Calling for Action on Climate Change: Jennifer Helgeson '02

by Jessica Ye for Silver Quest

Climate change.

Sometimes it seems that the scientists who study it aren’t being taken seriously—especially when it is an issue that requires the world to come together to solve. However, one Magnet alum is speaking out.

For someone as passionate about environmental economics as she is, it sounds like Helgeson is living a dream.

Recently, Helgeson became a member of the National Construction Safety Team’s Technical Investigation of Hurricane Maria’s Impacts on Puerto Rico. “I lead a project to determine the impacts to and recovery of small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs), and retail and service industries,” she says. Additionally, she is leading a data collection effort with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to advise small to medium sized businesses on decision making processes in response to damage caused by hurricane related activity and extreme flooding in areas such as South Carolina and Texas.

Climate change is a great example of where no matter the level of scientific research and certainty, action really depends on the ability to effectively communicate to the public and policymakers,” Jennifer Helgeson (Class of ‘02) advised in a recent op-ed, “We’re Running Out of Time to Reduce Climate Change—Let’s Do it Anyway.” (Kol Habirah, October 2018)

Helgeson is currently a research economist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). She is the leader of her office’s work on the “Economics of Community Resilience Planning” where she focuses on economic and survey analyses of proposed approaches for dealing with environmental issues. Particularly, her research is focused on hazards to buildings with an emphasis on cost efficiency in damage mitigation.

But her journey from Magnet student to leading figure in her field has involved a lot of hard work and dedication. After graduating from the Magnet in 2002, she attended Brandeis University. Upon graduation, she began looking for ways to study abroad in Europe. “During high school I was fortunate enough to go to Spain and Norway on family trips … and fell in love with Europe,” she explains as her motivation for pursuing foreign education. She received a Fulbright Award to conduct research in Norway for a year. “At that point the UK was well ahead of many programs in both environmental economics and management and behavioral economics. So, I went that route.” She adds, “It also helps that a Master’s degree is generally less expensive in the UK.” She graduated from Oxford in 2007.

When asked if she has any advice for current magnet students, Helgeson has plenty to say. It is important to try things before committing fully to them, and there is wisdom in combining areas of study that may not immediately appear to fit together. She also speaks about the importance of advocating for oneself and taking advantage of opportunities in which one may be interested. Helgeson also wants to highlight the importance of improving the world. “Most fields[…] help the state of the world and others clearly don’t and there are some that are neutral. If you are good at what you do, you’ll get paid well no matter where you are on the spectrum. But doing the ‘good’ work pays dividends in how your work will be remembered and how much you can respect it.”