Why are we IGERT fellows?

By Miranda Chase’15

We, the 2015 cohort of the IGERT Costs and Communities program, were all born in the 1980’s. We saw in our homes the fast changes brought by technology, and the path the world was taking towards using natural resources. In Brazil I remember when my parents bought the first telephone for our home. We were the only house in the whole block that had a landline. Our neighbors would often give our number to their families, and when the phone rang, my sister and I would run to their homes and let them know they had got a call.

In that time, my dad bought our first car. Then my mom needed a fax machine for her clinic, and her first cell phone came shortly after. Later we got a computer, and then another one, and another one… You get the idea. Nowadays, across the world, a vast majority of the population is used to having cars, cell phones, computers, dishwashers, etc. And those of us who were born in the 80’s saw these changes inside our homes. They were very good changes. Today the world is more connected, things are more efficient, and there is more information available.

But we, the 80’s kids, also grew up with another thing. We were told that we needed to care for our planet. Our educators took us in nature walks, and taught us about the water and carbon circles. We know, since we were little, that it is important to have a clean environment, to eat healthy, and to have a balanced life. Some of us, might have even been told, that we were the future of the world, and that we would have to save the planet.

We all followed similar and yet different paths. Some of us went to study biology and marine sciences, and others decided to focus more on the social, economic and political aspects of the world. And now we are together (again?). In September 2015, I met my new IGERT fellows. It didn’t take us long to identify with each other. We are very used to modern technology, and yet extremely connect to our natural environment. We use all sorts of online platforms to organize group projects and happy hours. We talk about fish biology, corals, illegal trade, renewable energy, invasive species, environmental stewardship, corporate social responsibility, and the Amazon basin (my favorite topic!).

When we look at each other, we remember why we are here. When we were little we were told to change the world. We are here to change ourselves. We are IGERT scholars because we recognize our limits, and because we see a value in collaboration. We came to this program not because we know everything about our areas of interests, but rather because we need help in addressing issues that are pressing to us. We are here because the changes that happened in our homes have impacted the whole world. And now it is up to us to decide what changes we are going to adopt in our current homes, and what decisions in the world we will influence.

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“Wait… what?”

Christine San Antonio’15

One of the greatest draws to becoming an IGERT fellow is the emphasis the program places on learning to communicate with people outside of your own discipline and especially outside of your own culture. An integral part of our development as transdisciplinary scientists is developing the skills necessary to tackle environmental issues in different geographic regions around the world. This is the basis for our expedition/s to the Horn of Africa – learning as a means to effectively communicate and, in turn, understand technical concepts and complex ideas within another culture. As a scientist, it is a vital skill that allows me to adequately convey the essence of my research, its importance, and especially its significance to my audience.

Needless to say, this is easier said than done. So, I wanted to share a personal experience I had while serving in Fiji as an environmental Peace Corps volunteer that emphasizes this point. I call it a “wait… what??” moment. If you have ever spent a significant amount of time living, working, or volunteering completely immersed in another culture, then you’ve undoubtedly had a similar experience. No matter how open-minded, adaptable, and engaged you might be with your community, miscommunication is unavoidable. What truly matters most in such cases is the approach you take in dealing with such situations and whether you are able to use them as opportunities to learn.

One fine Sunday, I was peacefully zoning out in the back section of our village church during the morning service. It was Youth Day apparently, which induced more people than I even knew we had living in the village, to appear in their Sunday best. Because it was a slightly more special event, service extended on for a good two hours but I was able to follow along enough to know when the preacher had finally reached the last stage and fresh air was just another minute or two away.

Out of nowhere, the young woman sitting next to me leaned in and began to urgently whisper to me in rapid fire Fijian. Snapping out of my reverie, I stared blankly at her, not having taken in a word she said, arched an eyebrow and replied, “a cava??” (“What?”) All the while wondering what the hell could have happened during the two hours we had sat next to each other in silence to make her absolutely need to speak to me two minutes before we would be outside and free to speak anyway.

