Sara Soderstrom

FACULTY – Director of Program in the Environment (PitE)

I grew up in a family of Wolverines. My parents met here.  My dad was starting med school and my mom was an Undergraduate Transfer, and they were up in Bursley cafeteria as the non first year students finding each other and hanging out. So I grew up coming down for athletic events, and then ended up coming here for [school]. And…how do I say this…My parents were also hippies. My dad, on the one hand, took a very traditional job: he was a dermatologist. And on the other hand, he maintained his hippie-ness through his life and so he was really involved in environmental activism from the lens of health care. I have vivid memories as an elementary school student of going to protests and events across the state on two issues. One was around Mercury in the Great Lakes and health risks, especially to mothers and children around that, and I would get schlepped around to hear my dad talk about it from that space. [So] I remember talking about global warming, as a kid, and [being] part of those conversations. It was just always kind of there.

[When I got to Michigan], I did chemical engineering as an undergrad, and then I did a dual Master’s in chemical engineering and environmental engineering. I actually started thinking I was going to do a PhD in Engineering, and was really interested in questions of how engineering can be used to address environmental issues. So that was the big reason for me to do both the chemical and the environmental engineering. But at the time, most of my work was focused on remediation. Thinking about ‘how do we take care of contaminated spaces?’ and I was much more interested in ‘how do we prevent this from happening in the first place?’

[Eventually] I pivoted into work more on the business and organizational side of things, [questions like] how do you approach developing a strategy for change and then how do you implement for change? [I worked in that space] for four years first, with almost nothing to do with sustainability–just needed to stay in the area because of family reasons. I was married, and my husband was finishing his PhD here and that was what worked.  Then we had our first child and I wanted to feel like I was in a role where I was doing more for positive social change. [I] felt like going back into an academic space where I could be teaching and doing research would be a way of managing that. So rightly or wrongly, it was at that point that I pivoted back for a PhD. Went to Northwestern’s business school, the Kellogg School of Management, [and earned my doctorate] in management organizations, but still focused on sustainability.

And then, as I was in the second year of my postdoc, there was this posting for a job that was a joint faculty position between organizational studies and program in the environment. And I still remember the morning that I saw the email come through like ‘here’s this posting, please start applying’ and showing it to my husband. [I told him] ‘Could there have been a job better written for me?’ It gave me this ability to be working at the intersection of both identities as a sustainability scholar and an organizational scholar and not feeling like I had to be fighting to justify one or the other. I think there were other places that I could have done that for my research, [but] what was really unique about the position here was the ability to do that with my teaching.”

“I do feel like one of the challenges with climate change is the fact that it often does seem far away to people. When we think about being in the US, it seems far away, both temporally and geographically. Yet, the more recent extreme weather events, the more recent changes, [and] the bigger conversation about climate change in multiple spaces, I think, is shifting the expectations and the conversations. It’s just always this risk of ‘is it fast enough?’ And as someone who studies organizational change and knows how difficult it can be, it’s something I still grapple with. I think in the climate space, there’s often a conversation that I find particularly frustrating around climate efforts and climate justice…this idea that ‘oh, we need to fix climate change, and then we’ll deal with injustice.’ But I know that if we’re not addressing climate injustice, then we’re not addressing climate change and we can’t be thinking of a solution that solves a temperature part of it [but] exacerbates a social climate injustice. That’s not the solution. And if we can innovate enough to figure out that, then we need to be innovating enough to be thinking about it in a just way. And decoupling those two is something I’m often incredibly frustrated with in conversations. Yet, I still am hopeful.

I think often about imagining yourself having a role in that change. So often, [I’ve] worked with colleagues who talk about it like this, ‘others should’ trap, right? Where to avoid having to make changes ourselves, we just talked about what others should be doing. And so it’s not that I need to do something, it’s that President Ono needs to do something or Dean Curzan needs to do something or, you know, Governor Whitmer needs to do something or President Biden or whoever it is, it’s someone else who should be doing it. And, yes, there’s plenty that others should be doing. My work [has shown] how powerful people inside [an] organization can be in driving that change, but we need everyone else doing the work because [they] can’t do it alone. [So] what is it that I can do? That you can do? I think the cultural shift that is making an expectation to be discussing [and] thinking about doing efforts around climate and sustainability is not insignificant and is continuing to grow. 

I talk often about one of the climate writers I like, Mary Heglar, and she has this one piece, where she basically is articulating: We need people everywhere, focusing on addressing climate, so figure out the intersection of what you’re good at, what motivates you, and do it. And it doesn’t matter if that’s a different space than it is for anyone else. We need you everywhere. And so, that’s what I keep trying to tell students like, I’m not going to judge your path on this. I’ve gone through a lens of what I would do, but I’m very comfortable with you picking a different path. Whatever your path is, I want you thinking more about how to make this a more just and sustainable future, right?”

As part of the LSA Year of Sustainability, LSA Dean’s Fellow Cherish Dean sat down with a range of students, staff, and faculty across the University to illustrate the various relationships people across campus already have to this work, to showcase ways people can get involved, and to highlight the reasons that this work should matter.

To view an abbreviated transcript of Cherish’s full conversation with Sara, click here.

Cherish can be reached at To contact the LSA Year of Sustainability Team as a whole, please contact

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