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Staying the Course

Champion rower Kate Ryan’s love of water is propelling her toward a career in environmental policy.

Kate Ryan ’22 has a pact with fellow crew member Eliza Yager ’22 that sets the tone for each rowing season. “Eliza and I promise to pull 10% harder for each other, even if we’re not in the same boat,” says the six-foot senior. “The idea of pulling for your teammates rather than yourself is popular with the entire crew.”

Given the Orange’s performances at the 2021 ACC and NCAA women’s rowing championships, where they respectively finished third and a program-best 10th, the pact has proven successful. Prior to last spring, the women’s rowing team had not placed higher than 12th at the famed NCAA regatta.

Portrait of Kate Ryan

Kate Ryan '22 is a veteran of the 44-year-old women's rowing team, which placed a program-best 10th at the 2021 NCAA championships.

Ryan is integral to the success of the 44-year-old program, which regularly sports five boats. A veteran of the Second Varsity Eight (2V8) boat, Ryan sits behind Yager at the stern, emulating and transmitting her every move to the rest of the crew. Ryan considers Yager more than a pair partner. The latter also is 2V8’s “stroke” rower, the person responsible for setting the stroke rate and intensity. Together, the duo contributes to what is known as “swing” in rowing parlance—the graceful, synchronous alignment of bodies and blades. “Kate and Eliza implicitly trust one another,” says Head Coach Luke McGee. “This breeds confidence and puts everyone else at ease.”

Swing also engenders trust. In a sport where boat and seating assignments hinge on a rigorous ranking system, competition among teammates can be fierce and potentially isolating. “By letting go of the rankings and relying on my coaches to put me where I can make the biggest difference, I am happier and faster on the water,” says Ryan, who usually occupies the No. 7 seat. “I am proud to take another stroke for those sitting behind me.”

Becoming a Global Citizen

Ryan brings a similar determination to academics. A triple major in the College of Arts and Sciences and Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, she studies biology; geography; and environment, sustainability and policy. Her goal is to someday work in environmental policy. “I’m fascinated by how the natural and human sciences impact the environment and sustainability,” says Ryan, a fixture on the Syracuse Athletic Director’s and ACC Academic honor rolls. “Understanding our planet can make us more engaged citizens.”

Kate Ryan Rowing

"I am proud to take another stroke for those sitting behind me," says Ryan (third from left).

Originally a pre-med student, Ryan became interested in plant ecology during a first-year biology course. While everyone else was studying “anatomy and how muscles worked,” she turned her attention to plants—a nod to her rural Connecticut roots. “I think plants are an underrated topic of study. They are so intricate and an important part of our environment.”

Ryan has since had several lightbulb moments. One of them involved a biology lab in Arts and Sciences, where she studied how healthy soil reduces erosion and flooding, as well as mitigates the effects of climate change.

Another was an Honors course called The Role of Science in Environmental Governance, culminating in a fall trip to Geneva, Switzerland. It was there that Ryan participated in the third meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury (COP-3).

Kate Ryan portrait

Ryan in the team’s boathouse, located at the northern tip of Onondaga Lake Park.

Then a second-year student, Ryan says the trip taught her volumes about the mercury cycle—the process by which mercury converts from one form to another. Human activities like coal burning and ore mining, she explains, can contaminate water sources with inorganic mercury. “When converted to methylmercury, this form of mercury can be highly toxic and absorbed in the bodies of fish. Ironically, countries that emit the most mercury, like China and Mexico, have relatively small amounts of fish in their diets,” says Ryan, who recently participated in an online version of COP-4.

I’m fascinated by how the natural and human sciences impact the environment and sustainability. Understanding our planet can make us more engaged citizens.

—Kate Ryan ’22

Named for the Japanese city where mercury cycling was discovered in the 1950s, the Minamata Convention has enabled Ryan to see how science shapes policy. She smiles at the memory of talking to renowned conservation biologist Liz Nichols at COP-3, shortly after the latter presided over a heated debate about convention outcomes. “That meeting solidified Kate’s aspirations to pursue a career in conservation biology and ethics,” says Honors instructor Svetla Todorova G’04, G’11, G’12, also a professor of practice in civil and environmental engineering. “Kate can achieve anything she sets her mind to. She really wants to make a difference.”

