By Published: Oct. 13, 2022

Cassandra Brooks of environmental studies at CU Boulder is being honored by the Explorers Club and the Society of Women Geographers

Growing up in Goffstown, New Hampshire, University of Colorado Boulder Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Cassandra Brooks was a case study in ambition butting up against opportunity. She wanted to do big things, but she wasn’t sure what, or how, or even if she could.

“I always undercut myself,” she says.

It didn’t help that, when she attended college to study biology, she didn’t feel prepared. “I really had a hard time in college,” she says. “I didn’t have the study skills.”

What she did have, however, was a deep and abiding respect for nature and a keen interest in doing right by it. “I grew up near the woods and water,” she says. “I always felt very connected to the world around me. I always felt an obligation to do more good than harm on a daily basis.”

Eager to remain in the green on nature’s balance sheet, Brooks had a life-changing realization after college while working on fishing vessels as a fisheries observer.

Cassandra Brooks

At the top of the page: Cassandra Brooks speaking at the Futures Congress in Santiago, Chile, in 2019. “I never dreamed I’d give such a talk!” Brooks says (Photo courtesy of Cassandra Brooks). Above: Brooks at the Antarctic Peninsula (Photo courtesy of Cassandra Brooks).

“I was out on the fishing boats with these fishermen and I understood the social, human dimension of fisheries, and the deep problems with fisheries, and the history of the current moment,” she says. “That drove me to go back to school for marine science and focus on deep-sea fish.”

Since then, Brooks has earned a master’s degree in marine science, a graduate certificate in science communication and a PhD in environment and resources. She was a core member of the Last Ocean Project, a global outreach effort to safeguard the Ross Sea, which became the largest marine protected area in the world in 2016, an event Brooks witnessed first-hand. She’s spoken at conferences around the globe and dined with Chilean president Sebastián Piñera. Recently, she won an NSF CAREER grant to study Antarctic toothfish, whose ear bones offer clues to the health of the Southern Ocean.

And that is only a sampling of her accomplishments.

On many occasions, Brooks says, she was told that working in conservation wouldn’t pay, that she would struggle to earn a living, that she wouldn’t be rewarded for it.

Now she’s being rewarded for it.

Two organizations are honoring Brooks for her scientific contributions: the Explorers Club (EC) and the Society of Women Geographers.

Founded in 1904 and incorporated in 1905, the EC has had among its ranks such eminent figures as Mount Everest summiters Tenzing Norgay and Edmund P. Hillary, world-record deep-sea divers Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh and Kon-Tiki voyager Thor Heyerdahl.

By its own admission, the EC was, until fairly recently, a distinctly male institution.

It was another member, beloved scientist and science communicator Carl Sagan, who sought to change that. In a 1981 letter to a “Fellow Member” of the EC, Sagan asserts, “If membership in the Explorers Club is restricted to men, the loss will be ours; we will only be depriving ourselves.”

As proof, Sagan cites numerous women who had done groundbreaking scientific research, including astronomer Linda Morabito, paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey, primatologist Jane Goodall, geophysicist Marcia Neugebauer and marine biologist Sylvia Earle.

His letter did the trick. The EC lifted its restriction, allowing women to join, and now Brooks, as a result of being named one of the EC’s “fifty people changing the world who the world needs to know about,” is an honorary member for three years.

The Society of Women Geographers is presenting Brooks with the Ronne Award, named for Edith “Jackie” Ronne, the first American woman to step foot in Antarctica. According to Ronne’s daughter, Karen Ronne Tupek, the Ronne Award seeks “to recognize the people who have done outstanding, notable things to uncover the mysteries of Antarctica.”  

In its announcement of the award, the Society of Women Geographers summarizes Brooks’ work thus: “Dr. Brooks’ research draws on a diversity of disciplines to make notable contributions to marine conservation, including research of the oceans touching all seven continents.”

Evan Bloom, senior fellow of the Polar Institute in Washington, D.C., says that Brooks is “greatly deserving” of the Ronne Award. “She is an outstanding researcher whose work has connected both fisheries science and public policy to promote cutting-edge marine science objectives in the Southern Ocean.” 

I always felt very connected to the world around me. I always felt an obligation to do more good than harm on a daily basis."

For Brooks, the news of these awards came as a surprise. She thought the emails might have been sent in error. But when it turned out they weren’t, her surprise quickly transformed into gratitude. “I’m so grateful that I get to do what I do and that I’m being honored for it.”

One way she expresses her gratitude is through her teaching, and her students are grateful in return.

“Cassandra is extremely committed to her students,” says PhD student in environmental studies Vasco Chavez-Molina. “I really don't know how she does it. She always finds the time to support each of her students—post docs, PhD students and undergrads.”

PhD student Zephyr Sylvester says she wouldn’t have pursued a doctorate were it not for Brooks. “I began a master’s with Cassandra in 2018. After a few months of working with her, I knew we were a great match. For that reason, I couldn't let that relationship go after only two years, so I decided to pursue my PhD under her guidance. She has always been my biggest advocate and supporter.”

Undergraduate Jacklyn Florman, who is working closely with Brooks for her honors thesis on Arctic rivers, calls Brooks “incredibly spunky, understanding and inspiring to work with.”

“Her enthusiasm for conservation is infectious,” Florman says, “and she provides a welcoming, open space for her many undergraduate and graduate students to develop their skills and knowledge of complex systems through environmental science and policy.”

Indeed, no matter whom you ask about Brooks, a theme emerges, one that perhaps Chavez-Molina sums up best: “She is an amazing person, advisor and friend.”

Reflecting on her career so far, Brooks tends toward incredulity. “It’s so beyond what I ever thought, in rural New Hampshire, I would be doing with my life.”  

Brooks received her Explorers Club 50 award on March 16 and will speak at a virtual EC event on Nov. 16. She will receive her Ronne Award on Oct. 15 at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.