As an undergraduate student at the University of Florida, Sara wrote an honors thesis on the ‘natural resource curse’ in Africa that shifted her perspective. “I examined countries whose economies were dependent on oil and minerals and how that dependence correlated with their democracy. That experience got me to think differently about international development and the environment, connections between social and ecological systems, and the impact of doing research,” she says. That led her to Europe where she completed a master’s degree in international development at the University of Amsterdam. There she became interested in sustainable development and social-ecological resilience theory. For her thesis she created a conceptual model for evaluating power sector resilience, both in terms of physical power generation and the governance of the sector and spent three months doing fieldwork in Thailand, where she applied the framework to policies for small-scale renewable energy.
After completing her master’s, she stayed in the Netherlands and worked as a junior researcher on projects related to sustainable urban infrastructure. When she reviewed Ph.D. programs in the Netherlands and the U.S., she saw few people working on urban resilience at the time, but was drawn to U-M and SNRE because of the interdisciplinarity of the program. She says, “I recognized I would need to combine a variety of different disciplines in the work I hoped to do, and SNRE allowed me to draw from urban planning, complex systems, political science, public policy and more. They were all top programs, and add to that the fact that U-M has so many incredible resources across the university.”
Now a fifth year candidate, Sara’s doctoral research looks broadly at how we can make cities more resilient in the face of climate change and other significant environmental hazards. She explores what it means for a city to be resilient in theory and practice. Her research also examines the increasingly popular resilience strategy of green infrastructure, which represents a broad range of different technologies: rain gardens, green roofs, parks; networks of vegetation that provide multiple social and ecological benefits.
She describes her work: “Using green infrastructure you can examine the complexities and tradeoffs associated with planning for resilience. I’m creating a spatial planning model that maps out priority areas for green infrastructure development across a city based on six commonly cited green infrastructure benefits. The model can be used to analyze spatial tradeoffs or synergies between green infrastructure planning priorities, and to identify ‘hotspots’ where multiple benefits are most needed. This model would help us be more strategic about where we put green infrastructure.”
The six benefits she examines include managing storm water, reducing social vulnerability, mitigating the urban heat island effect, increasing access to green space, improving air quality, and increasing habitat or landscape connectivity.
Her goal is to create a generalizable model by applying the same basic methodology in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Manila, diverse cities at different stages of green infrastructure planning. She explains, “I became interested in green infrastructure because when I read the literature on urban resilience and looked at resilience strategies and policies that cities were implementing, I kept seeing green infrastructure being advocated. This may stem from the fact that green infrastructure is thought to provide a whole range of resilience benefits and it is something cities and local governments have the ability to control. In particular, Detroit is a unique city among my case studies. They are doing a lot with green infrastructure and are in a unique position because there is so much vacant land that they are trying to reimagine how to use. Many faculty members at U-M are working on different aspects of that issue.”
Sara has conducted fieldwork and acquired data for all four cities, and completed the proof of concept model for Detroit. She continues, “Part of this model is having stakeholder meetings where potential users rate the importance of the model criteria for the local context, and I use those ratings to develop weights for the model so the actual combined model will reflect real stakeholder feedback and priorities.” In case that sounds easy, she explains that in Detroit, that involved hosting a meeting with 24 different stakeholders representing local, county, regional, state, and federal government agencies, nonprofits, community organizations, utilities, consultants, and charitable foundations.
Part of the results validated her dissertation, showing her that she’s on track with something meaningful and applicable in communities. She recalls of those conversations: “People thought this would be useful as a part of their vision or master plan. We will continue these conversations, and for me, that was really, really important. At SNRE there is a strong emphasis on, and appreciation for, applied and policy-relevant research.”
It can be a lonely process getting a Ph.D., but Sara uses that experience to increase collaboration and engagement. In SNRE, she helped create and chairs a Doctoral Organizing Committee (DOC) to institutionalize more Ph.D. activities in the predominantly master’s-based school. She describes, “We provide social and professional development events. We host an annual speaker and have weekly seminars. It’s been really successful at creating a Ph.D. space.” To balance her work, Sara regularly plays bar trivia with a group of her fellow Ph.D. students and hosts board game nights. She also enjoys travelling, whether for research or for fun.
She also pursued similar engagement outside the scope of her school. When Sara looked around campus, she noticed a lot of postdocs and Ph.D. students, working on urban sustainability and resilience, that didn’t interact with each other. She submitted an application to start a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop on the topic with her advisor that is now in its second year.
On graduate school, she says, “Being a grad student has been great. I love my life. I don’t understand why anyone complains about being a Ph.D. student. True, you don’t have a typical schedule and no one is hovering over your shoulder to make sure you’re making progress, but you also get to constantly learn, study what interests you, and travel. I’m so impressed with the resources available here at U-M. I tell prospective grad students that you can’t underestimate the importance of the broader resources at U-M and how great they are. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time as a Ph.D. student. I had never been to the Midwest before I was accepted here, and I envisioned myself in a big city, but as soon as I came to Ann Arbor, I loved it.”
While still finishing data analysis and a dissertation looming in the not so distant future, Sara looks ahead to what is next. She hopes, “My goal is to pursue a career in academia, in something where I can pursue policy relevant, interdisciplinary research. My work organizing the DOC and the urban sustainability workshop has fueled an interest in breaking down silos between disciplines.”