One of the biggest intellectual challenges that I have confronted as a young scientist is the sense that, despite all the hard work I put into my research, it may never reach beyond my lab, my department, or the journals of my discipline. When I talk to fellow graduate students I hear that I’m not alone, and the feeling of unfulfilled impact seems to be the primary factor driving many away from academia. For those of us who want to continue chipping away at the incremental process of science and share that progress widely, we then need to challenge ourselves to communicate our work outside of academia and support each another when we do.
The ICN fills an important gap in an academic system that often falls short in facilitating broad communication. It was the ICN Collaborative Challenge Research Grant (CCRG), in fact, that encouraged me to look beyond my colleagues in ecology for help communicating the topics I study. But, aside from the success or failure of the project to communicate science to the public, it was hugely rewarding on a personal level. This was my first foray into interdisciplinary collaboration, so my experience is an n of 1, but I’ll use this opportunity to share some of those personal insights.
1.Reach out, even if it’s a long shot.
My collaboration with Brock was serendipitous. I identified Brock’s work as a good fit for the topic I had in mind, and Brock was up to the challenge. We exchanged emails, met for coffee, and the ball was rolling. Unsolicited emails aren’t always successful, but we have nothing to lose by reaching out to people whose work we admire.
2.Put your ideas on paper, and do it on a deadline.
The CCRG call prompted our connection, but the common ideas that unified our work emerged in writing our proposal. A clear goal, the ICN award, was an important motivation for learning about each other’s work, the concepts with which we were grappling, and the ways we could connect them. I had to step back from the details of my thesis research and identify the key ideas it, and the literature I had studied, revealed. Where was the consensus of the research community pointing? What did I want the public to understand, and what would just muddle the picture? Brock, too, was compelled to reflect on the motivations for his work, and the ideas he wanted it to reflect. Formalizing ideas, with a goal and a deadline, can provide important clarity.
3.Step out of your comfort zone and into your collaborator’s.
Collaboration could certainly be done remotely, but spending time in my collaborator’s workspace was one of the biggest rewards of our project. I identified areas in the Bitterroot ecosystem that had recently burned at mixed severity and had general ideas about what we might convey with the photographs, but when we were out shooting I was in Brock’s territory. I carried cameras and tripods and held things as instructed, but mostly I watched. I looked for ways that the landscape was revealing its processes, and saw how Brock captured them. Spending time in a collaborator’s lab, learning new analytical techniques from them, or reading the literature of their discipline could provide the same experience.
4.Stay open to unexpected lessons.
The goal of our project was to use photography to communicate ecological concepts, but there were surprising personal benefits too. I was particularly struck by the significant similarities between the artistic and scientific process. I was used to hearing about all the differences between subjective thinking and objective thinking, about left brain and right brain, creativity and logic. When I watched Brock’s process though, those stereotypes didn’t pan out. He started with compelling questions that didn’t have clear answers. He identified procedures and tools to dissect them, abstract their complexities and learn something about them. The process was iterative, and at a satisfactory endpoint, he presented his findings. Watching that process forced me to consider my own, and left me encouraged by the diverse ways to approach the same problem.
I am a third year PhD candidate in the Materials Science Program here at the University of Montana. The program is a collaborative degree between the University of Montana, Montana Tech, and Montana State University. My graduate research is focused the use of D-glucaric acid as a versatile building block for the formation of biodegradable, renewably-sourced materials. D-Glucaric acid is produced through the oxidation of D-glucose, which in North America is primarily sourced from corn. Companies such as Rivertop Renewables, a green chemical manufacturer based in Missoula, MT, have found economically viable oxidation methods for the production of glucaric acid and its salts. Current applications of glucaric acid salts are as corrosion inhibitors in the water treatment industry and as hard water sequestering agents in automatic dishwashing detergents. My research however is focused on the use of glucaric acid as a monomer for the synthesis of polyamides through a simple condensation reaction with a wide range of diamines.
