MPC News - Spring 2017

Member Profile: Kathryn Grace

The importance of place

Kathryn Grace

Kathryn Grace believes that everyone’s decisions about their food and their health are impacted by the place they live. Grace is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Society. She says, "I don’t think that you can understand people's reasons for decision-making without taking into account their environment." Her research centers on food production and food insecurity, children's health, and women's health in the context of climate change. She examines these phenomena in some of the poorest countries in the world, located in West Africa, East Africa, and Central America.

Grace began studying women and children’s health as a student of geography, from an interest in environmental change. From early on in her career the approach to policies and narratives to preserve forests without attention to the human impact of these policies did not sit right with her. In Guatemala, Grace found that she disagreed with the narrative around women’s health. "Informally, we were basically telling women to have fewer babies so that we could preserve the forests." This idea, of promoting reduced fertility and its benefit to women’s health as a means to effect environmental change, felt disingenuous to Grace. Then Grace began reading material outside the field of geography, particularly on the empowerment of women.

She found a powerful theme in the work. "Westerners tend to dictate to non-western people their needs," she says. It’s an approach that she learned directly studying Guatemalan rainforests. "I rejected that idea. My goal as a researcher is to empower people to have good health outcomes for themselves and their families in a way that is not telling them that the way to health is fewer kids." Grace says that this is especially true when recommending fewer children runs counter to existing cultural norms.

Grace adjusted her approach to her research, while still focusing on the role of place, and understanding it’s importance in people’s lives and their decision-making. "Place is important. All of Minnesota is not the same. Some communities value certain things - you may fit in with those values or you many not." Grace notes that the physical landscape also affects an individual’s choices and options, "An individual can be influenced by environmental conditions like rain and snow, but also land-use like farms or mines, schools and services -- all the ways an individual interacts with his or her community."

Grace now chooses to focus her work on people and the choices that they make in a context of a changing environment. This shift in approach, she explains, is not only good for the subjects of her work, but for the accuracy of the work. "When I ask questions about people’s health, I can trust their answers as a researcher, and they can trust me to represent their lives, their health choices, and health outcomes."

Grace’s next large project will study the change in human-environment systems in Mali and Ethiopia. She was recently awarded a $2.8 million NSF Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) with colleagues from several universities. "No one knows how climate change is going to impact people," she says, "climatologists are studying things like where it will get hot, where there will be more or less rain, but they study climate on regional, or global, scale. People live with those changes." Grace stresses the need to work at an individual- level to address how changes in climate will affect people with differential access to resources. New policies that account for individual-level variation can help vulnerable people become more resilient to gradual climate changes like higher average temperatures and shorter growing seasons, and from climate shocks, like floods.

The new NSF INFEWS grant will address interdisciplinary questions, studying the physical side of climate change and how people respond to those changes by examining the ripple effect of decision-making. "Food, energy, and water are all happening every day in everyone’s lives. Poor people make decisions about how they get their water and food that make a big impact in their health. So when we develop these big energy systems, like hydraulic, or off-grid power, to meet energy demand we need to examine where the electricity come from, and how it will impact other water resources." Then the work needs to go further to examine the impact on health and wellbeing. She explains, "We know that these things are integrated, but we don’t know how changing one part of the system will move throughout the system."

In Ethiopia and Mali, the countries of study for the INFEWS grant, access to resources varies very widely. Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. Many rural, pastoral families live in mud houses without electricity, water, or sewer systems. Ethiopia has farmers as well, and has been identified as a "canary in the coal mine" of climate change. Its geography and relationship with the Indian Ocean mean that air currents from the ocean will increase temperatures and decreased rainfall in ways that scientists are not yet seeing in other areas - like Mali - yet. Mali, unlike Ethiopia, has only one growing season, and which has already shortened in recent years. The total rainfall has not yet changed, but the frequency of rainfall has. This means that plants in Mali are not getting watered with the same regularity. With only one growing season, the viability of the crops is important to the health of Mali’s population.

Grace expects that being a part of the MPC will make her work better. "While population geographers tend to be good at appreciating the understanding and relationship people have with their physical landscape, and what is happening around them, we could do better thinking about reproductive health." Demographers, she explains, "take into account differences between behavior and biology and use quantitative techniques to sort out how factors relate to each other. At the MPC there is a strong commitment to using quantitative models to properly reflect people’s lives. Geographers can incorporate a lot of this knowledge into their research."

Small changes can have big impacts, but for Grace, the questions always come back to the idea of place. "Think about what it means to be a part of a community, why certain outcomes happen in a specific community or household. We need to investigate the context that people live in so that we can fully understand why we have variation in outcomes."

