Sustainability Spotlight: Kate and Laura Nicholson, sisters and ASB site leaders

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In a first-ever for the Sustainability Spotlight series, we’re featuring two students instead of one. We met with sisters Kate (McMurtry ’16) and Laura Nicholson (McMurtry '18) to talk about their experiences organizing a water-themed Alternative Spring Break trip to California, their environmental interests, Laura’s dreams of driving an RV full of chickens, and their mother. A companion article describes their trip in greater detail.

Richard Johnson: Where are you from and what are your majors?

Laura Nicholson: So, we're both from St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Kinesiology major.

Kate Nicholson: I’m also from St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m an Environmental Science and Latin American Studies major. I’m also trying to figure out how to get my Civil and Environmental Engineering BA, but we’re still working that out.

Richard Johnson: Do you spend a lot of time outdoors in Minnesota?

Kate Nicholson: We try to. We were really lucky to grow up in Minnesota where there are lots of lakes, so we grew up by a lake. We would spend most of our time either down at the beach or just out in our yard. We had a pretty big yard where we could play. I guess our family isn’t super into camping, but somehow we got into camping. Our dad isn’t a super outdoorsman, which is probably why the family isn’t a camping family. But we would go winter camping with our school over winter break every year. We would dogsled around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota and camp in the -30 degree winters. You’re dying, but it was so fun. We did that every year for like 5 or 6 years.

Richard Johnson: This is straight out of A Prairie Home Companion.

Laura Nicholson: It was super fun, because we did it for so many years. We really got to know the family that ran the business Adventure Company.

Kate Nicholson: We would go winter camping and get to ski, which was really cool. That was mostly why we ended up joining the Nordic ski team in high school. In Minnesota, Nordic skiing is a major high school sport. You either do basketball, hockey or Nordic skiing, but our school didn’t have hockey. It was a really cool way of being outdoors even in the winter when there’s just snow everywhere. Most people only go outside between their house and their car.

Laura Nicholson: Or just pre-heat the car in the garage so you don’t even have to go outside. It was a really good way to appreciate nature all year round.

Richard Johnson: So how did you first become interested in environmental issues? Was it all the time you spent outside?

Laura Nicholson: Well, I think it definitely started with our mother and how we were raised back in Minnesota. We were always outside and appreciating nature. Our mom was always interested in the environment and raised us with the mentality that the environment is something really important and something worth protecting. For example, we were often late to school because we’d stop to pick up a turtle that was crossing the road and had drop him off at the rehabilitation center. Things like that - there was always an assortment of animals that were in our car.

Kate Nicholson: I don’t think I realized that we were exceptional or that this wasn’t totally normal. It seemed normal to be really conscious of the environment, to always recycle, and to do lots of things outdoors. But then, it really would hit home when mom would come to school and do the garbage sorting.

Laura Nicholson: Oh my God. It was so embarrassing.

Kate Nicholson: She would put on her plastic gloves and dissect all of the trash from the cafeteria. She would go through and take out all of the uneaten fruits, all the unopened cartons of milk, all the utensils and silverware -

Laura Nicholson: She’d be like, “Look at what you’re throwing away!” She’d count everything up and be like, “There were 200 milk cartons that were thrown away.” She’d do this for a week.

Kate Nicholson: She would have a competition between the elementary school, middle school and high school because we had all three in the same building. It was this annual thing called “Garbage Week.” It was mortifying at first, and then I was like “Actually, this is really cool.”

Richard Johnson: So does she have an environmental job or is this just a passion of hers?

Kate Nicholson: Before she got married in her younger days, she worked for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and later worked for Cargill. But she’s always had a passion for this kind of stuff. Now, she doesn’t work officially, but she’s a community volunteer.

Laura Nicholson: She’s really involved in the United States Garden Club and is the conservation liaison for them. She’s always in DC nowadays. I call her up and she’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m in DC lobbying for something or other for the environment.” So she’s doing a lot of work with them right now.

Richard Johnson: Do you see yourselves becoming your mother?

