Alumni Spotlight: How a Passion for Sustainability Became a Distinguished Dissertation

June 28, 2021

Dr. Cristina Gauthier-HernandezAs a first-generation college graduate from a single mother household in Puerto Rico, MSU Geography Alumna Dr. Cristina Gauthier-Hernandez received no guidance when it came to navigating her career path. After being encouraged to simply choose a “profitable” career, she studied engineering and eventually tied her degree to her interest for sustainability. Despite any setback she faced, Gauthier persevered and surpassed her career goals, eventually receiving honorable recognition for her work.

Gauthier began her career as an engineering major whose only career goal was to obtain a job, and it wasn’t until three years after graduating that she was able to merge her passion for sustainability and renewable energy into her career as an environmental engineer. “I wanted to work with underserved communities on environmental issues, and researched options to do so” she says.  “I found the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which accepted applications from young professionals. I quit my job and did research in a rural community in Brazil. The experience allowed me to dream bigger and realize that there is more to a career than earning a paycheck.”

Gauthier traveled to Mutá in Brazil in 2012 in an effort to help the rural town reuse organic waste. “I traveled to Mutá to design a biogas and composting system through a Fulbright Grant. The reuse system worked — that is, until I left. Despite my efforts, the project didn’t last long due to a lack of community interest. I was trained as an environmental engineer and, before this experience, had not been exposed to the importance of social science in project development. I quickly realized that the project’s demise lay on my lack of understanding on diffusions of innovations, and lack of inclusion of social variables affecting project uptake. Many projects fail because of the considerable gap that exists between design and implementation.” Despite the setbacks her project faced, she credits the experience as one that allowed her to “recognize that success often lies in multidisciplinarity and bridge building,” and eventually propelled her to graduate studies.

In 2020, Gauthier received Honorable Mention at the CGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Awards for her dissertation Dams in the Amazon: Social and Environmental Impacts on Basic Sanitation, People, and the Environment, written on the social and environmental impacts of large dams built in the Brazilian Amazon. “Focusing on water and sanitation, I looked at public policy, water access, water quality, basic sanitation services and public health effects to examine which geographical areas and what socioeconomic groups these large hydropower projects affect the most,” she states. Regarding her Honorable Mention, Gauthier admits she was not expecting the achievement. “I have to admit that, despite all my hard work, I was shocked. Let's be honest, even Michelle Obama is on the record acknowledging her imposter syndrome. While many academics tiptoe around it, even the most brilliant and capable people experience it.”

Dr. Gauthier-HernandezAfter obtaining her PhD in the summer of 2020, Gauthier unfortunately entered a pandemic-stricken workforce with a very specific degree. “Needless to say, 2020 revealed many important lessons. You can plan and set goals all day, every day, yet those may not pan out as you expected. As my plans were thrown out the window, I restructured what I envisioned for my career. I let go of rigid expectations that kept me from exploring other professional pathways and am now working in government. I will, of course, continue to pursue what I think will bring me happiness, but it is not yet clear what my next steps are career-wise and that’s OK. I’m taking things in stride and am grateful to count on amazing people to help me navigate the uncertainty,” she says.

During Gauthier’s time at MSU,  she was also able to make meaningful connections as she completed her studies. “I reached out to faculty members across various departments at MSU and was able to find a community of peers and mentors that pushed and fueled me. MSU provided me with all the intellectual and financial support I needed to accomplish my academic goals. I shared many truly amazing moments that contributed to my professional growth. The MSU community has definitely left its mark,” she states.

With this positive attitude, years of research experience under her belt, and passion for her work, there is no doubt that Gauthier will continue to make her mark on the world. As for current students who are aspiring to achieve similar accomplishments, Gauthier has some words of wisdom. “Choose academia because it fulfills your sense of wonder or brings you purpose. In the interim, apply for things you feel relate to your topic: Grants, awards, fellowships... Apply, apply, apply, and keep on doing your work without expecting anything other than your degree. Validation is nice, but not the utmost measure of our success - it is also very hard to come by in academia.” Most importantly, she encourages all students to live by her mantra: Ignore the noise and keep on doing what makes you smile.