by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
This fall, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) welcomes to Annapolis four new postdoctoral fellows who represent a diversity of impressive synthesis efforts. Their data-intensive postdoctoral projects, co-developed with SESYNC research collaborators from across the U.S. and Canada, were selected from 33 competitive proposals—and we are honored to have them join our research community!
Kristina Hopkins, PhD University of Pittsburgh
Dr. Kristina Hopkins is a hydrologist interested in urban impacts on aquatic ecosystems and sustainable stormwater management practices. At SESYNC, she will investigate how the historical evolution of city governance influences contemporary responses to stormwater challenges.
“My doctoral research was rooted in the physical sciences: looking at land use, topography, and how the physical environment constrains where water flows,” said Krissy. “For my postdoctoral project, I wanted to look more at the political and social side of urban stormwater management systems. Who’s in charge of various aspects of water management can differ greatly among cities: for example, in Pittsburgh, there are 83 different municipalities that all control a certain aspect of sewage infrastructure—it’s very complicated and complex. In other cities, there may be only one regulating entity. At SESYNC, I’ll be looking at how governing structures in four different cities shape stormwater policy reforms and trends in green infrastructure implementation.”
Many doctoral and postdoctoral programs are disciplinary, and scholars work alongside others with similar backgrounds and training. But SESYNC’s research priorities—focused on the complex problems that arise at the intersection of human and ecological systems—necessitate a diverse spectrum of scholars and perspectives. Accordingly, our postdoctoral fellows range from a human ecologist to a marine resource manager and a mathematical sociologist to a conservation biologist.
“I think it’s beneficial to be exposed to a breadth of expertise outside of your own,” Krissy said, “because there’s a lot you can learn from what other people are doing, even though their research may appear extraneous to your own. A simple conversation can lead to an insight that bolsters your project in unexpected ways.”
Krissy’s research collaborator is Dr. Nancy Grimm of Arizona State University.
Matthew LaFevor, PhD University of Texas at Austin
Dr. Matthew LaFevor is a human–environment geographer working in agriculture and conservation. At SESYNC, he will synthesize the diverse literature and extensive databases on global terracing projects from around the world into a broader methodological, conceptual, and spatial framework.
Explaining his interest in this project, Matt says: “I view agricultural systems as among the most complex of socio-environmental systems. Understanding them requires interdisciplinary thinking and, ultimately, collaborative research. Agricultural terracing is one of the most fascinating forms of hillslope modification and human use of the biophysical environment. People have been studying terracing for more than 50 years, but have focused almost exclusively on individual case studies. The SESYNC fellowship is giving me the time, facilities, and funding to sit down with these data and find some meaning in all of it—finding some trends and patterns in what works and what doesn’t. I hope what I find will help inform government policy, especially in Latin America, where new terraces are being built over vast swaths of land in an attempt to mitigate soil and water degradation or climate change. I’m not sure these programs are currently being carried out effectively.”
Matt was particularly drawn to the SESYNC fellowship’s emphasis on research partnerships. “When I saw SESYNC’s focus on collaboration, I thought, this is something I really need and want to do in order to be able to answer the types of complex questions that I’m interested in. My work is interdisciplinary, so it is good to be in an environment where people participate in and encourage interdisciplinary thinking, and where I can learn from those who specialize in theory and methods I need to better understand.”
Matt’s research collaborator is Dr. Alexandra Ponette-González of the University of North Texas.
Jampel Dell’Angelo, PhD Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and Sapienza Università di Roma
Dr. Jampel Dell’Angelo’s research centers on integrated assessments of environmental governance dynamics and socio-ecological conflicts. At SESYNC, he will investigate the interplay between institutions and extensive land acquisitions in social-ecological systems where water resources are limited, a phenomenon recently coined as “water grabbing.”
“The concept of water grabbing is extremely new and novel,” Jampel said. “It’s been treated as one dimension of land grabbing, but the basis for a systematic analysis of water grabbing been only very recently been formalized. Water grabbing is a global trend, and so a synthesis approach involving large amounts of data is likely to give foundational insight into the processes, patterns, and influences of this phenomenon.”
Jampel is particularly attracted to SESYNC’s emphasis on science that is actionable—i.e., science that can inform decisions at the government, business, and household levels; improve the design or implementation of public policies; and/or influence public and/or private sector strategies, planning, and norms that affect the environment.
“Researchers in resource management need to be flexible,” he said. “You may predefine a research agenda but later find that the stakeholders’ sense of a problem is quite different from an academic sense of that problem. If you want your research to have meaning outside of the ivory tower, and if you want it to be relevant and useful for the people on the ground, then involving the perspective of impacted communities is one of the most important things a researcher can do. Rhetorically, it’s easy. Practically, it can be a real challenge because of competing stakeholder interest and resultant conflict.”
Jampel’s research collaborator is Dr. Paolo D’Odorico of the University of Virginia.
Lauren Yeager, PhD Florida International University
Dr. Lauren Yeager is an ecologist interested in how environmental patterns and variation influence the structure and function of coastal marine communities. At SESYNC, she will examine how human disturbance affects the productivity and stability of fisheries stocks through changes in diversity, species distributions, and biophysical variables.
“Coral reefs are hyper-diverse, and they’re also one of the most threatened habitats in the world,” said Lauren. “As they experience more local and global environmental impacts, it becomes increasingly difficult—and important—to understand what contributes to their community structure and function, and what supports the various ecosystem services they provide. At SESYNC, I’ll be working toward quantifying human impacts to these communities, and in turn how those impacts affect the communities’ capacity to provision ecosystem services such as fisheries production.”
A data-driven postdoctoral fellowship at SESYNC is a logical next step in Lauren’s research career, she says, because “while field work is a great way to familiarize yourself with the details of one island, as in the case with coral reefs, it becomes logistically difficult to move beyond getting a really good understanding of that single system. To appreciate how multiple systems operate across regions or across the globe, you have to work at a larger scale. That becomes next to impossible if you’re collecting all the data, such as measurements on bathometric scope, sea surface temperature, structural complexity, the number of human residents, and what fish species are harvested, yourself. A synthesis approach enables you to answer questions you can’t answer with field work alone.”
Lauren’s research collaborators are Dr. Julia Baum of the University of Victoria and Dr. Jana McPherson of the Center for Conservation Research, Calgary Zoological Society.