Kat Superfisky (MLA/MS ’13)
Urban Ecologist, City of Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California
What did it mean to you to be named a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow? What were some of the activities and opportunities that held the greatest impact for you?
While I was a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow, I helped to co-create an environmental art postcard contest for local K-12 students in the Ann Arbor area. Each year we selected an environmental theme and asked students to create (and mail to SEAS) a piece of art on a postcard related to that topic. We displayed the submissions in the Dana Building Commons for several weeks like a pop-up art gallery and asked SEAS students, faculty and staff to vote on which cards they liked the most. The first-, second- and third-place winners from multiple grade/age brackets were invited to a pizza party at the Dana Building, where they got a tour of the “green” features incorporated into the building (thanks to the TIES Program!) and got to dine and have discussions with the other fellows.
Each year the fellows were also able to select a winner that they thought particularly excelled at responding to the prompt…and I still have the postcard that I selected one year, and hang it on my wall wherever I work. It was a response to the “Wonderful Water” prompt and was a simple pencil line drawing that divided the white postcard into two halves horizontally. Each half of the postcard contained a hand-drawn outline of a cup—the cup on one side contained an ice cube, which was labeled “BEFORE,” and the other cup had waves of water drawn inside and was labeled “AFTER.” I appreciated the simplicity of the rendering and also the way that the student chose to think about and visually represent (in a humorous way) why water is so wonderful (because it can change states/forms in the course of its life and still be considered the same thing). But even more than that, the reason I have held on to this postcard for all these years is because of what the mother of that student shared with me during the pizza party/ceremony that year. She pulled me aside at the event to thank me for selecting her son’s submission as a winner, since she said that he had come home from school one day deflated because his teacher had returned the card to him and told him to redo the assignment because his was not “art.” He still chose to submit his original artwork, and I ended up choosing it as my favorite piece of art out of all the entries.
As someone who straddles the line between disciplines, sectors, genders, etc., not fitting neatly into one “box” is something that resonates with me, and something I hope to continue to inspire others to be open to/embracing of. As a fellow, I got a chance to be a source of encouragement for the next generations of world-changers to be themselves and approach life/work in ways that feel most natural to each unique individual.
Having somewhat atypical aspirations in the field of conservation (e.g. being both a scientist and designer and wanting to move to a city to “save the planet”) and being acknowledged by SEAS and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation as a future leader in my field helped to assure me that I could live my “true life” and work a little bit “outside of the box” and still make a positive impact on the world around me (since, let’s be honest, a box isn’t so good at solving problems anyway).
Can you tell us about your SEAS experience? How did it help you advance in the conservation field?
Pursuing both a Master of Science in Conservation Ecology (MS ’13) and a Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA ’13) exposed me to a wide range of courses and instructors at SEAS, which equipped me with the diverse knowledge and skills needed to enter the field of urban ecology and address some of the most “wicked” environmental challenges of our time.
The landscape-scale and ecological approach that I was taught at SEAS was truly priceless, and provided me with a unique perspective that I am honored to share with those I work with in my professional life as a practitioner and professor.
While I was a master’s student at SEAS, I had the opportunity to serve as a Graduate Student Instructor and Mentor (GSI/GSM), which helped me to realize the power and importance of being an educator, so much that I have continued to teach at the college level even after graduating from U-M and moving to Los Angeles (at institutions such as Cal Poly, UCLA and USC).
Additionally, my academic training at SEAS and my involvement with the Doris Duke Conservation Fellowship program connected me to colleagues in different cohorts/years at U-M as well as at other top environmental institutions across the country. I still utilize this network today and find myself referring to and benefitting from “the Michigan difference” often.
What kind of changes have you observed in land conservation in the U.S. over the course of your career?
Over the course of my professional career, I have seen and experienced an increasing acknowledgement of and focus on cities as places to address conservation strategies. When I graduated from SEAS in 2013 and moved to Los Angeles, I felt rather alone in my ambition to help “save the planet” by managing urban ecosystems, but have been thrilled to see the rise in this approach/perspective/field in the past decade.
I now live in the second largest urban area in the United States (Los Angeles) and work for the largest planning department in the country, and am doing what I can to apply my training from SEAS to help set a precedent for how some of the most developed parts of the world can address some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time.
Although it is not necessarily easy to address conservation in cities, doing so is essential for the health of the planet and for the health of us, as humans, who rely on the planet for our own existence. Working on environmental challenges in urban contexts provides the opportunity to connect a diverse range of people/demographics to this type of work, which further expands the much needed support for and stewardship of the planet.
Note: Prior to 2017, the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) was known as the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE). References to “SNRE” have been updated to “SEAS” to reflect the name change.