Leaving a Mark on the World: How to Become an Environmental Scientist

Environmental science isn’t just about tree species and rock formations. As we grow more aware of how the environment affects our societies and, conversely, how we affect the environment, we find that the environment plays a critical role in shaping human life. One of the foremost pioneers of environmental science as we know it today is Robert D. Bullard, an HBCU grad. Bullard is revered for his campaign against environmental racism—which largely focuses on how environmentally-driven practices and policies affect those living in poorer urban areas—and has earned himself the moniker, “the father of environmental justice.”

In such a rapidly changing field, there’s plenty of room for new faces with new ideas—and you may be one of them. If you’re great at science and math, or you’re an out-of-the-box problem solver, you’re already equipped with many of the key skills it takes to excel in the field. If you’re fascinated not only by natural systems but also by their social impact, you’ll never run out of new ideas to explore and investigate. Becoming an environmental scientist isn’t an impractical idea, either. STEM careers, in general, are in high demand and often come with a good salary. Plus, you’ll be a role model in an industry that has historically undervalued the contributions of black or brown scientists.

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You may not be making any groundbreaking discoveries quite yet, but it’s not too early to start setting yourself up for success. While in high school, it’s a great idea to take advanced math and science classes. AP biology, AP chemistry, and, of course, AP environmental science will be especially helpful in preparing you for college-level work. In your free time, seek out extracurricular opportunities that focus on your specific areas of interest, such as an environmentalism club. As you get more involved, you’ll be able to start narrowing down where your specific interests lie within the field. Focused studies within the field abound—you could find your niche in archaeology, ecology, meteorology, zoology and climatology among others.

Once college is on the horizon, it would be a smart idea to seek out a university that is equipped to give you a high-quality education that will prepare you for a successful career. Claflin University and Florida Memorial University each have an environmental science major, and Huston-Tillotson University’s degree takes an interdisciplinary approach that focuses on sustainability. Spelman College offers two distinct majors: environmental science, which prepares students for a future in either engineering, health professions or further studies at graduate school, and environmental studies, which provides students with skill sets and knowledge from various disciplinary perspectives to address environmental challenges and affect positive social change. Tuskegee University’s program allows you start focusing on your area of interest while still in school with concentrations in environmental science, environmental health, natural resources, plant and soil sciences, horticulture, forestry and wildlife/fisheries.

UNCF STEM Scholars logoTo help you fund your education, check out The Fund II Foundation UNCF STEM Scholars Program and, if you’re a female future scientist, the Davis Scholarship for Women in STEM.

No matter where you are on your path to your future career, one of the best things you can do is stay informed on news and opportunities from HBCUs nationwide. Follow UNCF (United Negro College Fund) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and we’ll make sure you hear about the important stuff. With the right tools and some hard work, we know you’ll be on your way to a successful, meaningful career.