Meet environmental engineer Karen Copeland for our next sustainability profile. A strong desire to equip herself with the right skills to deliver effective environmental change at the highest possible level prompted Karen to pursue an MPhil in Public Policy at Churchill.

One of the biggest holes in public policy today is the disconnect between science and policy. I hope to bridge this gap, one day serving as a technical advisor in a governmental capacity. To accomplish this, it’s imperative that I understand both the technical and the political half of the equation.

Born and raised in sunny South Florida, Karen attended a thriving arts school where she studied classical piano and voice. When applying to university, she had no awareness that environmental engineering even existed, “having grown up in a state where, despite seeing many environmental issues firsthand (such as harmful algal blooms, sea level rise, and increasing frequency/intensity of hurricanes), the political climate contributed to a general culture of disinformation and a lack of climate education.” Securing an Egleston Scholarship at Columbia University in New York – awarded to the top 1% of engineering applicants – she duly began her undergraduate studies in computer science. However, she soon found herself unfulfilled with this trajectory. It wasn’t until she discovered environmental engineering in her coursebook that everything fell into place. She was immediately captivated by the classes which would give her both, “an understanding of the environmental issues I had grown up with in Florida and a chance to help solve them”.

Karen graduated from Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) last year, earning a Bachelor of Science in Earth and Environmental Engineering with a minor in Computer Science. However, she still felt there was more to learn to make an impact in the climate crisis. When she heard about the opportunity to study at Cambridge through a Churchill Scholarship she was intrigued. Each year, 18 Churchill Scholars are selected from the United States to study at Churchill College for a year, including two Kanders Scholars selected from students with a background in science or engineering fields and an interest in science policy. As Karen explains, “coming from environmental engineering, a field which is inherently tied to environmental policy, I was very interested in working in the intersection of the two. Kanders Churchill was the perfect fit for me and a unique opportunity that I was keen to take.”


Without the Churchill Scholarship, which provides full funding for course fees, living expenses and travel it would never have been possible for Karen to benefit from the enormous impact the opportunity has provided, “The MPhil in Public Policy programme is extremely diverse, with students from all around the world. Having the chance to speak with and learn from them is an incomparable experience that I would not have found anywhere else. Having not really traveled outside of the United States before this year, I am thrilled to be able to explore new places and build my own world view, expanding my mindset not only across disciplines (engineering and policy), but also across countries.”

Getting this scholarship has truly meant the world to me, allowing me to expand both my academic boundaries and my world perspective.

Karen has thrown herself into College life, joining Churchill College Boat Club as a coxswain, “I am really enjoying this unique experience and am incredibly thankful for the welcoming and supportive environment of this society, despite me never having stepped foot into a rowing boat prior to arriving here in the UK”. Alongside rowing she has joined the Cambridge University Opera Society and worked as a volunteer bartender for the MCR Bar last term! She also has praise for the College’s welcoming atmosphere and spacious location!

I love how open and accepting Churchill is! I also love all the green space that we have – the window from my room in 72 Storey’s Way looks out onto a beautiful garden and I always find a smile on my face when I’m walking through the fields behind plodge.

She is still considering next steps and may pursue a Masters program in Civil & Environmental Engineering or go straight into the environmental engineering industry. Ultimately, her aim is to continue to push climate action through an interdisciplinary lens. She intends to use her undergraduate education to start her career in engineering, gaining irreplaceable on-the-ground experience. Many of the environmental firms she is interested in working with have centres in both the US and the UK, allowing her to continue developing and strengthening connections between these two countries. Longer-term, she hopes to transition into politics, using her expertise to serve as a technical advisor to government agencies. Studying in the UK is integral to this plan, as she is learning how to, “transfer my engineering talents to the political realm at Cambridge.”

The MPhil in Public Policy is the perfect complement to my technical background, giving me the skills necessary to integrate engineering and politics. Through this degree I hope to gain an education transcending industry, policy, and science.