Polyamides produced from glucaric acid are more commonly referred to as poly(glucaramides), and have a similar structure to commercially available Nylon polymers. These poly(glucaramides) have unique properties that are tunable through the selection of monomers used for polymerization. Specifically the water solubility of poly(glucaramides) can be controlled through the aliphatic chain length of the diamine. Polymers produced with shorter diamines, such as tetramethylenediamine, show more hydrophilic character and are water soluble. When more hydrophobic diamines, such as the 6 carbon hexamethylenediamine, are used in the polymerization the resulting polymers are insoluble in water. Through the careful selection and mixing of these diamines one can control the solubility of the resulting poly(glucaramides) and promote hydrogel formation.
Hydrogels are water-based, solid-like structures that can be over 99% water and still behave as a solid. Jell-O® and contact lenses are two commonly known examples of hydrogels, but hydrogels can be used in a multitude of other areas such as controlled release delivery systems, tissue engineering, and in disposable diapers. I am exploring the poly(glucaramide)-based hydrogels as materials for the controlled release of fertilizers. Currently, a large portion of the fertilizer that is applied to crops is not utilized and is released into environment through runoff. This leads to high concentration of nutrients in the surrounding water and results in the eutrophication of downstream water systems. A controlled release system could alleviate some of these risks associated with fertilizing crops. Additionally, if the delivery system is a biodegradable poly(glucaramide) hydrogel produced from corn, after the fertilizer has been delivered the material will be degraded with no further accumulation in the environment.
As a first year Masters student in the Geosciences Department, my area of focus is groundwater hydrology. An understanding of the properties that influence subsurface flow is integral in making management decisions regarding groundwater resources. The project that I am working on is a groundwater-stream water interaction study in Riverton, Wyoming. The study site lies adjacent to a former uranium processing plant that was active in the 1950s and 60s. Used mill tailings were discarded on 72 acres of the floodplain between the Wind and Little Wind Rivers and remained there for 25 years. Years of weathering and exposure allowed for the leeching of uranium and other heavy metals into the surficial aquifer below, and there is currently a 2-km plume of contaminated groundwater migrating towards and discharging into the Little Wind River.
The aim is to determine the future duration of contaminant loading and a timeframe for natural attenuation. To asses this, we try to make some inferences on groundwater age. Groundwater age can be defined as the time from when the water parcel entered the subsurface to the point of sampling. An understanding of the timescales of groundwater can be used to deduce recharge rates, flow rates, and timescales of contaminant transport rates. We sample the groundwater for the environmental tracers CFCs and SF6 and compare these values to known atmospheric concentrations throughout time giving us the apparent age of groundwater. This age distribution throughout the site provides insight to subsurface flow rates and paths. By quantifying the flux of groundwater through the system we can generate a prediction about the future duration of contaminate loading. We will use new age tracer data along with historical records to calibrate a contaminant transport model. An estimate of the timeframe for the duration of this contamination will be useful in making future site management decisions.
This is my first year working on a Ph.D. in Cultural Heritage and Applied Anthropology, so I am still working out the details for my dissertation. However, the premise of my research will explore the ways in which museum curation can shape our ideas and understandings of how we view particular communities, specifically American Indian and First Nations communities.
Historically, American Indians have been “been dug up, stored, handled, analyzed, displayed, and discarded with little or no consideration for their sanctity to those whose ancestors created them, valued them, or, in the case of human remains, were them” (King 2013:265). Current events – such as the strong Native American resistance movement surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota – demonstrate that indigenous perspectives and viewpoints can be used to make vital strides in bringing attention to First Nations concerns and struggles, and there are few outlets for these voices that are as powerful as the museum setting (Bench 2014; Haas 1996; Karp & Lavine 1991; Sleeper-Smith 2009). While the issues concerning First Nations representation in museums have been addressed many times by various scholars (Barker & Dumont 2006; Beck 2010; Bench 2014; Colwell-Chanthaphonh & Powell 2012; Daehnke & Lonetree 2011; Haas 1996; Karp & Lavine 1991; Luby & Nelson 2008; Martinez 2012; Martinez et. al. 2014; McNiven & Russell 2005; Sleeper-Smith 2009; Trofanenko & Segall 2012), museum interpretation of thorough and culturally-sensitive Native American perspectives continues to challenge curators, academics, and indigenous communities alike. Ultimately, museum representation of indigenous peoples is a “battle over the control of Native American objects,” and it forces us to ask “the question of ‘who gets to control ancient American history – government agencies, the academic community, or modern Indian peoples’” (Colwell-Chanthaphonh & Powell 2012:211).
