Babak J. Fard – Insights from an Interdisciplinary Community Science Experience

Category: Uncategorized

By Babak J. Fard

This blog is part of Students in Community Science, a series of Thriving Earth Exchange articles featuring students who have had internship, educational or volunteer experiences in community science.


The Brookline, Mass. Thriving Earth Exchange project “Building Community Resilience to Extreme Heat” started in February 2016 with several initial meetings involving Thriving Earth Exchange staff, the town of Brookline, and the Sustainability and Data Sciences laboratory at Northeastern University (where I am a PhD candidate). These meetings resulted in a set of questions to be answered by the project. I then worked on it as the technical lead during the summer of 2016. Deliverables were two presentations in the town hall, and a 20-page report. Based on this work I submitted a poster to AGU’s Virtual Poster Showcase (VPS) in the spring of 2017, which won the first prize among graduate level posters.

This project provided a unique practical learning opportunity for me. During the literature review, for example, I learned something that many people might not know: the mortality caused by heat waves in developed cities is greater than that caused by lightning strikes, rain, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined. I called it a hidden threat. After choosing a framework and deciding about the models and the analyses, we sought to find the appropriate data for those analyses. During that process, I came to realize that a community based project may impose different criteria on a study compared to a conventional scientific study. For example, for a scientific study on vulnerable populations for heat waves, one might use data from “block groups” within data from the U.S. Census. But the decision makers might prefer to have results grouped into legislative or other districts that may not necessarily match block groups.

I also learned that in studies that aim to inform policy making, different limitations such as data availability or legal or planning limitations may dictate the most appropriate model for the situation, in addition to considerations around scientific rigor. To give an example, after participating in the Thriving Earth Exchange project I applied our analytical approach to a larger spatial scale, known as megaregions. I realized how cultural and governing differences can affect regional scale planning and policy making which in turn can affect how human activities impact the surrounding ecosystem. As a result, a study on ecological impacts of human activity in megaregions in China, for example, although scientifically valid for anywhere else in the world, may not provide actionable results for policy makers in the United States.

Finally, I realized that sometimes we have to make many simplifications in our models because of a lack of data, which can add to the uncertainty of the results and complicate the study’s ability to help inform policy. Policy makers usually want to depend on the most accurate results for their decision making, especially when it may cause considerable monetary and credibility costs.

To summarize, being involved in a community science project was a great interdisciplinary experience for me, and more broadly, I believe there are a growing number of situations in which a community science approach can be useful. For example, Northeastern University, which is nationally recognized for its co-op programs for undergrad students, has started a program for its PhD students named “Experiential PhD.”

My suggestion for students considering participating in community science projects is to take advantage of opportunities for strengthening their soft skills. The potential diversity of disciplines, educational levels and the interdisciplinary nature of these projects requires communication skills, critical thinking, a positive attitude and teamwork. More and more I hear and read about the importance and high demand for technical experts who also have these skills. By combining these skills, a passion for collaboration and service, and the ability to rapidly learn and use new technologies, the new generation will be well prepared for better alignment and engagement among scientists, communities and decision makers.

mgoodwin editor