Embracing the Career Squiggle: From Environmental Sciences at UW–Madison to Environmental Specialist at Alliant Energy

In our “Where Are They Now?” series, current student interns interview former students about their experience at the Office of Sustainability (OS), particularly how that experience has helped them since graduation. In the following entry, Brynne Hill relates her conversation with Mackenzie Thelen, a student who was involved in research within the OS.

Mackenzie Thelen, a former undergraduate student at UW–Madison, exemplifies how a student can transform their passion into a career. 

Mackenzie’s passion for the environment was sparked by her global travels in high school. One trip in particular, to the French Alps, inspired and motivated her.

“It was one of those moments realizing there is this beautiful nature out there and generations ahead of us may not get to experience it,” she said. “ I want to protect it to make sure that other generations can have these experiences as well.” 

Mackenzie, donning her black graduation robes with red collar, smiles while seated on a terrace chair in front of Lake Mendota.
Mackenzie, donning her graduation robes, smiles while seated on a terrace chair.

Mackenzie went on to pursue sustainability in college, as she questioned more deeply how people interact with the environment. Through an introductory course on renewable energy systems (BSE367: Renewable Energy Systems)—which Mackenzie continues to recommend to students finding their way in the field—she committed to environmental sciences and entered the world of sustainable energy.

She dedicated herself to a double major in Environmental Sciences and Geography, with a certificate in Engineering for Energy Sustainability. In addition to her studies, Mackenzie contributed to UW–Madison’s Campus Sustainability Map under the Office of Sustainability. After graduating in 2021, she joined Alliant Energy as an environmental specialist and now shares her experience with any readers seeking guidance in the sustainability field.

Mackenzie attested to the valuable skills she learned in her courses—in particular, the importance of “being able to take material from all different types of mediums and all different areas and figure out how it connects together to create a cohesive story.” This skill translates into her current career at Alliant Energy, where she compiles complex policies and documents into digestible reports for diverse audiences. 

In addition to her coursework, Mackenzie joined the Ethical and Responsible Business Network, a student org where she learned about sustainability consulting and sustainability-related practices in local businesses. Mackenzie was also a member of the student organization MadTappers, a small tap-focused dance ensemble that performs multiple times a year around the Madison community.

“This always brought energy to my week,” Mackenzie said, highlighting the importance of maintaining interests outside of one’s career path. 

In Mackenzie’s senior year, COVID-19 halted her plans to intern at Alliant Energy. But, after reaching out to her former professor Cathy Middlecamp to get involved with the Office of Sustainability, she was able to work with graduate student Audrey Stanton to design UW–Madison’s Campus Sustainability Map. Based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the map provides a valuable resource for students, staff, and faculty who wish to understand how UW–Madison interacts with sustainability in social, environmental, and economic perspectives.

Mackenzie stands in front of a majestic view at Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Mackenzie stands in front of a majestic view at Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

After COVID-related restrictions moderated, Mackenzie reconnected with Alliant Energy for an internship, which served as an important learning experience and narrowed down her interests in the sustainability field. She learned that regulatory policy was not a route she was interested in but continued to make the most of the internship experience by networking with those in the field. A few months after the internship ended, she received a call from the company about an open position in corporate sustainability and reporting, which she applied for and received. 

“It’s all about taking those opportunities,” Mackenzie said. “Even if the internship ends up being something you don’t necessarily want to do, it may become an opportunity down the road or open new doors and interests.” 

Mackenzie made herself known to the company by applying the skills and knowledge she gained from her four years at UW–Madison and now applies her passion for sustainability in a rewarding career. Working as an Environmental Specialist at Alliant Energy for a little over two years, Mackenzie has been involved in numerous groups within the company, ranging from public affairs and emerging issues to environmental justice. In this space, she successfully learned to express her ideas with greater confidence and combat the very real post-undergraduate imposter syndrome. 

She noted that she continues to discover new interests through projects in her work, reflecting the field’s tendency toward a career squiggle. The career squiggle, a mindset that breaks down the idea of a straightforward “career path,” welcomes individuals to embrace change and possibilities when considering their career journey. With this mindset, the sustainability field stands out as a particularly exciting space due to the multitude of facets and opportunities it holds for career exploration. 

When asked for final advice to undergraduate students, Mackenzie released a bright smile and said:

“Stay persistent. This was advice that I got when looking for jobs and I tried to hold on to it, and now I want to share it with other people who are passionate about something.”