SESYNC Welcomes Dr. Mary Collins

Mary CollinsThe National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is pleased to welcome our newest Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Mary B. Collins.

Socio-Ecological Drivers of Dengue Risk & Human Mortality in Dynamic Urban Ecosystems of Colombia

Harish’s research focuses on the vulnerability of human health to social and ecological variation at policy-relevant spatial and temporal scales. He integrates empirical and theoretical approaches to study how human and non-human responses to environmental change impact diseases and life history tradeoffs. Specifically, he has been studying how interactions between human and mosquito adaptation to water scarcity and thermal conditions influence the epidemiology of dengue virus across an altitude gradient in Colombia.

Endangered Species Day 2013

May 16, 2013

ES Day

Postdoctoral Fellow

In 2006, the U.S. Senate designated the third Friday of May as Endangered Species Day to raise awareness about imperiled species and the successes in species recovery due to protections by the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the ESA.

Endangered species recovery is a socio-environmental issue because species conservation involves not only the species of concern, but also the human populations that interact with the species. For example, people may depend upon the use of resources, such as timber in an endangered species’ habitat, and protection of that habitat may change or even eliminate that resource’s availability. Wildlife managers must balance these social and economic considerations with the species’ ecological requirements when creating recovery plans to conserve species.

Because each species has a unique combination of specific biological needs, threats, and social context, management actions and recovery goals can vary tremendously among species. However, that does not necessarily mean that recovery plans are inconsistent or not based on the best available science. As a postdoc at SESYNC, my research aims to understand to what extent the recovery targets for endangered species are based on species’ needs, which are relatively transparent, compared to social, political, or economic factors, which are often not explicitly stated in the recovery plans. One of the goals of this work is to encourage more transparency in the managers’ decision-making process. This research would also quantify relationships between recovery targets and various species attributes, which may be used to establish targets for species with too little biological data to set species-specific targets. There are many such species, including the majority of the 338 Hawaiian plant species that are listed under the ESA.

Celebrate this year’s Endangered Species Day by learning about the endangered and threatened plant and animal species in your area, or listening to the success stories about species that have improved their status on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website. To find out more about Endangered Species Day, including events in your area and podcasts by the Endangered Species Coalition, visit If you are in the Washington, D.C., area, consider attending the Endangered Species Day events at the U.S. Botanic Garden on May 17.

Click here to learn more about Judy.

Agriculture & Cultural Landscapes: A Reflection on the AAG Annual Meeting

May 9, 2013

Rachel at farmers market
Rachel at a farmers market in Los Angeles.


Graduate Research Assistant

As one of the discipline’s five themes, human-environment interactions are foundational to the field of Geography. Two-way relationships between humans and the environment affect physical and cultural landscapes. This year’s Association of American Geographers (AAG) annual meeting in Los Angeles, CA, offered several thought-provoking sessions around one of the most fundamental human-environment interactions: agriculture.

At this year's meeting, I participated in a paper session entitled “Interracial Dynamics in Urban Agriculture or (How) Race Matters in Urban Agriculture." Presenters addressed human-environment interactions and, in particular, how they play out through cultural landscapes in urban settings. Cultural and ethnic groups engaged in urban agriculture often leave group imprints—which can be structural, aesthetic, linguistic, and ecological—on the community gardens and farms in which they work. For example, in their research on Puerto Rican community gardens in New York City, Laura Saldivar-Tanaka and Marianne E. Krasny point to casitas (small wooden houses used for leisure and cultural activities) and ethnic vegetable crops (such as brujo [oregano], sweet peppers, and kimbombo) as reflecting the gardeners' country of origin.

My paper in development, entitled "Sustainable agriculture in the Jewish community: A Baltimore, Maryland case study," explores a new Jewish cultural landscape emerging on a sustainable community farm. In developing a new cultural landscape, the humans involved on the farm interact with and thus impact the surrounding environment—for instance, by producing etrogs, an otherwise obscure citrus fruit used for ritual activity during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The farm's resultant, bucolic setting reflects Jewish culture, history, and tradition based on crop variety, architecture, and ritual structures.

