Colby’s Climate-Change Superstar

Stacy-ann Robinson’s student-driven work is earning recognition across the globe

Since Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Stacy-ann Robinson arrived at Colby in 2019, she has published 23 research papers, 12 of which were written with Colby students.
By Deirdre Fleming
September 28, 2022

Elijah Bertan ’23 called Stacy-ann Robinson a “superstar.” Cindy Nguyen ’20 said her former professor and mentor was a “superwoman.”

People at Colby have known the assistant professor of environmental studies was a rock star since she arrived on campus three years ago to teach international environmental policy and global climate policy. But Robinson’s proclivity for publishing research on climate change—and doing so frequently with her undergraduate students—now has many more experts across the country paying attention to her work.

In June, the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences awarded Robinson its prestigious Early Career Award, partly because of how prolific she has been publishing research just five years after attaining her Ph.D. on global environmental change at the Australian National University. The Early Career Award is among the most competitive of the association’s awards, given to the next generation of leaders.

A week later, Robinson got word that Colby had been recommended for observer status in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the College is making plans to send its first delegation to the climate negotiations in Egypt in November. Robinson coordinated the application and plans to integrate the opportunity into her teaching to provide more real-world experience in international policy for students. 

“I am very invested,” Robinson said. “One of my colleagues made a joke that I put everyone to work—the fact I am able to publish with students one or two years out of high school. My colleagues find that really interesting. If a student has an interest in islands, I can make it work.”

While on sabbatical during this academic year Robinson will conduct research at the University of Pennsylvania, where she has a fellowship at Perry World House, UPenn’s center for research, international exchange, and public outreach on global issues. She plans to study the financing mechanisms for loss and damage among Small Island Developing States, which have slightly less than 1 percent of the world’s population but face unique social, economic, and environmental challenges because of climate change.

“I don’t have all the solutions, so I integrate students into the decision-making. As a teacher it’s really important for me because these decisions in research can have real-world impacts that can be exponentially good or bad.”

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Stacy-ann Robinson

Already since she arrived at Colby in 2019, Robinson has published 23 research papers, including seven that were cited in the Sixth Assessment Report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading global report on the status of climate science. And of those 23 papers, more than half—or 12—were written with Colby students.

A leading climate-change researcher called Robinson’s acumen at publishing with her students “impressive and challenging.”

Certainly, other professors publish with undergraduate students, but Robinson’s propensity for creating opportunities for collaboration with her students is unusual, said Todd Eisenstadt, the research director of American University’s Center for Environmental Policy and the author of several books on climate change.

Undergraduate students often lack research experience, Eisenstadt said, but Robinson finds opportunities for them, and then carefully guides them. 

“Stacy-ann empowers them with training and with extensive supervision, and I think she delineates exactly what the undergraduates need to do. And then she makes that request a reasonable one,” Eisenstadt said. “She is a leading researcher. And I think that gives an extra weight, an extra gravitas to her pronouncements in the classroom. Her work informs research and policy around the world.”

Robinson teaches on the fairness of climate-change policy, particularly as it relates to Small Island Developing States. But the motivation behind her teachings in the classroom runs far deeper for the Jamaican native.

As a contributing author of chapter 15 (Small Islands) in Working Group II’s contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, Robinson advocates for equitable climate-change policies and weaves that real-life work into classroom discussions and assignments. Then when the opportunity presents—and Robinson does all she can to facilitate that happening—she mentors students in publishing research that explores injustices around climate change.

CarbonBrief, a news source for climate-change negotiators and policymakers, recently quoted Robinson about financing options to cover damage and loss associated with climate change and the responsibility of developed countries.

During her sabbatical, Robinson will continue working closely with the Colby students with whom she is conducting research. She describes her role with them as “a true collaborator.”

“I don’t have all the solutions, so I integrate students into the decision-making,” Robinson said. “As a teacher it’s really important for me because these decisions in research can have real-world impacts that can be exponentially good or bad. If I’m working with a student on a paper, I’m not going to decide what journal to send it to. We collaborate. I’m teaching the students to navigate that.”

Students past and present describe Robinson as tough, demanding, even intimidating—at least at first.

Bertan took Robinson’s 200-level course on international environmental policy last fall and described his impression of her in the first class as one of awe mixed with dread. “She started going through all the group projects that would happen through the semester. It was sort of overwhelming,” he said.

But the first time Bertan stopped in Robinson’s office to ask for feedback, she greeted him with a keen interest in his ideas. Now the two are working on research that looks at litigating loss and damage from sea-level rise due to climate change at the global level.

“When you consider small-island developing countries that have (virtually) no carbon footprint are going to be the first to go, how could it not speak to me?” Bertan said. “We meet (on Zoom) once a week and discuss the write-ups and what she wants next week. It’s very simple. And if I send her an email, it’s crazy how quickly she responds. She’s the best.”

Nguyen, a former student who now works with the Rocky Mountain Institute on climate finance for Small Island Developing States, said meeting Robinson’s standards and publishing papers with her was daunting, but exhilarating. “We love her. We are in awe of her,” said Nguyen, who published two articles with Robinson while at Colby.

“She’s quite hard, and quite tough, but she definitely cares about us academically and professionally. She identifies the opportunities so students can get the most out of their education, to challenge themselves.”

Cindy Nguyen ’20

Robinson’s team approach resonated with D’Arcy Carlson ’21. A quiet student, Carlson often avoided raising her hand in class. But Robinson quickly saw Carlson’s skill for writing and helped her find her voice as a climate-change expert. As a result, Carlson was the lead author on one of four papers the two published together while she was at Colby.

“Usually, it’s the people who are louder who get asked if they want to go for it. Collaborating with her helped me gain confidence in trusting what I’m doing, and that what I want to contribute does have significant value,” Carlson said.

Now a climate researcher in Washington, D.C., working for the consulting firm ICF, Carlson looks back with gratitude at the encouragement Robinson offered—and still offers her. The two just published their fifth research paper together.

“I went to Colby with more of a science vision of what my future would be like. She helped me realize I could come at it from the policy side, and how much my writing can be a part of that,” Carlson said. “That’s something I do in my work now: translating important information, whether at the science level or the climate-policy level. I translate all of that to a general audience. And I now get that important information out there.”