Main content
McMullan Award honors Clare McCarthy’s work as a changemaker
profile image of Clare McCarthy

Clare McCarthy, an environmental sciences major with a minor in community building and social change, distinguished herself while at Emory by applying her intellectual gifts as a climate leader both on and off campus.

— Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video

Clare McCarthy entered Emory College of Arts and Sciences feeling guilty about how little she had paid attention to climate change and other social justice concerns until high school.

Sure, she had become a vegetarian and refused to use disposable plastic. Not until joining Volunteer Emory and the Climate Reality Project her first semester, though, did she see how she might translate those personal changes into her long-held hope of leaving a positive impact on the world.

This month, the Dean’s Achievement Scholar graduates with a degree in environmental science as a campus leader who helped secure a $300,000 federal grant to boost one of Emory’s signature sustainability efforts and successfully worked with the Office of Sustainability Initiatives (OSI) and other campus partners to commit the university to trackable steps in combatting greenhouse gas emissions.

“In high school, I became somewhat militaristic about how to have an impact, to the point where I would dehydrate myself rather than use a plastic cup,” McCarthy says. “As I got involved with the volunteer community and climate community, I realized that kind of guilt is unproductive if you really want to drive change.”

McCarthy’s commitment to that thoughtfulness and the creative application of her intellectual gifts led to her selection as the 2023 Lucius Lamar McMullan Award recipient.

Made possible by a generous gift from Emory alumnus William Matheson 47G, the McMullan Award provides $30,000, no strings attached, to one Emory College graduate who is expected to do extraordinary things on a community, national and global scale.

“What is so special about Clare is that she is not afraid to fail, because she puts in everything she can, and she is not afraid to admit when she isn’t sure what needs done,” says Eri Saikawa, the Winship Distinguished Research Professor of environmental sciences and director of Emory Climate Talks.

“Because of that, she makes space for other people to participate, to come together and think about solutions,” Saikawa adds. “It’s refreshing to see somebody so willing to do so much for the common good.”

Gaining a global perspective

Travel expanded McCarthy’s world beyond the backyards and woods she roamed growing up in Murrysville, Pennsylvania. Attending a University of Pittsburgh summer program on global issues for high schoolers left her wanting to study climate science and the tangible impact on far-flung places.

She decided on Emory after her dad, then a psychology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, correctly suggested that the liberal arts tradition would help her satisfy both that intellectual curiosity and her drive to effect change.

“I came in with all this energy and passion for doing something, but I didn’t really know what that something was,” McCarthy says.

She started to find that something when she attended a climate strike during the early weeks of her first year. Inspired by the energy of the event, McCarthy immediately dove into climate efforts happening on campus. Finding peers who were passionate about social justice, and connecting with now-best-friend Carly Colen on the Emory Gender Expansive and Women’s Ultimate Frisbee team, further fueled her to find a purpose.

Enrolling in the Sustainability Leadership course solidified her path. The one-credit class focused on leadership and forming community partnerships and gave her tools to put her interests into action.

It all came together when McCarthy became an OSI intern. McCarthy was a rare first-year accepted into the program, having impressed former OSI interim director Taylor Spicer with her analytical skills and willingness to collaborate in the leadership course Spicer co-taught with Associate Teaching Professor Simona Muratore.

McCarthy’s first project was helping Emory win a $300,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant to study the feasibility of using anaerobic digestion to turn campus waste into compost and energy. Her final project is nearly complete, working with Saikawa to organize the Youth Sustainable Development Conference, coming to campus this summer.

“I knew Clare was primed and ready to do something really amazing,” Spicer says. “She represents the best of us. We accomplished so much throughout the pandemic and largely because she stuck with our team.”

McCarthy maneuvered through the pandemic by uniting her academic and community goals. She convinced leaders she met from the climate strike to form the Emory Climate Coalition during her sophomore year of remote study.

The coalition collaborated with Emory President Gregory L. Fenves to take additional climate action, and the university signed onto the Second Nature Climate Leadership Commitment and the United Nations Race to Zero pledges in late 2021.

Another core piece of McCarthy’s Emory experience has been working with Volunteer Emory. She attended Alternative Break service trips with the group her first year, then moved into program leadership. She capped her work with the group this year by developing an Education-Orientation-Training plan, designed to help trip leaders identify educational resources for each trip’s social justice focus and community history. The plan has become a central part of planning Alternative Breaks.

“High-achieving students may overlook all of their victories that don’t seem to have a huge immediate impact, but that’s not Clare,” says Cleo Lyles, who joined as program coordinator for student-led community engagement last year. “She does this job because she loves this job and cares about making an impact.”

McCarthy also explored community engagement by completing the Community Building and Social Change (CBSC) coursework in her sophomore year. After declaring it as a minor, she spent 10 weeks that summer as a CBSC Fellow conducting a community survey in the Edgewood neighborhood of Atlanta.

Resident pushback delayed the survey, which was finally conducted after McCarthy and her team took time to listen and answer community questions. CBSC director Kate Grace noted McCarthy’s ability to successfully navigate the situation when she recommended her as a program assistant with the Georgia Beloved Naturalist education program.

“It takes bold thinking to accept you can’t always control what happens in the field but still get the work done,” Grace says. “Clare is clearly very intelligent and managing a lot quite well, but most importantly, she is constantly growing.” 

Making a local impact

McCarthy continued with that work during her senior year when Saikawa selected her to attend the U.N. climate negotiations in Egypt last November. She turned her work there, hearing about loss and damage by meeting with people living in the Global South, into an Emory Climate Talks podcast episode that will be released in the upcoming season.

She also has spent the last year working as a research assistant — helping design a neighborhood guide to connect residents in South Fulton County with resources for food, housing and other services — in the lab of Christine Ekenga, an assistant professor at the Rollins School of Public Health.

Similar fieldwork, planning for potential impacts from extreme heat for the city of Groton, Conn., is on tap for McCarthy’s summer Sustainability Fellowship with the University of New Hampshire.

She will return to Ekenga’s lab next year when she completes her master’s in public health from Rollins as part of Emory’s 4+1 program. McCarthy plans to be involved with the Emory Climate Coalition and other campus groups but is happy to cede leadership roles to undergraduates while she explores new opportunities.

Her focus will be on how she can best find work to help communities understand and adapt to the threats of climate change. The McMullan funding will help with tuition next year and may give her the freedom to pursue an international role to start her career. She also is deciding how to have the most sustainable impact with a donation to climate adaptation and environmental justice work.

“I feel beyond loved and grateful to the community that I have found and built at Emory,” McCarthy says. “Every time I felt like I didn’t have much to contribute, so many people here supported my growth that it was exciting to explore. I’m inspired by all the possibilities they have given to me.”

Recent News