My research will seek to explain the ways in which we can re-imagine museum exhibition space and the interpretation of indigenous perspectives, and I will use a framework based on one that was created by archaeologist Sonya Atalay called “community-based participatory research [CBPR]” (Atalay 2012:ix). Basically, this method puts the power of representation into the hands of the community that is being studied, and seeks to empower community members to create and share knowledge that is relevant and of use to them (Atalay 2012:7). Although Atalay’s framework specifically addresses the use of CBPR methods for archaeological projects, her approach is also applicable to museum curation because of the emphasis it places on community participation and control over the public interpretation of a Native community’s own objects. I have always felt strongly that science in general – and museum anthropology in particular - should engage in the concept of beneficence, defined as when “scientists should not merely seek to ‘do no harm’ but should actively seek to do some good” (Nash et. al., 2011:138). Museums and their exhibitions, as repositories for items that are held in the public trust, should seek to be actively engaged in promoting responsible civic engagement with culture and cultural artifacts.
My project will also strive to help re-define what it means to be a cultural tourist in the twenty-first century, with the ultimate goal of providing insight into how we think about the role of museums in society and the presentation of material culture to the public. Cultural tourism is defined as the commoditization and consumption of culture, and often is centered around the idea that Western society is “the center of the discourse of civilization, colonialism, and ultimately modernity” whereas the consumable Other culture is made up of “those peoples who are forgotten and locked in the past, repressed and undeveloped” (McNiven & Russell 2005:4; Martinez 2012). By making it their business to put Other cultures on display, museums encourage and promote this form of cultural tourism, where “everywhere, everything, and everyone become part of the marketplace” (Martinez 2012:551). Native American culture in particular has been commoditized for a Western audience; for decades, indigenous peoples have “been on display, for sale and feverishly consumed” both in the museum setting and beyond, with the material culture of Native cultures having been transformed into “brands of the cultural marketplace” (Martinez 2012:551; emphasis in original). In today’s world, museums commoditize Native American culture by labeling them as an Other and by putting indigenous material culture on display, and therefore museums also promote certain images and concepts about indigenous peoples that become enmeshed into the public memory. One of the roles of this project, in presenting a new format for museum display and interpretation of Native American perspectives, will be to hopefully encourage a form of cultural tourism that acts a tool for revitalization and preservation of American Indian voices.
Contributed by Ariane Thomas
During my first year as a forensic anthropology graduate student, I was exposed to biomolecular topics and their applications in forensic contexts. Combined with my previous experiences at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Connecticut and the Central District Major Crimes Unit, I developed the core of my Master’s thesis: an analysis of the presence of eukaryotic DNA in soil samples surrounding burials. An increased understanding in the degradation rate of DNA will have the potential to assist forensic investigators in casework or even bioarchaeologists with historic skeletal remains.
In ancient and forensic contexts, DNA proves to be an invaluable resource as a unique identifier of dietary habits, sex, ancestry, and more. The most common sources of DNA are bone, tissue, blood, and other biological material. Recently, studies have broadened their scope and began focusing on other outlets to extract DNA from, such as soils. Despite the large amount of literature of the microbial diversity of soil ecosystems, there is relatively little information on the leaching patterns of DNA as a result of taphonomic processes. The core of my research investigates the distance viable DNA from a decomposing mammal leaches outward from the initial body placement. Due to the intense genetic component of my research, this project required funds for DNA extraction, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) portion, additional DNA cleanup protocols, and sequencing. The Collaboration Challenge Research Grant was used to obtain the necessary materials for data collection including two DNA extraction kits (one for tissue and soil extractions), PCR reagents, and sequencing costs.
As with all scientific studies, this project was not immune from challenges. During the sequencing phase of my project, I faced a complicated problem: DNA was present in the agarose gels after PCR, but Sanger sequencing did not yield any DNA. This peculiar result forced me to review the PCR protocol. Dr. Meradeth Snow suggested minor changes to the PCR protocol and when that did not produce a better result, I contacted Tamara Max of the University of Montana Genomics Core. We conducted genomic and high-sensitivity ScreenTapes on DNA extracted from pig tissue, but the results were similar to the soil samples. Tamara noticed that the Tm scores for my primers had a high degree of difference, well over the allotted amount recommended. After searching for a new set of primers with closer Tm scores, all of my soil samples contained clean traces of pig DNA. Even the samples collected 160 mm of the cage border had traces of pig DNA. These results suggest that viable DNA can be recovered from Montana soil more than 20 weeks after initial placement even during the summer months.
