Alumni Profile: Bringing Science to the Legal Arena

John and the field team collecting fish as part of a water quality research project in Bolivia

A couple of years ago, Cathy Green and Dr. John Wear, the Center for the Environment’s director of operations and executive director, respectively, decided to go to a cafĂ© in Durham, NC, after a long day of interviews. They were sipping on coffee when a familiar face approached them to say hello: Summit alumnus and then-Duke University student John Hare-Grogg

John attended the National Environmental Summit in 2011, its first year, at a time when he still wasn’t sure where he saw his career going. However, he knew he was passionate about environmental issues, so upon learning about this opportunity in his home state of North Carolina, he included it in his summer plans. “I wasn’t totally sure what to expect,” he says. “It seemed like a great opportunity to go to Salisbury and learn about environmental issues and environmental leadership strategies for a few days. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened; I had a fantastic experience.” 

As part of the Summit, in which students are separated into smaller ‘focus groups’ to explore a topic of their choice, John joined Dr. Sue Calcagni’s group on aquatic pharmaceutical pollution. He had just taken AP Environmental Science at his high school before that summer, so he had a general understanding of environmental health issues, but he was unfamiliar with this particular topic. “That focus group was a real highlight of the Summit experience for me,” he says. “And that actually ended up inspiring my high school graduation project. I completed a research paper on the topic and facilitated a drug take-back drive, and Dr. Calcagni graciously agreed to mentor from afar.” 

John collecting water samples during his time working for a water chemistry laboratory as an undergraduate

The experience helped sustain his interests in environmental health, and upon graduating high school, he pursued a double major in Global Health and Environmental Science and Policy at Duke University. “As I moved into college, I became increasingly sure that environmental research, advocacy, and policy-making were areas that really appealed to me. So, in the time since, I have taken courses on environmental toxicology that elaborated on that initial introduction that Dr.C [Calcagni] taught.” 

During his time as an undergraduate, John also had the opportunity to participate in an internship working with EarthJustice, a San Francisco-based public interest environmental law organization. As part of this internship, he assisted in research that would ultimately help defend the rights of communities facing unjust environmental burdens, which often disproportionately fall upon communities of color or low-income communities. During this time, it became increasingly clear to him that he wanted to pursue environmental law. 

“The Summit helped to cultivate in me a sense of determination to take a leadership role on environmental issues. […To] think about how to work with solutions like that was really inspiring and helped me move from a place of maybe feeling futility or just pessimism about environmental issues, toward being able to feel like I could really claim a leadership role on those issues.[…] It definitely was influential.” 

Shortly after graduating from Duke, he began working with the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), a non-profit organization based in Washington DC that performs research and outreach on environmental law and policy. “Environmental toxicology and environmental health research can be used to bring about solutions in the policy and legal arena,” John says. “For my part, I think about this as bringing some of the information that I learned at the Summit and elsewhere, which was already a bit interdisciplinary, into a more practical, solutions-oriented way of thinking. And sort of thinking about how to find my particular role within the environmental sphere, which I see as bringing science to bear upon policy.”

John with Duke University Professor Deborah Gallagher at the UN Global
Compact event at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris

To students thinking about attending the Summit, John says, “It was a fantastic experience. And I think for students who are kind of exploring what they might see as their calling in life, I think it would be really helpful to attend this. Because you don’t necessarily have to go into a career in environmental law or environmental science or something like that to be a person who can affect change on environmental issues. And I think that the summit was really helpful in clarifying that.” 

In the fall, John will be heading to the West Coast to pursue a JD from Stanford University, and intends to practice environmental law.