In Spotlights

Purba Mukerjee – Clinical Teaching Fellow, UC Berkeley School of Law

Purba Mukerjee is a fellow in Berkeley’s Environmental Law Clinic, where she supervises law students representing clients in public interest environmental matters. Purba focuses on matters implicating environmental health, such as exposure to air pollution and toxic chemicals. Before graduating from Berkeley Law in 2015, Purba earned a Master’s degree in organic chemistry and worked as a chemist in academic and private research settings. After law school, Purba clerked at the D.C. Court of Appeals and was a fellow at the Center for Biological Diversity. Purba will clerk in the 2019 term at the federal district court in Chicago.

What is the educational and career path that led to your current career?

I’ve always been motivated and compelled to do work that serves the public. I began my career training as a chemist, focusing on research areas such as biofuels and drug development. Eventually, I decided I wanted to do work with a more direct public impact than bench science, so I decided to pursue a career in law. I was drawn to environmental law for the opportunity to make a large-scale impact; rather than working on the individual-client scale, I wanted work on an issue scale, serving entire communities, populations, and even generations. I also thought environmental practice would be a great outlet for my chemistry training (and it is!).

How did you become interested in environmental work? 

My engagement with environmental issues began with a fourth-grade science fair project. I had teamed up with my best friend at the time, and we decided to do a project comparing air and water quality in our home environment, which, for context, was a rural, rust-belt town in Pennsylvania with a massive oil refinery in the center of town.  I lived less than a mile from the refinery. My friend, meanwhile, lived several miles away, in a more affluent neighborhood, nestled in the beautiful wooded hills surrounding our town.

Over several weeks, my friend and I diligently collected air and water samples, and when the much-anticipated testing day arrived, I was devastated by the results. My friend’s samples were pristine, and mine were dramatically worse. I was certain there had to be an error. I demanded retesting, but each time, the results were the same. And then came the tears.

Little fourth-grade me felt so ashamed and embarrassed to be associated with a lesser quality space. Seeing tears, my friend’s mother rushed to the rescue, pulled me aside, and explained something that seems so obvious to my adult self: the substandard physical qualities of my environment were neither my fault nor a representation of who I was as a person.

At the science fair, our project won the first place ribbon. Although I did not realize this at the time, the real lesson from this project was that impacts of environmental harms reach far beyond physical spaces and human health. Environmental harms can rob people of their dignity too.

Discuss any mentors that have helped or inspired you to reach your aspirations.

My current supervisor and mentor Claudia Polsky, Director of Berkeley’s Environmental Law Clinic, has long been an inspiration to me. Her combined focus on advocating in underdeveloped issue spaces and serving under-resourced communities drew me to the Clinic. Claudia is an incredibly creative lawyer; although she is a seasoned litigator, she approaches environmental problems by trying to figure out how a lawyer can best serve a community or cause, rather than running to court. By working with Claudia, I’ve learned to deploy a variety of tools to advance an advocacy position. Finally and importantly, Claudia seems to have miraculously mastered balancing a very demanding professional career with a full and fulfilling personal life. As a green lawyer (in both senses of “green”), I’m still working on finding that balance, and it’s so meaningful to have role models like Claudia to demonstrate that this balance is attainable!

Want to connect with Purba? You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Purba also recently became a contributor for the online blog Legal Planet; you can find her recent article on GHG emissions here.