Spring 2017 Letter from the Director

Rob Warren

I am honored to follow Steve Ruggles as the Director of MPC. I've worked closely with Steve since I arrived in 2002, most recently as the MPC’s Training Director since 2011. Steve’s insights, passion, and leadership have helped to create one of the top population research centers in the world and one of the best working environments I’ve ever experienced. I often tell guests and visitors that working at the MPC is like working at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The data-impossible becomes data-possible, and it’s fun to see it happening. My primary goals as the Director is to keep alive the magic that Steve created with the help of so many other brilliant collaborators.

As part of the Institute for Social Research and Data Innovation, the newly constituted MPC has multiple missions. The most important is to help population researchers---faculty, research staff, students---develop great new projects and to maintain and evolve the existing ones. The MPC helps researchers make the magic! A second important mission is to train the next generation of world-class population researchers. The population studies MA and PhD minors are the most vibrant interdisciplinary minors on campus. In 2014, we launched the MPC Training Program; much of the work of this year will be directed at securing NIH support for our innovative and energetic training efforts. Dave Hacker, MPC’s new Training Director, will be instrumental in that work. I also look forward to continuing to support the MPC’s Diversity program, working with Mia Riza, David Haynes, and staff.

There is no replacing Steve Ruggles; there is just building on the foundation he helped to create. I look forward to working with all of you to build on MPC’s existing strengths and to branch out in new directions in the years ahead.


Upcoming Events

Spring 2017 Seminar Series Schedule

MPC seminars are held from 12:15 to 1:15 PM on Mondays in the MPC Seminar Room (50 Willey Hall)

Spring 2017 MPC Workshop Schedule

MPC workshops are held from 12:15 to 1:15 PM on Fridays in the MPC Seminar Room (50 Willey Hall)

Free Data Training Workshop Schedule

Workshops are free, open to the public, and held in computer classrooms on the campus of the University of Minnesota on Fridays from 12:30-2:30 p.m. Registration is required.

Staff Highlights

Get to know the people of the MPC. In this issue, we learn more about the MPC Graduate Trainees.

Graduate Trainees

Maryia Bakhtsiyarava

Maryia Bakhtsiyarava

Maryia Bakhtsiyarava is in the third year of her PhD in Geography. He research centers around human-environment interactions like the effects of climate and environmental change on human health and fertility. She came to the MPC and her program right after completing her undergraduate degree in Geography and GIS. When she isn’t working or studying Mariya enjoys being outside, playing sports and traveling.

Anna Bolgrien

Anna Bolgrien

Anna Bolgrien began her PhD in Public Affairs at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs last fall. She came to Minnesota after finishing her Master’s Degree in Demography and Social Analysis at the University of California, Irvine. For her doctorate, Anna is interested in studying demography, international development, and survey design. Anna enjoys running and crocheting in her spare time. She has added a new goal for this winter -- to learn to cross-country ski.

Chelsea L. Cervantes De Blois

Chelsea L. Cervantes De Blois

Chelsea L. Cervantes De Blois is in the second year of her PhD in Geography. Her interest in studying food systems, land cover changes, migration patterns was piqued by her previous work as an agricultural consultant in Eurasia and in the Balkans. Chelsea also worked as a climate change researcher Colombia and was a Fulbrighter in Azerbaijan. Outside of the books, if Chelsea is not in some random country that few people can pronounce or even know about, she is living her double life Stateside as a passionate pianist, artist, and ballerina.

Sarah Garcia

Sarah Garcia

Sarah Garcia is in the third year of her PhD in Sociology, studying health disparities and the social determinants of health. She previously worked in the Division of Health Policy and Management in the School of Public Health as a Technical Advisor assisting researchers using Medicare and Medicaid data. If you are looking for Sarah after working hours, try the gym where she is a spinning instructor.

Luke Smith

Luke Smith

Luke Smith recently completed his Master’s Degree and he is the first year of his PhD in Epidemiology. Luke’s research interests include climate change and public health. Before joining the MPC and his current course of study, Luke was a coach and taught high school. For Luke, winter is a great time for nordic (or cross-country) skiing. In the summer, he enjoys bicycling and playing ultimate frisbee.

Allan Tate

Allan Tate

Allan Tate is in his third year of study in Epidemiology where he is interested in subject matter related to the social determinants of health, immigrant and refugee health, health in conflict settings, child obesity, and mental health. Prior to joining the University, Allan worked for a large national retailer on the internal operations consulting team. Allan explains his decision to change the direction of his career to study public health, motivated by his desire “to better align my personal mission of social justice and community activism.” When Allan is not working or studying he is frequently traveling for pleasure.

Khoa Vu

Khoa Vu

Khoa Vu is in the second year of his PhD in Applied Economics. His research uses applied microeconomics to study health and education. His current research topics are early child development and U.S healthcare reform. He joined MPC after completing his Master degree in Economics at Tufts University. In the free time, he enjoys doing outdoor photography.