Climate change has often been proclaimed as humanity’s greatest challenge, with the expectation that it will affect every industry, every sector of society, and every individual’s lives. Thanks to the efforts of researchers, NGO’s, outreach organizations, government institutions, and others, we now understand many of the complex, interlinked the human and natural mechanisms behind climate change well enough to make predictions about the future. Read more Now that much of the uncertainty has been reduced regarding the mechanisms and large-scale effects of climate change, many new challenges have come to light. We currently struggle with how to engage decision-makers and the public in adaptation efforts and formulate strategies that will be effective and actionable at a community level. To address these fundamental challenges, my research involves translating climate change and other broad-scale issues into locally-relevant contexts and understanding how human cognition and decision-making operate as key factors in both the problem and solution.
This research interest has led me to engage in research both locally and abroad. My work in Boston, MA has focused on expanding a flood adaptation initiative funded by Massachusetts State Senator William Brownsberger. When Dr. Ellen Douglass of UMass Boston was approached by Senator Brownsberger to create a hydrological model that would predict climate change’s impacts on flooding intensity in Boston, I was invited to join the project and add a social impact component. The goal became to develop an integrated modeling framework in which the outputs of climate change-informed hydrological models would be run through predictive social impact models in order to translate climate change impacts into locally-relevant, tractable terms that can better inform adaptation efforts. I spent much of the Fall and Spring interviewing water managers in Boston to learn about the city’s flooding dynamics and what impacts are most urgent to managers. With this information, I constructed a series of models to predict the effects of changes to Boston’s hydrological system.
Stormwater and flood management in Boston, MA is heavily influenced by the operation of dams, sewer overflow valves, and other infrastructure. Thus, human decision-making is a key factor in the outcomes of storm and flood situations. This finding led our research team to spend this past summer developing a method to quantify flood manger’s decision criteria and thresholds for different management actions. With the help of a student from the REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program, we built an initial agent-based model to be used in a game-setting that could simulate different flooding scenarios in Boston and allow flood managers to influence the outcome by making various decisions. In this way, we will observe their interactions with the model and gather information on their decision responses and thresholds for actions of different types. With the addition of this third modeling method, our research has become a very transdisciplinary pursuit, as it integrates models of climactic and hydrological dynamics, socioecological impacts, and human cognition and decision-making.
My research interests have also led to involvement in the Global Resilience Partnership (GRP) Challenge, an initiative led by USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). The Global Resilience Partnership Challenge solicited proposals to improve resilience in the Horn of Africa to both natural and human-caused disasters. Our project team is made up of partners from the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Center and Network in Ethiopia, EcoAgriculture Partners in Washington, D.C., faculty and students from UMass Boston (Dr. Maria Ivanova and three IGERT PhD students: myself, Paul Case, and Michael Denney), and several local partners in our project areas. Our initial proposal outlined our plans to focus on identifying and addressing the causes of food and water security and other persistent issues in three locations: Djibouti, the Central Rift Valley in Ethiopia, and Nanyuki County in Kenya. Securing a first round of funding, we made trips to the region in order to meet with key stakeholders and develop a better understanding of the complex, linked human and environmental issues specific to each location. We used this information to design a series of workshops to allow for deeper, systemic discussion about the challenges and innovations that could address these challenges in a holistic manner. We travelled again to the region in June and July to carry out these workshops, which resulted in a much greater understanding of the complex, interlinked challenges and a chance to form connections with key stakeholders. Our findings were used to formulate a solution statement to submit for a second round of funding from the GRP.
Although completely different in environmental and social context, my research in Boston, MA and the Horn of Africa is essentially very similar. Both projects focus on complex, coupled human-natural systems dealing with “wicked” problems that require cross-sectoral collaboration to understand the system and make effective decisions. Both projects also involve solving problems that a no single discipline or field of study could hope to address, and thus require a transdisciplinary approach. Since climate change and other pervasive issues disregard our institutional, sectoral, and disciplinary boundaries, we must develop problem solving strategies that do the same. This defines my role as a researcher: to develop methods and tools for problem solving that are transferrable across disciplines, locations, and groups of people.