Narcisa Pricope, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies (by Rory N. Finney)
Romanian-born Narcisa Pricope has conducted watershed and soil management research on nearly every continent—from Africa and Asia to Europe and North America. She is part of a unique generation of Romanians who witnessed the transformation of their country from Communism to democracy, “old enough to remember the Before and young enough to fully embrace the New.” As an undergraduate, Pricope double-majored in geography and English at Babes-Bolyai, Romania’s most prestigious university. Her thesis assessed the risk of landslide reactivation in the Transylvanian Plateau. Pricope went on to earn a master’s in geoscience at Western Kentucky University, where she used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to model non-point source pollution of regional streams, soil erosion, and sediment delivery to streams to aid USDA-led soil and water conservation programs in Kentucky. For her PhD work on adaptive watershed management at the University of Florida, Pricope majored in geography with a minor in environmental engineering. A National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship and NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant helped fund her research on watershed management in southern Africa, where Pricope is quantifying the impacts of changing climatic, hydrologic, and fire regimes on vegetation in a transboundary watershed using GIS and remote sensing.
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in summer 2010
NP: I’d say I’ve been interdisciplinary even before I knew the word for it! I’ve always been torn between my passion for the humanities, foreign languages and especially English, and the sciences. Even when I was in middle school, I participated in inter-school and regional contests in Romanian language and literature and also biology, geography, and math. When I took my high school entrance exam, I opted for a concentration in math-physics and English intensive. This was a new kind of concentration, and it meant I was taking a lot of math and physics and “hard science” classes, as well as about seven hours a week of English language, literature, and culture.
In high school, I participated in regional and national contests in English, history, Romanian literature, and geography. I won third place nationally in the geography contest in my senior high school year. So I opted for a joint degree in geography and English at Babes-Bolyai University, a school that is considered Romania’s best, and I took my university entrance exam in 2000. It was an unusual combination, even for my country. People asked me how I found time to take the intensive English classes and also the full range of geography classes. The workload was in fact quite daunting!
At first, I didn’t see much connection between my English classes and the geography studies. For my first two undergraduate years, I was just taking classes and pursuing my passion. We would go into the field and study hydrology and meteorology and do labs calculating clay percentages in various types of soils and then turn around and do literary analyses of Beowulf or Chomskian linguistics or principles of modern translation. At times, one would feel overwhelmed with information, but it all opened worlds of opportunities and knowledge and thus was priceless.
In my third year, when I was awarded the prestigious Erasmus/Socrates European scholarship to study at Glasgow University in Scotland for a semester, I began to appreciate the synergies. My grasp of the English language enabled me to study successfully at a foreign university. Studying both disciplines gave me a better-rounded perspective on the world, both from a “physical” or applied point of view and from a cultural and multi-linguistic point of view (I also studied French, Spanish, and Japanese while at university).
It was studying both geography and English that in the end allowed me to apply for graduate school in the U.S. and that prepared me for an interdisciplinary PhD program and a career in environmental studies.
Narcisa and her brother, Paul (age one), Petrila, Romania; Narcisa and Paul on his seventh birthday, Petrila, Romania
MM: I love how you talked about being interdisciplinary before you even knew the word for it. I think children have a far less compartmentalized view of the world and can approach the learning process with an open-minded curiosity about many different fields simultaneously. Can you go back to your own childhood and remember what kinds of things excited you? Do you see the seeds of your passion for environmental studies in the kinds of activities you pursued and the books you read?
NP: I have always believed that I was “meant” to be a teacher. That was my earliest childhood passion. I was born in 1982, and until 1989 (the Romanian Revolution and fall of Communism), we lived in an apartment. I was an only child until 1988, and sometimes, I would spend a couple hours alone at home between when grandma watched me and mom or dad came home from work. Those were my favorite times in the world because I could play with the kitchen tiles, who became my enchanted students, and I could be the teacher. Everything I learnt in kindergarten that day, my tiles would learn, too! (They had little cartoon stickers on them, so they were individual students, different from one another!) When my brother got old enough to sit in front of our little table, I would teach him math, history, geography, and of course, English, which I started studying in school at about age eleven. English and foreign languages in general were always a passion for me.
