GIS grad turns love for the environment into passion for sustainability




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A. Sue Weisler

Jennifer Russell

University Communications is highlighting a few members of the Class of 2018. See more commencement news at rit.edu/news/commencement.

As a child growing up in Newmarket, Ontario, Jennifer Russell was an avid camper and canoeist who spent as much time outdoors as possible.

“I spent a lot of my childhood outside exploring,” Russell recalled. “And I was one of the first girls to ever join the Boy Scouts of Canada.”

That early and genuine connection to nature, she discovered, made her more aware and sensitive about the damage and losses inflicted on the natural environment by unplanned and unsustainable growth.

“I remember being devastated when a forest I played in as a child was bulldozed to build a new housing subdivision,” she said. “In high school, our environmental science class studied a local river that was effectively dying as a result of extensive fertilizer run-off from local farm fields.”

Today, as she nears her graduation from RIT’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability, Russell wants to prove to forward-thinking businesses and communities that development and the environment do not always have to be at odds.

The GIS Ph.D. student has spent the last four years at RIT focusing on sustainable production processes, business models, remanufacturing, and the “circular economy,” referring to an industrial economy that is restorative by intention and eliminates waste through thoughtful design.

Before coming to RIT, she already had spent more than 10 years as an industry consultant in Canada and elsewhere, counseling clients in industry, the nonprofit and government sectors about developing solutions to a wide variety of sustainability challenges.

It was not her original career plan.

“Early on, my plan had been to pursue environmental law, with the intent of helping to regulate, control and protect natural resources from exploitation,” she said. “But I realized one day that the legal route often only offered a recourse after the damage had been done. I felt that my role needed to be more out-front.”

In GIS and RIT, Russell found “a dedicated institute” intensely focused on research into sustainability issues.

“In my professional career as a sustainability consultant, I had observed that sustainability issues were often ‘tacked on,’ almost as an afterthought, to other business functions and areas of expertise—if they were considered at all,” she observed. “I personally feel that sustainability needs to be incorporated into every function of a business as a core strategic principle, and was encouraged by RIT’s approach to prioritizing sustainability research and solutions.”

Since arriving on campus, Russell has had the good fortune to work closely with and be advised by one of the most respected sustainability experts in the world today: Nabil Nasr, associate provost and director of GIS. Her dissertation research, in fact, was funded by the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Resource Panel, for which Nasr serves as one of only three U.S. members.

“I’ve had the opportunity to travel to with Dr. Nasr to Germany and China to engage with different stakeholders and policymakers, collect data and connect with scholars working on sustainability issues,” said Russell, who received RIT’s Outstanding Service Award for International Students in 2017.

After several long days of workshops in Beijing, Russell recalled, she and her GIS colleagues took a guided tour of the Great Wall of China. “Not only was this one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited, we were treated to the history of the Great Wall from such a personal perspective. It is something I will never forget.”

Reflecting recently on the experience, her academic and research career at RIT and her early years back in Newmarket, Russell said it reminded her about the importance of “keeping people and community at the center of sustainability research.”

“It will be through our ability to connect across great distances—literally and proverbially—on the basis of values and hope for the future, that we are ultimately going to be able to make the changes that are needed,” Russell said.