What made you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
Growing up in a city like Pune, in India, which has always been at the forefront of the social and educational progress in the country, there was never a question of not pursuing a graduate degree. My family – an interesting blend of academics, social workers, and political activists – ingrained in me that I was very fortunate to be in a position to pursue higher education, and that I should strive to use this opportunity and my education to help people.
What did you study?
Before enrolling for my PhD, i did my Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Statistics (Minors in Physics and Chemistry) from Fergusson College and Master of Science (MSc) in Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management (MESPOM) (component of Erasmus Mundus Masters) from International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics. MESPOM is an Erasmus Mundus course operated by
– Central European University (Hungary),
– The International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University (Sweden),
– The University of Manchester (UK), and
– The University of the Aegean (Greece)
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
In 2011, after working with a NGO in India applying System Dynamics Modeling for urban water and solid waste management related projects, I was certain I wanted to work in the environmental field. Having a Statistics bachelors degree (with Physics and Chemistry), I knew I needed a thorough grounding in all aspects of the field, and, thus MESPOM (Masters in Environmental Science, Policy and Management) was an obvious choice. MESPOM helped me not only build on my natural science foundations, but also gain understanding and confidence in policy and management aspects. While the intensive MESPOM coursework covered different environment sectors and themes, the research for MESPOM thesis was an opportunity to build diverse capabilities and strengths.
How was the experience at MESPOM?
While working on my MESPOM thesis in the Balaton region, I had a chance to test my belief in system dynamics modeling as a fantastic tool for democratic deliberations in a real life situation. But, like most students and young researchers, I faced serious resource and time constraints. This made it difficult to undertake a conventional participatory system dynamics modeling (PSDM) exercise. A PSDM exercise is critically important as it leads to higher quality of decisions, social learning, capability building, creation of platforms, buy-in of stakeholders, and opportunities for negotiations. This prompted me to develop a ‘Rapid Participatory System Dynamics Modeling’ protocol. This helped overcome resource and time constraints, without compromising on the rigor and quality of the model. I was invited to present my paper on this protocol at the 32nd International System Dynamics Conference. I must mention and thank my MESPOM advisor, Prof. Laszlo Pinter, who has been a continuous source of support, encouragement, and inspiration.
My MESPOM thesis made me realize the complexity of the intertwining ecological, economic, political, institutional, and social dimensions of environmental issues and their implications for sustainable development. It also prompted me to see water conflicts not only as part of environmental conflicts but even as broader political conflicts. Most importantly, the research transformed my concern for environmental disputes in a serious academic pursuit.
I joined the ‘Forum on Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India’ as an intern after completion of MESPOM to learn more about the dynamics of water conflicts in my own country. The research during the internship provided exposure to the realities surrounding water conflicts in the developing world.
While working in the Balaton area and then with the Forum, I realized the need to have academic training in––both, substantive and methodological aspects of––social sciences. This was necessary in order to work effectively in the field of sustainable development and to understand the social and political dynamics of socio-ecological systems. With this in mind, I am currently pursuing the MRes Social Science Research Methods (International Development) Program at the University of East Anglia, UK. I am planning to focus on the institutional structures facilitating collaborative or deliberative processes for water conflict resolution.
Over the next five years, I will be pursuing a PhD in Planning, Policy, and Design at the University of California, Irvine, USA, where I hope to continue working on the themes of environmental conflict and sustainable development.
Why did you choose to come to UCI?
I realized early on in my educational life, that I was interested in studying how people interact with the environment, which led me to adopt an interdisciplinary approach. Through my bachelors, masters, and Master of Research degrees, I attempted to work in both social and physical sciences for course-work and research. I was also always interested in the water sector, particularly issues regarding access to water and conflicts over water. Water, in my view, is not just a natural resource, but is also a critical part of people’s spiritual, religious, social, and political identity – which makes it extremely complex and interesting. While applying for PhD programs, I was specifically looking for a department and professors under whose guidance I could learn more about water through an interdisciplinary lens. In this search, I contacted Prof. Richard Matthew (my advisor) and Prof. David Feldman, who encouraged me to apply to UCI.