The surprising results of my research will be submitted to the Forensic Science International journal for publication. I believe that this study provides the foundation for numerous DNA leaching studies in different environments, various timeframes, and farther increments away from the burial. This project has sparked my interest in new topics such as identifying the varying demographics of microbial organisms that are involved in decomposition or seeking viable DNA in burial soil after the body has been removed. I hope to continue this line of forensic studies now that I have the skills and knowledge to pursue interdisciplinary research.
Crossing disciplines not only increased my knowledge in an area briefly mentioned in my anthropology and forensic classes, but allowed me to expand on my understanding of taphonomy and genetics. The Genomics Core assistance with my laboratory protocols strengthened my laboratory techniques and skills. Under the direction of both anthropologically trained and biologically trained geneticists, I developed a mixture of the two methodologies that will benefit future work in either fields.
I gratefully acknowledge the University of Montana Genomics Core, Lubrecht Experimental Forest, and the Snow Molecular Anthropology Laboratory for resources. In addition, I must express my gratitude to all at the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Network for creating such a vital source of funding for graduate students at the University of Montana. Due to the high costs of such a project, it would not have been possible without the Collaboration Challenge Research Grant. I am appreciative of this opportunity to research the forensic applications of DNA, and learn genetic analytical methods from multiple collaborators.
Contributed by Gerard Sapés
Every year hills and prairies change from green to yellow to welcome summer. While for us this change is synonym of vacations and fun, for plants signifies upcoming challenge. Terrestrial plants are organisms made of 90% water that live surrounded by an atmosphere that is an order of magnitude dryer than them. This difference between atmospheric and plant water content continuously pulls water out of plants and has forced them to evolve several traits such as cuticles and stomata to prevent water loss. In summer, drought strongly increases atmospheric demand and also limits ground water. Under these circumstances, the fight for water between a plant and the atmosphere generates incredibly high pressures within the vascular system of the plant that can reach in some cases up to 100 times atmospheric pressure.
Even though water loss is essential for plants to transport nutrients from roots to leaves, excessive tensions can break the water column that connects ground water to the atmosphere through the vascular system of a plant and induce an embolism in a similar fashion to the way it occurs in human beings. While for us a single embolism may be enough to kill us, plants have evolved a vascular system that provides several alternative pathways to ensure water transport when embolisms occur. Despite being resistant to embolisms, plants seem to perish when certain hydraulic threshold is reached. Specifically, gymnosperms seem to die when they lose 60% of their hydraulic conductivity while angiosperms die at higher levels (80%).
Plants have multiple ways to avoid reaching these thresholds. They can increase the efficiency of cuticles and stomata at preventing water loss or the efficiency of roots at absorbing water. But it has also been suggested that plants can prevent and repair embolisms using non-structural carbohydrate compounds (NSCs) derived from photosynthesis. It seems that plants with higher amounts of NSCs tolerate drought for longer periods of time. It is suggested that NSCs can travel through the plant and act as osmolites to drive water to areas where it is needed like embolized conduits or cells that are losing turgor but direct evidence of the relationship between carbon and hydraulics has not been established yet. Under drought, plants close stomata to avoid water loss. This strategy also prevents carbon acquisition and limits photosynthesis thus limiting the potential use of NSCs to prevent and repair embolisms. Therefore, plants face the challenge to balance carbon intake and water loss under drought to avoid reaching their hydraulic threshold either through embolism production or loss of their osmoregulation capacity.
The challenge is even greater for seedlings. First year old seedlings have undeveloped roots, thin cuticles, and small NSC pools which makes them much more susceptible to drought than adults. Under climate change, a mild increase in drought can be sufficient to prevent seedling establishment in areas where adult trees can still survive thus bringing populations to a decline and ultimately to a decrease in the forested area in places where drought is the limiting factor such as the lower tree-lines.