She began whispering at me again with such vehemence that it sounded like there was a small tank of helium being slowly reprieved of its gas nearby. Meanwhile, everyone in the three rows in front of us and the three rows behind had stopped what they were doing to listen in and to nod their heads in agreement (we were sitting in more or less an all-women’s section). This time I picked up what she was saying:

“Tina, as soon as he finishes speaking you have to get up and run outside to Mita!”

“Wait…what? Why? Where’s Mita?”

“She’s standing outside waiting for you!”

“Why do I have to run to her?”

“Because they’re going to be running after you.”

She said this and gestured toward the section on the other side of the aisle where all the men were sitting. When I looked over I noticed with some concern that they were all shuffling and twisting around and looking antsy. I could tell that some of them were overhearing our conversation and didn’t look happy about it. What the heck??

I tried once more to say “Wait…what??” but just as I got the words out the preacher finished speaking.

“Go Tina! Quick! Quick!” They all started yelling, no longer trying to be discreet. They shoved me into the aisle and as I started to speed walk along, I turned around looking at them for confirmation that I was doing what they wanted and caught a glimpse of the group of men charging at my heels. Whoa! What is going on?!

I got out the door and picked up my pace when I saw Mita standing some twenty feet away with a dish in her hand, perched on a hill like Vana White. I made a beeline towards her and managed to reach her first. She then handed me the dish, which was mounded up with all sorts of holiday type food. As she did so, I noticed all the men that were seemingly seconds away from a tackle, cut their momentum and slinked away looking dejected. The women, who had only just made it out the door, all cheered. Then everyone went back to being normal and I was left standing there with a mountain of food completely lost and on the verge of having a heart attack.

I was called over to my friend’s house for lunch, so I brought the giant dish of food to share hoping to ask her about it. When I broached the topic trying to convey my confusion, she explained it to me in a ‘duh why don’t you know this’ sort of manner:

“Tina, don’t you know Merelita?”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“It’s her newborn’s first church service.”

“Ok…”

“Us Fijians are like that, Tina.”

She was done talking, having explained it fully.

“Wait… what?”

But I didn’t get anything more coherent than that out of her. It took me a while to figure it out on my own but I think I got it. My assumption is that in Fiji, there’s a tradition that if it is your newborn’s first mass, then you have to prepare a dish of nice food and give it to the first person to exit the church, probably for good luck. I’m also assuming that the women just wanted me to get out of the door and over to Mita first so that I would get the food even though everyone else was eligible had they arrived first. That’s my best guess anyway. I was probably the most baffled I had ever been in Fiji, though it wasn’t the first time, nor was it the last.

Moments like this one are common when working across language and cultural barriers. As IGERT fellows, we will travel to the Horn of Africa where these kinds of situations will undoubtedly occur, but by using tools learned in the program, we will be well suited to turn a confusing “wait, what?” moment into an opportunity for cultural exchange and a chance to innovate some more effective means of communication. And just maybe, the process will add a layer of depth to our never-ending quest of becoming transdisciplinary researchers.

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Ballast Water and Interdisciplinarity: A Complex Union

Michael Roy’15

“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a zebra mussel?” Roughly thirty years ago, while sampling the Great Lakes, researchers stumbled upon a mussel that had never been seen in the Lakes before (Carlton, 1996). This particular mussel would result in billions of dollars in damage to infrastructure, and even more spent on eradicating this species (New York Sea Grant 1994). The bivalve in question was the Zebra Mussel; a relatively small freshwater mussel that will grow on practically any substrate and is native to the Black Sea (Carlton 1996). How did it get to the Great Lakes, you may ask? It was a question that took some time to answer, but once it was understood, the implications sent rippling effects throughout much of the world.

The culprit was ballast water, a seemingly innocent component to normal shipping practices. To maintain trim and buoyancy, large commercial tankers pump water from the surrounding harbor into specialized tanks found within their hulls (known as ballast tanks) (Carlton and Geller, 1993). Also contained within this water are dozens of different species, and thousands of individuals per species (Carlton and Geller, 1993). Once all cargo has been loaded, and enough water has been pumped into the ballast tanks, the ship leaves the harbor for its next locale. Therefore, along for the ride are many varieties of species ranging from worms, to crustaceans, to pelagic fish larvae (Carlton and Geller, 1993). These organisms often survive the trip to the next port, where they are released once the ballast tanks are emptied (to load more cargo) (Carlton 1999). This is the hypothesized vector of transport that brought the mussel to the shores of the Great Lakes (Carlton 1996). Transport by means of ballast (including rock and sand ballast) had been known for centuries prior (Carlton 1996). However, the zebra mussel brought the issue transport of non-native species by means of ballast into stark relief because of its major impact on the environmental health and infrastructure surrounding the lakes.

