ASU grad bridges gap between science, practice

Florian smiling at the camera wearing an ASU hat, a pink shirt and a green neck gaiter with an ocean in the background

Florian Schneider is graduating with a PhD in sustainability from the School of Sustainability housed within the ASU College of Global Futures.


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Prior to coming to Arizona State University, Florian Schneider thought he was done with academia. He had already received an undergraduate and graduate degree in meteorology from Leipzig University in Germany and believed his school days were behind him. However, an experience he had with some other solo travelers while on vacation was just the push he needed to dive back into the world of academic research.

“When you are with strangers that you meet for a very brief time, you can be so open and transparent with them,” Schneider said. “It’s one of the most fascinating dynamics between human beings.”

Their conversations spanned a variety of topics, including some of Schneider’s past research and work. His new acquaintances picked up on his passion and remarked on his tendency to share information in an educational yet conversational way. One went so far as to directly ask why he wasn’t in academia.

“They were in medical school, and I thought it was so different — one path is service-oriented, one is education-oriented,” Schneider said. 

After that, he did some reflecting and eventually reached out to some different programs that aligned with his interests in exploring the human aspect of sustainability in urban spaces. This is what led him to his PhD supervisor and eventually to ASU.

Schneider is graduating with a PhD in sustainability from the School of Sustainability housed within the ASU College of Global Futures. Read on to learn more about his experiences at ASU in his own words.

Question: Why did you choose to attend ASU?

Answer: I didn't; ASU chose me. Or let's say, ASU chose my advisor. I was in contact with the chair of my PhD committee, applying to a PhD at Temple University in Philadelphia where she was located at the time. What I didn’t know was that she had applied for tenure-track positions here at ASU because this is where she was originally from. Then in June 2018, she told me, “Hey, I resigned from my position at Temple. But you know what, you can come with me to ASU if you want.” There were two great programs: sustainability or ... urban planning. I decided that sustainability fit better with my ideals. 

Q: Tell me a little bit more about your background and what drew you to sustainability.

A: I'm originally from Germany, born and raised in the area of Bonn. Just south of it. I grew up in a rural environment — I recognize this even more now that I'm living here and talking to all of you. When I was young I was a scout, and so I was out and about all the time, affected by weather and storms and climate. It always fascinated me. I did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in meteorology, climate science and atmospheric science. 

Throughout that time, climate change was a big factor, and I recognize that climate change is a big chunk of sustainability. Both are complex issues that are highly intertwined with one another and have multiple interdependencies with other fields — nutrition, survivability, social injustices, etc. I decided to come here, and this program better aligned with my sustainability and climate change perspectives. Before this, I studied climate change in the Arctic. I went from a very cold place to a very warm place. My hope was to focus on the people, to take a step back from the computer and focus on how these things impact us and other living beings around us in a social, environmental and economic manner. 

Here at the school, I find myself working not only with quantitative science but including mixed methods and qualitative science, interviewing people instead of just collecting environmental heat data. Working with the city and community instead of just sitting in front of my computer. Actually interacting with the people out there and not just staying in my little bubble of the university is valuable. We’re not just looking at the data and finding statistical significance, but we’re actually valuing every individual voice and those perspectives. It’s something that (the School of) Sustainability and Arizona State University really do a great job on.  

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while you were here at ASU?

A: There's not a single one. Almost every professor, faculty or staff member that I've interacted with in this space had some kind of positive influence on me, whether it was emotional or mental support in certain situations or even just administrative help. 

There were unique experiences that some people gave me. I was extremely thankful for the opportunity to go in 2019 with Professor (Rob) Melnick to Hong Kong as my study abroad in the summer. It was the last time that this study was offered because afterward, Hong Kong was shut down by China. This made this opportunity even more unique — to experience this very different culture and extremely urban space. Another unique experience was the interplay of different committee members for my PhD and the way they valued positive experiences and provided feedback, but in a different way. The professors, Professor (Ariane) Middel, my chair, and Professor (Jennifer) Vanos, my sustainability committee member, were definitely guiding forces throughout my academic career at ASU from the first moment I met both of them in fall of 2018. 

What I’m really glad about with all of this, whether it’s faculty members that I’ve worked with, or staff members, I think I can call all of them my friends. In Germany, saying friend is a different thing than in the U.S., and I can really say I can call them friends. I got to make these personal connections with all of them while being in a professional environment, and that’s so unique. I’m really glad about how much positivity has existed in this space over the years. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm deeply interested in being a mediator between science and practice — the best use of my skill set and the research that I've done, whether it's purely quantitative or qualitative, or working with communities, working with cities, across departments. … This skill set and experience come in handy when communicating between those entities. My hope is to further educate myself in the direction of policy so we can have change happening at local, federal and state governmental levels. I would like to see funding going to communities and going towards research that focuses on people. Another factor is being able to translate this research into action or, even better, to create research that is readily actionable. That can only be done with people, and that’s where I want to be, in a space where I can work with people from all these different entities and help them create actionable research.

Q: Did you have a favorite spot on campus for studying, for socializing or just for pondering life around ASU?

A: Here at Tempe campus, I favored the Secret Garden at times, for calm moments. At Polytechnic I just loved the general campus and how wherever I was sitting, usually outside if it wasn’t high summer, I could be close to nature. I miss the trees, and at Polytechnic, I could really reconnect to nature because the campus is designed with nature, especially native nature, in mind. It’s a beautiful campus. Poly and Tempe have these two spots that really energize me. I’ve also had the chance to visit West campus and collect data there myself. It’s a beautiful campus, too — I think West and Poly are both beautiful in their own ways. I’ve been to the Washington, D.C., campus building. It has a unique vibe — being close to the (National) Mall allows you to go for a quick stroll. ASU becomes a world entity in that space. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I think the best use of $40 million is investing in education that allows equitable access. I know that $40 million is not much when you think about construction or something like that. The building we’re sitting in right now has to be almost $200 million itself. That’s not really the point, but when we think about $40 million, it’s a lot of money for an individual. Having access, getting a degree in whatever field you like; these things help you to prosper — not just yourself, but also your family and your community. We could use $40 million in different places for different programs, but we need education in spaces for everyone to create these pathways. $40 million? Give it to the people. Invest in people.

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