CU People: Environmental Steward Jessica Prata

August 29, 2016
Columbia University VP of Environmental Stewardship Jessica Prata

Photo by John Pinderhughes

Who She Is

Assistant Vice President, Environmental Stewardship, Facilities and Operations.

Years at Columbia


What She Does

Prata (SIPA’12) and her team collaborate with departments across Columbia to help reduce the University’s impact on the environment. Her team, she notes, celebrates the shared success that comes with campus partnerships in a variety of programs, such as supporting both Columbia Dining and University Housing in rolling out an organics program that diverts food waste from landfill, developing an awareness campaign to promote the University Bookstore’s recycled commencement gown program and partnering with the Mailman School of Public Health to reduce paper procurement by 23 percent.

The new Manhattanville campus, which opens later this year, has been noted for its use of cutting-edge clean construction techniques and was rated LEED® Platinum for Neighborhood Development in 2012 thanks to the continuing commitment to environmental sustainability by the leadership team at University Facilities and Operations. Prata has made that commitment one of her team’s priorities. “There is so much opportunity, as this is the new frontier for the University,” she said. “We will pilot a program to help reduce congestion and air pollution by offering Columbia’s New Jersey commuters the option of parking their cars and taking a shuttle bus across the George Washington Bridge to campus. We will continue to explore other possibilities in the months and years ahead.”

On a recent visit to Manhattanville, Prata donned a hard hat and luminescent safety vest to check in on the new Jerome L. Greene Science Center, which is being prepped for move-in starting in October. “We are working with our colleagues to help ensure that the operation of the buildings matches the very high construction standards,” she said.

Most Memorable Moment

In January 2016, her department kicked off a process to create the University’s first sustainability plan, working with leaders from Facilities and Operations, the Earth Institute and other partners. With strong support from Vice President for Campus Services, Scott Wright, Prata enjoys bringing faculty, students and administrators together. “Sustainability requires everyone’s collective action to make a difference,” she said. “It’s up to all of us, and seeing many areas of the University come together on a central path was very rewarding.”

Best Part of the Job

Prata also enjoys working with students. “Our door is always open to support students, and we learn so much from the fresh perspective they bring to any project,” said Prata, who has served as a faculty advisor to the master’s program in sustainability management. Her department created a Green Fund for student-led initiatives, which included projects such as a pilot program to purchase an electricity-generating stationary bicycle for residence halls and a student-waste audit at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Road to Columbia

Her first job after graduating from Colgate University in 2001 was at MediaLink, a digital strategy advisor and business development firm, where she managed sales and public relations for major clients such as General Motors and Cover Girl. Prata then moved on to fundraising at Weill Cornell Medical Center. “You have to build a relationship with donors and understand what they are passionate about,” she said.

In 2009, she became NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital’s first sustainability officer. Successes in that role included reducing waste in operating rooms and building a network of sustainability advocates across the five campuses.

While working at NewYork-Presbyterian, Prata spent her weekends attending the Executive Masters of Public Administration Program (EMPA) at SIPA, which she completed in 2012. The next year she came back to Columbia in her current role. “I was thrilled at the unique opportunity to lead a team and to grow at a world class institution,” she said.

In Her Spare Time

Prata, who rowed on the crew team at Colgate, still spends her free time focusing on health and athletics. Over the past year and a half, she undertook a 200-hour training program to become a yoga instructor. Once a month she teaches an open class in Anusara, a type of Hatha yoga. “The yoga teachings give me the tools to live more fully,” said Prata, who is also a cyclist and met her husband through the cycling community. The two spend many weekends cycling in the Hudson Valley. “In both my work and personal life, I’m a firm believer that if you do what you love, the rest falls into place.”

—By Gary Shapiro