I first became acquainted with this system in the spring of 2011 when I attended the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and the Mystic Seaport, in Mystic CT, fondly known among its alumni as the Williams-Mystic Program. Williams-Mystic is an undergraduate interdisciplinary program that integrates maritime culture, literature of the sea, marine history, maritime law, and marine science to understand the interconnected nature of these disciplines. As connected as the world’s oceans, the Williams-Mystic program understands the connected nature of many fields of study previously thought to be separate and distinct. As such, students from many different backgrounds and a variety of academic institutions attend the Williams-Mystic program every semester, truly learning the value of interdisciplinarity from their professors and each other to solve complex problems with multidimensional solutions.

While at the Williams-Mystic program, I focused on ballast water for my term paper in Maritime Law. Although the zebra mussel was an ecological issue, it also was an economic and political issue. To prevent the spread of any new species by means of ballast water, the state of New York in 2010 passed legislation that would require vessels to treat their ballast tanks with some chemical or ultraviolet light prior to entering the lakes to kill any organisms found inside the ballast tanks (Aquatic nuisance species coalition participation act S145-2011). At this point in time, commercial vessels already needed to flush their tanks in the open water with salt water if the water they were carrying was fresh (the salt water is thought to kill any freshwater organisms that could not tolerate high salinities). However, since many estuarine organisms have highly variable salinity tolerances, New York State believed that ballast water exchange was sampling not effective enough (Aquatic nuisance species coalition participation act S145-2011). Their law indicated that they would block any ships that did not meet their requirements from entering the lakes (Aquatic nuisance species coalition participation act S145-2011). Not only was this a domestic issue for the United States, it was also a geopolitical issue for Canada. Such legislation proposed by a US state would bar shipping through lake Erie the ports in Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior to a sovereign nation. New York has since backed off on some of its stricter requirements, appeasing any conflict with Canada.

However, understanding this complex and highly important issue required an understanding of multiple disciplines (a truly transdisciplinary issue) ranging from scientific, to political, to economic. This training instilled a desire to better understand complex issues from multiple perspectives in order to arrive at the best and most comprehensive solutions to a variety of multifaceted problems. Now that I am a Coasts and Communities Fellow in the Integrative Graduate and Research Traineeship (IGERT), I am able to hone in these skills, and learn in greater detail how to achieve these goals. Transdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs are critical in today’s complex interconnected world, and truly need to be fostered in every aspect of society to solve the world’s most critical issues.

Sources:

Aquatic nuisance species coalition participation act S145-2011 (2011) [http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/bill/S145-2011]

Carlton, J. T., Geller, J. B., (1993) Ecological roulette: the global transport of nonindigenous marine organisms, Science 261: 78-82

Carlton, J. T., (1996) Marine bioinvasions: the alteration of marine ecosystems by non-indigenous species Oceanography, 9:1

Carlton, J. T., (1999) The scale and ecological consequences of biological invasions in the world’s oceans, Invasive Species and Biodiversity Management, 195-212

New York Sea Grant 1994

 

 

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Interdisciplinarity? Breaking down academic borders to benefit everyone

by Connor Capizzano’15

Scientists have historically worked within one field of academic study (discipline) to address specific research questions. However, environmental problems (e.g. conservation, sustainable resources, and climate change) are often too complex and dynamic to be evaluated with a single discipline (Evely et al., 2010). The abundance of commercially- and recreationally-important fish species (e.g. Atlantic cod), for instance, is a major concern due to the potential impact on the surrounding ecosystem and socio-economics of the region. In order to properly investigate such issues and their associated impacts, varying levels of investigation are required. Alexander Jensenius illustrates these degrees of disciplinarity in his online blog where he visually distinguishes between intradisciplinary, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary (see below). Moreover, Evely et al. (2010) lends further information to explain the differences between them.

