Alumni Profile: Claudia Polsky

Posted: August 4, 2016

Name: Claudia Polsky
Education: B.A. Harvard University; M. Appl. Sc. Lincoln University, New Zealand; J.D. UC Berkeley Law
SFS Program: Acid Rain & Limnology, Adirondacks (NY State), Summer 1983; Volcanic Geology, Mt. Vesuvius (Italy), Summer 1984
Current Position: Director, Environmental Law Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law

Why did you choose SFS as a study abroad program?
I was drawn to the summer programs that SFS offered because I wanted to try environmental field science. I had always loved science, and loved the outdoors, but had never had the opportunity to combine the two by studying and doing empirical scientific work in the real world rather than a school lab.

Reflecting back on your time in the program, what did you gain from your SFS experience?
I gained so much from my SFS programs that it’s hard to know where to begin. I not only learned an enormous amount of science, but I found that I really retained it, because it was so grounded in direct, multi-sensory experiences: when I think about lake acidification, I remember trying to do accurate titrations with leaves falling into our sample beakers, and fighting to get an accurate water visibility reading with a secchi disc from a wind-tossed inflatable boat. When I think about dodecahedral crystal forms in volcanic rocks at Mount Vesuvius, I remember how those hot black volcanic rocks also helped us melt fresh mozzarella and tomatoes for our incredible rustic lunches atop the volcano.

I also learned a huge amount from my fellow students. In particular, during the SFS program I did right after high school, I became close friends with two older female geology majors, whose influence steered me to study geology in college.

What is your most profound or lasting memory from your SFS program?
From my program studying acid rain in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, I remember a lesson on aquatic chemistry that we had while dangling our feet in a clear mountain stream. Talking about pH and various rocks’ differential buffering capacity with our toes in the relevant ecosystem really made an impression on me, and I think also helped me grasp some new chemistry concepts.

From my program studying the explosive patterns of Mount Vesuvius to help predict future eruptions, I remember an extraordinary night our crew spent atop the active volcano Stromboli, recording its eruptive frequency, but mostly just being awed by the beauty and miracle of watching fiery eruptions up close against a pitch-black sky. I can still hear the sizzle of the lava as it slid downslope to its quenching in the Mediterranean.

What advice would you give to a prospective SFS student?
Throw yourself into everything – the physicality of the projects (some of ours were quite strenuous), the difficulty of the journal articles you’ll read, the diversity of your team mates, the language of the country you visit. There are few things you will do in life that will give you the opportunity to learn and stretch across so many dimensions at once.

Tell us more about your career in environmental law. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’ve spent my whole career as an environmental professional, with the past 20 years of it as an environmental lawyer working for nonprofits and government agencies.

Over the past decade I’ve been deeply involved in helping California develop a regulatory system for addressing toxic chemicals in consumer products. My involvement has taken many forms, from living room strategy sessions with environmental activists to a stint directing a Pollution Prevention and Green Chemistry program at our state toxics agency. The part I most enjoyed, however, was working with a team of scientists, lawyers, and policymakers over a couple-year period to draft a complex and comprehensive set of product regulations and try to make them as defensible as possible in light of anticipated industry attack. I felt like we were charting new and important ground, doing something that was both intellectually and practically challenging, and had real-world impact. This spring, Congress finally overhauled the very outdated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976; this was an implicit recognition that California and other states had gotten way ahead of our national government in addressing toxics exposures.

During the same period that I was working on macro-level toxics issues, I was pursuing a variety of legal angles to address a very specific exposure threat: the emission of semi-volatile chemical flame retardant chemicals from upholstered furniture, which are known carcinogens and also increasingly demonstrated to be neurotoxins,