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Research Overview

Dive Deep. Faculty across Vanderbilt are conducting important and timely research on climate and environmental issues and potential solutions. Our faculty are prolific researchers who are recognized scholars across a variety of disciplines. See some of their extensive and timely work.

Mark Abkowitz is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and Director of the Vanderbilt Center for Environmental Management Studies. He specializes in enterprise risk management, hazardous materials transportation safety and security, assessing the impacts of extreme weather on infrastructure adaptation, and spatial analysis of freight transportation systems.

Sample of publications:

  • Johnson, P.M., Brady, C.E., Philip, C., Baroud, H., Camp, J.V. and Abkowitz, M., 2020. A factor analysis approach toward reconciling community vulnerability and resilience indices for natural hazards. Risk analysis, 40(9), pp.1795-1810.
  • Dundon, L.A. and Abkowitz, M., 2021. Climate-induced managed retreat in the US: A review of current research. Climate Risk Management, 33, p.100337.
  • Nelson, Katherine, Leslie Gillespie-Marthaler, Hiba Baroud, Mark Abkowitz, and David Kosson. "An integrated and dynamic framework for assessing sustainable resilience in complex adaptive systems." Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure 5, no. 5 (2020): 311-329.
  • Allen, M., Gillespie-Marthaler, L., Abkowitz, M. and Camp, J., 2020. Evaluating flood resilience in rural communities: a case-based assessment of Dyer County, Tennessee. Natural Hazards, 101(1), pp.173-194.

Brooke Ackerly is professor of political science. In her research, teaching, and collaborations, she works to clarify without simplifying the most pressing problems of global justice, including human rights and climate change. Using feminist methodologies, she integrates into her theoretical work empirical research on activism and the experiences of those affected by injustice (Grounded Normative Theory). She is currently working through Vanderbilt’s ASCEND Grand Challenge partnership and in partnership with a community organization to identify pathways to the clusters of cancer cases found within one of the poorest counties of Tennessee.

Sample of publications:

  • Ackerly, Brooke A. Just responsibility: A human rights theory of global justice. Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Ackerly, B., Cabrera, L., Forman, F., Johnson, G.F., Tenove, C. and Wiener, A., 2021. Unearthing grounded normative theory: practices and commitments of empirical research in political theory. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, pp.1-27.

Joe Bandy is assistant director of the Center for Teaching and affiliated faculty in the Department of Sociology. He has previous research projects on labor and environmental organizations, and is currently a recognized expert in higher education, including for sustainability research. With Teresa Goddu, he codirects the Cumberland Project, which assists faculty with the development of new courses in climate and environmental studies.

Sample of publications:

  • Thurber, A., Bandy, J. and Harbin, M.B., 2021. Teaching Race and Racial Justice: Developing Students’ Cognitive and Affective Understanding. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 9(1), p.117.

Beth Conklin is associate professor of anthropology. Her research focuses on the anthropology of the body, religion and ritual, health and healing, death and mourning, the politics of indigenous rights, and ecology, environmentalism, and cultural and religious responses to climate change. Two current projects explore different dimensions of the growing inclusion and active participation of indigenous peoples in contemporary global politics and culture. One project focuses on interviewing indigenous activists and intellectuals in Brazil about how the alliances, collaboration, and tensions that have unfolded in their relations with national and international environmental advocacy groups over the past quarter-century have shaped the directions, language, and strategies of the environmental and indigenous rights movements. The second project explores the lived experiences of one native group, the Wari’ of western Brazil, in their relations with non-human entities (microbes, soils, trees, and landscapes), reflecting on how their relational notions of human biology, ecology, and biosocial practices speak to issues emerging in technoscience, environmental crises, and the global search for healthier economies and masculinities.

Sample of publications:

  • Conklin, Beth A. "Shifting Cultivation in Amazonia's Middle Grounds: Propagating Connections Across Eco‐Political‐Economic Landscapes." The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 25, no. 2 (2020): 340-350.
  • Conklin, Beth A. "Amazonia." In The Handbook of Sociocultural Anthropology, pp. 471-488. Routledge, 2020.

