in consulting, Nina also puts her science background to use on a project funded by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Science for Peace and Security Program: she does soil composition analysis to support an international research team developing a robotic prototype to detect landmines in eastern Ukraine. “I have my left brain work and I have my right brain work,” she says. “My current company is very supportive of the data research, and allocate some time and budget for me to do that work or go to conferences. Not everyone is lucky enough to do both.” Staying optimistic can be a struggle, she admits; she worries about her colleagues overseas, and about the potentially lifesaving research they have all worked so hard to pull off. But her human interactions at work keep her motivated: “Humanity, at the end of the day, really does want to do better. People want to be better and do better, especially when it comes to health and safety,” she says.