Saturday, July 23, 2016

Stepping out into the World

Working on the Geography team, I've spent a great deal of my summer working within Menomonie. However, I've been able to break that trend last week working with the Sociology and Anthropology team.

Early in the week, the sociology team and I went north to interview a farmer about his land management practices, as well as his renting practices. While I have interviewed for the purpose of research before, it was very interesting to do so over the course of an hour while moving across the farmer's property. As a Geographer, I'm glad I was able to tag along to view the best management practices in use across the landscape in comparison with other practices. You can only understand so much by looking at a map before you need get out and see the world for yourself.

Later in the week, I was able to tag along for an oral history interview with the Anthropology team. The structure of this interview was much different than the Sociology team's interviews. While the interview with the Sociologists was active and full of probing questions, collecting the oral history was very sedentary, and the interview was held more like a conversation. The reason for these difference in techniques is due to the different data each team was trying to collect. Working with Geography, understanding how people view the landscape over periods of time can give context why the land is the way it is. 

I'm always happy to take part in the research of other disciplines. In my opinion, learning to view the world in a different context is one of the most important skills a researcher can have, and there's no better way to build that skill than working outside of your discipline from time to time.  

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Interdisciplinary Anthill

I went on a small hiking trip over the weekend, straying roughly three hours from Menomonie, to a place called Devil’s Lake State Park.  Five weeks into the LAKES internship, I assumed a change of scenery and pace would reinvigorate my scholarly endeavors and allow me to return to my work at Stout with a fresh pair of eyes and a renewed sense of purpose.  What I did not expect was to, through nature, uncover a more holistic understanding of interdisciplinary research.

Stepping into the twilight zone

Some days I wonder if I misread the description and accidentally applied to a biology REU. Applied math by definition is interdisciplinary- you need something to apply that math to-, but I underestimated the extent to which other disciplines come into play. While I have picked up quite a few new math skills, most of my gained knowledge has been focused in the fields of biology and computer science. For the last week or so, I've mostly been reading biology papers and coding- and I find that awesome. After all, I chose to attend a liberal arts college for a reason. Some of the most interesting classes I've taken have been rather discussion-based and somewhat student-led. I find it interesting to see and experience different perspectives. How does a biology major read Frankenstein compared to an English major? How can psychology help us realize why so many people seem to dislike math?

I was able to experience this shift in perspective from both sides this week. When I shadowed the anthropology team, I was reminded of the human factor in the equation. All of the disciplines I am studying this summer are rather data driven, some of the real-word implications are lost when a story is stripped down to the numbers.  While we're working to predict blooms, they are collecting the stories of how people are affected by the blooms.  When the Econ team visited, we got to see how those who have not been exposed to the background of the problem and the math behind it react to our work. It will help us immensely when it come times to tell our story to the community.

Exposure to the unfamiliar helps us to see what biases and perspectives we may take for granted. An interdisciplinary approach may push you into vastly unfamiliar territory. It pushes your boundaries of your knowledge and encourages you to think critically, explore new paths, and recognize when you are out of your depth and need to ask for help.

Unlike previous research experiences I’ve had, this summer I’ve spent a fair amount of time learning about subjects that lie outside of my own major. It has been fascinating to learn about the other students’ research projects and see how they all fit together. While the research is important individually, it’s clear that the information from each individual project is much more powerful if they are presented together. For example, this week I spent a day with the math students instead of my usual economics group to learn more about their project. After a crash course of about 4 or 5 semesters of math concepts, I started to understand the basis of their work. Although I wouldn’t be able to derive the models they’ve been creating myself, understanding seeing the lake’s algae problem explained mathematically helped me get a better grasp on the idea of what has been happening in the lakes and under which conditions the lakes would become cleaner. Meanwhile, as an economics student my work focuses largely on how people make decisions. This is important when efforts to clean up lakes largely depends on the passing of policies. Thus, using the math models to disseminate information to the public in a way that will increase awareness of the situation and influence policy is crucial. Spending a day with the math team helped to solidify the importance of interdisciplinary research in my mind. It showed that while both of our research projects are important, they are most influential if they are presented together. In a more general sense, working on a unified project like this has helped me expand my way of thinking from the usual way that I would approach research. It has been a breath of fresh air to consider this problem from a variety of approaches rather than just analyzing it from an economic standpoint.

Appreciating interdisciplinary research

After a few weeks of doing mostly interviews and participant observation for the Anthropology project, this week I got the chance to work with together with the Geography and Sociology team. We were looking at surveys sent to farmers from the previous years and trying to think of additional questions we could ask of the data from a geographic lens. In the course of our conversation, our experience from each of our projects guided our questions, contributions, and ideas. It was pretty neat to see how our focuses were subtly revealed but also worked together to consider the survey data. 

Later on, I also got the chance to learn some basic functions about ArcMap, a GIS (geographic information systems) program. I'm planning to take some introductory GIS classes, so I figured this could be a good opportunity to get a quick tutorial. I was glad to see that the program functions similarly to some Adobe programs (I used to major in design and am familiar with the Adobe Suite), at least in the function of layers and some of the more basic tools. I also got to see a map that showed all the people that were sent surveys compared to those that answered and returned surveys. I'm a very visual person, so I really appreciated just one way that GIS could be used to visually represent data and portray correlations.

Having ten other students with different focuses to bounce ideas off of and ask questions is great and keeps me open to other points of view. With that in mind, I'm looking forward to what the last couple of weeks of the project bring, especially as we're finishing up data gathering and moving full steam ahead into analysis.

