(Editor’s note: This profile of Meera Atreya was published in the Harvard Gazette. She will speak at the eighth annual Public Interested Conference this Saturday at the Science Center at Harvard University.)
Addressing climate change has been a guiding principle for Meera Atreya ’09 since she was young.
Growing up in Ann Arbor, where her father, Arvind Atreya, Ph.D. ’83, taught mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, she was interested in science broadly and sustainability in particular, sometimes donating her allowance to environmental nonprofits.
Atreya said “Climate Change: State of Knowledge,” a 1997 report by the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, opened her eyes to the threat of global warming. While she can’t recall how the government report ended up in her bedroom or exactly when she read it (it was published when she was 10), she will never forget the effect it had on her.
“It explained in quite simple terms and diagrams what we were doing to our planet and what we could do to prevent climate change,” she said. “It shook me a little bit. It was like, ‘Hey, we need to wake up to this!’”
Compelled to take action, Atreya started close to home, advocating for more efficient lighting and improved recycling in her high school. At Harvard, she continued to encourage her peers to live more sustainably, serving as a Kirkland House rep for the undergraduate Resource Efficiency Program.
Atreya took advantage of every opportunity to explore her fascination with science, enrolling in electives such as “Energy, Technology, and the Environment” and “Atmospheric Chemistry” and concentrating in chemical and physical biology. Outside of class, she did lab research with Professor David Liuand then-graduate student Kevin Esvelt, Ph.D. ’10, now a professor at the MIT Media Lab, ultimately winning a Thomas T. Hoopes Prize for her undergraduate thesis on developing a gene therapy to prevent HIV infection.
Buoyed by her research experience at Harvard, Atreya went on to earn her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a National Science Foundation fellowship to support her work on biofuels. After several years in academia, she decided to try something different, hopping the pond to take a management consulting job in London. Last summer, as a McKinsey & Company Global Social Responsibility Fellow, she helped drive the firm to become carbon-neutral and commit to purchase 100 percent renewable electricity in all its offices.
Atreya recently left McKinsey to join SYSTEMIQ in London, where she is helping implement the Paris climate agreement and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. Her current project is focused on mitigating plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
Looking back, she credits Esvelt and Liu’s mentorship for raising her ambitions.
“It gave me confidence that I could tackle an issue as big as preventing people from getting HIV, or dealing with millions of tons of plastic garbage flowing into the oceans,” she said. “These things are unbelievably complex, but I enjoy that complexity. It’s a pleasure to spend my days being intellectually challenged by a goal that is important, urgent, and completely aligned with my priorities and values.”
In her talk at Public Interested, Atreya plans to highlight her own varied work history as proof that you don’t have to work for a nonprofit to do public service.
“I absolutely support and encourage pursuing a career in the public service sector, but I want students to know that it’s possible to work toward social good in many different ways,” she said. “If your passion is your central guiding force, then you will find ways to contribute to a better society.”