How did you become interested in your field of research?
As humans begin to understand their defining role in the Anthropocene, we are increasingly in need of the practices, community, and engagement to reenter into a relationship with the natural world and one another. Research projects such as Civic Science provide an opportunity to engage in a collaborative, decentralized, and experiential way. It’s also an opportunity for many people to take an active role in inquiring about what future we’d like to see, in the types of plants that can sustain us, and what quality of relationships we can create with one another.
Through my interdisciplinary studies within academia and community-based agricultural initiatives, I became interested in how social and cultural values change over time through experience, particularly with plants and the environment. Thus, civic science was of interest to me personally and professionally. It is at the intersection of agriculture, culture, teaching and facilitation, research, and community organizing. I have devoted my studies and work to understand and support the individual and societal shift required for a sustainable future. Practically, in civic science, we not only provide educational support to participants who collect scientific data, but we also invite and gather qualitative data to better understand how participants are learning, individually and together, and the outcomes of that learning.
What brought you to The Land Institute?
I first came to The Land Institute in 2018 as a natural systems agriculture intern during my studies in physical geography at Lund University in Sweden. After living and working in diverse communities and cultures, this was a formative experience as I returned to the region of the world in which I grew up. Through my internship, I was reintroduced to prairie and the framework for the potential of agriculture landscapes to be perennial and diverse. As I understood the global ecological implications of the current agricultural system, I was also very interested in the cultural shift required for people to be re-familiarized with systems thinking on a long-term scale and participative inquiry around new food futures. The Ecosphere Studies and Civic Science project at The Land Institute was a great fit to pursue those questions. In addition, I couldn’t help but be attracted to the community of motivated researchers and staff who courageously pour into these questions. It makes for an inspiring workplace.
Is there a timeline for your work?
After three years of piloting civic science cohorts, a rhythm for the project is starting to form. As participants grow plants as our plant breeders grow them, we work within the same biophysical timelines, which means that we are outwardly most engaged and communicative with civic scientists during the growing season, April to October. During this time, our team supports participants through hosting a webinar series, making site visits, creating informational videos alongside scientists, and answering phone calls from participants. Then our team writes up results and plans educational materials for the upcoming season during the winter months.
Has your team made any breakthroughs in the last year?
Yes! Based on the feedback of civic scientists, our team created new educational materials such as a print field guide for civic scientists to reference and learn from as they’re collecting data in their plots. As a result, civic scientists are learning “just in time” about topics such as pollinators visiting their plants, disease identification, and the plant’s growth stages they can expect throughout the season. This field guide even features photos taken by civic scientists as they help us document novel phenomena occurring with these perennial crops. In addition to the field guide, we filmed material to take steps towards increasing the accessibility of the material for various types of learners.
We look forward to launching an app for The Land Institute in collaboration with Colorado State University’s Citsci.org for civic scientists to collect data and communicate with scientists and one another in late September 2021. We also launched our largest cohort yet in September, where 106 participants are testing the perenniality of Dr. Shuwen Wang’s most current line of perennial wheat in diverse geographies across the country in backyards and community spaces.
What are the challenges presented by your work?
While the pilot years of civic science and the creation of the framework have been highly informative in fine-tuning the approach, we still face challenges and are learning all the time. As we test the civic science methodology, we are learning how to grow and steward larger cohorts of participants. We are learning how to analyze the results at scale and how to sustain projects for multiple years. We also embrace the need to be sensitive and responsive to barriers to participation and access to perennial grain projects. Our team is consistently working to accommodate and support people across geographic and cultural contexts. Another challenge for us is to measure the impact of educational work, as learning may occur differently and at different times for people. Some results will be reported back to us at the end of the season, some in the distant future, and some not at all. In a decentralized approach like civic science, experiences and stories are situated in diverse communities across the country and taking root in-situ.
It feels important to grow into and learn from the challenges we face. As a practice of articulating our rhythm, approach, and learning thus far, our team is crafting a lab manual this fall.
Outside of work, what hobbies do you enjoy?
Photographing plants was one of the ways that I started building relationships with the intricacies of the world around me. While I get to do that at work, I can also be found taking photos of other perennials (and annuals!) during my time off. I also enjoy baking with any grain I can find, traveling my way through cookbooks, and singing!
Support the work of Anna and others at The Land Institute.