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Mark Silberg Alumni Portrait


Mark Silberg, a Hochstein alumnus, began his career in energy as a gas station clerk in Pittsford. Since, he has worked for the Center for Environmental Initiatives, Clean Energy Trust, and The Sustainability Exchange. In 2013, Mark founded Spark Clean Energy, an education nonprofit catalyzing student leadership in clean tech innovation and entrepreneurship. Spark was recently selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to administer the 2015–2018 Cleantech University Prize Program (http://www.sparkcleanenergy.org/energy-innovators-project.html). Currently, Mark is a researcher in energy economics and policy with Dr. Lynne Kiesling at Northwestern University. Their studies explore how market structures and regulatory design influence technological experimentation in the electricity sector. Additionally, Mark serves as a Research Analyst for E9 Energy Insight, an information service focused on the leading areas of new clean energy and consumer technologies transforming the utility industry: energy efficiency, demand management, distributed systems, electric transportation. His previous research projects include environmental ethics, energy and fuel poverty, and the history of international climate change negotiation, concluding with the book Changing Climate Politics; U.S. Policies and Civic Action (Yael Wolinsky-Nahmias, Editor; CQ Press, 2014). He serves on the Board of EnergyFolks and Engineers for a Sustainable World. 

A 2010 Pittsford Sutherland High School graduate, Mark received his B.A. in Philosophy from Northwestern University, minoring in Environmental Policy and Culture with certification in Energy and Sustainability. His honors thesis focused on environmental ethics, inter-spatial and inter-generational technology transfer, and climate change policy and political economy. While at Northwestern, Mark founded the Energy and Sustainability Consortium, the student government's Sustainability Committee, and the university's $50,000 Sustainability Fund.

In August, Mark leaves Chicago, where he’s lived for the past five years, to move to Boulder, Colorado, where he will be beginning a new role at Rocky Mountain Institute, the world’s leading energy and environmental “think and do” tank. 

Recently, we had a chance to sit down with Mark and talk about his experiences with Hochstein.

AR: What and with whom did you study at Hochstein, and for how long? What programs and ensembles did you participate in, and under whom?

MS: I took cello lessons with Joan Kinsella from when I was 6 through High School. That’s about 12 years. I was in Philharmonia under John Fetter for two years, and then my sophomore year of high school I moved up to HYSO under Nancy Strelau.

AR: How did you go from a gas station clerk to becoming involved in clean energy? What got you interested?

MS: When I was 18, I became a vegetarian off a bet. I figured I needed more justification than that, sort of a post-hoc rationalization, so I read the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. He discusses the agricultural system and the technology involved in raising the meat we eat, issues which affect why people may or may not be vegetarians.

It’s interesting, immediately after that, in my freshman year of college, I lived in the “green” dorm at Northwestern. That was a really great opportunity for me, because as a philosophy major I was building relationships with materials science majors, future lawyers, and engineers. They were all looking at the practical solutions for environmental issues, and I began to study the philosophy of those same issues. I really believe you need everyone to get the solutions that we’re arriving at today. A few years ago, no one imagined that we would be here, but the economics—the business models—are changing to allow solar energy and wind energy to be really feasible.

Spark Clean Energy helps young people to go from the side that they may feel is their only option in the clean energy debate—the side of protest, of writing to their policy makers and taking a politically active stance—to seeing themselves in a more active role as the future leaders in this market. We set them up with the right tools so that they themselves make the difference. It allows them to build a career which is not only fulfilling but which is effective in enacting the environmental changes we want to see.

AR: When and how did you first become interested in music? How did you begin to study at Hochstein?

MS: When I was five, my mom and I went to see a show on the Hochstein stage. I think it was Little Red Riding Hood. After the show we went upstairs, and they were having an Instrument Petting Zoo. I remember the cello room too—this room on the left of a tan hallway, on the second floor of Hochstein. I remember holding the cello and drawing the bow across the strings. I was obsessed. I bugged my parents for the next year to get a cello. The next fall I started lessons on a restrung viola—I was a short kid—but I was hooked.

AR: Can you share one or two of your favorite memories from your time at Hochstein?

MS: Definitely one that stands out is the Italy and Switzerland trip with HYSO in 2009. There was a horrific, massive earthquake two to three weeks before we got to Italy. I remember being in this 15th century church in Florence, grey stonewalls, and the place kind of smelled like sewage. We were playing our set to an audience of maybe a dozen or so, until we got to Barber’s Adagio. Nancy Strelau, our conductor, had announced at the beginning that we would be dedicating that piece to the victims of the Italian earthquake. It was a transcendental experience for me. People were pouring in off the streets like they were being pulled in by the music. It was music like I hadn’t experienced before. You go to Hochstein Saturday mornings and you eat breakfast and hang out with your friends, and you’re making music, but this was different. The connection was so powerful, it was a legitimate exchange of culture through music.

Then there are all the little moments, like playing hide and seek around Hochstein as a kid or taking group Suzuki lessons Saturday mornings. I definitely appreciated seeing all the other people in my studio develop as people and musicians as you go through years of playing recitals together. Hochstein is great because it’s always a home. You spend so much time there and it not only becomes part of the identity you give to Rochester as a city, but it becomes part of your own identity.

AR: What do you take away from your Hochstein education? How has it impacted your life/career currently?

MS: I think being a musician, especially in a group, teaches you how to be a leader. I didn’t realize until I was in college—I played for two years in an orchestra there, which wasn’t very good—how great HYSO was. Not just individual talents, but it’s like you are constantly operating an airplane where everyone has their own set of controls. You have to be aware of everyone around you, and still fly with them. The conductor helps, but it’s definitely the ownership of the group to be sensitive to those around them. It doesn’t work if anyone’s ego gets in the way of the group, because you’re all flying the same plane.

At the same time, it teaches you how to be a follower. In the business world, it’s not necessarily a prerequisite to be aware of everyone else, to anticipate how they will do something. They don’t have to play off each other in the same way, or step back and listen even while you’re making something together. It’s that sort of leader-follower relationship that helps me bond with musicians even now.

AR: Do you have advice for people who study music and/or dance who want to stay involved, but don’t intend to go into the field of music?

MS: Carry music with you no matter what you’re doing. There are always avenues to be involved, even if you’re not going pro.

AR: If you had to share one or two reflections regarding your music studies and/or the work you do now with the students of the Hochstein Youth Symphony Orchestra, what would you want them to know?

MS: Don’t let who you are now define who you will become. Respect experiences now and the good they will do no matter where your life goes. Music will always be there.

AR: Tell us a bit about your plans for the future!

MS: In August 2015, I will be moving to begin a new role at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Boulder, CO. I will remain on the board of directors for Spark Clean Energy, and oversee the Energy Innovators Project/DOE grant as a principal investigator.