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Featured Alumnus: Ezra Markowitz

Ezra Markowitz, who graduated from the University of Oregon with a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences, Studies & Policy, joined the faculty of UMass Amherst this fall as an Assistant Professor, and is completing his first course, entitled “Environmental Decision-Making.”

Dr. Markowitz has always been interested in both psychology and environmental issues, although it wasn’t always clear how to merge them. He entered his undergraduate studies at Vassar College knowing that he wanted to major in psychology, and quickly became active within the school’s student environmental group. However, Markowitz explains that “they didn’t immediately seem to mesh. It wasn’t until my third year that my advisor in psychology told me ‘you know, you can combine those two interests of yours.’”

By the time he began looking for graduate schools he knew he wanted to study sustainability and decision-making, but “it wasn’t really clear how to do that in graduate school because there weren’t many programs available on the East coast. It ends up that the University of Oregon had what I was looking for, so it won out.” In Markowitz’s mind, Environmental Studies’ resources worked well with his professional goals because he was focused in his interests: “I get a lot of prospective graduate students looking at the program, and what I tell them is that it’s a really great place for people who have a good sense of what they want to study. Which is not everybody. But for me, the U of O gave me that support to explore and figure out on my own what had already been done in this new field, and what needed to be done.”

This interdisciplinary training, in which Markowitz drew from multiple departments to round out his education, also prepared him for his experiences after graduating. After defending his dissertation, he spent a year as a postdoctoral research associate with Princeton University’s Research Community on Communicating Uncertainty, where he worked with a group of political scientists, climate scientists, philosophers, and economists on the question of how to communicate scientific uncertainty regarding environmental change problems, both to policy-makers and the public. “It was a perfect extension of being at the U of O, he recounts, “because it was an incredible multi-disciplinary group. We certainly had challenges in terms of how to all talk and work together, but it was exciting. I spent the year running studies and finding that contrary to popular belief, you can actually increase people’s trust in climate scientists and in science more generally by being more open about the uncertainties that exist.”

Markowitz did get the chance to study among peers, though, when in 2013 he was invited to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University. “For the first time in my life I was around people who do pretty much what I do. Everybody was a behavioral scientist doing environmental stuff, which was cool.” The group does much of its work on individuals’ decision-making under uncertainty, so “it was a nice flow from my work at Princeton.”

His position at Columbia University could have lasted for three years, but Markowitz was browsing faculty job postings and noticed one advertised by UMass Amherst “for something like human decision-making in environmental conservation. So I figured it was a pretty good fit.” It was: after a lengthy interview process, Markowitz found himself with a tenure-track position in a location that he is excited to explore. “I hadn’t applied to many jobs,” he admits, “but this seemed right for me. It’s in a place that reminds me a lot of the Willamette Valley in terms of politics and the physical layout of the valley around the river, with little mountains all around. I really did enjoy my time in Oregon.”

At UMass, Markowitz expects to keep his steady focus on how to blend research with practical application. Not only will he continue to offer consulting to policy groups outside of academia, he remains dedicated to investigations that support smart activism. “I don’t necessarily have the tools to put my findings into practice, but my goal is always for the research that I’m doing to be both practical and applicable. I want to help inform the work that’s happening on the ground.”

Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.