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Department: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Anderson Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Lauren Esposito Anderson ’98

Associate Sustainable Development Officer,
United Nations Secretariat

Exploring new opportunities

I entered Princeton in 1994, certain that I would go on to medical school. I chose ecology and evolutionary biology as a major course of study. It was a really diverse department, and in addition to completing all the requirements for medical school admission, I also studied animal behavior, evolution, and environmental science. I remember one professor—Andy Dobson—telling us in a lecture on infectious disease that if you wanted to save lives, you should be a plumber, not a doctor. He was referring, of course, to the millions of people who contract water-borne diseases and die every year from insufficient access to sanitation and potable water.

I decided to study abroad and spent my junior spring in Costa Rica, where I was introduced to life in a developing country. I stayed in Latin America that summer, doing thesis research while volunteering with a sea turtle conservation project. Living without electricity, running water, and basic sanitation made me realize firsthand that becoming a doctor was not the only way to make the world a better place.

A career in experimentation

Though I have not had a straight career path since graduating from Princeton in 1998, I have had an incredibly fulfilling and exciting adventure. I experimented with a lot of career options, including three Internet companies (including Google), an endangered species conservation foundation in the Indian Ocean, and a couple of academic think tanks. These undertakings led me to my current job with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), where I help support the economic, social, and environmental development of 45 small island countries. (Water and sanitation is just one of the many issues we address.)

Overall, I think it’s important to experiment, even at the expense of money and title, until you find what you are happiest doing. I also believe that a multidisciplinary approach to education and to life is really useful. Regardless of what you study, there will be many applications. A degree in ecology can just as easily lead to a career in medicine, as it can steer you into academia, or as in my case, the United Nations.

Learning how to learn

I was recently cleaning out my closet and found some of my old organic chemistry exams. I had to laugh because after the hundreds of hours of stress and tears I put into that class, I could never pass an exam armed with what I know now. But it’s not about remembering details that you don’t use every day—it’s about learning how to learn. Princeton taught me how to research, to write, and to analyze, and it gave me the confidence to tackle unfamiliar ground. I have relied on this academic base in every job I’ve ever held, as well as through graduate school. It’s important to note that the other courses I took also prepared me for a good and productive life—classes on opera, Buddhism, African politics, and ceramics contributed to a well-roundedness that I believe is the greatest asset in life.

“Regardless of what you study, there will be many applications. A degree in ecology can just as easily lead to a career in medicine, as it can steer you into academia, or as in my case, the United Nations.”