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December 5, 2017

Phoebe Spencer always wanted to go beyond the hallowed halls of academia to apply her expertise in economic inequality and environmental issues to real-world problems.

And that’s exactly what the University of Vermont grad is doing. Two months after completing her PhD in natural resources, Spencer landed a job at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. The 28-year-old is working to address the impacts of poverty and natural resource depletion, from air pollution to deforestation.

Spencer is the first PhD graduate of Economics for the Anthropocene, an interdisciplinary graduate research and training program creating the next generation of environmental leaders. E4A, as it’s called, is a $5-million international partnership between UVM, McGill University and York University, launched in 2015.

Game-changing semester at UN

Unlike most doctoral programs, E4A students benefit from internships in global and local organizations. In 2014, Spencer landed a prized internship with the United Nations, examining gender inequality around the globe and contributing to The World’s Women 2015 Report.

“The UN experience was a total game-changer,” says Spencer, who credits a fall semester at their New York headquarters for inspiring her dissertation on gender inequality in the face of environmental instability. “Getting the chance to learn from top experts, apply my training and make real contributions, it gave me a huge amount of confidence, and validation, that this is the right path for me.”

Diving into water issues

Spencer also took a deep dive into water issues in E4A’s annual intensive year-end field course. She and her cohort learned from experts on the front lines of management and policy decisions on Lake Champlain, a vital watershed shared by Vermont, New York, and Quebec. Spencer met with farmers, communities, government and businesses, exploring causes and impacts of water pollution, largely from excess phosphorus.

“Being exposed to so many perspectives, interests and experts gave us the big picture view you need to find actual solutions,” says Spencer, who helped present the group’s findings to stakeholders and E4A partners. 

Atmosphere of collaboration

Spencer grew up in Essex Junction, Vermont, getting her undergraduate degree in anthropology and geography at McGill. She came to UVM for her master’s degree, studying barriers to transportation access in Community Development and Applied Economics. She did her PhD through the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, joined the Gund Institute for Environment as a Graduate Fellow, and did UVM's Graduate Certificate in Ecological Economics.

Spencer found a like-minded crew – academically and socially – at the Gund Institute. As UVM’s university-wide environmental research accelerator, the Gund Institute brings together scholars from diverse colleges and disciplines – from ecologists and economists to engineers, data scientists and policy experts – to tackle critical global environmental issues.

UVM Prof. Jon Erickson, a leading ecological economist who co-directs the E4A program, was Spencer’s faculty advisor. He sees her as a “social change agent” who can stir things up on the world stage.

“We’re trying to create a whole new generation of thought leaders who question the status quo,” says Erickson, a Gund Fellow and the David Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy at the Rubenstein School. “We want to produce citizens, rather than consumers, with the skills to help build a more sustainable future.”

Improving real-world decisions

Spencer’s background in the field of ecological economics – which will remain an enduring area of strength in the newly expanded Gund Institute – is an asset at the World Bank, says Harun Dogo, her supervisor and an environmental economist there.

“It is helpful to have somebody trained in ecological economics to ground and improve our findings,” Dogo says of Spencer. “Phoebe’s strength, fundamentally, is her ability to look across all these things and see a common set of patterns.”

Spencer says she hopes her World Bank work ultimately influences policy change that supports “thoughtful development.”

“I want to make change in a thoughtful way. That’s not always just saying more development of any kind is good,” she says.

“It needs to be thoughtful development.”

Apply for Gund PhD Research Assistantships by February 1, 2018. 

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