UVA Global Podcast: Interview with Howard Epstein


UVA Global Podcast: Interview with Howard Epstein

Past GPOD grant winner speaks on NSF grant, collaborating with Indigenous communities, and Arctic sustainability
Howie Epstein headshot
Transcript of Interview with Professor Howard Epstein

Emily Mellen  0:05  

Welcome to the fourth episode of our podcast series. I'm Emily Mellen, and I'm here with Howie Epstein from Environmental Sciences to talk about the UVA Arctic Research Center: Recent Developments in Collaborative Research on the Changing Natural and Built Environment. So first, can you tell me, what is the UVA Arctic Research Center?


Professor Howard Epstein  0:18  

So, UVA has a relatively long history of doing Arctic research. And it started… before I even arrived at UVA there were a handful of folks who've done a variety of different things in the Arctic, including atmospheric conditions in the Arctic, marine mammals in the Arctic. And when I came to the University of Virginia, in 1998, I had already begun some Arctic research as a postdoc at the University of Colorado. And I'm a vegetation ecologist, I study patterns and dynamics of vegetation. And I became really interested and started working in Arctic tundra vegetation. And so I brought those research interests here, collaborated with a few folks that were already here at UVA doing Arctic research, and built my own Arctic Research Program, over the course of the 23 years or so that I've been here at UVA. And then found that there were folks outside of Environmental Sciences, who were also interested in the Arctic. And predominantly the Arctic Design Group from the School of Architecture, that's Matthew Jull and Leena Cho, and also, Matthew Burtner from the Music department in the College of Arts and Sciences. Matthew Jull and Leena Cho, they do Arctic design. So, they look at innovative techniques and solutions for buildings in Arctic environments. And Matthew Burtner is a musician who does a few things. He does eco-acoustic work. So, he will go out and record sounds in nature and develop compositions from those sounds. He's also sonified data. So, actually, environmental sciences data that other folks have collected. He's put music to them. And one of his compositions was putting music to sea ice data, to data on changes in sea ice, which is something that's dramatically happening in the Arctic. So, really, the four of us got together probably... I really don't know when exactly it was, but it was a number of years ago, it may have been five years ago. And we thought, wow, we have a group of really disparate people doing work in the Arctic, what can we do together? And so we began by writing some small grants to do some things together. And then, so, we were funded to do some research, internally, by the Environmental Research, sorry, the Environmental Resilience Institute, by our Center for Global Inquiry and Innovation. And our first external grant we received was from the National Science Foundation, to hold a conference at the University of Virginia, on bridging science, art and community in the new Arctic. And that was a great, great conference that combined practitioners in science and in architecture and arts and music with Arctic youth ambassadors from areas around Alaska. And it was really just a wonderful conference like looking at science and we had an art exhibit and music performances, and youth from Alaska would give presentations on their own personal experiences. And we had vibrant, very vibrant discussions.

And, so all of that, the conference, the internal funding, led us to work on a proposal to the National Science Foundation, and their Navigating the New Arctic program. And given the skill sets that we had, we looked at conducting work on interactions between the built and the natural environment. And after one unsuccessful proposal, in our second round, we were funded. It's a really great grant. It's a large grant, for us, it's a $3 million grant that will fund us over the next five years. So, all of the folks involved in this Navigating the New Arctic project, plus all of the other Arctic people at UVA, on other projects that we have, that's not our only project, collectively, we said, Okay, we're going to be the Arctic Research Center at the University of Virginia. So, that's how we got to where we are, I think.


Emily Mellen  5:27  

That's great. And that leads well into my next question, which is about… your project is not just a collaboration between researchers at UVA, or even researchers at different universities. It's also a collaboration with the community that you're working in. So, can you tell us a little bit about what that relationship looks like?