When we moved from the small apartment to a house, we had a yard and a vegetable garden and animals. I was given all sorts of responsibilities, even when I was quite young, because both my parents worked. Before I went to school at noon, I had to watch my brother, feed the animals, prepare fires in the house, and make the beds. Despite all the chores at home, I was the best student in our middle school, and I participated in many extracurricular school activities and contests.
Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and Alexandre Dumas (courtesy of Wikipedia)
AND I loved reading! We had many books at home, and I read all of Jules Verne, Mark Twain, and Alexandre Dumas. The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas was probably the book I read most just because I thought it was so clever how he regained his life back and fought injustice. And generally at that time, I was reading the adventure/travel or fantasy-type books.
Narcisa and her family (including her dearest grandma) in 1990, Petrila, Romania
My passion for the environment was always there, too. I spent every weekend with my grandma—whose house, unlike ours, was out of town by the river—and I would go explore and play in the river or just sit by and read stories. The area where I grew up is a depression surrounded by mountains on all sides. I loved to walk along the river and see where it came from, and I learned the names of all the peaks early on. My parents always say I asked many questions about the mountains and the river. My favorite summer pastime was hiking with the family on weekends. In middle school, one of my favorite books was a Romanian travel journal that was a poetic description of the Olt River, one of our longest rivers, and I think that was as environmental a book as one can have, even though I didn’t know it at the time.
Summer 1988 at Romania’s largest dam on the Arges River, Vidraru, Romania; the sculpture featured in the photograph is a prominent Communist symbol
MM: You mentioned growing up during the Romanian Revolution and the fall of Communism. What was that experience like for you? Did you grasp what was occurring? How did that affect you psychologically and emotionally?
NP: I remember the start of the Revolution very clearly, even though I was only seven. My mother was preparing me to go to school that morning. The TV was on, which was very unusual for that early in the morning—maybe that’s why I remember! I could see people in the streets and could hear shots, and I asked my mom what was happening because she was paying so much attention. She said something really big that I cannot understand, but that things would be very different from then on.
And soon they were. No longer did we have to wait in long lines for our rations of milk and bread. And the TV started broadcasting all day long instead of for just a few hours in the evening. One could find chocolate in the stores for sale, and we didn’t have to “know somebody” to be able to get it under the counter. If you had money, you could buy anything, but then everything started being more and more expensive.
Narcisa (fifth from right, upper row) and her second-grade class being made “pioneers,” Deva, Romania
For me personally, it was a bit of a blow because we had just been made “pioneers,” and I was the lead pioneer in my class. I sort of liked the position, although I understood later that this system was intended as a way to get young minds to think communistically from grade 2 onwards. But soon, all that was forgotten, and now we could watch cartoons for half an hour every evening, and we absolutely loved it! So I didn’t grasp much of the Revolution when it occurred—I only knew a lot of young university students had died for us and that Ceausescu, our dictator, was dead. As we commemorated the events every year around December 22, I started watching the films and listening to the debates and understanding that we had moved from a Communist dictatorship into free market capitalism, where we could speak our minds and have people, information, and goods move around freely. As it turned out, everything was not perfect. To this day, there still are people around who are nostalgic about the days when the country saw a lot of construction and when there were jobs for everyone. Of course, this story is much longer and more complicated than I can describe here.
1988: at the end of first grade with teacher Zenovia Zmau (seventh from left, bottom row), Petrila, Romania
Only one more thing to mention re: how it affected me psychologically and emotionally, and this is true for my entire generation from my observations: the ’81–’82 generation was the last to be made “pioneers.” We basically formed to age seven or eight under the Communist regime and were old enough to remember the Before and young enough to fully embrace the New. Basically every change instituted by the various governments after ’89, we were the ones to be experimented upon. Some say we were the last generation to have common sense and respect some values that are somewhat lost now. I personally feel grateful in a way to have been raised in a country without so much violence on TV, without cell phones and computers from age three, with kids playing freely outside with many other kids, with fewer cars and much less pollution, and educated by people who respected knowledge and intellect more than money and possessions.
