16 February 2014

FEATURE SERIES IV: Field Research on climate change adaptation in coastal communities: An Interview with Miriah Russo-Kelly, OSU PhD student

FEATURE SERIES IV: Field Research on climate change adaptation in coastal communities: An Interview with Miriah Russo-Kelly, Oregon State University (OSU) PhD student

Miriah Russo Kelly is an environmental communication scholar interested in the human dimensions of natural resource management. We are PhD students together at OSU and I had the opportunity to hear about how her work as a dual Speech Communications and Environmental Sciences student has evolved. She studies interdisciplinary and timely topics related to climate change, at-risk communities along the coast, stakeholder participation, and collaboration. Although her work is oceans, rather than freshwater, she is still dealing with water issues in relation to change - some of which has been exacerbated by coastal engineering responses for decades, allowing communities to grow in areas where they are essentially at risk.

Miriah was recently interviewed by OSU's Marketing online publication, Terra about her involvement in the UN's Climate Change Meetings in Cancun in 2010. This interview is about her current research in US coastal communities. She also works for Oregon Sea Grant on education, outreach and engagement projects. She is a trained mediator and facilitator, as well as an educator who enjoys working with local community members, non-profit and governmental organizations, as well as undergraduate and graduate students. 

With her field work recently completed, she is now working toward completing her degree requirements. I asked if she'd take a minute to share her experiences in the field with me. 

JCV: Your work is climate change adaptation in the Coos Bay region of Oregon and the Saco Bay region of Maine. Some of what you look at relates to water resources. Can you please tell me a bit about what you are researching and what aspect of water resources you are working with?

MRK: My work is focused on understanding the nature of community-based collaboration in the context of climate change adaptation. Water resource issues are at the forefront of concern in two of the four climate change adaptation case studies I am documenting in my research. One group is focused on addressing their storm water management issues at the municipal level and the other is focused more on water quality management at a larger more watershed scale level. Both projects are predicated on science that indicates that environmental change is happening and will continue to happen, thus exacerbating the issues they already face. In my research am focused on understanding the ways in which stakeholders are working together to address these complex scientific problems in the face of environmental change. 

In each community I studied a multi-stakeholder project that was addressing some impact related to climate change. They are : Coastal erosion, storm water management, changing watershed conditions, and coastal flooding/sea level rise.

JCV: The fieldwork component of your research has taken you to different field destinations. Can you please share a bit about the logistics of how you reach and stay in your field site?

My field sites are in rural Maine and Oregon. I reached out to the community through gatekeepers. I contacted the leaders, and did a lot of discussing/relationship building before I submitted a research prospectus to them and asked for their permission to conduct my research. I also made preliminary visits to each site to get to know participants before returning a few months later to conduct interviews. I think it was helpful for them to have met me prior to them sitting down for an hour to talk about these (somewhat) sensitive issues.
I would say that the biggest challenge “getting” to these places physically really arose out of my inability to secure consistent funding for my project. I ended up piecing together funds and self-funding to be able to get to the places I needed to go to investigate my research interests.  The other challenge was “getting there” mentally. I first had to identify case studies that fit my criteria and then get them to agree to let me research them. This was very time consuming and required a long-term commitment to building relationships with participants.

JCV: Has anything interesting come up with your equipment or support team?

After doing 40 interviews in two states I was in the last interview on the last day. I was using a digital voice recorder for all of the interviews and had not erased any of them up until that point. So toward the end of the interview I ask my participant if they had any other thoughts before I end the interview and just then the recorder shut off and read FULL. It would not let me record any more. The participant said they had nothing to add anyway, but I thought it was funny that the recorder was full at the exact point that I didn’t need it to record any more. Thank goodness. I took from this that I should always know how much space is left on the recorder before starting an interview.

JCV: That is timely, and pretty typical of field work - things either go remarkably well, or horribly wrong... What have been the biggest challenges with your fieldwork?

Funding, time, and consistency. All of which can be overcome. Qualitative research can be very time consuming because it requires interpersonal interaction and is therefore often costly. At the same time, funding can be difficult to acquire, especially for qualitative researchers. Mixed methods and quantitative approached seem to be more appealing to funding agencies. Qualitative research can also be difficult to standardize. I found it a challenge to develop a set of interview questions that related to all of participants in each of the four case study sites. That said, I feel that even given these barriers I was able to complete my fieldwork in a timely, cost-effective, and consistent manner. 

JCV:  What is the best thing that happened?

All in all it was a great experience. The best thing that happened was that I met a number of interesting and amazing people who are intelligent, outgoing, and committed to their communities. I undertook this type of research because I really wanted to do something that was meaningful to people. It has been an amazing experience getting out of the university and getting to places where people are affected by and use science generated by academic institutions.

JCV:  What is the funniest thing that happened?

While in rural upstate Maine conducting one hour interviews with research participants I was trying very hard to find a time to meet with one key participant who is a very busy person. I almost left town to head back home when I received an e-mail that said that he could meet, but it would have to be immediately. So I hopped in my car and made it to the location and was able to interview him. We had a great exchange and at the end he gave me a t-shirt that read “I am meSSI. The three capital letters standing for the organization that he belongs to. I laughed when he gave it to me because I am messy, and this is known amongst all of my friends and family. I love to cook, but no one wants to clean up after I have been in the kitchen. My brother won’t sit next to me at family meals because he claims I get my food on his plate. And, I accidently flung a bagel at one of the guests at the rehearsal dinner for my wedding. Just a few examples. So I laughed because it was the most appropriate gift he could have given me. When I got back to my brother’s house I told him about the shirt. So I went to the car to get it and when I opened it up it already had a huge stain on the front….only five hours later and I hadn’t even worn it yet. So, not related to my research necessarily, but we had a good laugh about it.

JCV:  Did being a woman have any impact on your research in these rural communities in Oregon and Maine? 

I am not sure how the fact that I am a younger female affected my study. If anything I would say that I have been called "affable" by some and I think having a warm and open demeanor helped me, which may be a result of my femininity. Otherwise I think it didn't really affect the project overall. I think my being a social scientist affected the project more than my being a woman.

JCV:  Have you experienced a moment of enlightenment or realization while in the field? How did that happen and did it lead to changes in your research design?

I wouldn’t say enlightenment, but I would say that I had many moments of realization. I think that at the point where you start seeing themes in what people are saying, and being able to connect those themes back to theories, your research starts to become real. I had a few aha moments where I thought to myself, wow this is really interesting and important stuff! I wouldn’t say these moments made me change my research design as much as they called me to reconsider the ways in which I was thinking about the research questions I posed.

Miriah, thanks so much for taking the time to share your field work & research experience. I wish you heaps of luck with the next phase of analyzing and writing. I look forward to hearing more about your next plans with your work timely and relevant work. Great practical application - something highlighted in OSU-based research.