Sustainability Spotlight: Bethany Fowler, President of RES

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We met with Bethany Fowler (Jones ‘17) to discuss oceans, becoming an environmentalist, and powderpuff football, amongst other topics. Bethany serves as the President of the Rice Environmental Society and in that role is helping to organize a conference on sustainable cities. She is also the former president and co-founder of the Rice Oceans Club.  


As a resident of the “Ocean State” of Rhode Island, did you spend a lot of time on the water when you were growing up?

BF: Definitely — at least in the summer. My mom loves the beach, so she would take me to swim, and I’d collect hermit crabs and clam shells. As I got older, I got into surfing, and then in high school I spent seven weeks living on a sailboat. We had a captain and two mates, but eight students were the crew. We sailed from Rhode Island to the Bahamas, where we tagged Green Turtles for the University of Florida. That was my first taste of marine biology, and, even though I was seasick the entire time, I would do it again in a heartbeat.  


How did you become involved in environmental issues at Rice?  

BF: It was during my sophomore year. I was a math major considering an arts double major, but I decided to take Coral Reef Ecology with Dr. Adrienne Correa — just for fun really. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but I realized that if I loved marine biology, I should pursue marine biology. It’s obvious in retrospect.  

Anyway, while I was in the class, the professor sent out an email asking if anyone was interested in starting an Oceans Club. I responded and helped out with the club registration process. Our team was so fun and full of energy — I just got caught up in it. We planned a couple of events, and by the end of the semester, I was elected president.


What is the mission of the Rice Oceans Club, and how do students become involved?  

BF: The Rice Oceans Club (ROC) serves two main purposes. The first is simply fostering ocean-appreciation. The second is educating the public on the major threats to ocean ecosystems, namely pollution, ocean acidification, and overfishing. If anyone is interested in learning cool things about the ocean, in going on SCUBA or cleanup trips, or in helping to educate people about oceans, they should contact the current president, Lauren Howe-Kerr [].


Was there a particular moment when you felt that you had become “an environmentalist”?

BF: I spent a summer doing research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, near San Diego. I knew that the scientists at Scripps would be informed about environmental issues, but I was surprised to see San Diego’s surfing community at the forefront of their own environmental movement. That was really inspiring. I came back to school with a whole new set of ideas for Oceans Club and a few new professional goals. Research is important, but in order to have an impact, it needs to be paired with widespread public education and individual action. I want to be a part of that, too.  


And your family’s reaction…?

BF: They’re working on it. We never recycled when I was a kid, but now they do. I made reusable grocery bags for them for Christmas, but they’ll still forget to bring them to the store when I’m not home. We all stopped eating tuna. Every once in awhile, I’ll call upset because “the planet is dying”, but I think they’re happy I found something I’m passionate about.


Are there particular books or documentaries that were influential in shaping your environmental interests?

BF: Being from the Boston area, there was a lot of talk about Cod” by Mark Kurlansky. “Cod” is one of the classic examples of a fishery that completely collapsed from overexploitation, but most people have no idea. The book follows the whole history of cod — cultural, economic, culinary. It’s a surprisingly engaging read.

The other piece I’d say influenced me a lot was a photography series. I would encourage everyone to look up Chris Jordan’s “Midway” project. His work is haunting, and it tells an important story.


You are now head of the Rice Environmental Society (RES).  What is RES?

BF: We call RES an umbrella organization, since its role is to coordinate between our members, 20 independent clubs and student-run businesses that promote environmentalism at Rice. The leaders of the member organizations meet to share what they are working on, look for ideas, or request resources. The result is greater efficiency and collaboration across campus.

Additionally, RES has its own funding that we give out for what we call Sustainability Initiatives. If any group or individual at Rice wants to do something to promote sustainability, they can fill out an application and we’ll provide the resources we can to make it happen. We’ve brought speakers to campus, funded art installations, and replaced light bulbs. All ideas are welcome!


Tell us about the upcoming RES conference.  What’s it about?  When and where is it?  Who should attend?

BF: February 4, RES is hosting its first Sustainability Conference, and the theme is “Cities and Sustainability”. Our goal is to bring together the variety of people working towards sustainability at Rice and in Houston. This means students, staff, and faculty from all departments and representatives from local companies and non-profits. RES is founded on the merits of collaboration, so my hope is that everyone who attends this conference will learn something outside their expertise.

The event is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the RMC Grand Hall, admission is free, and we encourage guests to come for whatever sessions they can. In the morning, students will have time to get to know our guests and sponsors over coffee. Then, after lunch, we'll begin a series of research presentations on topics such as transportation, green space, and climate change. Those interested can read more at our website or look up our Facebook event.


You will be graduating in just a few months.  What are your plans for life after Rice?

BF: Nothing is set in stone yet. I had an internship last summer at an aquarium in Rhode Island, and that was a very rewarding job for me. I’d love to spend some more time working in environmentalism or education before getting back into research.


Finally, completely unrelated to environmental topics, we understand that you are on the all-star team for powderpuff football representing Jones College. Tell us about your Rice football career.

BF:  I’ve played powderpuff for Jones since my freshman year, and I’ve been a receiver for most of that time. I grew up playing football with my dad, brother and (all male) cousins at Thanksgiving, but it was great to come to Rice and join a team of strong, talented women. Although it’s a little odd to be practicing with a new team, the All-Star game will be a fun way to end my powderpuff career at Rice.