‘Everyone has a role to play in climate adaptation and mitigation’

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Isabelle Heilman at energy-related awards ceremony

GPS alum Isabelle Heilman ’19 leads the development of sustainability policy at the U.S. Department of Energy

When Isabelle Heilman graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a dual degree in Spanish and environment, economics and politics, she began looking for a master’s program that would tie together all of her career interests. 

Heilman first took notice of the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS)’s focus on Latin America, including its Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, as well as the research many of the professors were conducting on the environment and climate change. 

What tipped the scales for her was finding out she was a recipient of a fellowship from the Robertson Foundation for Government, which fully funds master’s degrees in international relations and policy for students who commit to a career in federal government upon graduation.

“Once I received the Robertson Fellowship, I knew that I would be set up to achieve my goals of working in the federal government without student loan debt,” Heilman explained. “I also have always loved San Diego, so I thought, what better place to spend two years?”

As a Master of Public Policy (MPP) student, Heilman was also a Dean’s Fellow and participated in a number of student groups, including the Latin American Student Organization (LASO), Net Impact and Queer International Policy and Strategy (QuIPS). 

Post-graduation, Heilman now serves as a management and program analyst for the Sustainability Performance office at the Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington, D.C. 

“In this role, I manage our in-house sustainability database, which we use to report on departmental sustainability to the White House and Congress,” Heilman said. 

Since Heilman works at DOE headquarters, she gets a portfolio view of sustainability and climate resilience at the department. DOE sites are made up of national laboratories, nuclear clean-up sites and remediated sites, and her team shares best practices across the department through training, webinars and targeted technical assistance.

“The most rewarding part of my work is being able to connect the dots between the high performers and opportunities for improvement,” she said. 

One of the most difficult parts of the position has been the increased workload, as the Biden Administration has prioritized climate change and sustainability. 

“My team has just now been able to staff up and spread out our work so that we can all become experts in our respective portfolios,” she explained. 

And Heilman’s hard work is paying off. In 2023, Heilman led the development of a Climate Change 101 course for all Department of Energy employees and wrote the department’s sustainability policy. For that work, she was named a 2023 FEDS Spotlight Honoree through the Federal Energy Management Program. 

The course was the DOE’s first step toward a climate literate workforce, Heilman explained.

“I was very excited to be recognized for my work,” Heilman said. “I think everyone has a role to play in climate adaptation and mitigation. We tried to focus the course on climate change in the DOE context so that learners could see how climate change affects their work and the department’s mission.”

The data literacy training from GPS has been critical for Heilman’s success, she added. 

“Although I am not conducting much statistical analysis, being able to understand numbers and communicate them to my leadership has been a key skill in my job,” Heilman said. “I also found the capstone projects to be very useful when I was interviewing for jobs. I recommend that every student do some sort of consulting project in grad school.”

For anyone considering pursuing a degree at GPS, Heilman stressed that prospective students shouldn’t be intimidated by the quantitative focus of the school. 

“You have plenty of resources and support to understand the introductory statistics courses, and you don’t have to make quantitative courses the focus of coursework, either,” Heilman explained. “You’ll likely find that the basic statistics you learn in the introductory courses will give you a deeper understanding in your other coursework.”

Heilman also shared another tip: one of the best things she did for herself while enrolled at GPS was to take a class in another department. 

“I took Ocean Law and Policy at Scripps Institution of Oceanography during my second year,” Heilman said. “I learned so much from my peers in a completely different program. Plus, Scripps is beautiful, and you should spend as much time as you can near the ocean while you’re in La Jolla.”

A final but equally important piece of advice Heilman shared was to maintain connections with other alumni after graduation.

“We have a good group of GPS alumni in D.C.,” Heilman said. “For example, last fall, I went to an event on the impact of climate change on American beer at the Museum of American History with Andres Prieto ’19. I’ve run 5Ks recently with Eric Inumerable ’20. I play trivia every now and then with Adriel Taslim and Andrew Kincare ’18, and I get together with Laura Vossler ’21 to take on elaborate baking projects.”

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Virginia Watson is the communications editor for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism with a minor in graphic design from Troy University.
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