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Isabelle Galko’s environmental activism sparked study of policy change

SMU News

SMU senior environmental science major Isabelle Galko is one of just 41 American university students named a Marshall Scholar for 2022, a prestigious opportunity to pursue graduate studies in the UK for distinguished young Americans with leadership potential.

The only student from a Texas university to receive the honor, Isabelle will use the two-year scholarship to further her studies on climate and policymaking at both Oxford and Durham Universities in England.

From the beaches of Australia to the bayous of Louisiana, Isabelle finds her inspiration in the places where water meets land. The Austin native spent part of her childhood in Australia, where she learned to love snorkeling near the coral reefs, then studied abroad on the North Island of New Zealand and conducted research on the sinking wetlands of southern Louisiana.

“My personal experiences spark my drive to make a difference, but approaching environmental issues from the public policy perspective gives me hope of affecting change,” Isabelle says. “As a Marshall Scholar, I plan to use my time in the UK to link science with effective policy and gain a British perspective for future policymaking.”

SMU nominated Isabelle for the Marshall Scholars program, which was established in 1953 by the British government to express thanks to the United States for aid received under the Marshall Plan after World War II. The award is considered second only to the Rhodes Scholarship in prestige. Isabelle is SMU’s third Marshall Scholar – the first at SMU was Rebekah Hurt in 2005, the second was Rahfin Faruk in 2016.

“Isabelle is passionate about the environment and determined to improve our planet,” says Isabelle’s mentor, Diana Newton, director of the Tower Scholars program at SMU’s Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs. “She brings intellectual curiosity to her studies and will dive into her graduate work with the same enthusiasm,” says Newton, who also serves as senior fellow and the Colin Powell Teaching Fellow at the center.

As a Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar, Isabelle also is pursuing a selective multidisciplinary minor in public policy and international affairs that enables students from a variety of backgrounds to combine their academic interests with experience in public policy. She also is a recipient of a President’s Scholarship, a four-year full scholarship awarded to the University’s top students.

Isabelle grew up enjoying camping and outdoor activities. She describes her family as one that likes to “go for it.” When her father was offered a job in Australia, the family made the move. There, as a 10-year-old, Isabelle fell in love with the life that thrives under the ocean. As a teenager, after her family moved back to Austin, Isabelle became involved with Families in Nature, an outdoor education program that encourages families to explore nature together. As an intern there, she guided camping trips, banded birds and taught conservation workshops.

She also learned more about what she calls the “not happy side” of environmental science, the death of habitats due to climate change. As a high school student she created a documentary about declining coral reefs in Florida, with the help of a grant from Families in Nature, learning to scuba dive and create underwater videos in the process. Her work on the film opened doors to other opportunities, such as serving on panels and speaking to groups, including participants at the 2018 Our Ocean Conference in Bali.

SMU’s President’s Scholarships provide up to one year of international study – Isabelle spent most of her sophomore year continuing her environmental science studies in New Zealand, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to return home.

“I marched in climate protests in Auckland and spoke to community members when I visited the Cook Islands, which are shrinking due to climate change,” she says. “I thought outreach and individual actions could change the fate of ecosystems and coastal communities.”

But Tower Center internships, policy seminars and opportunities to work with real-world clients, like a privately-owned American oil company and the City of Dallas, shifted Isabelle’s focus.

As an intern for the city’s Office of Environmental Quality and Sustainability, Isabelle worked on a proposal to create a solar farm on a South Dallas landfill, which could provide affordable electricity to nearby residents. She found herself on the opposite side of local environmentalists who were concerned that the solar panels would disrupt a natural habitat.

“We had to bring everyone together to talk about creating a solar farm that was wildlife-friendly and supported a natural habitat,” she said.

“Isabelle appreciates a diversity of viewpoints,” Newton says. “The ability to bring others into decision-making will stand her in good stead.”

Individual environmental decisions, like recycling or purchasing electric cars are important, Isabelle says. But she sees a broader role for her future, perhaps in the State Department or working for an environmental nonprofit.

“My perspective has changed,” she says. “Environmental issues are more complex than individual decisions alone.” READ MORE