Adds Ryan: “COP-3 showed me that everyone there had the same goal, only they went about it differently. Sometimes, policymaking is less about finding a middle ground than finding any common ground at all.”

Achieving the Unexpected

Water has been a constant in Ryan’s life since growing up on the Connecticut River. Her strong build and insatiable work ethic translated well to rowing and sailing, both of which she honed on nearby Long Island Sound. “Being outdoors was my primary mode of entertainment as a teenager,” says Ryan, who was an Academic All-American gymnast during the winter. “There wasn’t much else to do, because the closest city—Hartford—was an hour away.”

Rower Kate Ryan ’22, a triple major at Syracuse, has always been drawn to the water. Kate shares why she’s passionate about environmental policy, particularly mercury cycling; how being student-athlete has helped her time management skills; and what she enjoys most about rowing for the Orange.

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In high school, Ryan was class valedictorian and chapter president of the National Honor Society. She also became a committed Francophile after reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's postwar classic, The Little Prince. “I had a phenomenal high school teacher who assigned it to us,” recalls Ryan, who began studying French in junior high. “She helped me see the humanistic philosophy behind it.” Ryan’s French-language skills later paid off at COP-3, where she was the only Renée Crown University Honors Program student proficient in Switzerland’s native tongue.

Such bravado reflects her liberal arts upbringing. Not one to learn by rote, Ryan considers herself an out-of-the-box thinker. And a stickler for detail. “At the beginning of each semester, I put all of my assignments into Excel, where they can be sorted and filtered by color,” she says. “This way, I can be more efficient with my time and more present to others.” Like native-born and refugee youth, whom she and her teammates tutor through the Office of Engagement Programs in Hendricks Chapel.

Kate Ryan holding paddle

Ryan is a regular at Onondaga Lake, where she trains as a rower and scientist.

Convinced that shared problems can be solved by individual solutions, Ryan is a regular at nearby Onondaga Lake, where she trains as a rower and scientist. The 4.6-mile-long lake, once the country’s most polluted, is in the throes of an aggressive mercury clean-up effort. “Onondaga Lake is a perfect alignment of Kate’s passions, a place where she can put her intelligence and levelheadedness to work,” notes McGee, adding that the team’s 84-year-old boathouse is located at the northern tip of Onondaga Lake Park.

Fascinated by the Clean Water Act (which became law in 1972), Ryan studies policy solutions that inform Onondaga Lake’s site investigations and remediation activities. She says that even though federal attention to mercury clean-up has “slowed and transitioned” to water-quality monitoring programs, she admires the current local determination to restoring the lake’s ecological health and recreational value.

Thus, while gliding across Onondaga Lake—now its cleanest in nearly a century—Ryan often turns inward. She sometimes transports herself to a memorable race in 2019, when she and Yager helped 20th-ranked Syracuse defeat No. 7 Princeton in a “David vs. Goliath” matchup for the ages. “I think about that race a lot, whenever I doubt myself or need the confidence to compete against someone who is supposedly faster or better,” Ryan concludes. “With trust and tenacity, I can achieve the unexpected.”

Syracuse University champions a trailblazing, innovative spirit. When one of us rises, we all rise as Orange. 

Discover how we go beyond.

Rob Enslin

This story was published on .

Also of Interest

  • Hendricks Chapel

    As the heart of Syracuse University, Hendricks Chapel leads in service to our common good as a student-centered global home for religious, spiritual, moral and ethical life.

  • Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs

    The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs is Syracuse University’s home for innovative, interdisciplinary teaching and research in the social sciences, public policy, public administration and international relations. It includes America’s #1 ranked graduate program in public affairs, offering highly regarded professional degrees alongside advanced scholarly degrees in the social sciences, and it is home to undergraduate programs across the full spectrum of social sciences.