Q: How did you decide that you wanted to get your PhD in Natural Resources and conduct research on environmental stewardship and governance?
A: As an undergraduate, I thought that I wanted to be doctor or a veterinarian because I really liked science and animals. After volunteering and doing laboratory work, I realized that I was still very much interested in science, but wanted to take it in a different direction. For my first job was as a dolphin trainer in Florida. Through this experience, I became more interested in conservation education and improving where animals live. After working as a dolphin trainer, I had a job that allowed me to concentrate on conflict resolution issues for socially focused nonprofits and, through this experience, developed an interest in stewardship and social networks.
Because I wanted to do something to impact and improve the environment, I went back to school at the University of Pennsylvania to get my master’s degree in Environmental Studies. At the time, I thought I wanted to do something related to park management and I ended up taking a lot of urban ecology courses.
I went on to get my PhD in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont with my advisor, Dr. Morgan Grove. I really enjoy what I do because everything I talk about in the courses that I teach at LMU is something that the students experience every day. I know that I can help my students see Los Angeles in a different way. I like to say that you can’t unlearn what I’m teaching you. You can’t unlearn that you are a part of the environment.
Q: What lessons from your work in Baltimore and Seattle can you apply to Los Angeles?
A: I have worked in a lot of cities. I have found that the underlying urban challenges and strengths don’t vary hugely with climate and size. One central issue is that people don’t understand that they don’t have to leave the city to experience nature. Rather, nature exists throughout cities.
Working in Los Angeles is different because the climate here is quite distinct from the climates in Seattle and Baltimore. Los Angeles is Mediterranean and, when I conduct a tree canopy analysis of the area, it will be important to answer questions related to the appropriateness of tree canopy to this type of climate.
Baltimore was a great city to work in because other scholars have done a lot of urban ecology work there. I was lucky to be part of the long-term ecosystem study that is about 15 to 20 years old. There is a trusted science community there dedicated to applied science. These scientists ask research questions driven by the needs of the greater community, not just to produce scholarly publications.
Q: Tell me about your current Stew-MAP project.
A: Stew-MAP goes back to my work at an environmental nonprofit in Philadelphia. I would go to networking events and see many of the same organizations showing up without knowing what work everyone was engaging in. There would be organizations overlapping on projects without even knowing it.
Stew-MAP is a comprehensive study that seeks to address questions related to what organizations are working where. Also, the way to get better at science is by replicating it so, while we have created Stew-MAPs for New York, Baltimore, Seattle, Chicago, and Philadelphia, every iteration of Stew-MAP is a little different. It is very exciting to people when I talk about it. The idea is find out how much work is going on, where we can work together, where stewardship is not happening, who is not participating. I am excited about collecting the data and, also, having people working in LA help to interpret the results. After data collection, the map becomes something that everyone owns so they can shape and change it. Stew-MAP is the collision of sharing ideas and applied science.
Q: What does it mean for CURes to get this huge Baldwin Hills grant?
A: The Baldwin Hills Conservancy is a local park system in LMU’s backyard. This project showcases that CURes has a deep toolkit of research tools and that urban ecology is not just about plants and water. It’s harder to understand the connections between access to nature (more social justice facing questions) and ecology. Through this study, we ask questions such as: How do we experience the environment? Who gets to experience it? It is also great to work with a park system with many different uses and resources. Finally, it is the perfect way to get LMU students off campus and into a living laboratory.
Q: What is your favorite outdoor urban space in Los Angeles?
A: I live in Venice and spend a lot of time at the beach looking at the mountains. I am from the East Coast and it is still amazing to me that I can be at the beach and also near the mountains. I have also really enjoyed working on the Baldwin Hills project because Kenneth Hahn State Park is huge and there is always more to explore.
Thank you, Michele!
The Stew-MAP LA survey goes live at the end of October. For more information, please contact Dr. Michele Romolini at Michele.Romolini@lmu.edu.
Interview conducted by Laurel Hunt, Programs Manager at CURes. For more information about the CURes Blog, please e-mail Laurel at Laurel.Hunt@lmu.edu.