Abhishek Rao – Why I’m Hooked on Community Science

Category: Uncategorized

By Abhishek Rao

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.

 

My involvement in Thriving Earth Exchange began in the fall of 2016 as an early career scientist on a Thriving Earth Exchange community science project with the City of Hermosa Beach, Calif. The lead scientist on the project and I worked with the City to explore renewable energy options that would facilitate achieving carbon neutrality for municipal operations by the end of 2020. When we delivered our report to the City and the project officially ended in the winter of 2017, I felt a void in my life. Thriving Earth Exchange had shown me how immensely satisfying it is to utilise my time and skills to tackle real-world issues faced by our communities. In early 2018, I was already itching to take up a new challenge and get involved in the community on Maui, Hawaii which I now called home.

My first community science project here was with Mālama Maui Nui (MMN), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to beautify and maintain Maui’s environment. One of MMN’s ventures is to collect tires discarded around the island and to salvage the rubber to produce soles for upcycled slippers. I volunteered my skills as an engineer to help MMN optimise their tire cutting and planing processes so it now takes less time and effort to produce the soles.

A second community science project I am currently involved in focuses on the resiliency and adaptation of energy infrastructure systems on Maui when faced with natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes. What started as a research topic for a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii Maui College has expanded to include community stakeholders such as the County of Maui, local utilities, the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, FEMA, the Pacific Disaster Center, volunteer scientists like myself, and the general public. I am contributing my knowledge as a renewable energy engineer to help assess whether pursuing strategies such as zero energy, energy microgrids and district energy systems at various scales can support the island’s energy resiliency and adaptation goals.

My experiences with community science have taught me that science and engineering should not be confined to classrooms. Real-world science and engineering challenges have several stakeholders and sometimes conflicting constraints that must be contended with. Good science and engineering involve the affected community in coming up with solutions and making decisions. Community science has shaped my career goal and worldview to want to work with organizations that tackle community issues in close collaboration with the community as a bottom-up approach, rather than with organizations that work in a vacuum and dictate solutions and decisions top-down to the affected communities.

My most eye-opening experience working with communities has been to see how governing bodies at every scale around the world invest less resources planning for risk mitigation than they spend on relief and recovery efforts after natural disasters. It is exciting that some communities such as the City of Hermosa Beach and the County of Maui have the foresight to significantly invest in planning before the fact.

I would strongly advise other students and early career scientists to participate in community science projects. A good way to go about doing this is with Thriving Earth Exchange, whose staff members help identify community issues, define the scope and pair you with a senior scientist who can mentor you through the project. Another way of engaging in community science and advancing alignment among scientists and communities is to design internships, college projects or thesis research around community science issues. Conversely, if more communities funded graduate research in universities to tackle real-world issues, it would organically enhance collaboration between scientists, communities and decision makers.

mgoodwin editor