In her role as a researcher and organizer with Public Citizen’s Texas office, Stephanie Thomas wears multiple hats. Since joining the organization in 2016, Thomas has focused on improving air quality and chemical security in the Houston area. She advocates policies to provide the public with timely and relevant information to protect their health. Through the Healthy Port Communities Coalition, of which Public Citizen is a part, Thomas helps vulnerable communities adapt to changing climate conditions while promoting economic growth. She was instrumental in the launch of a campaign called “Who Pays for Harvey?” – designed to highlight how industries responsible for climate-changing emissions should help pay for cleanup after climate disasters like Hurricane Harvey. Thomas also helped launch the Houston Climate Movement, which advocates local action on climate. The group has been successful in persuading the city of Houston to develop a climate action plan.
Thomas obtained her bachelor’s degree in geology from Tulane University, holds a master’s degree in geosciences from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and received her doctorate in earth sciences from Southern Methodist University. She also has a certificate in Buddhist chaplaincy from the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, N.M.. While working toward her doctorate, Thomas trained as a research and teaching assistant at Southern Methodist University by directing field research in China. Thomas also interned at Chevron in graduate school and worked her way up to becoming an earth scientist at the company. Before coming to Public Citizen, Thomas worked at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, providing spiritual care to patients and families from 2015 to 2016.
Q: What spurred your interest in geology?
Thomas: I decided to major in geology because I was interested in the stories that rocks told. From the rising of seas and the formation of mountains to the growth and extinction of animals and plants, rocks actually have a lot to say about the earth’s history. What geology taught me is that even single-celled organisms can change the composition of the atmosphere. There is oxygen for us to breathe because of the evolution of cyanobacteria over 2 billion years ago. Geology has given me a greater appreciation of time and Earth’s evolution.
Q: What was it like working for the oil and gas industry? And how does it feel to be working now for a group that watchdogs the oil and gas industry?
Thomas: Working for oil and gas was interesting because a lot of research, science and technology go into producing the oil and gas that many Americans take for granted. That said, a lot of politics go into maintaining the industry’s dominance in the energy sector, even as we’ve learned over the past 30 or more years about the danger of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Methods of extracting oil and gas are becoming more extreme. We need a just transition away from fossil fuels. I’m proud of the work that I do with Public Citizen. I envision a world where people can drink clean water and breathe fresh air, and to get there, we need to defend the rights of communities and workers to lead healthy and safe lives. We also need to hold corporations and the U.S. government accountable when people are put in harm’s way.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
Thomas: I hula hoop and go on adventures with my friends and my dog. Texas has hot summers, so now that fall is here, it’s camping season!
Q: How has obtaining a certificate in Buddhist chaplaincy informed your current work at Public Citizen?
Thomas: Many of the skills that I developed during that training I continue to carry with me. I learned how to sit with discomfort and listen deeply. I developed a deeper understanding of Buddhist practices, which, during times like these when we get lots of heavy news, can provide a way to cope. The government is rolling back regulations, voter suppression is widespread, discrimination and bigotry abound. A regular meditation practice has been helpful for me to pause and reflect on my role in this struggle and look at the bigger picture.
Q: What is your favorite place in Houston?
Thomas: The Rothko Chapel is a magical and marvelous interfaith chapel that supports human rights and social justice. Fourteen dark paintings from artist Mark Rothko line the walls of the chapel and invite visitors deep into the abyss of silence and contemplation.