Cultural landscapes are a product of human impacts on the environment, but the interaction goes both ways: the surrounding environment (be it a rural farm, urban community garden, or individual-size backyard plot) impacts human culture and behavior. Elements of agriculture may be normalized or incorporated into a farmer's preexisting culture or lifestyle. Agricultural activity may also present new educational and economic opportunities. In his paper “Race, Community Geography, and the Development of an Urban Agriculture Curriculum and Community Partnerships at a Predominately African-American University,” Daniel Block described a new urban agricultural initiative at Chicago State University (CSU), a predominantly African-American institution. The urban agricultural project is intended for the development of black entrepreneurship. CSU's initiative intends to use agriculture as a vehicle for professional development and entrepreneurial endeavors.

While in Los Angeles, I spent time investigating the cultural landscapes surrounding agriculture both within and outside the AAG meeting. My investigation took an experiential turn as I checked out several farmers markets throughout the city. The produce, signage, and vendors reflected cultures different from those in my hometown, and this variation was apparent through the markets' cultural landscapes. For example, I learned how to best prepare and serve cactus leaves (a plant non-native to the DC metro area). Try them in a smoothie! As local farming initiatives continue to grow and diffuse throughout the United States, I look forward to exploring the new human-environment interactions and cultural landscapes that emerge.

Meet Our Postdocs: Drew Gerkey

April 29, 2013

Drew Gerkey

Name: Drew Gerkey
Institution: SESYNC
Hometown: Stillwater, MN
Field of Study: Anthropology

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I was an English Literature and Anthropology major in college. I decided to continue studying Anthropology in graduate school for two reasons. First, I found it exciting and challenging to document and understand cultural variation, to learn about different ways of understanding and being in the world. Before entering graduate school, I hadn’t traveled much abroad, so this had mostly been an intellectual exercise. I was excited to have a chance to experience some of these challenges firsthand and try to apply scholarly work on the ground. The opportunity to travel to amazing and interesting places and meet new people is definitely a perk of being an anthropologist, so I suppose that’s a second reason I chose to continue studying Anthropology. I love books and I love libraries, but it’s fun to be out there interacting with new people and places.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher?

I’m always thankful for the way my job as a researcher allows me the flexibility and resources to pursue questions and ideas that I find exciting, perplexing, and important. I love learning and teaching, so to have a job that lets me make a living doing both is great.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist?

It’s hard to identify a single characteristic, but I think passion is probably the key to being a successful researcher. From what I’ve seen, the best scholars are passionate about the work they do. Whether it’s the ideas they explore or the issues they address that drive them most, you need to be passionate about your work in order to slog through the challenges you encounter along the way.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most?

Anthropologists travel quite a bit and spend long periods of time away from home. People often assume that’s one of the hardest parts of the job, and it certainly is, but not necessarily for the reasons one might think. We spend enough time in the places where we work to develop connections to the people there. So the pull goes in both directions. When we’re traveling, we feel the pull of home, and when we’re home, we feel the pull of the places where we work. It can be unsettling, but it’s also important part of our process, and we learn from it.

What’s your favorite theory?

Right now, I’m excited about network theory. It provides some concepts and tools for scholarly research that are truly unique, and it’s easy to see how these ideas apply to wide variety of practical issues in the world today. For someone interested in synthesizing research across disciplines, it also gives us a shared framework that can be used by researchers working in very different contexts. Though network theory has a long intellectual tradition, there is also a sense that new insights are arising all the time, which makes it exciting to follow.

What are you reading right now?

For work, I’m reading two books (in addition to bottomless virtual folders of .pdf articles):

  1. Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation, by Lee Cronk and Beth Leech
  2. Social Networks and Natural Resource Management: Uncovering the Social Fabric of Environmental Resource Governance, edited by Örjan Bodin and Christina Prell

For pleasure, I’m trying to find time to read the newest book by one of my favorite authors:

  1. The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office, what would it be?

It’s a sad truth, but I can’t imagine what would happen if I lost my laptop, so I would grab that without thinking of my safety. But I also wouldn’t hesitate to push my luck and grab one more essential item, my Swingline High Capacity/Reduced Effort stapler. It hasn’t met a journal article it couldn’t handle.

Click here to read more about Drew.


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