Math, Econ, and Sociology

I spent this Thursday with Team Math and it was fascinating to learn about their project. They are using python to build a model of the lake which will allow them to tweak advection and diffusion rates and tell whether or not a lake will experience an algae bloom under particular conditions. Apart from being a really cool and interesting application of math,  it fits in pretty well with what economics is working towards. 

Part of what we are looking at is people’s willingness to pay for cleaner lake water. So math’s project can tell us which conditions we could tweak to suppress a bloom and if we could find the estimated cost of some technology to mimic that we could use our data to tell whether it would be economically feasible and beneficial.

I’ve also done a fair about of work with Sociology doing Stata stuff with them. Part of what they are doing is creating an index to measure a respondent's trust of society and level of community involvement to eventually see if this affects whether or not a landowner requires BMP stipulations in their lease. I’d never thought of making an index for something so intangible but I think such indices would be extraordinarily useful in economics! It made me think about the way we could turn some of our survey data into scales to use in regression. Such as an index for investment in the future made up from some weighted combination of age of respondents and whether they have kids or grandkids. 

Interdisciplinary Experience

The interdisciplinary mature of this program makes it very exciting to work on. GIS can have many applications, and one of the main things I was excited about when this project started was seeing how other disciplines would use GIS in their projects. The economics team ended up using GIS the most. While working with them I learned a lot about their project, and I found it to be very fun to help them get the information they needed for their model. They needed the distance from properties to certain lakes so that they can use that as a variable for their model. This was going to be used to see how distance from lakes impacts home value. They want to find out how much more a home is worth if it is near or on the lakefront. They are doing this for Lake Menomin, where algal blooms are notoriously bad during the late summer, as well as for Cumberland and the Chetek chain where algal blooms aren't as bad. The purpose of that is to see if there is a difference in added value if a home is near a dirty lake or near a clean lake, which in turn will result in the value of clean water. The other part of their research consists of analyzing surveys they compiled to find peoples' willingness to pay for a cleaner lake, as well as looking into the economic effects a clean lake has on businesses. It felt good to contribute to someone else's project and I'm excited to see their results.

STATA + Surveys + Maps + Soil + Farming + Modeling + Some of the greatest people you will ever meet + Menomonie = the Interdisciplinary Dream

My interests, academic and otherwise, continue to bounce all over the place, which is why the LAKES REU initially attracted me. I’ve found the interdisciplinary working and learning environment super exciting, and it’s fun to get to work with everyone and learn new skills and ideas. I’m on the Sociology team, but by this point I’ve been able to spend some time helping out both the Economics and Geography groups, doing everything from stuffing envelopes while watching The Office to getting a GIS tutorial to learning about different kinds of regression.
How we all feel about the LAKES REU

Applying Applied Math

The work of an applied mathematician is by nature related to other disciplines, whether they be economics, biology, chemistry, physics, business or finance. The model we’re creating this summer to describe chlorophyll concentration and population growth requires lots of understanding of mathematics, biology, and computer science. Since I haven’t taken a biology class since high school, this has been an interesting learning experience. This project has taught me the skill of using what basic knowledge I have of biology and then slowly learn the most efficient way of learning the new material. This has required learning to read research papers in a field I’m not an expert in and talking to others who have more knowledge to help put the puzzle pieces together. Another skill I have learned is being better at stepping back from all the details and really understanding how these 3 disciplines intersect to solve one problem.

This week I also got to spend one day with the economists and saw how they are using math in their model. To create a pricing model, they’re running a bunch of regressions using different variables to see how much a clean lake is worth. They’re using more advanced statistics and statistical programming than us but the critical thinking skills are still the same. The combined knowledge of our two projects could tell you how much a clean lake is worth and given the biological conditions of the lake, if a bloom will occur. People can use this information to make intelligent decisions about buying houses near these lakes and see if the increased price of the house is worth the risk of a potential bloom.

“No two persons ever read the same book.” ― Edmund Wilson

As with most research experiences, the most precise way to gain to see the full scope of a situation is to have a team mentality that is composed of members with different strengths and different areas of expertise. The LAKES program is no different. The acronym of LAKES reiterates this; Linking Applied Knowledge in Environmental Sustainability. The program links together so many different and equally important disciplines. While my focus is in anthropology, others focus in geography, math, sociology, and economics.

Before this experience, I never thought I could understand what methods and interpretations happen in other disciplines that are so different from my own, and in a way, I still don't understand, not the full scope anyway. But, what has happened is I am looking at my project in a whole new light. Because of the interdisciplinary aspect to the programs, I now gather new thoughts when trying to understand a situation, or interpret data. I think about the implications of my work in a way that allows me to question my own thoughts and put them in that perspective of another's research.

For instance, the economics team sent out surveys to local business owners and home owners in the area, mostly ones that live on the lake. The survey had questions about what they felt was worst about the lake, what is best about the community, and what the community would do monetarily to aid in helping the lake get better. The significance of this is mainly to understand the economic impact that a poor, polluted lake has on the community, property values, and tourism. Before this experience, economics seemed all numbers to me, and since math is not fun for me, I was not interested. However, I learned that economic impact correlates with ethnographic research because the people who answered those surveys weren't numbers, they were real people who had thoughts and concerns about the area they lived in. Now, when I write the questions for my interviews with local people, I make sure to ask questions that deal with the economic impacts of the lake, because it is important in trying to grasp the full picture of the significance the lakes uses/disuse has on the community.