This summer we’re introducing interns in the RESESS, Geo-Launchpad, and USIP programs to shine a spotlight on the research projects they are completing throughout these 11-week internships and on their interests in geoscience.
Jamie O’Reilly will be starting her final year at Red Rocks Community College to earn her associate’s degree in engineering. Jamie decided to go back to school in January 2020, and began taking economics and public policy classes. When an engineer tutored Jamie in economics, he pointed out her aptitude for math and asked if she had ever considered engineering. While Jamie had always loved math, she didn’t think that she was smart enough to be an engineering student. At the same time, she applied for the honors program at Red Rocks Community College, which was focused on climate change. When taking courses for the honors program, she realized how important it was to her that the Earth be protected for her children. Jamie researched careers to combine her talents in math with her passion for climate change and discovered humanitarian engineering, which can focus on environmental science. When she saw an advertisement for Geo-Launchpad at Red Rocks Community College, she was excited to have the opportunity to sample a career in geology.
Rachael Hamby of the Western Lands Department at Western Resources Advocates is mentoring Jamie this summer. Although this team researches natural disasters in several states in the western US, Jamie has largely been focused on wildfires in Colorado and Montana. She is researching how wildfires disproportionately affect marginalized communities, partly due to gaps in wildfire education and mitigation, as well as economic inequality following the natural disaster. For example, Grist, a non-profit media organization that covers climate-related content, published an article about potential “climate gentrification” in Colorado following the wildfires—when the supply of houses is low due to destruction from climate change and the demand is high, resulting in only the wealthiest members of the community being able to afford to stay. With insurance issues and difficulty finding permanent housing, people are left homeless and without the housing equity they once had. The Western Lands Department at Western Resources Advocates hopes to use Jamie’s research to help draft legislation that would reduce these disparities regarding the impacts of wildfires.
- What has been your favorite part of the Geo-Launchpad program so far?
I’ve loved it. I was really scared, especially because I didn’t realize how…we work with the RESESS program. The first day was like, “Let’s go to Red Rocks and learn all about these rocks.” Our guide started asking us all these questions and I was like yeah I don’t know the answer to any of these. I literally couldn’t even remember the word “geology” and I haven’t taken any classes. It definitely made me apprehensive going into the rest of the summer. But honestly getting into my internship with Western Resources Advocates and the connection of being able to meet all these different people and their willingness to converse and answer questions. Whenever I was introduced to someone new, I’d ask, “How did you end up here?” and they are always willing to share their story and help guide me… It’s been really supportive and really nice to see how all these different people from different backgrounds and various degrees ended up in similar areas, doing something they really are happy with… I don’t want to spend all this time, money, and effort on school and not be happy… Overall, it’s just been great and super supportive.
- What have you gained from your mentorship with Rachael Hamby?
A ton of support from her, I have found comfort in knowing I’m on the right track in my work, as that is something I am always struggling to feel sure of. She was also one of the [people] where I was like, I love politics, I love policy, I love economics, but I like engineering and have all these different skills and I just want to know what I’m trying to do with my life. She was the same way. She shared, “I went to school for this, I got a degree for that, and then I started doing all these different things, and ultimately ended up at WRA.” It’s nice to have support from somebody in the field who just kind of ended up there also. I think [I’ve gained] her support and meeting me where I’m at right now.
I think a lot of times in internships—I almost didn’t come to Geo-Launchpad because I got scared—it feels like you have to know everything right now. If they’re like, “You need to do this research,” you’re like, “I can’t do this, I’m not there yet.” But she’s been really great about reminding me like, “If you don’t know, just tell me or do it your way,” which has been very comforting for me because I’m not wrong if I do it my way. It’s just the way I do things. Her meeting me where I’m at, giving me tools, and guiding me to have my work in line with what she’s looking for. That’s just been super helpful, because I get anxious. I’m like, “Am I following the directions? Am I doing what I’m supposed to do? Am I going too far out?” Every time I’m like, “I don’t know if this is what you wanted,” [she’ll say,] “This is better than I could have ever imagined that you would come up with!” It’s really exciting. It makes me [think], “Can I be done with school right now?” Because I’ve had such a great time that I’m ready to jump into my career. I know I’m not prepared all the way, but it just made me so excited. I think because I’ve been in school coming up on my third year this spring, you kind of get tired even though it’s not that bad, it’s not that hard. But it’s just now when I go back to Red Rocks, I’m like, “Man, I’m ready to be out of here.” It’s nice to be re-energized, to get through the second half. You’re almost there.
- Have you learned about any new topics/research techniques that have really piqued your interest?
The whole thing, honestly, it’s been really interesting. Even just learning about the disbursement of funding after a natural disaster… about how there’s still so much blatant racism built into some of these things. It’s like, “Well, we didn’t do it on purpose.” Okay, so how come this primarily white, affluent community got ten times as much funding to rebuild than this lower income community, that is primarily people of color, that needed it much more? So that’s interesting to see these disparities happening in the research. One of the things…that I thought was interesting was…particularly the mental health impact on children after a natural disaster, which was not something I had really even thought about. It was about how much anxiety and depression and all these things come after experiencing a natural disaster, because then it ties right back into the same issues [because] if you don’t have access to resources, if there are cultural barriers, if your family doesn’t talk about those things, or doesn’t believe in those things, how are you supposed to get help?
I had never thought wildfires would be interesting before this experience. Now I’m interested in learning more about that. I’m interested in learning more about policy and how they go from kind of drafting these ideas that I’m working on and the pathway to get into policy because they’ve been working with [Governor of Colorado Jared] Polis and some other legislators and they just passed some bills around wildfire. I would love to do everything, everywhere, and solve every problem, but it’s just kind of making more connections and finding other things to work on because if we know that natural disasters are tied into climate change, inequity, and then all these mental health issues. Just exploring that more, because I think that’s a lot of what I’m interested in. One of the things I’ve been focusing on for me and my career is that poverty and climate change can’t be addressed independently, they have to be addressed together, because we literally can’t fix one without fixing the other…Exploring all of that has been really interesting to me.
After completing her associate’s degree, Jamie plans to transfer to a four-year university. She is still looking at different schools, but her dream is to attend Oregon State University and study humanitarian engineering and environmental economics and policy. She hopes to continue to center sustainability and social justice in her education and career.