Laura Nicholson: My childhood dream was to not become my mother. She was so embarrassing.

Kate Nicholson: What happened to your childhood dream of traveling around the world in an RV with chickens?

Laura Nicholson: That was the other dream. I wanted to travel around in my RV and be a wildlife veterinarian, and I’d have chickens in my RV. It was pretty great. I don’t know if that’s still my path, but hey! It’s still an option. When it comes to turning into our mother, I think we kind of inadvertently are. The more and more I looked at my own interests and where we were going in our lives, I realized we are our mother’s daughters. We really have followed a lot of the same path.

Kate Nicholson: She tries to encourage us to follow our dreams and follow our passions. I’m currently planning on taking a gap year next year. I want to go and get my MPH with an environmental focus. So in my gap year, I’m going to look for an opportunity to study environmental justice issues.

Richard Johnson: Right. So I was going to ask since you’re dangerously close to graduation, what your plans were. So what’s leading you to go in that Master of Public Health direction?

Kate Nicholson: I thought about looking into an environmental science program with a sociology focus, but I think MPH is a more structured way to get into the kinds of fields I probably want to get into eventually. But it’s still kind of up in the air.

Richard Johnson: Laura - What about you? I know graduation is a little further away for you but what direction do you hope to go after you graduate?

Laura Nicholson: Well I’m actually trying to leave things open at the moment. I’m doing both tracks with EBIO and Kinesiology, because like Kate, I think the connection between human health and the environment is really important. Though I’m not totally sure which direction I want to go yet.

Richard Johnson: You’ve recently led an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip about water in California, so how did you become interested specifically in the issue of water?

Kate Nicholson: I guess for me it goes back to growing up on a lake. I’ve always just loved being in the water. I’ve always done swimming, even in high school. I love the ocean. But then, I guess I got more interested in it when I took my CEVE 412 hydrology class and learned more about the nuances of hydrology and water management. Water as a resource is more than just something that we consume every day or something that we go swimming in.

Laura Nicholson: Once we heard the news of what was going on in California with the drought, we got really interested in what was happening there. Part of ASB is looking at a social issue, so we really wanted to look at the connection between how this involves environment and how it is also a social issue. It was really interesting, because people don’t really realize how connected we are to our environment. People are like, “Oh yeah… it’s good to save the environment.” But people don’t realize it affects your own life and so many other people’s lives. It’s all interconnected.

Richard Johnson: We’ve devoted an article specifically to describe the Alternative Spring Break trip studying the drought in California, but what are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned from the trip?

Laura Nicholson: I would have to say definitely the interconnectedness of everything. We looked at so many different places and different aspects of water in California. We went to San Francisco, where it’s right on the coast and it seems like there’s plenty of water. We went up to this small community in Forest Hill where it seemed like they had a supply of water, but they couldn’t afford it, and they were sending the water elsewhere, and selling it off before they could pay for it and have their own water. Then going down into the Central Valley where the water was really needed but there wasn’t as much access to it. Looking at all these different places and realizing that everyone needs it, but not knowing how to divide it up. Then comes the balance between caring for the environment, having enough water for people to drink, and having enough for people to grow food. It’s just a really interesting challenge.

Kate Nicholson: Going along with the interconnectedness and the importance of water in general, it was amazing to talk to so many people. A lot of our trip was trying to learn their perspective. Literally every single person we talked to had such a strong opinion to give about water. It was fascinating to see it on the news, and then see that it’s even more of an issue in real life. I didn’t expect everyone to have such a strong opinion. Even just having random people we talked to say “Oh yeah, I tried to do this and that to conserve water.” It was fascinating and awesome.

Laura Nicholson: People would really surprise you if you just ask. It really added a lot to our experience and our understanding of the whole water issue to hear so many perspectives.

Richard Johnson: How about the students’ perspective? What sort of feedback did you get from the students who went on the trip? Was this a transformative moment or not?