If you are conducting research, how would you explain your research and its significance to your grandparent?
As a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Planning, Policy and Design, I am working on two research projects:
My doctoral research work aims at understanding the persistence of water-access conflicts in Mumbai, under the guidance of Prof. Richard Matthew
Since colonial times, people and communities in and around Mumbai have been constantly in conflict with each other over access to water. Over the last few decades, there have been instances of protests, riots, famous court cases, water theft, informal water markets, water capture, and political power-play when it comes to water access in Mumbai. The governing bodies have responded through numerous attempts of revamping water supply policies, such as privatization, introducing new regulations, and even creating an independent regulatory authority (at the state level) to address the water scarcity felt by the city since independence. Yet the conflicts persist. I am interested in understanding the roots, nature, and persistence of these water-access conflicts in Mumbai and looking at underlying socio-political, and especially historical, mechanisms that might have made this persistence possible.
Participatory system dynamics modeling of Sediment Management in Southern California, a part of the SedRISE project in the UCI Blum Centre for Poverty Alleviation (link: http://blumcenter.uci.edu/rise/sedrise/)
Due to climate change, coastal communities around the world are looking for ways to protect vulnerable infrastructure, people, and ecosystems in the event of sea level rise. In the coastal region of Southern California, sediment has long been considered as a nuisance or a waste product, but it is now increasingly being recognized as a potential solution for protecting beaches and wetlands, and for combating coastal flooding. There is a need to understand how sediment is managed in such situations, and what could be the future options available. Focusing on sediment management in two of the largest estuaries in Southern California, Newport Bay Estuary (NBE) and the Tijuana River Estuary (TRE), my part in the research project involves understanding how various decision-makers on different levels understand the system and take decisions. In individual interviews with them, I tried to draw a causal ‘mental map’ of the system from their viewpoint. By overlapping all such individual mental maps, we were able to get a qualitative model that has a holistic view of not just the natural, but also the human part of the system of sediment management. In the next stages of the project, we will convert this qualitative model into a quantitative tool that will help the decision-makers to see how their individual decisions change or affect the system.
What are your hobbies/passions outside of research?
In 2011, I first left India, and moved to Budapest for my master’s degree. The new experiences and adventures that the city offered to me made me want to explore the world. I started saving up my student stipend, and travelling whenever possible. In 7 short years, I have travelled to 25 countries and explored numerous cities. Learning about new cultures, history, art, and food is my biggest passion. I am also a voracious reader, an (overly enthusiastic) amateur baker, a tea lover, an aspiring barista, and an occasional painter.
What are you most proud of accomplishing (so far) in your graduate program?
My previous degrees were oriented more to field research and research methods. Before I came to UCI for my PhD Program, I had shied away from social science theories. In my second semester, I took my first theory class (Prof. Martha Feldman’s Theories of Power and Empowerment), and even though I struggled very much, I realized that I enjoyed theory. I also realized that if I wanted to be a good researcher, I needed a good grounding in social science theories. Through independent study courses under the guidance of my advisor Prof. Richard Matthew and by taking ‘History and Theory’ seminar courses in the History department over the last three years, I have worked hard at getting a solid theoretical grounding. That was a difficult learning curve, but definitely the most rewarding experience for me in UCI, and I am proud that I did not give up on theory.
What advice do you have for a new graduate student in your program?
My advice for a new graduate student would be to take as many different courses and independent studies, both within and outside the department, that don’t necessarily align completely to your initial ideas of what your research is going to be. Try out new classes, topics, theories, and methods. You might decide that you don’t want to pursue those things further, but you might also stumble on something that changes the way you think about your own research. For me, it was history and theory.
What do you see yourself doing in five or ten years?
All said and done, I am a researcher at heart, and I enjoy fieldwork, data collection, and data analysis. I have found over the last three years of my PhD, that I don’t necessarily mind writing as well. I am still unsure whether I want to pursue an academic or non-academic career, but I am sure that in five or ten years, I will still be doing research that I enjoy, hopefully in some interesting locales.