New neck of the woods for Pitt alum in gov. position


Photo courtesy of Laura Watson

Laura Watson, a Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences 1995 graduate, was appointed the Director of Ecology for the state of Washington in December.

By Katie Sottile, For The Pitt News

Don’t give up on saving the environment — there’s a Pitt grad fighting to protect it.

Laura Watson, a North Hills native and 1995 Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences alumna, was appointed director of ecology for the state of Washington in December. She now has a seat in Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive cabinet, where she oversees a staff of 1,700 people among 10 different environmental programs.

Watson has been adjusting to her new role since taking office at the beginning of January. She attributes some of her success to her previous experiences, including her time at Pitt.

“I’ve only been on the job for two weeks, so I’m still pinching myself a little bit,” she said. “I feel like I got really good grounding to be able to grow into this position while I was at the University of Pittsburgh, but I really didn’t envision myself in a position like this. It’s really gratifying and a little humbling to be here.”

Due to the recent nature of her appointment, Watson declined to further comment on the responsibilities involved in her new role. But she was more than eager to talk about how she got there, she said.

For a while, attending Pitt seemed unlikely to Watson. She knew she wanted a school with an urban environment, but thought she wanted to venture beyond her hometown.

“I really wanted a city campus, and so I was looking at various schools that had city campuses,” Watson said. “My mom said, ‘Well why don’t you look at the University of Pittsburgh?’ And I thought maybe I wanted to go a little further away. But then when I went to the University of Pittsburgh and did a tour, I just fell in love. It was exactly the kind of city campus I wanted.”

Watson began school at Pitt and quickly assimilated to her new academic life. She was considering law school after college, so she pursued a philosophy major.

“The philosophy program in general had really good faculty. I benefited from having a lot of small seminars and classes, so I got to know the faculty well,” Watson said. “It was a really enjoyable learning experience to have those small classes with exciting discussions.”

In addition to philosophy, Watson had a vested interest in social justice. She earned a certificate in women’s studies, and as a requirement, she completed an internship at a Pittsburgh homeless shelter for women.

Upon graduating from Pitt, Watson moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington’s School of Law. She spent her summers working in the office of the Washington state attorney general. Once she graduated from law school, she took a full-time job within the attorney general’s environmental law division.

Watson worked as an attorney for 21 years, where she prosecuted a variety of cases related to climate change, air and water quality and hazardous waste. She also served as the primary lawyer on litigation against the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks.

While her professional life is heavily influenced by environmental science, Watson cites her women’s studies certificate as having a profound impact on her career trajectory.

“When I was in college, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do,” Watson said. “I thought it would probably be law, and having that experience through the internship program at the University of Pittsburgh cemented my desires to work on social justice issues.”

Dr. Frayda Cohen, a professor and advisor for Pitt’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies department, works closely with students and local organizations to coordinate internships. She emphasizes the versatility of social justice-related education.

Our students pursue a wide range of graduate programs and careers. We’ve had many students go to law school, psychology, social work and all of the medical fields,” said Cohen. “Increasingly, graduate schools recognize that diversity training is essential to their success because they may be working on issues of equity and LGBTQ health.”

Pre-law advising can be another resource for students considering law school. Michelle Yingling serves as a career consultant within Pitt’s Career Center for students interested in pre-law and social science fields. Yingling agrees that internships can provide students with pre-professional experience, but maintains that they are not necessary for acceptance to law school.

Applying to law school is unique in that internships are not vital to being competitive in the application process. In fact, law schools don’t require internships or even any specific outside-of-the-classroom experience,” Yingling said.

Rather than focus on gaining law-specific internships, Yingling recommends students pursue opportunities related to their major.

“I encourage most students who really want an internship to start in the field of their major. My guess is they chose the major because they enjoy the subject matter. Why not also enjoy the internship?” said Yingling.

It is young people who are going to grow into the future positions of power, Watson said. As for Pitt students who are looking to get involved with environmental protection, she has some simple advice — vote.

“Thank goodness for the youth movement and all the attention that they are bringing to climate change,” Watson said.