Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Sapna Thottathil '00

Through Alumni Spotlights, Princeton Day School shares inspiring stories of PDS alumni around the country and the world. PDS alumni with news to share, please email: alumni@pds.org

Sapna E. Thottathil, Ph.D., is a first generation Indian American whose education and career since PDS has been dedicated to seeking solutions to global health and environmental problems. “I feel passionately about protecting the environment for our health, for future generations, and for the planet. Through my work, I’ve toured industrialized farm agricultural operations here in the U.S., small scale rice paddy fields in India, and factories that package food for export and for public schools,” she notes.

Dr. Thottathil earned her B.A. from the University of Chicago, where she was awarded the Udall Scholarship for environmental leadership. From there, she went on to receive a M.Sc. from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of California at Berkeley, where she was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship.

Through the Fulbright Fellowship, she notes, she was able to “spend a year in India with farmers and government leaders to understand Indian agricultural policies and environmental politics, which has been a highlight of my career thus far.” Her published book about organic farming in India, India’s Organic Farming Revolution: What it Means for Our Global Food System, reflects this experience.

She has worked to help develop environmental policy and sustainable food supply chains with organizations including the Environmental Protection Agency and Health Care Without Harm. Her reports on sustainable procurement have been featured in publications including Civil Eats and the American Journal of Public Health. She currently sits on the boards of Pesticide Action Network and My Green Lab, and serves as a Sustainability Advisor to the Plant Based Foods Association. She is also editor of Institutions as Conscious Food Consumers: Leveraging Purchasing Power to Drive Systems Change

Currently an Associate Director of Sustainability for the University of California’s Office of the President, Dr. Thottathil is responsible for managing large-scale sustainability projects across their 10 campuses and five health systems. “We have very ambitious environmental goals, including achieving carbon neutrality by 2025. My work touches upon multiple subjects, from water conservation to sustainable food procurement to promoting equitable and healthy working environments,” she explains.

When asked about her time and Princeton Day School, she recalled the School’s focus on enhancing students’ critical thinking: “There are several classes that stand out in my mind that I took at PDS that helped me hone my critical thinking–an essential skill in these times. One of them includes Bible with Mr. Stoltzfus. We read that book from front to back, which most people never do, and studied the context in which parts of it were written, and by whom. I approach all of my reading with such a lens these days–from newspapers to blog posts, I always ask myself: Who wrote this? What was the author’s background and intention for writing this?"

"Another class that instilled similar critical thinking skills was Government with Mr. Sanderson. Our field trip to Washington, D.C. was so influential in directing me to work on policy and in public service. The trip instilled in me the value of protecting our public institutions.” Dr. Thottathil continued.

She particularly valued extracurricular activities that helped develop skills that would become essential later in her career. "The Spokesman was my life (and that’s no hyperbole!), especially during my senior year, when I was the Co-Editor-in-Chief. In retrospect, spending the wee hours of the morning editing articles in the computer lab once a month was a good premonition of things to come in my life–I have spent a lot of time writing and editing after PDS, which has led to several published books and reports,” she notes,

Of Liz Cutler, the School's longtime Sustainability Coordinator and US English teacher (on sabbatical this year), Dr. Thottathil recalls, "She was a mentor to me and supported my interest in environmental issues. We continued to stay in touch after I left PDS—that's how supportive she was!"

Dr. Thottathil believes that her Senior Project, a signature PDS independent study experience for 12th graders, was instrumental in setting on her current path by allowing her to immerse herself in her passions and discover what motivated her. “I feel so privileged to have been given several months to dive deeply into a senior project during senior year. For my senior project, I volunteered for the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association in Pennington, which gave birth to my love for bird-watching and identifying wildflowers, a side-hobby of mine here in California. But this appreciation for nature also led to me to pursue a career in environmental sustainability, beginning with an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Chicago, which led to my first job out of college with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington DC. My peregrination through the environmental world finally brought me to California, where I studied food and environmental politics in a Ph.D. program at UC-Berkeley, and here I’ve stayed for the past 14 years.”

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