As a plant ecophysiologist, my project tries to provide a direct link between plant hydraulics and carbon in conifer seedlings. By studying the mechanisms through which NSCs modify the rate at which seedlings lose their hydraulic function (hydraulic conductivity and conductance) I hope to shed light on the effects that climate change will have on conifer forests of the Northwestern United States.
One of the main reasons that has prevented plant physiologists to find the link between plant hydraulics and carbon is the difficulty to accurately measure plant hydraulic conductivity and conductance. Measuring plant flow rates is a technique that is sensitive to many artifacts such as artificial embolization of conduits. Additionally, such flow rates are extremely low on seedling stems given their small size and measurements in whole root systems are extremely controversial. It has not been until recently that technology has develop systems that allow for accurate measurements of flow rates of the order of microliters per minute and these systems are expensive. Thanks to the Collaboration Challenge Research Grant I have been able to acquire a flow meter with high accuracy and establish a connection with two of the scientists leading the field of hydraulics (Dr. Craig Brodersen and Dr. Daniel Johnson) to learn the best method to measure hydraulic conductivity in stems avoiding potential artifacts.
The process of measuring has been extremely challenging. It has taken me 4 months and about 100 measurements to accurately measure hydraulic conductivity and conductance in seedlings that have been experiencing drought in a greenhouse. Due to the complexity of the method, I have not been able to capture the loss of hydraulic conductivity and conductance from the beginning of my experiments with enough accuracy (Figure 1b weeks 0 to 2). But on the other side, I successfully modified the current method to measure hydraulic conductivity and conductance in stems to be able to also measure hydraulic conductance in whole root systems, one of the key organs involved in plant hydraulics during drought. My method has proven to yield the same values of hydraulic conductivity and conductance in stems as the current method but with the advantage of being compatible with roots (Figure 1a).
Working together with scientists out of my specific field have shown me how collaborations can exponentially reduce the amount of time needed to achieve our goals in science. Without the expertise of Brodersen and Johnson, it would not have mastered the techniques needed to answer my research questions in time. For this reason, I highly recommend others to do the same. I found that, many times, the scientific community is conservative with sharing thoughts because we fear that our ideas could be stolen, but my experience have shown me that there is more to win than to lose in communicating with other minds.
Thanks to the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Network, now I have the means to design an experiment next summer to assess how NSCs influence hydraulics under drought in first year old Ponderosa pine seedlings from the lower tree-line.
Contributed by Kal Munis
Philipsburg, Montana, January 18, 2014 (Alochonaa):
“Quit talking bad about women, homosexuals, and preferred social minorities, and you can say anything you want about people who haven’t been to college, manual workers, country people, peasants, religious people, unmodern people, and so on.”
-Wendell Berry, preface, “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community”
In the fall of 2013, I began my graduate career at the University of Montana. Expecting to enter an intellectual world inhabited by enlightened and tolerant individuals, what I found instead was, in far too many instances, one peppered with individuals who – mirroring Wendell Berry’s satirical observation of the educated elite , above – practice a form of ‘acceptable bigotry’ against the rural and non-university educated. Notably, among the most egregious individual cases are a number of those who are working toward graduate degrees directly related to environmental issues. I take exception to this bigoted behavior, not simply due to my rural roots, but because generalizations, such as that rural people as a whole are ‘stupid,’ ‘barbaric,’ and ‘destructive’ (amongst other negative things), are simply not true. Looking back, it is probably fair to conclude that my notions of graduate school in the fall of 2013 were hopelessly romanticized.
But, it is also fair, I believe, to say that environmental scientists, natural resource policy and administration professionals, and the educated urban elite more generally, could benefit from a ‘Wendellian reminder.’ This essay asserts that the knowledge, cultural identity, interests, and concerns of rural people matter. This is especially true in the realm of environmental politics and policy, for, despite rhetoric extolling the ideal of all U.S. citizens as’“equal stakeholders’ in issues concerning public lands, it is a simple fact (seemingly inconvenient to some) that rural people are, by and large, most intimately connected to our public lands and, consequently, most affected by policy decisions regarding them.
