Alumni Spotlight: David Marcus, U.S. Green Building Council Project-Based Learning Coordinator

September 2010 I found myself sitting on a bench outside Olin Hall on the Johns Hopkins Baltimore campus. It was my first class of my first course in the Advanced Academic Program (AAP) Environmental Science and Policy (ESP) degree program, and I was locked out of the lecture hall building. Seeing as I was respectably early, I thought I’d sit down on a bench and pass the time. It was also a good excuse to bring my heart rate down and wait for someone to let me in. I didn’t have to wait long; a guy, casually dressed and wearing hipster glasses, approached and sat next to me. We struck up a conversation, and I learned that he, too, was a career changer in the AAP ESP program. Fast forward to fall 2013, and David Marcus is now employed, recently married, and still energetic about environmental science.

I asked David if he wouldn’t mind sharing his journey. Here’s his story…

Photo supplied by David Marcus. Taken by Ben Hampton

Photo supplied by David Marcus. Taken by Ben Hampton

So David, for those of us that don’t know you, can you give us your career-changing story thus far?

I come from a strong liberal arts background, at Drew University I double majored in Anthropology and French. After graduation I moved back to Boston and started working in education teaching middle school special education and helping run a large after school program. I’ve always liked teaching and working with kids but after four years I started to wonder where that career path was taking me. I began looking at graduate programs for education. After attending many information sessions at schools around Boston I started to notice two kinds of people. Those in their early 20s who were just starting out in their careers, and those were older and were changing careers. I started to realize that teaching was something I could come back to later in life and that I had other interests I wanted to pursue. At that point I made a choice to start pursuing my other interests.

After speaking with a career counselor and doing some in depth job searches I started seeing jobs that got me really excited, I felt like, “I want to do that.” Most of those jobs required a degree in environmental science or some related field and had lot had to do with sustainable development. At that point I realized going back to school was a good option and thats how I found the AAP program. I applied and was accepted as a provisional student, because of my non technical background. I did my calculus and chemistry requirements in 2009/2010 and moved down to DC in the fall of 2010 to start my degree.

In the spring of 2011 I took “Sustainable Cities” with Sophie Lambert and that class reignited my interest in sustainable development. I was applying to a lot of internships and jobs and one of them was at the U.S. Green Building Council. Sophie is the director of the LEED for Neighborhood Development program at USGBC and helped introduce me to my mentor at USGBC Jen Schill. I started my internship at USGBC in May 2011 and was hired on full time in August of that year. I’ve been at USGBC just over two years now and it’s been an incredible experience exposing me to thought leaders in the industry and leaders in sustainable design and development.

Many of us work full-time while taking classes. Some of us don’t have a science undergraduate degree or any environmental science experience. What did you do to support your liberal arts undergraduate background and make yourself a competitive candidate when looking for jobs in the environmental sector?

Although I’d done some archaeology fieldwork as part of my undergraduate degree, I didn’t have a strong hard science background. I’m an avid fisherman and take a strong interest in water resources and river conservation. I started volunteering with Maryland Stream Waders to get a little more field experience and network. I also tried to take advantage of JHU career center resources and network at events and with classmates.

I found that a lot of my classmates were already in the environmental science or sustainability field and could point me to various opportunities. They also showed me the diverse ways that environmental sciences and sustainability intersect with various other fields that I hadn’t considered before.

I also worked part time at REI to help pay the bills and also feed my gear habit before I was hired on by USGBC.

What attracted you to the Environmental Science and Policy program at JHU?

1. I didn’t have a technical science background as an undergraduate and the program offered those science classes.

2. It gave me the option to take classes part time while working full time.

3. The program seemed geared towards preparing students who had work experience but were looking to make a career change.

Advice time: Is there anything you wish you knew back when you started the career-shift that you’d tell others in the same process?

Changing careers was hard, but I think I’ve been surprised by how much of my previous work experience still applies to my current position. I don’t you think you ever change careers fully. I’ve taken my skill set and applied it in new ways to my role at USGBC. Understanding what my skill set was and presenting myself in such a way to highlight how those skills could apply to the my new field was a key strategy. One of the hardest parts of switching careers was actually learning about office culture and project management. A lot of people work in an office at some point in the professional career but I had only ever worked in a school. I would encourage career changers to think about any secondary skills they may need in their new career and try to supplement those skills with experiences they may not be getting in their formal degree.

What was your favorite course or instructor (and why)?

One of my most memorable and influential courses was “Managing for Environmental Results with Quantitative Measurements” with Prof. Art Koines. [editor’s note: course description for 420.659 found here.] This class was eye opening in the way it made me reevaluate my thinking about solving environmental problems, and problems in general. It was a small class (8 people) and we had a lot of great discussions. Ultimately it helped me go from an intern to a full time employee at USGBC. I applied the theories I learned in that class, about designing programs to solve environmental problems, to my work as an intern. It was a great exercise in thinking critically, distilling my thoughts, identifying actions for implementation, and establishing metrics for success.

What environmental science/sustainability/climate change books and/or films are on your must-read or must-watch list?

I’m in the middle of reading Energy for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller which was a gift from my uncle. Muller writes in a very clear and logical manner. He presents clear arguments and an interesting perspective. I also think he strikes a good balance between providing a lot of important details while discussing the big picture. It’s been a really interesting read so far.

I know we’re all glad to be done once we get that diploma. However, are there any courses that would tempt you to come back to JHU for another semester?

I took a class within the energy policy program that covered topics such as energy distribution, the smart grid, and factoring various carbon taxes/caps into energy production. It was a challenging course that taught me a lot about energy production, the energy industry, and renewable energy. [editor’s note: 420.645 – Environmental Challenges for Energy Policy might be a good option for those interested in energy policy.] Overall I found it fascinating and would like to learn more about those topics. I also focused my classes on the “environmental management” track, and as an avid fisherman, I ended up not taking as many ecology or field classes as I would have liked.

Photo by David Marcus

Photo by David Marcus

What are some of your future goals, as related to environmental science?

I’m invigorated by the sustainable design and development fields. It fires my imagination and really gets me excited about the future of sustainability, materials science, building science and the positive impact they can have on the environment. Not just “do less harm” but design that utilizes strategies like regenerative design and biomimicry that improve and interact harmoniously within their environments. I think I’d like to be involved in more projects that implement these concepts.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

When I first finished my undergraduate degree I had some trouble finding a job and started to question my liberal arts degree in the job market. In my current work at USGBC I develop case studies and work on various projects. I’ve found that my liberal arts background has helped tremendously with the knowledge work I do, having to creatively solve problems and think abstractly. My transition to this new career has been a tremendous learning experience for me and an exciting time in my life. I look forward to continuing my professional and personal journey with my new wife.

Readers, do you have a liberal arts background? Are you a career changer? We’d love to hear how other AAP students are applying their degrees. Tell us your story in the comments!

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