This first-year student is using her background in environmental science and philosophy to pursue public policy.
Alice Xu is an MPP student from Shanghai, China, and recipient of the New Perspectives Scholarship (applications close on 1 February!) – awarded to students who would like to pair their background in the natural sciences or engineering with public policy, international affairs or data science.
Would you please introduce yourself?
I am Alice, from Shanghai, China. I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and a second major in Environmental Biology. I am a book lover and a big fan of the German philosophers Kant and Wittgenstein, and I am currently reading Either/Or by the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. I am also enthusiastic about the environment and love nature documentaries. I highly recommend the 2020 documentary by British journalist David Attenborough, A Life on Our Planet.
What were you doing before starting your studies in the fall?
Before starting my studies at Hertie, I completed my thesis on the philosophy of ecology and graduated from Washington University in May. Due to the pandemic outbreak, I had the luxury of spending an entire summer with my family and friends back home in Shanghai, during which I got to read 20+ books and discover a few indie rock bands in China. One of the best books I read during the summer was Stoner by John Williams.
You previously studied environmental biology, philosophy and Germanic literature and languages. What motivated you to pursue a master’s degree in public policy, and how have your previous studies prepared you for it?
My education in environmental biology has given me an understanding of the climate crisis and its cascade effects, namely, the critical state we are in regarding changes to our habitat. Addressing such an issue, which knows no national boundaries and affects everyone in the world, requires collective effort and informed decision-making. For that reason, I started looking for what I can do to become a part of the solution.
I first started learning about the current and local level of work while studying environmental law and working as a student consultant at the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at Washington University School of Law. I learned that environmental law can be an effective tool to address environmental issues; however, it often requires a constant uphill battle to use it for, not against, the environment. In the meantime, I also started to look for a broader (more public-oriented), and perhaps more efficient approach to environmental issues, in terms of smart public policies that nudge people to make good choices. I encountered this idea of nudging as an undergraduate and also in my economics class with Professor Christian Traxler here at the Hertie School. I have much to learn in the field of public policy, and I look forward to joining efforts in addressing environmental issues through public work.
My background in environmental biology has prepared me to better assess environmental externalities and understand the effects of certain policies. I have also found that my philosophy training has prepared me for writing and analysis in various fields, such as in statistics and data analysis, which are critical to any policy design. My German studies helped me adapt to living in Berlin and understanding some of my German-speaking friends better. And studying in Berlin pushes me to sharpen up my German and put it to use more often.
What advice would you give to prospective students from natural science or engineering backgrounds interested in applying for the New Perspectives Scholarship?
Apply! There is no idea too small or perspective too ordinary. Hertie values open-minded voices, and so does the general academic community. More importantly, insights from natural sciences and engineering are valuable for a lot of policymaking, and it requires not just outsourcing scientists and engineers when needed, but also policymakers with knowledge of science. If you consider how your experience in natural science or engineering has influenced your thinking about topics outside those academic disciplines, then you will see how mindsets shift so easily as new ideas emerge. This can change your whole perspective and make you see things differently. The same happens when diverse voices benefit the group: the whole becomes larger than the sum of its parts.
Applying for the scholarship also pushed me outside of my comfort zone to make a video of myself. It was awkward, it was difficult, I know, but I did it with my non-existent videography and editing skills, so it really is not about that. Your story is more important than the production. Don’t let your creativity be limited by the fear of imperfect products. You can choose the medium and tell your story to the best of your ability.
You have experience in environmental research and conservation. Why do you think science is necessary for policymaking – especially with regards to the environment – and vice versa?
Think the 50-year delay in convincing the public that smoking causes lung cancer; think the modern-day denial that climate change isn’t real when it clearly is no longer a case of scientific evidence. Corporate denial stalled acceptance of the fact that smoking is carcinogenic, and many people were happy to go along with the Trump administration’s open attack on science. These are examples of policymaking silencing science. The consequences are devastating: threats to public health, distrust in science, and polarization within a unified country. There is a gap between the scientific community and the public, and it needs to be bridged by policymakers who understand the value and the implications of scientific research. Only through such an understanding can the benefits of science reach the public efficiently and effectively.
An interdisciplinary perspective is essential to making informed policy decisions on complex environmental issues. I recently had a conversation with a friend on how some may think a mere change of one degree or two in global warming will not affect their daily lives much. That is an argument only valid to people who do not know about the environment. For instance, ocean acidification, an effect of global warming, leads to death of coral reefs and fish, loss of biodiversity, and an increasing chance of tsunamis and other natural disasters. It is the loss of balance that is at stake, not just a change in temperature. What makes it really devastating is the fact that a lot of the immediate effects, such as iceberg-melting and the release of methane from permafrost, feed back into the system, exacerbating climate change, pushing it to an alternative balance that will be beyond our ability to restore for our own survival.
In short, science is very much needed to make good policy decisions, especially right now. And we need good environmental policy to address environmental issues.
What are you looking forward to in the spring semester?
I am really excited about the classes. I signed up for electricity economics, where I will learn about evaluating the economics of wind and solar energy, as well as energy policy design.
I am helping to organize a student-run conference: the European Public Policy Conference on April 23-25. And of course, I am also looking forward to meeting more Hertie students on campus, hopefully in the near future!
Have you previously studied natural sciences or engineering? You could be a great fit for the New Perspectives Scholarship! Apply by our priority deadline on 1 February.