For Potoczak, '15, an Environmental Blog Becomes a Thesis

More than a body of work, The Climate Pickle aims to be an ongoing conversation among Millennials

Olivia Potoczak, '15, at Mauna Kea, Hawai'i, during a geology class trip.
Olivia Potoczak, '15, stands atop a pahoehoe lava flow during a 2013 Geology Department regional field trip to Hawaii.

By John Perney | June 23, 2015

“Night had finally swallowed the daylight, but lightning bolts hurtled through the storm clouds, illuminating its path like a flashlight. The supercell felt so close that I wanted to reach my hand out and touch it. Push it away.

“Voices of meteorologists crackled through the speakers. ‘This storm is slowly trudging through central Iowa. Be aware that tornado warnings are lasting unusually long … These are powerful storms. …”

“Unusual. Long lasting. Different.”

Olivia Potoczak, ’15, is passionate about writing and environmental issues, climate change in particular. But where those disciplines intersect, the Birmingham, Michigan native can’t help but notice a trend separate from that of rising global temperatures.

“Most of the climate-change talk is happening from older people who are teachers, professors and scientists, and generally who are men,” said Potoczak, who graduated last month with English Department honors and also minored in geology. “There are not a lot of climate-change female writers that I can find. And I think it’s important to talk to our generation, because we are the ones who are going to live the longest, most likely, with the effects of climate change.”

Potoczak’s interest in sparking an informed climate-change conversation among fellow Millennials grew into something more substantial: a senior thesis, but in blog form. Throughout her senior year, The Climate Pickle: True Stories About Climate Change Written by a Millennial for the Millennials featured posts ranging from the informational and scientific to the whimsical and even lyrical.

“I’d have posts where I go into my emotions and use poetic language, and then there would be ones with more of a narrative to try to really get at this climate-change topic,” Potoczak said. “I was researching constantly about climate-change news, and that’s where my geology minor comes in. I took Glaciers and Climate Change [Geology 306] with Thom Wilch, and that taught me how to read the language of the science and then write about it in ways that are reachable to people.”

I wish I could paint a beautiful and vivid picture of what it is like to see a glacier in person. …

I am young. There is time to travel to the US’s Glacier National Park or other mountain peaks and witness the glory of these icy creatures, but time’s running short for glaciers all around the world.

In as little as 15 years, the mountains once capped in thick layers of slow-moving ice will be gone. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

“Her personality rang out in her sentences,” said English professor Nels Christensen about Potoczak’s writing even in her first year at Albion, adding that, four years later, “She brings a young person’s sensibility, built on a scientific foundation, to a field generally thought to belong to folks my age and much older.”

Christensen served as Potoczak’s faculty adviser for what turned out to be a rather unique vehicle for a thesis, featuring writings with titles such as “California, Hold onto Your Water,” “What’s the Deal with Smog?” and “The Pentagon Believes!”

Olivia Potoczak, '15, with a hard copy of her thesis, <em>The Climate Pickle</em>. The Birmingham, Michigan native was a co-recipient of the English Department's 2015 Senior Writing Prize.
Potoczak holds a hard copy of her thesis, The Climate Pickle. The Birmingham, Mich., native was a co-recipient of the English Department's 2015 Senior Writing Prize.

“Everyone involved is pleased with how it turned out,” he said. “The strange part about it, though, is coming to terms with what—and where—exactly ‘it’ is. I mean, in one sense, the thesis is a bound document just like any other. I have a copy on my bookshelf. But The Climate Pickle is also, at this very moment, shooting around in the ‘interworld,’ getting liked or tagged or whatever by people looking for it or just stumbling across it. There’s something exciting to me about that.”

The Climate Pickle also has a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which helped bring in as many as 30 visits a day to the blog during the spring semester. Potoczak paused her blog to formally produce her thesis, present at the Elkin R. Isaac Student Research Symposium and focus on concluding her Albion career, which included sharing the English Department’s Senior Writing Prize.

“[Nels] has pushed my writing,” Potoczak said. “Instead of just plateauing, he kept pushing me to get better and better, and to find my voice as a writer. The more you write, the better you get.”

She plans to restart The Climate Pickle soon and pursue an M.F.A. in environmental and creative writing in the next year or two. Speaking of the next couple of years, “With the elections coming up, people’s stances on climate change are going to be really important,” Potoczak said.

While she uses the art of the written word to express her own stance on the issue, what exactly is it in a straightforward nutshell?

“Right now we’re kind of at the point where if we don’t start doing things to lessen the effects of climate change, we’re going to start screwing ourselves over,” Potoczak said. “There are little effects now, but they are only going to get worse.”