Postdoc Profile: Isatis Cintron-Rodriguez

Isatis Cintron-Rodriguez, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scientist at the Columbia Climate School, spoke with us about her research, her decision to come to Columbia, and her future plans.


Can you speak about your background and how it influenced your academic focus?

I grew up in Puerto Rico, a place with a lot of sandy beaches. It is also at the forefront of climate change. Growing up, I knew the communities that were the most vulnerable. Coming from a rural area, we saw the impact of urban sprawl and community displacement. Because of that, my community is very keen on the environmental fight. I would say that I'm a scientist and an activist at the same time, and that those two are not mutually exclusive.

Growing up with that background and knowing that we have a very short time to tackle this crisis made me want to solve climate change—a small feat. I focused on glaciers, which are ground zero. I need to be where I can make the most impact.

Head shot of Isatis Cintron-Rodriguez wearing a winter hat and coat

With these interests, what did you study? 

During undergrad, I studied Environmental Sciences, and for my PhD, I was in the department of Environmental Sciences with a concentration in Atmospheric Chemistry. I studied the pollutant transport and its impact on the cryosphere, how they accelerate its melting, as well as the cloud cover of Arctic areas such as Greenland and Iceland. I have been to Iceland and Antarctica doing atmospheric chemistry. I have not been to Greenland, but I have collaborated with a team there. 

How did you decide to come to Columbia and what opportunities do you see for yourself here?

I have been working in climate science, and also in policy. I work in community engagement and participation. Those worlds were not at odds with each other, but they have been hard to combine. I met Columbia Climate School’s deans at COP 27, in Scotland. I was very interested in the fact that they were trying to bring climate justice into everything that they do. To me, climate justice is where science and policy connect. Someone told me about the postdoc position, and I applied.

"Knowing that we have a very short time to tackle this crisis made me want to solve climate change. I focused on glaciers, which are ground zero. I need to be where I can make the most impact."


Getting to know the people, it seemed that not only could I work in both areas, but that this perspective was valued. Trying to approach a problem in an interdisciplinary way was something crucial in the next step of my career. I think that here I can do that and not feel that I have two different lines of work. Before being a postdoc in Columbia, I started collaborating with people here. I am excited to tap into Columbia’s vast network to put science into service for the people. So, for me, this is an opportunity to both bring more climate justice to Columbia and to ensure that other scholars have access to the kind of network available here. 

Where were you living before you came to Columbia, and how has it been here for you in New York?

I wasn't that far away—my PhD was at Rutgers. I'm still here in New Jersey, but close to New York. So it wasn't that far of a jump. I like New York—I just don’t want to live there. I know that might not be a particularly popular opinion, but it's just very busy. I come from an island and we do things much more slowly. Life in the city goes very fast and there's just a lot of sound. I really like the greenery too.

As a postdoc at Columbia you have opportunities to socialize and network with this inaugural cohort of postdocs. How has that been?

It's been great. Having a sense of community is super important to get you through some of the barriers in academia or in science work. I think that is something very positive about this cohort; sometimes collaborations arise if there is complementary work. 

What will you be working on this semester and which faculty are you working most closely with?

This semester I'm focused on working in loss and damages, and I'm working most closely with Jackie Klopp. I have a few projects. One of them is working on blue carbon connected to loss and damage. There is a community in Puerto Rico that is very interested in the valuation of the ecosystems, especially the coastal ecosystems, and how they can uptake or sequester carbon as a way to put an economic value to that service. 

"It's been a wild ride because my work is in the poles and alpine glaciers, and we don't have those in Puerto Rico."

We don't want to lose our corals, but if that happens, there is a precedent on how to measure the range of loss and damages. There is a two-part project. One part is creating an economy that propels the community into having more wealth, and distributing it around the world, because this case could help other islands to do a similar kind of work. There is also some accountability at the end for the climate impacts that we cannot avoid.

Is it your ultimate plan to return to Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico will always be home, and I want to give back. I am most interested in making sure that I have a venue to support the kind of work that communities need. It's been a wild ride because my work is in the poles and alpine glaciers, and we don't have those in Puerto Rico. I'm part of the Puerto Rico Climate Change Council, and I am working in the societal phase or chapter. They have told me that they need my expertise in atmospheric chemistry, but I don't have work focused on Puerto Rico to support that. 

Any opportunity that I have to make sure that I am connected to the island is important to me. I'm working on that. Separately, I'm also working in developing participatory decision making tools. Those are two projects. One of them I'm developing with another postdoc from Columbia; he is from Puerto Rico as well. We have a lot of common research interests. 

I can't imagine that you have so much free time, but when you do, how do you spend it?

I like to go hiking or traveling. I like to dance, and I also like photography. Whenever I'm traveling or hiking, I get to do photography. Whenever I travel, my friends ask whether I am going for work or for leisure. Most of the time, the answer is both. I’ll go do a campaign and then I'll take a few days after to just explore.

I really want to go back to Antarctica again to do research, but in terms of a new destination, I want to go to Patagonia. It would be great to see the glaciers and go hiking.