The Role of Place and Public Lands in Rural Identity
‘Place,’ or the ‘sense of place’[ii] as it is sometimes referred to, has been the subject of extensive study in several social science disciplines – especially geography, and social psychology. Simply stated, a ‘place’ is a geographic space that has been attributed special meaning and significance by humans.[iii] In his ‘Symbolic Territory Theory,’ Brian Osborne refers to the end result of this process as, places becoming ‘symbolically charged.’[iv] The meaning that people attribute to place then becomes a part of the identity of those who live in their proximity. In other words, places shape, and are shaped by, people. All of this is evident in human communication. As communication researchers Donal Carbaugh and Tovar Cerulli explain, place is of chief importance to our communication, as our conceptions of place help organize our thoughts and speech as being ‘not just anywhere (but) somewhere in particular.’[v]
Other research has shown that outdoor recreation is especially important to the construction of place, and ‘place-based’ identity.[vi] Public lands, as the reader likely appreciates, are an important resource for outdoor recreation. This is an important consideration, because, as noted above, most public land is located in relative close proximity to rural communities. Therefore, due to such close proximity, it is reasonable to expect that rural people use our public lands more frequently on average than non-rural people, thereby shaping, and being shaped by, the identity of those places.
Furthermore, though this is not specific to rural areas per se, research also links traditional rural economies to place formation and identity. Examples of such communities in Western Montana include Eureka as a ‘logging town,’ and Philipsburg as an ‘old mining and ranching town.’ As with outdoor recreation, economic activities such as these are inextricably linked to public lands; a fact that has left many rural people bitter toward government agencies charged with managing natural resources and the environment. This bitterness is due to these agencies being viewed as largely responsible for the withering away of traditional rural economies. It is worth noting here that community identities based upon traditional rural economic practices seem to have a large degree of ‘staying power.’ For example, though Philipsburg’s economy is no longer dominated by resource extractive industry, and has not been for some time, many of the area’s inhabitants – including younger generations – still identify with such economic practices. Consideration of such lingering identities that are linked to the historical legacy of former economic practice is important for understanding rural peoples’ perceptions of natural resource agencies today.
A relatively recent (and important) development on university campuses and within natural resource agencies across the country is the increasing consideration given to what is known as ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous knowledge.’ Traditional knowledge is often highly ‘sophisticated,’ based upon direct empirical experience, and is typically developed over long periods of time.[vii] Related to environmental issues, traditional knowledge is a ‘particular form of place-based knowledge of the diversity and interactions among plant and animal species, landforms, watercourses, and other qualities of the biophysical environment in a given place.’[viii] Such knowledge, in isolation or when paired with modern science, can be of use to natural resource agencies seeking to craft more holistic and nuanced policies that lead to better, more satisfying outcomes.
As stated above, natural resource agencies have begun incorporating traditional knowledge into their decisions more frequently during the past two decades, particularly in management areas that are in close proximity to indigenous populations. Resource management efforts in and around the Flathead Lake, located in Western Montana, provide some interesting examples of traditional knowledge being used in tandem with modern science. While these developments are inspiring and exciting, there remains much to be done in terms of incorporating the traditional knowledge of other groups. The traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples has been given a seat at the metaphorical table of resource management but that of the non-indigenous rural populace has not. Rather, in the words of one of my former professors at Montana State University, rural knowledge is often demeaned and trivialized as so-called ‘barstool biology.’
A Need for Building Mutual Trust and Respect through Greater Understanding
As a short recap of the above argument, rural identity is to a large extent shaped by symbolically charged landscapes – i.e., places, in which rural people live – many of which are partly comprised by, or in close proximity to, public lands. Recreational and economic activity (whether past or present) on these landscapes further shapes and entrenches these identities. Natural resource agencies, already viewed with suspicion and, in some cases, outright hostility by many rural people due to perceived past grievances, are compounding this problem by failing to adequately take rural interests, concerns, and traditional knowledge into consideration.
To their credit, natural resource and environmental agencies already make some effort to incorporate public input in management decisions, though whether or not it is to an appreciable extent is debatable. Such efforts aside, if future cooperation with, and legitimacy in the eyes of, rural populations is to be improved, resource agencies need to do a better job of incorporating the thoughts, concerns and traditional knowledge of these peoples. Furthermore, since rural peoples are affected most by such decisions, it can be argued that there is, in a sense, a moral obligation for these agencies to do so.