Nepali mountain settlement (and mass wasting in background) in Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal; collecting ground control points and ecological data in Gokyo Valley, Nepal
MM: You received an NSF fellowship to pursue your PhD research in adaptive watershed management at the University of Florida. Can you talk about your dissertation work and explain how you ended up in Africa?
NP: While still working on my MS at Western Kentucky University (WKU) in 2006, I realized two important things that subsequently guided my choice of a PhD program. One was that GIS (geographic information science) alone was not enough to model landscape-level sediment redistribution problems and the second was that remote sensing (which is one thing I’ll be teaching at SOU, dealing with satellite image interpretation) could take my work a step further. More importantly, I realized that given increasing complexities arising from population growth and global environmental changes, sustainable watershed management cannot be achieved without understanding the policy context of water resources in general. That was going to entail a more holistic approach to understanding watersheds than the physically based modeling I had done during my master’s. Because the human/ecological aspect was almost completely missing from my fluvial geomorphology and modeling research at WKU and given exposure to real-world projects, I was determined to find a PhD program that would allow me to integrate aspects of social and ecological systems into my dissertation. The perfect program was out there—a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, with more than $4 million in funding under Dr. Mark Brown at the University of Florida. The program is entitled Adaptive Management: Wise Use of Water, Wetlands, and Watersheds. It is an interdisciplinary program that provides an adaptive management framework for addressing the issues of coupled human and natural systems. The focus is on watersheds, water, and wetlands as well as the interplay between policy and the science necessary to manage them.
Collecting ground control data on Chobe River, Chobe National Park, Botswana
During the first summer term of the IGERT program in 2006, we took a three-week field course in the South Florida Everglades, where we met various stakeholders, scientists, and managing organizations and worked on projects as we tried to understand the complex dynamics of a highly managed system. Two weeks later, we headed to southern Africa for a seven-week Field Methods course and started a trip from South Africa into Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. We were attempting to understand a similarly complex wetland system, the Okavango Delta, which was also markedly different from the Everglades in that it was one of the last pristine wetland systems worldwide. We were stationed at University of Botswana’s research station in the Harry Oppenheimer Okavango Research Center (HOORC). We took seminars, participated in workshops, and again met various stakeholder entities with the aim of pairing with local researchers and/or stakeholders and doing our dissertation work in the region. That was how I was introduced to the area and its issues, and that’s when my interest in working in southern Africa took shape, even though at the time my dissertation idea was quite different from what it ended up being.
Bushman Hill in the rainy season, Savute, Chobe National Park, Botswana; traditional hut in Swaziland, Africa
As an IGERT research associate during the ensuing four years, I actively participated in initiating a long-term research collaboration between the South Florida Everglades and the Okavango Delta in Botswana as well as other countries in southern Africa. The focus of the collaboration was water resources management and science. After a second summer spent in Botswana and Namibia in 2007, the idea of focusing on the ecologically important but little understood Chobe Basin crystallized. I started applying for research funding and received the NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant in 2008 (my work there would not have been possible without it). Overall, my dissertation is concerned with understanding the interconnections between watershed-level ecological and hydrological modifications and socioeconomic and policy drivers in a basin at the core of one of Africa’s largest transfrontier conservation areas.
It may seem odd that I should work on the Chobe “River” since some people do not even consider it a real river. It has a most unusual flow regime, being mostly a back-flood channel for the larger Zambezi River but also receiving water at different times of the year from three other sources (the Okavango sometimes being, depending on flow levels, one of them!).
Namibian field assistant Liswani Kamwe and the truck we lived out of during fieldwork season 2009, Namibia; fieldwork in Namibian villages, Caprivi Strip, Namibia
The IGERT I was part of was interdisciplinary in nature, and I was very keen on learning some social science field techniques as well. I spent part of my 2007 field season in Namibia and Botswana doing key informant interviews and workshops. Colleagues from UF were also involved. After talking to many people, I understood there had been major changes in the general ecology in the basin in the last thirty to fifty years. Once-productive grasslands were increasingly being taken over by bushes, mainly because the river’s flow regime had changed to some degree. Along with the larger research community in southern Africa, I sought to understand the impacts of recent climatic, hydrologic, and anthropogenic changes on the regional ecosystems. My research examines what is driving the perceived decreases in flooding extent in the large floodplains of the Chobe, and how that and changes in fire regimes, elephant populations, and other human activities are affecting the ecosystem. I should mention that currently in that part of southern Africa, there are about 200,000 elephants multiplying at a 6-percent annual rate, inflicting hardship on vegetation and people’s livelihoods. A clearer understanding of what drives changes in some ecosystems in southern Africa will prove useful for better ecosystem and watershed-level management regionally. More importantly, it will also assist in designing coping and adaptation strategies in the face of global climate change, human population growth, and increasing large-mammal populations.
Crossing Larkhe Pass (5106 m.) in Manaslu Conservation Area, Nepal; above the Imja-Tze Lake and Glacier, Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal
MM: You also spent some time traveling and conducting research in Nepal. Can you tell me about that experience?
NP: The five months I spent in Nepal were probably the best and richest I’ve spent anywhere (maybe with the exception of Africa)! My husband actually received a Fulbright to teach and do research on the impact of climate change on alpine vegetation in Nepal, and I joined him as a field and research assistant. The time in Nepal was split between work on my dissertation in Kathmandu and field trips we organized with Nepali graduate students from Tribuvhan University to teach them about data collection and field methods for GIS and remote sensing-aided research. We collected ecological, botanical, and ground control data in six major protected areas of Nepal (from Sagarmatha, Annapurna, Chitwan, to Manaslu, Makalu, and Langtang), trekked over 600 miles on foot throughout the Himalayas, and climbed as high as 21,250 feet! We also started compiling a detailed dataset of active landslides that I would like to start analyzing in conjunction with satellite imagery, soil erosion, and water quality data and hopefully start an SOU study abroad/undergraduate research experience in the near future. Nepal is an amazing country faced with challenging environmental issues, and it would be incredible to have the opportunity to pursue more work there in the future!
Examining water and soil samples on the SOU campus (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Your own academic background clearly demonstrates an emphasis on concrete, hands-on learning in the field. You not only conducted significant ecological research, but you literally put that research into practice to help communities in need. How important was this kind of connected learning experience to your own academic development, and how do you see incorporating that sort of experience into your teaching at SOU?
NP: I chose my PhD program specifically because I wanted hands-on experience. I believe graduate education should be all about getting students both the theoretical background and the applied and policy side—directly connected to real-world problems and issues, especially when one works in the environmental field. Learning from and with the communities in Botswana and Namibia during my fieldwork, exploring my hypotheses with the locals, and adjusting my focus based on what the people needed to know in order to manage their resources—that made the biggest difference in creating a research project that would one day give something back to the communities. When talking to locals either formally or simply in response to their curiosity, I would always try to explain as plainly as I could what I was doing and, most importantly, why I was there. My greatest fear throughout my PhD research work was that my work might end up not being useful and become just journal articles that would bring me a degree and a job but would do nothing for the people at the site. I hope that will never happen. I will try to instill that premise into the outlook of my future students. More than anything else: we need to be connected with the people and the communities where we work, even if our work is more “physical” than social in nature, and we must do our best to avoid extractive research.
SOU students and faculty collaborating on research in the field (right to left: by Dennis Dunleavy, Bill Elliott, and Rory N. Finney)
As for incorporating the connected learning experience into my teaching, advising, and future research at SOU, it is my main priority. Since SOU grants mainly undergraduate degrees, we as faculty need to focus on giving our students hands-on, real-world experiences. We can do this by supplementing class teaching with direct involvement in research projects, field courses, internships, and other types of field and applied experiences. To that end, for example, I have successfully acquired College of Arts and Sciences funding for an Applied Geomorphology and Hydrology (AGH) Laboratory, which will be started in the Environmental Studies Department in fall 2010. I described the idea behind starting the AGH Lab as follows in my funded proposal: “Geomorphologic and hydrologic student-centered research and teaching at SOU: interactions between landforms, soils, river systems, and environmental change with a view to a) promoting sound watershed science principles and practice among the student population by direct exposure to instrumentation, environmental monitoring, data collection and interpretation, watershed modeling and data-based scenario building and b) informing collaborations with local and regional water resources allocation and conservation stakeholders through student-led research and involvement.”
