Navigating Research as a Cohort

Feb. 10, 2020
Drew Eppehimer in a river with a net.

We live in a time of global change in which environmental issues are becoming increasingly evident. These issues are a culmination of complex and evolving interactions between organisms and their environment including human dimensions such as political, economic, and social realities/perceptions. Likewise, solutions to these environmental issues are complex, evolving, and multidisciplinary. This is important for all fields of study including my own dissertation research at the University of Arizona. I study stream ecology, specifically aquatic invertebrates in desert rivers that are fed by treated wastewater. The long-range goal of my research is to assess the potential of treated wastewater to support aquatic ecosystems to help buffer the impacts of climate change and population growth on these aridland systems, while also understanding the limitations of this artificial flow.

The artificial, aquatic systems that I study are inherently linked to the socio-political realm. Thus, my research is contextualized by multiple disciplines including ecology, hydrology, and wastewater engineering as well as law, policy, and social dimensions of watershed management. This was one of the reasons I chose to apply for the SW CASC Natural Resources Workforce Development Fellowship. This fellowship focuses on actionable research that addresses real-world needs through collaborative, translational science. Too often we, as scientists, are consumed by the metric of our profession: publishing papers for limited audiences. However, it takes more than papers to bring change. The fellowship recognizes this and trains its recipients to develop need-based, integrative research that directly informs management decisions. As a cohort, we are tasked with putting this into practice through a use- inspired research project that addresses the impacts of and adaptations to climate change on ecosystems and water users in the Southwest.

I have never conducted interdisciplinary, co-produced research like this before, and I am very excited to participate in this collaborative experience. This fellowship cohort brings together students from different Southwest institutions and from a variety of disciplines. We all contribute a diversity of skills and perspectives to aid in the creation and implementation of our research project. We’ve quickly discovered that collaboration like this is incredibly rewarding because the breadth of experience, knowledge, and technical capabilities broadens our ability to unpack some of the complex issues facing both riparian ecosystems and water users here in the Southwest. However, we’ve also discovered that this collaboration can be quite challenging. In particular, communication requires special attention. The seemingly simple logistics of planning monthly meetings become complex when you combine seven different universities across different time zones with students’ varied schedules and their additional responsibilities in their respective degree programs. Furthermore, we’ve learned to be more intentional with our language because different research fields carry different vocabularies that can result in confusion and frustration. So, when moving between and merging disciplines, we must clarify terms and concepts to further our mutual understanding and success as a collaborative team.

Our fellowship cohort is currently in the midst of refining and narrowing our project scope, which can be difficult as our diverse backgrounds and expertise draw us to such large and wide-ranging topics. Given this year’s science theme (improved understandings of the linkages between the management of headwater ecosystems and downstream water resources), we are honing in on a project focused on the Gila River in Arizona and future changes in functional flows in this system. I am enthusiastic about the implementation and outcome of our cohort research project, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this experience. By providing the insight and motivation necessary to integrate science and management, the SW CASC NRWD Fellowship will continue to strengthen my research and career goals of addressing the conservation of aquatic habitat with overlooked, urban water sources. This fellowship will no doubt give our cohort the practice and training necessary to help navigate research collaboration and engagement with stakeholders in our future endeavors to help solve the complex issues this era of global change presents.