Returning to the sphere in which we began, this problem can begin to be addressed by the university undergraduate and graduate programs that are training our future scientists, administrators and agency professionals. Bucking bigotry toward rural people, many of whom are also uneducated (a group that also tends to be prejudiced against), is only possible through developing a greater understanding of rural cultures. As when combating prejudice against any other social or ethnic group, in order to develop a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, rural culture, students need to be exposed to it during the course of their education. And, while it likely cannot be foretold with absolute certainty, it is reasonable to believe that, as more tolerant individuals, who are considerate of rural values, interests, and knowledge, begin their careers in natural resource and environmental professions a similar softening will take place in the minds of rural people. In other words, if the educated natural resource and environmental agency professional treats his or her rural counterpart with respect, then the rural person is much more likely to reciprocate. And, (again this is conjecture) it is possible that this increased mutual respect and understanding will, in turn, breed trust. But if all of this is to be deemed too utopian and unrealistic (like my idealization of graduate school), then we shall continue to operate in the standard mode in which, as Wendell Berry describes (again, satirically), ‘any necessary thinking…will be done by certified smart people in offices, laboratories, boardrooms, and other high places and then will be handed down to supposedly unsmart people in low places.’[i]
To view the works cited in this post, please click here.
This post was originally published on Alochonaa and can be accessed here.
Contributed by Peter Ore
"The crisis of climate change calls on academics to rise above their
disciplinary prejudices, for it is a crisis of many dimensions."
Chakrabarty, pg. 19
The first decades of 21st-century academic discourse have been saturated with calls to interdisciplinarity from both dominant institutions (e.g. the NSF's IGERT program) and grassroots groups like the ICN. Many see interdisciplinary collaboration as a means to resolve intransigent concrete and epistemological problems. However, science and technology scholars have conflicting views on its benefits. Some question the extent to which interdisciplinarity contributes to innovation, positing that traditional disciplinary studies yield more abstract, generalizable knowledge than problem-oriented interdisciplinary studies. Others argue over whether interdisciplinarity forms the basis of scientific thought or is a natural side effect (for an overview, see Jacobs and Frickel 2009). What is clear is that contemporary appeals to make knowledge-generation more collaborative signal an effort to reorient academic priorities to the looming demands of climate change.
Many claim that the recognition of anthropogenic climate change has rendered traditional disciplinary divisions between the natural and social sciences irrelevant. This has been variously characterized as the "end of nature," the "end of the social sciences," and an event that conflates natural and human histories into one (e.g. Clive Hamilton’s blog; Latour 2004; Chakrabarty 2009). Eschatological pronouncements aside, redefining humanity as a force of nature rather than a set of autonomous biological units implies that traditional ways of structuring knowledge no longer suffice. Where successful interdisciplinary fields such as African-American and Women's studies were born out of the civil rights movement, contemporary preoccupation with global ecological collapse has resulted in such emergent fields as systems ecology and climate change studies.
Interdisciplinary collaborations are organizational and epistemological experiments in which the restructuring necessary to meet the challenge of climate change adaptation might occur. Many of these experiments will fail. The few that succeed have the potential to substantively reorient the ways in which knowledge is pursued. Every attempt will bring us closer to a science more closely matched to the social and environmental conditions of the Anthropocene.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. "The Climate of History: Four Theses." Critical Inquiry 35(2):197-222.
Jacobs, Jerry A. and Scott Frickel. 2009. "Interdisciplinarity: A Critical Assessment." Annual Review of Sociology 35(1):43-65
Latour, Bruno. 2004. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences Back into Democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Contributed by Nicky Ouellet
Scientists often balk at explaining their research to anyone but their peers, but that attitude might lessen their scientific impact, a new study suggests.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that tweeting about research in conjunction with speaking to reporters generally lead to more citations and public interaction. The survey-based study, “Building Buzz: (Scientists) Communicating Science in New Media Environments,” was published in the December 2014 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.
With science desks in newsrooms across the country disappearing, study authors say that outreach on the part of the scientific community is more important than ever. Journalists covering science beats are almost all freelancers, who depend on working relationships with scientists - not science organizations - as information sources. Additionally, the study found “building buzz” through a strong social media presence increases communication within the scientific community and public audiences, furthering impact.
