Scholars at Work

Public Scholar Profile: Sara Jo Breslow

Sara Jo Breslow

"While completing an undergraduate degree in biology and environmental studies, I saw that solving environmental problems in particular would require greater public awareness and participation."

Sara Jo Breslow is a postdoctoral associate at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Northwest Fisheries Science Center. While in the Environmental Anthropology doctoral program at UW, she participated in the Institute on the Public Humanities in 2008 and the Science Studies Network in 2009. On behalf of the Simpson Center, Amanda Swain recently had the opportunity to talk with Breslow about how she has continued to practice public scholarship since completing her degree.


AS: How did you become interested in public scholarship? How do you define or understand the term “public scholarship”?

SJB: I grew up watching nature documentaries, reading conservation magazines, and attending environmental science camp, where I experienced first-hand how science could feel fun, exciting, alluring, and meaningful to people beyond scientists. It seemed to me that all researchers could, and should, do this form of public scholarship: translate their insights for the public, whether to shed light on the nature of the universe and the human condition, or to solve specific problems through public education. While completing an undergraduate degree in biology and environmental studies, I saw that solving environmental problems in particular would require greater public awareness and participation. I also came to the conclusion that the world of environmental science, policy, and management needed a much more sophisticated understanding of people—cultural diversity, human behavior, and social processes—and therefore I chose to do my PhD in environmental anthropology. In graduate school, I learned about participatory research, in which research is designed to serve and fully involve local communities. I put all this together into a vision of public scholarship that serves the concerns of specific communities, involves those who will be affected by research in the research process, and communicates results in accessible, compelling, and transformative ways.

Why did you decide to participate in the Simpson Center’s Institute on the Public Humanities?

I was between field work and the writing stage of my PhD and had decided to do something experimental: turn excerpts from my research interviews into a theatrical documentary with the help of a professional theatre artist. My idea was to produce this play in my field site, the Skagit Valley, where I hoped it would bring people I had interviewed—tribal fishermen, farmers, sport fishermen, scientists, environmentalists—into the same room for reflection and dialogue about their prolonged disagreement surrounding efforts to restore salmon habitat on farmland. I wasn’t able to achieve that goal and instead found myself mired in some of the most profound challenges of my graduate career having to do with the unforeseen differences between anthropology and theatre, and researchers and artists. The Institute on the Public Humanities provided me with new concepts and language, professional guidance, a like-minded community, and substantial moral support for navigating the “no-man’s land” between art and scholarship (as I heard an arts journalist put it once).

How did an anthropologist end up working at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC)?

Environmental scientists and decision-makers are increasingly interested in the “human dimensions” of conservation and natural resource management. They have begun to acknowledge that conventional management strategies are not necessarily working due to social and cultural reasons in addition to economic factors. As a result, they have begun to look to the social sciences to better understand how humans affect natural resources, as well as how environmental conditions and management approaches affect people. At NOAA I am leading a project to develop indicators of human wellbeing with respect to the marine and coastal systems of the US West Coast. I think I was considered for this position because I am specifically an environmental anthropologist, with expertise on the social complexities of salmon recovery in the Puget Sound region and so relevant to the Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s interests. I am currently one of three anthropologists working at the Center.

How has public scholarship shaped what you are doing professionally since receiving your degree at UW?

I have generally tried to implement my vision of public scholarship in the work that I do. For example, in my first year out of grad school I was a fellow with the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) and the Washington State Governor’s Office, a clear chance to test the public policy potential of research. I conducted a small study of best practices in recreation management across the US West. In addition to a report, I worked with managers to put together a series of posters with evocative images and informative tidbits about the protected areas, outdoor enthusiasts, and volunteers who make the recreation industry possible. The posters were exhibited at the WGA’s 2012 annual meeting where governors, policy advisors, and other attendees could view them—and hopefully be inspired in their land management decisions. In my current post-doc at NOAA I am developing a conceptual model of human wellbeing and a measurement protocol that accounts for subjective notions of wellbeing and necessitates involving local communities in defining and assessing their own wellbeing. However, I have yet to develop an artistic element to this work and would be open to ideas!

Can you tell us about your involvement in the National Science Foundation’s Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT)? What did you do? For how long were you involved?

I started as a trainee in the first cohort of UW’s “Multinational Collaborations on Challenges to the Environment” IGERT program in 2005 and was then hired to develop and instruct the core course for the third cohort in 2006-2007. This class taught me a tremendous amount about interdisciplinary theory and practice, and it was a lot of fun to meet and work with other PhD students from engineering, biology, economics, and anthropology. Our IGERT encouraged international research collaborations, so I seized the opportunity to explore a range of possibilities. In a 2006 trip to South Africa, Mozambique, and Namibia, I and three other students explored potential research opportunities with partner universities on topics such as water quality, human dimensions of conservation, and low-budget technologies. I participated in a student-led field trip in early 2007 to learn about New Zealand’s invasive species control program and Māori approaches to environmental management. Later that year I conducted interviews with Tibetan villagers and tried out ecological and geological field work as part of a joint University of Washington-Sichuan University team studying human and landscape changes in China’s Jiuzhaigou National Park. Finally, in the summer of 2008 I conducted interviews with a cross-section of stakeholders to illuminate the social complexity of Spain’s Doñana National Park for artist Lillian Ball’s interactive video installation at Seville’s 4th Biannual Exhibition of Contemporary Art. I’m guessing the latter “research collaboration” may have raised some eyebrows at the National Science Foundation, but it certainly counts as an example of “public scholarship”!

What kinds of public scholarship projects are you currently working on?

In addition to my NOAA work, I am in the process of publishing on my graduate experience. By turning my dissertation into a book for a public audience, I hope to use anthropology to enrich public discourse and policy decisions regarding salmon recovery. By sharing insights from teaching the IGERT course I want to encourage other graduate instructors to prepare environmental professionals with transdisciplinary skills. I am currently working on a paper about making the play, in which I reflect on how my experiment with public scholarship forced me to reflect critically on the representational practices of anthropology and also on the challenges of arts-research collaborations. The script itself is being used occasionally as a classroom tool to help students learn about the environmental complexities of the Puget Sound region by dramatizing the voices of the Skagit Valley. However, my dream to fully produce the play in the Skagit Valley and broader region has not yet materialized. My vision is still to secure the time and resources to make that happen soon.

In your opinion, why does public scholarship matter to graduate education?

Contrary to the stereotype of the narrowly-trained PhD, I think all graduate students should be equipped to “vertically integrate” their research: to recognize research questions that serve social goals; to engage diverse disciplines, institutions, cultural values, and knowledges in their research; and to translate their results into useful and meaningful insights for public and policy audiences. I suppose this is because, ultimately, I feel the point of scholarship should be to inspire, and to solve problems: to improve the human condition, including how we keep our environment.


Interview conducted by Amanda Swain. Amanda is a recent PhD graduate of the UW Department of History, an alum of the Institute on the Public Humanities for Doctoral Students, and a former director of the Arizona Humanities Council and Humanities Washington. This spring she will begin a new position as Associate Director of Humanities Research Support Infrastructure in the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine.


Learn more about the Simpson Center’s public scholarship initiatives.