This Much I Know: Dr Cara Augustenborg, environmental scientist

I went to Hanford high school in the US, there is a joke that we all glow in the dark.
This Much I Know: Dr Cara Augustenborg, environmental scientist

Dr Cara Augustenborg. Picture: Scott Butner Ltd
Dr Cara Augustenborg. Picture: Scott Butner Ltd

I went to Hanford high school in the US, there is a joke that we all glow in the dark.

Hanford is a decommissioned nuclear power plant and my parents were working on the clean up. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear weapons.

We’d also lived in New Orleans, so, from a very young age I was conscious of huge environmental problems like water quality and hurricanes.

My father trained as an engineer with the US Airforce and my mother was a computer scientist so I always had a strong interest in science, engineering and maths.

I did a degree in biochemistry at the University of Washington, determined to work in the area of environment because it involves so much more than just science including, as it does, social justice, the creative arts and education.

My mother is from Kerry and I spent childhood summers on a farm outside Tralee. Having done a masters and doctorate in UCLA, I got a Fulbright scholarship to Teagasc in Wexford. And I’ve remained in Ireland ever since.

My work life balance isn’t great. I’d planned to get into academia but then the recession hit and there were no more openings. So, I work as a consultant.

That means sometimes I have to kill myself for three months working towards a deadline, and then I take a break.

I have always learned most from the rejections and truly believe that everything happens for a reason.

I go with my gut feelings on things which I know is very unscientific.

I am a planner. Mind Mapping is a useful tool and every year or so I use it to take an overview of my career.

My biggest challenge was dealing with the breakup of my marriage in 2016. It was particularly traumatic because I grew up in a very stable home.

What I couldn’t get over was how society treated me, having made that decision. I felt like a social outcast for a long period of time.

You learn who your friends are very quickly when you do something radical like that.

What keeps me sane is my involvement with the environmental movement, with people who share my values. They tend not to be so money focused.

In general, money is not important to me, as long as I have a house and good food.

My biggest extravagance is my electric car. It was a big deal for me to buy it but my old petrol car had died.

My physical fitness is on the back burner but I do manage a walk every day by the sea near my home in Bray Co Wicklow. I have a six year old girl.

My father died in February, luckily I was able to go to the funeral, but, I regret not having visited him last year. I had already cut down on flying by then.

I track my carbon footprint. I was feeling very burnt out and in desperate need of a break after his death when, low and behold, lockdown arrived and all my public speaking and other engagements have been cancelled for the foreseeable.

My biggest achievement was becoming a Member of President Higgins' Council of State, for my activism. That was huge because I’d got some criticism for being an academic who is also an activist.

If I could change one thing in our society, I would take over the airwaves for a week of non- stop climate content.

I understand that the media is locked into advertising but encouraging people to buy bamboo toothbrushes is not what I’m talking about - I mean looking at climate in the same way as we looked at Brexit, for example, where every single facet of life is reported on with a climate dimension.

My idea of misery would be working for a dirty industry.

My idea of bliss is having a home on Inishbofin. We go there every summer. It reminds me of Kerry years ago.

If I could be someone else for a day I’d be Barack Obama when he entered into the Paris Climate Agreement.

The best advice I ever received is that ‘good enough is good enough’.

The character traits I most admire are ambition, generosity and passion.

I’m not religious but I do have a feeling that there is something beyond this world.

So far life has taught me that we should try and leave the earth a little bit better than the way we found it.

Dr. Cara Augustenborg is an Environmental Policy Fellow at University College Dublin and Member of President Higgins' Council of State, recently awarded Ireland's Woman of Influence at the 2020 Irish Women's Awards. She co-hosts the Down To Earth slot with Ivan Yates every Tuesday evening from 6pm on Newstalk FM.

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