In scholarly pursuit of sustainable solutions
Laurie Nijaki, 26, earned her PhD in policy, planning and development from the USC Price School of Public Policy in May. But already, she’s made significant contributions in the field of sustainability — and has plans to do more.
This September, Nijaki will begin a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, widely considered the most prestigious postdoctoral opportunity in sustainability in the United States.
“With the fellowship, one area I want to focus on is emerging alliances between different types of nonprofit organizations, and between the business and environmental communities, to implement green-job strategies,” Nijaki said. “At the same time, I want to continue to contribute to the knowledge base as an academic, while also being a connector between scholarship and applied problem solving occurring on the ground.”
While a doctoral student at USC Price, Nijaki provided guidance and leadership on green-jobs studies and initiatives to nonprofit environmental organizations and government agencies. She served as an adviser for green jobs research at the State of California’s Employment Development Department in 2009-10, assisting with a large-scale green jobs study for the state. She also served on the Air Quality Institute’s Board of Counselors for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Nijaki said her desire to improve the quality of city life stems from having grown up in Los Angeles, “which in many ways is the poster-child for urban environmental challenges.”
“Sustainability efforts in cities like LA improve the quality of life through economic, environmental and equity-driven solutions,” she said. “My work seeks to address these issues in places that need it the most, places with poor economic opportunities and disproportionate environmental hazards.”
Prior to attending USC, Nijaki served as a policy analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund from 2006 to 2008, managing a $500-million community-benefits agreement related to the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport. The agreement called for retrofitting runway construction equipment that emitted pollutants; undertaking the most extensive air-quality study of its kind in the nation; soundproofing nearby schools and neighborhoods; and a jobs-training component.
Nijaki’s academic career began at an early age. At 14 years old, she was accepted to the Early Entrance Program of California State University, Los Angeles. Four years later, Nijaki graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in political science. She went on to earn a master’s degree in urban planning with a concentration in environmental policy and analysis from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Nijaki decided to pursue a PhD at USC Price because, as she explained in her commencement address as the doctoral student speaker, “I often found myself having something to advocate against, but [was] lacking the necessary toolbox of solutions.” She received a four-year funding package as a provost fellow for her doctoral studies.
In her dissertation, “Evergreen Economies: Institutions, Industries and Issues in the Green Economy,” Nijaki compared the green economies of cities nationwide and identified how environmental nonprofit organizations and policies can bolster green economic opportunities to achieve sustainable economic development.
“I was very fortunate to have a wonderful adviser, who helped me to take some of my ideas and experiences as an advocate and turn them into my dissertation,” said Nijaki, referring to Daniel Mazmanian, holder of the Bedrosian Chair in Governance at USC Price.
“Laurie represents the ideal Price PhD student,” he said. “She came to us already deeply involved in the policy process, with interests from a policy/activist point of view. She came energized and focused, and evolved into a really first-rate research scholar. I suspect that people in the policy arena will want to continue drawing her into leadership positions.”
Mazmanian and Nijaki will soon have their joint research published on “Sustainable Development and Governance” in the Oxford Handbook of U.S. Environmental Policy.