The study focused on university-based American nano-scientists. Nano-scientists were chosen because of the multidisciplinary and evolving nature of their field, while confine results within a single discipline so as to avoid name-recognition. Subjects were surveyed about their perceived interactions with journalists and the public, the frequency of their blogging activity and other non-communication issues. H-indeces, which measures the citation frequency of an author, were calculated after an 18-month period using the Thomson Reuters Web of Science database and Twitter.
At UM, many students are cognizant of the importance of communication in their roles as scientists.
Anna Bergstrom, a Master’s candidate in the College of Forestry and Conservation, sees clear and concise communication with the public as part of her responsibility as a scientist.
“There’s so much information the general public just doesn’t know. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s just that information isn’t out there,” she said.
Citing a research proposal she wrote during her undergraduate studies, Bergstrom bemoaned how little attention was paid to a section in which scientists are asked to consider how their research could impact local communities or, on a grander scale, the human condition.
“We spent a half an hour on it, and it was just a four- or five-sentence paragraph at the end of a proposal,” she said. In contrast, the technical aspects of her research methodology were scrutinized and analyzed word by word.
“Scientists are renowned for their inability to clearly communicate their research to academics outside of their discipline and oftentimes even fail among their own research cohort,” Mandy Slate, a graduate student in the Organismal Biology and Ecology Department, wrote recently in a blog post for the ICN, a student initiative. Her advice to her peers: make measurements easy to understand, avoid jargon and practice talking about it.
Some UM scientists, however, stress that chatting about their research on social media isn’t their job. Maury Valett, a professor of systems ecology, says having to point out the so-called broader impacts of a study distracts from what really matters.
“I just want to do the science,” he said. Others, like journalists trained in science writing, should be tasked with translating and contextualizing research findings for the public, he said, giving researchers the time and dedication required for innovation.
“If you don’t have the opportunity to just ask a good science question and get support for it, you’re cutting off at the very core of imagination, the creativity that drives all the discovery.”
Contributed by Andrew Myers
On November 5, the ICN had the great pleasure of sitting down to lunch with Dr. Paul Robbins and discussing many of the issues facing academia, interdisciplinary research, and conservation, among many other topics. As the current director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, he works toward developing a program that prepares students to address global environmental issues in a rapidly changing climate. What makes this program unique is the emphasis upon interdisciplinary collaboration; graduate students are required to assemble a committee that includes professors from at least three different departments and must be balanced between the natural and social sciences.
Having spent his career investigating interactions between humans and the natural world and the politics of natural resources, Dr. Robbins’ work has sometimes been known as geography, political ecology, or environmental studies. Labels aside, his current work investigates how decisions made by rubber and coffee farmers in India impact ecological conditions. Increasing demands by laborers for better working and living conditions, such as better wages and television, coupled with the out-migrations of younger generations to cities, has meant that manual laborers are fewer in number and more expensive to hire. As a result, farmers are increasingly turning to chemicals for weed control and other functions that historically have been provided by laborers. In turn, this increased usage in chemicals has had a detrimental impact on local amphibians such as toads. The more startling point here is that this move from farms to cities is not endemic to India, it is a global pattern. For example, the agricultural heart of Montana has experienced rapid out-migration since the beginning of the 21st century. The major question here is: how are we going to feed ourselves if nobody is working the farms and can the environment sustain these practices?
Dr. Robbins’ work shows that there is much more to ecological systems than just biota, climate, minerals, and nutrients. This may seem like an obvious statement; however, human decision making and activities are still not a common aspect of ecological research. Additionally, there is more to global economies and markets than we typically think, they have ecological ramifications (e.g., how does ‘capitalism’ account for environmental impacts? Can it?). This notion places further imperative on the need for interdisciplinary research in addressing global issues in a shifting environment, not only within the natural sciences but across intellectual enterprises such as the social sciences and the humanities. The decisions we make at a local level are nested within larger global scales that have impacts upon a global environment. To truly address the complexity of our human and ecological systems, we must look across the aisle to our colleagues in other fields and investigate at all scales from the infinitesimal (e.g., atoms), to the invisible (e.g., nutrients), to the apparent (e.g., toads), to the gargantuan (e.g., globalization).
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