Larisa DeSantis is associate professor of Earth and environmental sciences and of biological sciences. Her DREAM Lab is focused on conducting interdisciplinary research aimed at understanding ecological and evolutionary responses to global change, at a variety of spatial and temporal scales.

Sample of publications:

  • Tung, T.A., Dillehay, T.D., Feranec, R.S. and DeSantis, L.R., 2020. Early specialized maritime and maize economies on the north coast of Peru. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(51), pp.32308-32319.
  • DeSantis, L.R., Pardi, M.I., Du, A., Greshko, M.A., Yann, L.T., Hulbert Jr, R.C. and Louys, J., 2022. Global long-term stability of individual dietary specialization in herbivorous mammals. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 289(1968), p.20211839.
  • DeSantis, L.R., Dillehay, T.D., Goodbred, S.L. and Feranec, R.S., 2021. 6. Dietary Ecology, Stable Isotope, and Dental Microwear Texture Analysis. In Where the Land Meets the Sea (pp. 665-673). University of Texas Press.

Jonathan Gilligan is associate professor of Earth and environmental sciences and of civil and environmental engineering, and he is director of the Climate Change and Society Grand Challenge Initiative in the College of Arts and Science. He works at the intersection of natural science, social science, and public policy with a focus on coupled human-natural systems and on the ways in which scientific knowledge and uncertainty affect policy decisions about the environment. He has a variety of current research projects that are described at his website.

Sample of publications:

  • Carrico, Amanda, Katharine M. Donato, Kelsea Best, & Jonathan Gilligan, Extreme weather and marriage among girls and women in Bangladesh, Global Environmental Change 65, 102160 (2020).
  • Ding, K.J., Gilligan, J.M., Yang, Y.E., Wolski, P. and Hornberger, G.M., 2021. Assessing food–energy–water resources management strategies at city scale: An agent-based modeling approach for Cape Town, South Africa. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 170, p.105573.
  • Elsawah, S., Filatova, T., Jakeman, A.J., Kettner, A.J., Zellner, M.L., Athanasiadis, I.N., Hamilton, S.H., Axtell, R.L., Brown, D.G., Gilligan, J.M. and Janssen, M.A., 2020. Eight grand challenges in socio-environmental systems modeling. Socio-Environmental Systems Modelling, 2.
  • Gilligan, J.M. and Vandenbergh, M.P., 2020. A framework for assessing the impact of private climate governance. Energy Research & Social Science, 60, p.101400.
  • Schenuit, F., Gilligan, J. and Viswamohanan, A., 2021. A scenario of solar geoengineering governance: Vulnerable states demand, and act. Futures, 132, p.102809.

Teresa Goddu is Professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt University and serves as Faculty Head of E. Bronson Ingram College. She is a specialist in nineteenth-century American literature and culture. Goddu is currently working on contemporary U.S climate fiction and curates a climate fiction collection at the Vanderbilt library. Her recent publications foreground the relationship between the nation’s long history of racial capitalism and the climate crisis. With Joe Bandy, she also codirects the Cumberland Project, which assists faculty with the development of new courses in climate and environmental studies.

Sample of publications:

  • Goddu, Teresa A. Selling Antislavery: Abolition and Mass Media in Antebellum America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.
  • “Climate Activism as the New Abolitionism,” in the forum “Abolition’s Afterlives,” ed. Jeffrey Insko. American Literary History: Online Forum, 1 April 2021.
  • “The (Neo) Slave Narrative and the Plantationocene.” Forthcoming in African American Review.
  • “Homelessness in Lauren Groff’s Florida Fiction,” in Cli-Fi and Class, ed. Debra J. Rosenthal and Jason Molesky. Forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press.

Patrick Greiner is assistant professor of sociology. He works on a variety of projects that explore how various forms of inequality emerging from social, political, and economic structures pattern socio-environmental outcomes in ways that are often detrimental to environmental systems and harmful to marginalized social groups. Put differently, this research speaks to the ways in which inequality facilitates, and even necessitates, environmental degradations at the international and national level in the contemporary socio-economic system.  He has a variety of current research projects that are described at his website.