Professor Howard Epstein  5:44  

In writing this proposal for the National Science Foundation, it was imperative, in fact, it was required, that there was an element of co-production of knowledge. So, it’s not scientists, doing research… going into a community, doing the research, taking the results and leaving, in fact, it's far from that. And so, the idea of co-production of knowledge is that you conduct the entire project with community members involved in all aspects of the project. In fact, in our project, community members were even involved in the proposal development because we needed to get buy-in from community members in order to be able to conduct this research in their town, which is Utqiaġvik, Alaska, that's formerly Barrow, Alaska. And so we needed to involve community, a variety of different community partners, from the very beginning. And this includes the North Slope Borough Planning Board, Housing Authority, a science logistics organization, a consultant in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. So, we had a variety of different partners from the community, even in the proposal phase, and so the idea, now that we have the proposal funded, is to implement what we said we would do, but implement it with the collective vision of the entire group, so the scientists, the practitioners and the community members. It's been challenging with COVID because we haven't been able to spend a lot of time in Utqiaġvik, in the field. We have had a few meetings via Zoom. And those have been okay, but not super satisfying. We were able to send two of our project team members up to Utqiaġvik this past summer to conduct some fieldwork, in conjunction with our collaborators at the Army Corps of Engineers. But because of COVID, they were not able to stay for very long. They did begin to have some in-person connection with our local collaborators. But we really need to get there and I'm hoping, we're all hoping, that we can get there and have some in-person discussions and in-person meetings in summer of 2022. One part of the project is we're going to put out an array of a meteorological sensors throughout the town of Utqiaġvik and our local partners are going to help inform us as to where these instruments should be placed, they may have ideas about where the most vulnerable areas in the town are, they may have personal preferences about testing something nearby, a given building. So, hopefully the whole project will work like that, where we'll work together on everything. The data will be all of ours. So, the data will be ours as scientists and practitioners and the data will be theirs as community members to help inform decisions that they make for the planning of their community in the future.


Emily Mellen  9:27  

That's fantastic. I think that's the kind of ethical project that we hope to see, in general across disciplines.


Professor Howard Epstein  9:32 

Yeah. And I think that NSF has been, the NSF was, really important in this in requiring co-production of knowledge to to be a piece of any proposal that they received. I will say one more thing about that. I think a really, super interesting and really important part of our project is that we're actually studying the way we do that. So, we have a social scientist who actually sits in the School of Engineering here at UVA, her name is Caitlin Wylie, and she's in the Science, Technology, and Society department within the Engineering School. But she's a social scientist, and she is on the project to study how we all work together. And so we're subjects in our own research and our own research project. But when she's, you know, she's in all of our meetings. And we know she's, she's taking notes on what we're all doing, and what we're all saying, and how we're interacting. So, it's gonna be a really interesting part of the project. I don't think anyone else is doing something like that. So, I think that's really unique.


Emily Mellen  10:40  

Yeah, definitely setting a precedent for how these things go forward. 


Professor Howard Epstein  10:44

Yeah, I think so. 


Emily Mellen 10:45

And one of the things that interests us as Global Affairs, as CGII, is looking at your project as an example of a project that's taken CGII funding, and brought it to the next level. So can you tell us, you alluded to this a little bit earlier, how the CGII funding set you up to be able to get the NSF grant and to be able to make this bigger project happen?


Professor Howard Epstein  11:11  

Yeah, we're grateful for the funding that we got from the CGII, the program is called the Programs of Distinction, or GPODs. I think the main thing that the CGII funding did for us was it allowed us to test what we were going to do, once we implement our sensing network in Utqiaġvik. So, it allowed us to purchase equipment and start collecting some preliminary data. We know better about what we're doing before we get to the field in Utqiaġvik and to be honest, if it weren't for COVID, we would have used the CGII funds to actually go there. And start the process, preliminarily, it forced us to do some testing here locally in Virginia, where we have a little bit more control, before getting out to the Arctic where, you know, the conditions are way more challenging than than what we have here. Actually, Matthew Burtner was also funded by a piece of the CGII Award. He bought some equipment with that funding. He went to Alaska. He went and worked with some collaborators from other institutions, who have a long-term ecological research program funded on the north coast of Alaska called the Beaufort Long Term Ecological Research Program. And Matthew was able to get I think out on the ice and actually to collect some eco-acoustic data. So, CGII funded a lot. Really, it moved us along quite a bit. And really set the groundwork for us getting the big, you know, getting a big grant and being able to continue the work.


Emily Mellen  13:08  

That's exactly what we hope to hear. I mean, that's really the goal of these, especially the GPOD grants. Well, thank you so much for talking with me today. This is fascinating. And we look forward to hearing more about the results when you are able to get to Alaska and get that data.


Professor Howard Epstein  13:22  

You're very welcome. Thank you.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai