Research “Hylight”: Wicked but worth it: student perspectives on socio-hydrology by Levy, Garcia et al.


Morgan Levy


Margaret Garcia

In March 2016 Morgan Levy, Margaret Garcia and 11 other colleagues published an opinion paper in Hydrological Processes. All authors are early career scientists in the emerging field of socio-hydrology, and in their article they share their perspectives on the field they work in. We thought this was quite inspiring, and therefore asked Morgan and Margaret some questions about the why and how of their paper.

Q: Where are you from, where are you based, and what are you working on now?

[Margaret]: I’m originally from Stamford, CT (in the greater New York City metro area). Several moves later I am now based at Tufts University near Boston where I am finishing up my Ph.D. For my dissertation I am investigating the factors influencing reliability and sustainability of urban water supply systems with the aim of to improving projections of system performance and evaluation of infrastructure and policy options.

[Morgan]: I’m from a small, rural town in northern California called Nevada City. I’ve lived in the Bay Area (Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco) for almost ten years. I just finished my Ph.D., and my dissertation was on the effects of deforestation on hydrology in Brazil. I am now a postdoc, and I’m branching out into research on hydrological and environmental determinants of waterborne disease.


Morgan & Margaret’s paper on HP.

Q: Can you summarize your perspectives in a take-home message?

[Margaret]: Everything in socio-hydrology is still a hypothesis – which in my book makes it an exciting time to be working in the field. I hope that we continue to test and challenge its frameworks, methods and conceptual models because I think that is what will move the field forward. I think great progress can be made collaborating with researchers from the social sciences, thinking broadly about what constitutes data, and testing hypotheses and models across cases.

[Morgan]: I agree with Margaret. In our paper, we defined socio-hydrology as “the study of two-way interactions between humans and water systems resulting in the co-evolution of coupled human-water systems”. This definition is broad, but it motivates specific critical questions about research that are often neglected. For example, “Does the research actually look at one- or two-way interactions, and what does the answer suggest about the efficacy of resulting policy recommendations?” Or, “Does this study consider ‘systems’, or the dynamics of isolated individuals or entities? How do the individuals or entities studied fit into real-world water and/or social systems of interest?” I’ve found myself asking these questions about my own research.

Q: How did you arrive at the idea of writing a HP commentary with that many PhD students in the field of socio-hydrology?

[Margaret]: Professor Sivapalan mentioned that a student led opinion piece would provide a unique perspective on the field. Once the seed was planted the idea took off. The idea appealed to me because I thought it was an excellent opportunity to share experiences and ideas within the student community.

[Morgan]: We wanted the paper to be as representative of the student community as possible, while also straightforward to write. We had a core group of lead authors that wrote the survey, discussed the responses, and structured the paper based on themes that came through most strongly in the surveys.

Q: How was your manuscript received by HP and the reviewers?

[Margaret]: HP Today articles are not reviewed – they are purely opinion pieces. The editor, however, did react favorably to both our initial idea and the final result.

[Morgan]: I’ll add that we also circulated this among the faculty advisors of the core author group and got their input. It also helped to have so many co-authors because they all edited the piece several times.

Q: Why did you decide to submit to HP, rather than for example HESS, which has featured more studies related to socio-hydrology?

[Margaret]: HP Today helped introduce the greater hydrology community to the concept of Socio-Hydrology (Sivapalan et al., 2012) so it seemed fitting to circle back and present our experiences as students doing the hard work of operationalizing the concept. Also the short form of HP Today articles was ideal for our concept.

[Morgan]: Professor Sivapalan recommended HP Today when he approached us about leading the opinion piece. I’m sure we could have considered other journals, but HP Today really was the ideal place for the reasons Margaret gave.

Q: Do you think the student perspective on socio-hydrology differs from the perspective of other groups, such as professors, policy makers, or socio-hydrology skeptics?

[Margaret]: Yes, I think the student perspective is at least somewhat unique for two reasons. First, as students we are doing most of nitty gritty work of socio-hydrology so we know the challenges first hand and are doing the sometimes creative and sometimes tedious work of addressing them. Second, I hypothesize that as students we have less invested in the status quo and are more open minded.

[Morgan]: I agree with Margaret. With respect to differences from professors: I think students are more willing to try out new methods or incorporate perspectives from other fields, while also being aware of limitations. Like Margaret mentioned, students set up and manage fieldwork, clean data, write model code, and run analyses. Students see all the possibilities and limitations at the same time. I think that perspective is easily lost once you leave the ‘trenches’. With respect to policymakers: I think students are optimistic about the potential for water science to inform public policy; policymakers might not be aware of, or doubt that capacity. I think that’s one problem that socio-hydrology hopes to address. With respect to skeptics: I think that promoting efforts to bring together social and hydrological knowledge are valuable – regardless of what you name that effort, or what you think it’s capable of. Some researchers disagree, and I’m sure they do so for good reasons based on their own experiences as scientists.

Q: Do you think your paper will inspire other students to write down and submit their perspectives on their respective fields?

[Margaret]: I hadn’t thought about that as an outcome but I do hope that it happens. I have heard advice that student/early career researchers not write any perspective pieces as to not alienate any potential employers. Any piece should be both thoughtful and respectful of course but when they feel they have a unique and insightful perspective students should not hesitate to share it.

[Morgan]: I also hadn’t thought about this, but it makes me happy to think it might! Writing this paper was one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I had in graduate school. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for graduate students to collaborate on academic writing outside the supervision of faculty, and that really does change the dynamic. I don’t think anyone who wrote this paper was thinking about impressing or satisfying a faculty mentor, which was refreshing. I also think we get so wrapped up in trying to establish ourselves in a field that we forget to think critically about that field. Writing opinion pieces definitely forces you to do that.

Q: (Why) Do you think this paper will still be cited in 10 years from now?

[Margaret]: I hope that the challenges of working at interdisciplinary interfaces and dealing with data constraints are not cited because they have been addressed and that researchers have moved on to new challenges we cannot yet see. I do anticipate that prediction challenges will remain relevant. On the challenge of predication I think we made two important points that I hope researchers will appreciate, and perhaps cite, in ten years. First, rules governing social systems are contingent, in contrast to the natural laws hydrologists are accustomed to. Second, understanding system dynamics (rather than forecasting) is an achievable, and actionable, aim for many socio-hydrological systems and questions.

[Morgan]: I don’t actually! Not because I don’t think the issues we raise will not still be important, especially with regard to social systems and prediction (Margaret’s points, which I completely agree with). I imagine that in ten years, the issues we write about will still be discussed, just in some other context. What I do hope is that our paper helps set the stage in the near-term for research to acknowledge and address the challenges we describe.

[END] – Interviewed by Tim van Emmerik

This interview is part of the new YHS Research “Hylights” series to showcase interesting and outstanding work by early career scientists. Selection criteria are not set in stone, but reasons to select work can include e.g. novelty and relevance of findings, fun of reading, unique collaborations, media coverage and generated controversy. Selected work will be provided with a short layman summary, and a short written or video interview with the (first) author(s). Tips can be sent to young or

Reference paper: Levy, M., Garcia, M.., et al. “Wicked but worth it: student perspectives on socio-hydrology.” Hydrological Processes 30.9, 1467-1472, 2016.

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