Since my future teaching will include applied and marketable skills such as satellite imagery interpretation (remote sensing), geomorphology, and adaptive watershed management, I hope to contribute to preparing ES majors for various careers in our constantly changing and complex world.
SOU students conducting field research at Crater Lake (by Dennis Dunleavy)
MM: Environmental studies majors are certainly well-equipped to enter a wide range of possible careers, particularly with the increased emphasis on sustainability worldwide. What are some of the jobs you see ES majors entering five years from now?
NP: Five years from now, I would expect our ES majors to be entering the geoinformatics field and jobs that heavily utilize GIS, remote sensing, and environmental data analysis. Such jobs exist nowadays in all sorts of fields and at various companies, including local governments, vector-borne disease mapping (so health care system), utility emergency interventions systems, and so on. Also, they would be well-prepared for work in governmental agencies such as the EPA, USGS, USDA, NRC, FEMA, CIA, state department, Department of Defense, and many more. ES majors are qualified for positions ranging from cartographer/computer mapper to GIS specialist and remote-sensing analyst (population distribution, traffic movement, land availability, real estate prices, environmental hazards, soil types, and flood zones, satellite imagery interpretation for a huge variety of purposes) to environmental manager, planner, forestry technician, park ranger, weather forecaster, coastal zone manager, water resources planner/manager, hydrologist, and soil conservationist/agricultural extension agent to international business representative.
This is a list I put together for some of my students showing jobs ES majors will be qualified to compete for:
Mean surface temperature change for the period 2000 to 2009 relative to the average temperatures from 1951 to 1980 (image by Robert Simmon, courtesy of NASA)
MM: Wow, that’s a lot of possibilities! Thinking about the future of our planet—how do you as an environmental scientist approach a daunting problem like global warming? Can you begin to imagine ways to slow the terrifying pace of destruction? And along those same lines, what are your thoughts on the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill and what can possibly be done to stop it?
NP: What makes global climate change such a daunting and ever increasingly complex issue—apart from the fact that it’s a worldwide issue affecting everyone—is the existence of feedback loops, a conceptually simple term, but one that poses serious problems when attempting to disentangle and understand all of the causal factors, impacts, and ramifications of climate change (CC). So why did I choose to mention these, the planetary, large-scale to microcosm-scale feedbacks, from the myriad other things I could’ve talked about? Because it is a confusion factor to both the wider community in trying to understand the phenomenon as well as to the scientific community working on CC. Also, because it is part of the reason regulation and policy are so hard to reach an agreement about and, optimistically and simplistically speaking, one of the reasons for the slow pace in doing anything to slow it down. I like your formulation above: ”to slow the terrifying pace of destruction.” The beginning of the answer is in making people aware (unfortunately, we still have disbelievers and people who simply don’t care because it is not going to affect them during their lifetime) and making the science simple enough so anyone can understand it. However, to slow things down is indeed all we can do because, even if the world imposed AND enforced the strictest greenhouse gas emissions reduction program starting next year, we would still see the impacts and effects of the last hundred years manifesting in the same direction (melting of icecaps and glaciers and increasing sea levels, and so on) for at least another fifty years to come. Scientists and policymakers can go to any length to propose solutions. These solutions range from very technical and “imaginative” solutions whose real effects we cannot comprehend, such as launching solar shields or satellites with movable reflectors into space to deflect heat away from the Earth’s surface to ocean fertilization or weather engineering. But until everyone understands that it is real and it is happening (and I mean this at the country level, too, not only at the individual level) and that we must ALL do our share, the pace of climate change will not be slowed.
