students posing by glacier
Called to Be: Health & Environment

Title:Caring for the whole planet

Author: Karen Bowman
Date Published: April 29, 2023

For Isabella Turilli (SFS’22), textbook theory became reality when the coronavirus pandemic emerged in March 2020. At the time, Turilli was a sophomore at Georgetown, taking global health courses and researching the impact of pandemics.

During the previous fall semester, Turilli participated in a classroom project that involved applying international health regulations to pandemic simulations. Students worked in teams to represent different countries and devise potential responses to a worldwide disease outbreak.

“When we were working on these projects, the pandemic just seemed like a hypothetical scenario,” recalls Turilli, a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Health Policy Program. “In class, we simulated disease outbreaks that were truly global in scale and would shut everything down. And then that’s what happened when the coronavirus pandemic came on the scene. So I was already engaged in studying pandemics, but then suddenly the hypothetical felt horrifically applicable as it unfolded in real time.”

Turilli took the course as part of her major in science, technology, and international affairs (STIA). The academic program, housed in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (SFS), offers an interdisciplinary approach incorporating a wide range of academic fields structured around global challenges, including global health, climate change, interplanetary science, cyber-security, cryptocurrency, and emerging technologies. Courses within the major explore the technological and scientific issues at the heart of modern international affairs.

“We’re developing within our students a scientific and technical literacy, integrated with proficiency in the liberal arts, ethics, languages, and international affairs, to help them become more informed policy makers and problem solvers,” says Joanna Lewis, Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor and director of the STIA Program. “Georgetown’s STIA program is the only one of its kind at the undergraduate level within a foreign affairs school. But it fills a critical role for students interested in international affairs education because the key global challenges of our time have shifted such that many of them require proficiency with science and technical issues.”

A pioneering program

The SFS established the STIA program in 1982, and the first SFS student earning the STIA certificate graduated the following year. STIA became an academic major in the SFS undergraduate program during the early 1990s. Since then, it has become the SFS’s second largest academic program, with about 80 majors each year. Additionally, more than 100 students from across the university enroll in the STIA gateway course each year, and the STIA minor is open to undergraduates from all schools at Georgetown.

A large percentage of Georgetown’s prestigious award recipients come out of the STIA program. Turilli and Georgetown STIA major Atharv Gupta (SFS’23) received the 2023 Rhodes Scholarship, the world’s oldest and most competitive international scholarship. They are among only 32 recipients nationwide. This is the first time in over 20 years that two scholars have been selected from Georgetown in the same year.

Photo: Georgetown University

That app has really taken off to the point where it’s giving so much power to these little vegetable vendors in India. That’s just an example of how technology creates options where there previously weren’t any.

— Atharv Gupta (SFS’23)

The STIA program continues to expand its offerings. Last year, the SFS launched the master of science in foreign service with a concentration in STIA. The program also oversees the SFS Science for All courses that are available to all Georgetown students and fulfill a science requirement for the core curriculum.

Building on Georgetown’s commitment to advance environmental sustainability and justice, STIA has partnered with the university’s Earth Commons Institute, a hub for environmental and sustainability innovation. One of these collaborations is the hiring of two faculty members who divide their time between both programs. Lewis, who serves on the Earth Commons’ faculty advisory committee, says plans are underway to create a joint graduate program between the SFS and the Earth Commons.

“It’s exciting to think of the possibilities that can emerge from leveraging the strengths of the Earth Commons and the STIA program,” says Lewis, a global climate change scholar. “These efforts really put Georgetown on the map in terms of what the university is doing to support environmentally focused research and education. STIA’s interdisciplinary faculty, with grounding in both the hard sciences and the social sciences, have become a connector between many other units across campus.”

Classroom lessons brought to life

Experiential learning is a STIA cornerstone. Most courses offer opportunities for students to apply textbook theory to real-world scenarios.

Centennial Labs, for example, are SFS classes built around an issue, idea, problem, or challenge within a real community. In these courses, students work with one or more professors across disciplines to learn the theories critical to understanding the situation. They develop practical approaches or solutions and share them with the community beyond the classroom.

Lewis is one of two faculty members who co-led the SFS Centennial Lab Course, Problem Solving in a Destabilized Arctic, which included a trip to Alaska last summer. Students studied the effects of Arctic climate change while visiting some of Alaska’s remaining glaciers, such as Exit Glacier, and toured important marine and atmospheric research facilities, such as the Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atmospheric Observatory. They also caught a glimpse of a polar bear in the wild.

“We had the opportunity to talk with the people who would be impacted by the policies we were researching,” says Turilli, who took the course. “That was an eye-opening experience.”

isabella turilli
Photo: Georgetown University

I appreciated having access to this magnificent network of people to really shepherd me through my studies. And in my job, I get to apply what I learned about global health as an undergrad on a day-to-day basis. That’s pretty thrilling!

— Isabella Turilli (SFS’22)

Assistant professor Megan Lickley, who joined Georgetown last August as a joint faculty member for STIA and the Earth Com- mons, currently is teaching Sea Level Change and Coastal Adaptation. Students taking the course learn to use climate models and observational data to quantify the likely impacts of climate change. They use the information they gather to develop adaptation policies and plans.

“It’s exciting for students to put the science behind climate change into effect—to see how we use our understanding about the rates of sea level change and various risks to develop adaptation plans,” Lickley says. “It’s important to help students understand these science policy issues when we’re thinking about how our world is transitioning rapidly under climate change, which will require us to adapt and to change our energy systems quickly.”

Despite the global challenges caused by climate change, Lickley strives to instill a sense of optimism in her students and help them feel empowered to make a difference.

“I want to teach my students how to understand and interpret uncertainty in climate changes and how we plan in the face of uncertainty,” she says. “I hope they come away with a sense of hope in how they can contribute to positive change when it comes to climate change.”

Beyond our home planet

The STIA major also offers students an opportunity to explore biosignatures—or signs of life—on other planets. Sarah Stewart Johnson, a Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor in STIA, is a planetary scientist focused on understanding the limits of life in extreme environments and how to detect life in places where it’s hard to find. She’s conducted research in “otherworldly places,” such as Antarctica, the Australian Outback, and the Atacama Desert. She finds it fulfilling to work with students in the lab and in the field, “devising new ways to hunt for signs of life, past and present.”

Planetary science, especially space exploration, is “inherently political in nature,” explains Johnson, who often conducts research at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Not only does it require public support, but it also must consider the concerns of national and international stakeholders. Much of her work has been deeply centered in science policy and advocacy.

“I feel like planetary scientists have the best job on Earth,” Johnson says. “We get to ask deep questions about the nature of existence, and then send probes made by human hands out into the vastness of space to uncover the answers.”

Hoyas changing the world

The son of two software developers from Fairfax, Virginia, Gupta—one of Georgetown’s 2023 Rhodes Scholars—grew up immersed in technology. He’s optimistic about its power to change lives for the better. Passionate about international development, Gupta wants to build a career helping entrepreneurs in emerging markets scale their technologies to those who need it most.

a woman with long brown hair and a navy shirt
Photo: Lisa Helfert

We’re developing within our students a scientific and technical literacy, integrated with proficiency in the liberal arts, ethics, language, and international affairs, to make them informed policy makers and problem solvers.

— Joanna Lewis

During a visit to his grandparents’ home in Rishikesh, India, he witnessed the power of technology to drive change. On an outing to a local market, he noticed his grandfather paying for vegetables using a popular app on his smartphone—not cash, as he would expect from someone of an older generation.

“That app has really taken off to the point where it’s giving so much power to these little vegetable vendors in India,” says Gupta, who is completing a concentration in business growth and development, as well as minors in Chinese and computer science. “That’s just an example of how technology creates options where there previously weren’t any.”

After leaving the Hilltop, STIA graduates have become successful entrepreneurs, scholars, and policymakers. Sheila Gulati (SFS’98), founder and managing director of Tola Capital, relies on lessons learned from her Georgetown education every day in her career as a venture capitalist.

“STIA is a unique degree because it is so multifaceted. You gain an incredible view of what’s happening in the world mixed with what’s happening from a technology lens,” says Gulati,

who recently came back to Georgetown to speak to current STIA students. “Global affairs are inextricably linked with technology. Technology shifts influence how countries work together and how citizens engage with both their governments and with one another.

“STIA and SFS programs have great prediction capability on how trends will change how we use technology as individuals, and how it will change society,” she adds. “I think Georgetown has always been interested in creating students who become leaders and create better societies. And I think that that’s a huge part of what STIA graduates have to offer the world.”

As Turilli prepares to continue her studies in global health at Oxford next year, she’s grateful for the opportunity to apply knowledge she gained in STIA courses to her work at the Council on Foreign Relations. Much of her work is focused on disease tracking and policy efficacy for global health emergencies—areas of great interest to her.

“I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve landed in this role because it really feels like an appropriate continuation of my undergrad studies, developing my skills in a different setting while keeping my topical interests,” says Turilli, who hopes to eventually pursue work in academia. “I’m thankful to have a career in which I’m learning every day about how I can contribute to improving people’s health through actions and policies.”

The Science, Technology, and International Affairs Program in the School of Foreign Service is one of the many ways Georgetown is promoting the health and security of people and the planet, and becoming the university we are called to be. Learn more at

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