Since graduating from Rabun Gap, James earned his PhD in Earth Sciences and now works as an applied climatologist. He talks about how Rabun Gap helped prepare him for college, his career, and what he hopes for the school in the future.
Tell us what you have been up to since leaving Rabun Gap? college, job, location, family, life changes?
To start with the professional side, after graduating Rabun Gap in 2007, I attended college at Emory University, graduating in 2011 with a BS in environmental studies. From 2011-2016, I was in graduate school at the University of California Santa Cruz where I earned my PhD in Earth Sciences with a focus in coastal hazards. In the following few years, I worked as a Postdoctoral Researcher at UC Santa Cruz and U.S. Geological Survey, eventually making my way to Philadelphia, PA where I worked in an engineering firm on projects related to coastal hazards, waterfront structures, and ports operation/construction. Most Recently (2021), I moved to New Jersey and started working as an applied climatologist for the New Jersey Climate Change Resource Center at Rutgers University.
Personally, I’ve moved around a bit, Georgia to California to Pennsylvania to New Jersey. I’m hoping to settle here in New Jersey long term. I also got married in October of 2019, just before all of the COVID stuff. My wife is also a geoscientist, she specializes in hydrology, water resources, and watersheds. We met in graduate school and moved together from California to the northeast to be closer to family.
How did Rabun Gap help to prepare you or influence your future goals?
Rabun Gap prepared me for college, full stop. The skills in studying and time management I developed at Rabun Gap along with the discipline I learned in my studies served me very well in college and beyond. In college, many of my peers were not well prepared for the level of effort, dedication, and necessary time management it took to succeed academically. Many people learned those skills on the fly and did well, but I felt ahead of the curve as I already had developed those tools at Rabun Gap. To a large degree, I still rely on those tools today in my research, more polished over the years, but fundamentally learned in high school.
A more personal aspect is how I envision my work through the lens of service to my community. I’ll admit it took a while for it to sink in how much service to my community and to the global community meant to me. After I left Rabun Gap I really noticed how much I appreciated the work of people in service to beneficial goals larger than themselves, especially because that mentality was not as common in the world as I saw at Rabun Gap. While I now work in the sciences, particularly climate change science, I see my work as contributing to a larger public good, in line with the importance of service I saw at Rabun Gap. I ensure that my work is relevant and applicable to my community. Here in New Jersey I work with emergency planners, farmers, and municipalities to help them prepare for an uncertain future.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Rabun Gap?
My favorite memory (or maybe memories) looking back was being a part of the swim team. It was fun, exhilarating, and Mr. Ivy Stiles (then the Latin Teacher) was a blast as the coach.
Is there a specific faculty member, coach, or dorm parent who had a particular important impact on you?
Mr. Stiles had a great impact on me as the coach of the swim team. I think I picked up his sense of humor over the years. Otherwise, Woody Malot instilled a wonder of science in me. And it probably helped that I was in the first group of students to work with Woody to make bio diesel from the dining hall’s used fry oil and he almost always had a fun science related project going on.
What advice do you have for current Rabun Gap students that you wish someone told you during your time at school?
The work can seem hard at times, but it pays off in dividends later. It is good to learn how to work in a disciplined manner for a larger goal. That did not really settle with me until senior year, but the perspective would have really helped me out earlier in high school.
Appreciate the community. Rabun Gap was a welcoming place for me, and in my travels, I have not found a place quite like it.
What are your hopes for Rabun Gap in the next 10-20 years?
I haven’t kept up with it in recent years, but continued academic rigor is a high hope for me. I also hope it continues to be a pillar of the community in Rabun and a beacon of diversity. That exposure to peers from other places, countries, and walks of life was extremely important to me in my time at Rabun Gap, and I hope it will continue.