Student/Faculty Sitka Visit Focuses on Future Externship, Landslide Research

Student Gabriela Alvarado (Cohort '19) and Prof. Molly Selvin look out over Sitka Sound

Susan Marquis/Pardee RAND

March 4, 2020

Three students, three faculty, and Dean Susan Marquis flew to Sitka, Alaska, in February to share research findings, participate in a workshop, and develop plans for a summer externship pilot.

Gabriela Alvarado (Cohort '19), Prof. Molly Selvin, and Dean Marquis met with members of the Sitka community and local tribes to discuss opportunities for a community-partnered summer externship. At the same time, Max Izenberg ('18) and Sara Turner ('15), along with Profs. Robert Lempert and Ryan Brown, presented the initial findings of their research project on developing a landslide early warning system and communications network.

Planning for Community-Partnered Externships

Alvarado was perhaps the ideal student to participate in this effort. She jokes, "I kind of invited myself into the Sitka project" after she heard that the school was considering an externship in Sitka.

"I reached out to [Program Director Martin Iguchi] and told him that I would love to be part of the planning team, as I had experience in the development of educational programs — study abroad programs in Costa Rica — and I lived in Alaska prior to coming to Pardee RAND."

Alvarado set up meetings for Selvin, Marquis, and herself to meet with organizational and tribal leaders from the Sitka Sound Science Center, Sitka Conservation Sociey, Local Foods Network, Sitka Food Coop, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, and more.

"When I lived in Alaska," Alvarado said, "I worked for the Department of Health and Social Services in the adolescent health unit. My role specifically was managing a federal grant... Since Alaska is very small, there is like 1 degree of separation between most people, so it was very easy for me to reach out to potential community partners and scope out who they were, what they are doing, and [whether they might have an] interest in collaborating with the school."

The goal of these meetings was to lay the groundwork for a full-time 6-week pilot externship that the school hopes will take place this summer, from mid-August through September. Students participating in the program will work with a variety of local agencies to focus on food insecurity.

Alvarado added, "I was very happy to have been given the opportunity to join the trip. I was able to see first-hand how welcoming people in the community were and how everyone had a good impression of RAND from the landslide project. Their presence there has really left a good impression and people are excited to collaborate more in the future."

Student participants in this pilot program will help shape future Community-Partnered Policy and Action externships in ways that will be most valuable to student learning. The purpose of these externships is to provide students with experiential learning through immersive experiences within local agencies.

The Community-Partnered Stream, which will launch officially and welcome its first students this October, is premised on the belief that place-based learning and problem solving will enable students to understand how to translate research and analysis into effective action that leads to concrete improvements in communities.

"Coming from the public health world, I am very passionate about community engagement and I am excited to see how committed the school is to increasing community-based work with students and understanding that real sustainable change comes from the bottom up and not top down," Alvarado said.

Sharing Research Findings to Improve Landslide Warning Effectiveness

Izenberg, Turner, Brown, and Lempert also organized a Landslide Warning System Workshop on February 19 with their research partners at the Sitka Sound Science Center and the University of Oregon. The workshop engaged community members in the emerging design of Sitka’s warning system, through a participatory exercise examining warning system trade-offs, a discussion of how to improve preparedness and equity with social networks, the demonstration of a decision support tool, deep dives into the geoscience of landslides and the communication role of social networks, and more.

The team and their non-RAND colleagues also met with the Sitka Tribal Council, the Sitka Fire and Police Departments, and city planners, and participated in two public events in local restaurants where researchers discussed their work with interested community members. Brown, Izenberg, and Lempert were also interviewed by the local radio station KCAW. (Listen to the segment)

The research is part of a three-year National Science Foundation-funded effort that began last year. As Lempert, the project's principal investigator, told KCAW, “A good warning system has risk knowledge, has monitoring, has communications, and has response. And so our project is trying to enhance all those different pieces and integrate them together — both within the city, and with state and federal agencies.”

As part of the project, Izenberg plans to return to Sitka in April as the Scientist in Residence Fellow for the Sitka Sound Science Center and work on reducing the community's learning curve and closing “structural gaps” in the social networking system to make sure that everyone is covered in the event of a landslide warning. (Update, March 24: because of travel restrictions, Izenberg will conduct remote data collection and postpone his fellowship and fieldwork.)

Brown explained how anthropological research and social network analysis is being used as a foundational element of this effort: "We know that citizens already connect to informal landslide knowledge 'hubs' – individuals who they trust to provide them accurate information about landslide risk. And we also know that Sitkans reach out to one another and even open their homes to each other during tsunami warnings. We will use a social network approach to map existing patterns of communication and to strengthen them so that landslide-related information is rapidly disseminated and reaches vulnerable or more isolated communities."

He continued, "Sitka is an ideal location for social scientists. It’s a kind of dream world for anthropologists, because it is beautiful, relatively isolated and self-contained, and has a deep, rich cultural history and cultural diversity. The people are welcoming, ingenious, creative, and resilient. It’s a very vibrant community."

— Monica Hertzman

Our intrepid dean showcased yet another skill on the site visit: travel photography. She had great subjects, though, and an amazing backdrop.

Gabriela Alvarado (left) and Molly Selvin (right) meet with Roger Schmidt, director of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, where students will be housed for externships.

Susan Marquis/Pardee RAND

Molly Selvin (center) introduces herself and Pardee RAND to the team at the Sitka Sound Science Center, our main community partner in Sitka.

Susan Marquis/Pardee RAND

Molly, Susan, and Gabriela pose in Sitka Sound before taking a whale-watching trip

Courtesy Susan Marquis/Pardee RAND

Susan and Gabriela pose by a totem at Sitka's Healing House

Courtesy Susan Marquis/Pardee RAND

Sara Turner and Max Izenberg enjoy the local flavor in Sitka

Susan Marquis/Pardee RAND

Robert Lempert leads a discussion at the Landslide Workshop

Ryan Brown/RAND Corporation

Research partner Annette Patton, a post-doctoral student in geoscience at the University of Oregon, shares her findings at the Landslide Workshop

Ryan Brown/RAND Corporation

The February weather was cold but not as snowy as the team expected.

Susan Marquis/Pardee RAND