Laura Nicholson: It was really spectacular watching it honestly. The students who went were all very much Rice students - they’re all very into it and passionate and driven. Coming in, they wanted to learn and knew the basics. We had Davinia Rodriguez-Wilhelm from the Office of Academic Advising with us as well, and what she said was really true: just watch how people talk about it. Like from the beginning, the conversations and questions people would ask. Then, seeing how much it changed all the way till the end of the week. It was pretty amazing because people had such insightful questions and you could see the transformation of how their understanding of the whole issue really developed, and their passion for it too. It was really inspiring.

Richard Johnson: So would you advocate that students should go on these kinds of trips for spring break then instead of taking a cruise to the Cayman Islands?

Kate Nicholson: Absolutely, I don’t think I’ve learned more in a week in my entire life. I wish everyone could do it.

Laura Nicholson: It was definitely great. I really wish they could expand the program more for everyone to be able to go on these kinds of trips. It’s spectacular for site leaders to learn about the planning process, because it’s a very long process. It’s definitely worth it. I think it’s really important that more environmental trips become part of the Alternative Spring Break program so that students can see how connected they are to the environment and why it’s important to protect it.

Kate Nicholson: And how the environment is also a social justice issue. A lot of times people won’t draw that connection. In some instances, it’s a lot more obvious than others. If you’re looking at access to water, it’s a little more obvious than protection of coral reefs - which was a trip Laura went on previously.

Laura Nicholson: I feel like so many people care about the environment but they don’t really know how to take a more active role in it. I think there’s a gap between the people that are “the environmental people” and everyone else. But everyone should be an environmental person because it pertains to absolutely everyone. It’s something that everyone should care about. I’m still trying to figure out what the best kind of way is to encourage people to get more involved.

Kate Nicholson: Going back to the ASB program, I think that ASBs are a good way for people to try to get more engaged with social issues and environmental issues. So I’m hoping that there will be more environmental trips to come.

Richard Johnson: What other environmental issues do you follow closely?

Laura Nicholson: We learned a lot about forest management on the trip. Just look at how it’s gone from “Stop all forest fires” and Smokey the Bear to nowadays where it’s much more important to learn proper forest management and to conduct controlled burns. So that’s an issue that I find really important. But also - just species conservation in general. How pesticides and different companies are affecting species is really interesting to me.

Kate Nicholson: As I mentioned earlier, I have a lot of interest in environmental justice - which was kind of the theme of our trip. Looking at climate change and how it is disproportionately affecting different kinds of populations like island populations and lower income communities in urban settings. As well as pollution and how that is disproportionately affecting different populations. Those are all like very important to me and I try to follow those kinds of things.

Richard Johnson: Do you think you’ll ever organize another Alternative Spring Break trip or are you out of that business now?

Laura Nicholson: Well, there’s a possibility. I’m planning on studying abroad next year, so maybe senior year. I’m definitely hoping to be a participant. Probably for my senior year, I’ll go on another trip that’s environmentally focused. It was definitely a really long experience, and I would definitely do it again. But I’m excited for other people to also have that experience.

Richard Johnson: That’s reasonable. So what advice would you give to other students who would like to lead a trip like yours?

Laura Nicholson: I’d say to really research topics and figure out why you want to do what you want to do and why it’s important to go where you’re going to go. That’s where you’ll really find your passion for it and why you really care about it. There’ll be a lot of stressful moments in the planning process. If you’re able to go back to “why am I doing this?” and “what is the purpose?” it can be a really great stabilizer and push you forward.

Kate Nicholson: Yeah definitely. I guess going on with that too, rely on your co-leader because you’re doing it together. You can learn a lot from each other in the process and you can learn a lot about yourself, about your team and about the social issue.

Richard Johnson: Can you see yourselves working together in the future or was this it, did you decide after the Alternative Spring Break, no more?

Laura Nicholson: It’s definitely a unique experience working with your sister. It has its pros and cons for sure. I’m definitely glad we did it. It was a really fun experience. That’d be really cool. Who knows? Maybe.

Kate Nicholson: Oh yeah, I’d love that. I mean - I’m going to miss her for the next few years. We’re going our separate ways, but I hope we can come back together eventually.