But admitting we have a problem isn’t going to be enough either. It will take instituting a series of harsh macroeconomic incentives and disincentives at the country level worldwide and a mechanism of enforcement of environmental regulation and stewardship to start making things happen. And we can be optimistic, it is possible, and some countries, such as those in Scandinavia, have been reducing their emissions significantly through simple solutions. We can reduce consumption (of electricity, oil, gas, et cetera). We can all do that—it doesn’t take any technological fixes or additional infrastructure. The goal would simply be to become more efficient. We all need to teach our students and children that and to instill the idea that simply becoming more efficient can make a huge difference.
Vessels combat the fire on the Deepwater Horizon while the United States Coast Guard searches for missing crew (courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)
As for the oil leak in the Gulf, it is an unfortunate tragedy created by the workings of our system. That it happened even though it could’ve been prevented had the right people made the right decisions at the right time, it’s a shame. I think that most of what can be done to stop its spreading is being done—as much as it can be done. Such environmental disasters will always take a huge toll on the ecosystem, no matter how much mitigation results.
MM: The more people come to understand the catastrophic repercussions of global climate change, the more depressed they could easily become. Even people who want to do something about it begin to feel impotent when faced with the massive scope of the problem. What gives you hope? And what can individuals do to feel a sense of efficacy in a world of melting icecaps and oil-saturated oceans?
NP: It is very true about the general public feeling somewhat depressed at times at the prospect of climate change impacts. However, we all need to be hopeful both as societies and as individuals. What can we do, though, at the individual level to feel a sense of efficacy in the face of the “impending chaos?” As I mentioned in one of my early responses, we can start by increasing our everyday life efficiency and efficacy in general. We can try to educate both ourselves and those around us about how much we can actually contribute at the individual level by simply increasing our energy efficiency and making informed choices about everything from food to cars, household appliances, energy, and service providers. The everyday choices we make do matter and may make a difference at the very least in long-term consumer patterns. We hear this all the time, and people tend to have a hard time understanding how their car choice, for example, can make a difference when China is building a new coal-fired power plant every day. We need to remind them that despite the poor habits of developing countries, the largest net emitter of greenhouse gases remains the U.S., mainly as a result of over-consumerism and lack of efficiency.
In the end, even I am quite pessimistic about what we can do as individuals. I can say at least that I work with the younger generation, and I try to help them understand the causes and implications of climate change and thus create awareness. Even that may not mean very much when the right incentives and disincentives are not in place at the policy level. I wish I were more optimistic, but I am afraid it takes a lot more than pure optimism to make a difference. Action will have to take place at a global level in a concerted effort of both highly industrialized and less-industrialized countries, with the common goal of addressing a problem we’ve been creating for the last hundred years.
Recommended books on climate change
MM: That’s an excellent point about the absolute necessity of action over sentiments, and I think people feel the most fulfilled and hopeful when they see their actions making a genuine difference in the world. But you’re right that people need to first be educated. Are there any books or movies you would recommend as a starting point for the layperson to become informed about these issues and the actions they can take to help bring about change?
NP: I’m glad you asked that. I usually show movies in class on climate change and have long discussions with students on the issue. They always love that and come out inspired. The movies I usually show are from The History Channel or sometimes The Discovery Channel, so I would recommend those two for quality productions. Some titles I use are Global Warming: What You Need to Know; Six Degrees Could Change the World; and Five Ways to Save the World. I’d be happy to provide some of these, and maybe we can even start a campus series of movie and discussion nights/roundtables in the future. Also, the Planet Earth series has a lot of pertinent information—probably not as detailed regarding the climate change part as one would like, but with a lot of great socio-ecological explanation that helps enhance overall understanding of ecosystems and people as an organic whole.
As for books, a nice, unbiased start could be Jerry Silver’s 2008 book called Global Warming and Climate Change Demystified. Especially pertinent in the context of our discussion from Q9 about individuals’ actions and CC would be Bob Deans and Frances Beinecke’s book Clean Energy Common Sense: An American Call to Action on Global Climate Change. A more difficult but really great read is the 2010 Andrew Dessler and Edward Parson book The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate (even though this is no longer considered a “debate” in scientific forums, by the way).
MM: I think a film series focused on environmental issues would be very popular on this campus as well as in the community. Thank you, Narcisa, for all of the time and thought you gave to this interview, and I’m excited to see what adventures you will inspire our students to embark on!