Alumnus Profile: Holly Elwell | WSSS | Tufts University

Alumnus Profile: Holly Elwell

by Libby Mahaffy

Recent Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) graduate Holly Elwell (G09) currently lives in Washington, DC, working for the Environmental Protection Agency in their EPA's Climate Ready Estuaries program. Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE) intern Libby Mahaffy spoke with her in July 2011 about her experiences in the WSSS program, her new job, and her advice for incoming students.

Libby Mahaffy is also a graduate of the UEP program (G11).

Learn more about Holly here.

Libby Mahaffy: Why did you join WSSS?
Holly Elwell: I wanted a focus within the UEP program. UEP is very broad and interdisciplinary, which is great in one sense, but at the same time I wanted to come out with a defined set of skills in a particular area—in water resources.

Was there anything that surprised you about the WSSS program?
Working with people across different programs at Tufts was a more valuable experience than I had initially thought [it would be]– it wasn’t the reason I joined WSSS, but through seminars, in addition to having the practicum project together, [I was able] to get to know people across different programs. [It was helpful] being exposed to different projects and researchers that I was unaware of otherwise and might not have explored if it weren’t for the WSSS program.

What was your favorite aspect of the WSSS program?
The practicum project – it was also the most challenging part! It was a great opportunity to work with faculty and students to put our work into practice on the ground. That’s a really important opportunity to have in grad school and it certainly has helped me in the professional world. Working with people across disciplines is the way this field operates.

[Our project was] a stormwater management assessment of Nassau Harbor in the Bahamas. We tried to identify regulatory and non-regulatory ways that stormwater management could be addressed in the city. We did monitoring, land use surveys, and interviews with government officials and influential non-profits. What I liked most about it was that I got to do all of those things. I don’t have a hard science background, so it gave me the opportunity to learn how that’s done and partake in that. We split up the work and everyone rotated through the tasks.

How are you using what you learned in WSSS in your current work?
I currently work in the Climate Ready Estuaries Program at the EPA. Our job is to provide technical assistance to the National Estuaries programs. That [involves] working across disciplines with scientists, engineers, policymakers, and land use officials. It’s really beneficial to have had an experience where you’re trying to translate information from a variety of sources and communicate with people in different fields. Again, it comes back to the interdisciplinary nature of the work I do.

We provide scientific information about climate change to the National Estuaries program; that’s a complicated thing to communicate to people who do not have a hard science background. We develop fact sheets and technical reports about different topics that are geared specifically towards coastal managers, keeping in mind what their goals are, what their background and experience are, and trying to provide them with the appropriate level of detail and information that they need.

What's one piece of advice you'd like to give incoming WSSS students?
Take advantage of everything that the program has to offer. It’s a unique program that is beneficial in terms of your career moving forward. Get to know the other students as well as the professors who are giving their time and energy to it.

[If I had it to do over again], I wouldn’t do anything differently. I’ve been really pleased with the combination of WSSS and UEP – it set me up for the kinds of jobs and career path that I’m on. Maybe [I could have been] more proactive and [gotten] more involved – helping to develop and present seminars to [ensure] the UEP program is fully represented. It would be great for all the engineers and international development students in the program to be exposed to all the great things that are going on at UEP and how that relates to integrated water resources.

If WSSS was a Jelly Belly, what flavor would it be?
Strawberry banana. It’s a mix of different things, but it tastes really good!




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The Water: Systems, Science and Society (WSSS) program is a graduate research and education program that provides Tufts students with interdisciplinary perspectives and tools to manage water-related problems around the world.

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