A modified illustration of Alexander Jensenius’ “Disciplinarities” discussion. Small circles and their placement represent the interaction of academic studies according to each disciplinarity.

Intradisciplinary involves working within a single discipline to answer specific questions. Multidisciplinary is characterized by several different academic disciplines where research participants draw on their own disciplinary knowledge. Although there is no mixing of effort among the multiple disciplines involved, the general goal is to exchange knowledge and compare results. In contrast, interdisciplinary focusses on crossing subject boundaries of multiple disciplines in order to integrate and synthesize new knowledge and methodologies. Finally, transdisciplinary aims to remove these discipline boundaries and integrate research knowledge and methodologies (similarly to interdisciplinary). As described by Evely et al.(2010), transdisciplinary also attempts to assimilate non-academic (e.g. public) participants to answer research goals with newly obtained power.

At the University of Massachusetts Boston, graduate students (fellows) of the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) are being taught the foundations of these disciplinarities and their importance in environmental research. The aptly named “Coasts and Communities” IGERT program at UMass Boston provides interdisciplinary perspectives and training for investigating the effect of prominent environmental issues (e.g. climate change, overfishing, pollution) on the Greater Boston area. This fellowship program aims to increase the knowledge base of its participants in order to mold us into a new generation of scientists. We are being trained to more easily integrate multiple disciplines and potentially “transcend” academic boundaries in order to solve research questions in these intricate ecosystems.

 

UMass Boston's IGERT program fellows of the 2015 cohort on Nantucket Island, MA (not pictured: Greg Davies)

We, at UMass Boston’s IGERT program, were able to visit Nantucket this past September to be educated in this island’s diverse culture and environmental issues. Understanding the dynamic relationship between environment and socio-economics is vital to Nantucket’s thriving existence. As such, interdisciplinary research among varying federal, non-governmental, and academic institutions can possibly alleviate the current problems the island is facing. Adapting successful environmental management plans from elsewhere could allow Nantucketers to harvest its lucrative bay scallop for years to come. Designing renewable energy projects that do not inhibit Nantucket’s historical beauty or the marine ecosystem would be highly beneficial, especially in regards to its growing energy demand. Although we learned of the importance of such integrated approaches to Nantucket’s well-being, we further understood their application elsewhere in the region. It may only be our first semester at UMass Boston and with the Coasts and Communities IGERT program, but we are making great steps forward for addressing issues that affect all of us in Boston.One such complex and dynamic system is the Massachusetts island of Nantucket (25 miles south of Cape Cod’s town of Hyannis) that is world-renowned for its rich history and tourism industry. However, Nantucket and its residents are suffering the erosive power of the Atlantic Ocean, eroding the Siasconset bluff at an average rate of 3 to 4 feet per year with no sign of stopping in the near future. Nantucket maintains the last wild-caught scallop fishery in the United States that is critical to the island’s history, culture, and economy. Despite residential effort to keep this fishery sustainable, the scallop’s essential eelgrass habitat is threatened by increased nutrient levels from both land and water pollution.

Remains of a Nantucket home's foundation due to the island's persistent erosion issue.

Additionally, although separate from the mainland in many ways, Nantucket is dependent on the “continental United States” for stable fuel and electricity, especially during the peak summer tourism season. National Grid is currently supplying the island with electricity via two undersea cables and possibly planning on installing a third due Nantucket’s increasing demand. Although renewable, clean energy projects could instill Nantucket with greater independence (i.e. Cape Wind, the United States’ first offshore wind farm), such plans are often discouraged due to finances and preservation Nantucket’s historical district and landscape.

Stay tuned for our next IGERT post by Peter Boucher!

 

Reference:

Evely, A. C., Fazey, I., Lambin, X., Lambert, E., Allen, S., and Pinard, M. 2010. Defining and evaluating the impact of cross-disciplinary conservation research. Environmental Conservation, 37(4): 442-450.

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