Sample of publications:

  • Ergas, C., Greiner, P.T., McGee, J.A. and Clement, M.T., 2021. Does gender climate influence climate change? The multidimensionality of gender equality and its countervailing effects on the carbon intensity of well-being. Sustainability, 13(7), p.3956.
  • Besek, Jordan Fox, Patrick Trent Greiner, and Brett Clark. "WEB Du Bois and interdisciplinarity: A comprehensive picture of the scholar’s approach to natural science." Journal of Classical Sociology 21, no. 2 (2021): 144-164.
  • Greiner, P.T., York, R. and McGee, J.A., 2022. When are fossil fuels displaced? An exploratory inquiry into the role of nuclear electricity production in the displacement of fossil fuels. Heliyon, p.e08795.
  • Greiner, P.T., Shtob, D.A. and Besek, J.F., 2020. Is urbanization good for the climate? A cross-county analysis of impervious surface, affluence, and the carbon intensity of well-being. Socius, 6, p.2378023119896896.
  • McGee, J. A., & Greiner, P. T. 2019. Renewable energy injustice: The socio-environmental implications of renewable energy consumption. Energy Research & Social Science, 56, 101214.

David Hess is professor of sociology and director of the Climate and Environmental Studies Program. One of his central areas of research is the intersection of science and technology studies with social movement studies, with an emphasis on the environment and health. His current research projects include the role of scientific knowledge in public mobilizations to secure more just and sustainable industries and technologies and studies of the politics of sustainability transitions. More details are available at his website.


Sample of publications:

  • Hess, David J., and Benjamin K. Sovacool. "Sociotechnical matters: Reviewing and integrating science and technology studies with energy social science." Energy Research & Social Science 65 (2020): 101462.
  • Hess, D.J. and Lee, D., 2020. Energy decentralization in California and New York: Conflicts in the politics of shared solar and community choice. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 121, p.109716.
  • Hess, D.J., 2019. Coalitions, framing, and the politics of energy transitions: Local democracy and community choice in California. Energy Research & Social Science, 50, pp.38-50.
  • Hess, D.J., McKane, R.G. and Belletto, K., 2021. Advocating a just transition in Appalachia: Civil society and industrial change in a carbon-intensive region. Energy Research & Social Science, 75, p.102004.
  • Hess, D.J., McKane, R.G. and Pietzryk, C., 2021. End of the line: environmental justice, energy justice, and opposition to power lines. Environmental Politics, pp.1-21.

Amanda Little is a writer-in-residence in the English and CSET departments, where she teaches investigative journalism and science writing. Amanda has a particular fondness for far-flung and hard-to-stomach reporting that takes her to ultradeep oil rigs, down manholes, into sewage plants, and inside monsoon clouds. More details on her current research and writing are available at her website.

Sample of publications:

  • Little, A., 2019. The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. Harmony.
  • Little, A., 2009. Power Trip: The Story of America's Love Affair with Energy. Harper Collins.

Yolanda McDonald is an assistant professor in the Department of Human and Organizational Development, Peabody College. She leads the Vanderbilt University Drinking Water Justice Lab (DWJL). The DWJL is an interdisciplinary research lab comprising faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduate students from across campus focused on drinking water justice issues. She earned her B.A. in multidisciplinary studies and M.A. in sociology from the University of Texas at El Paso with a focus on human health outcomes associated with lack of access to a public water supply in Colonias located along the U.S.-Mexico border. She earned her Ph.D. in geography from Texas A&M University with a focus on health inequities associated with accessibility to preventive cervical cancer healthcare services in New Mexico. McDonald’s research focuses on the utilization of geospatial approaches to investigate human health outcomes. She focuses on where and why health disparities exist using geographic information science (GIS) theory and methods informed by environmental and social justice frameworks, social determinants of health, and the theory of intersectionality.

Sample of publications:

  • Caballero, M.D., Gunda, T., and McDonald, Y.J. Pollution in the Press: Employing Text Analytics to Understand Regional Water Quality Narratives. Frontiers in Environmental Science.
  • Paxton, C., Anderson, K., and McDonald, Y.J. (2022). A quantitative analysis of workforce retention factors among water professionals in Tennessee. Utilities Policy.
  • McDonald, Y.J., Anderson, K.M., Caballero, M.D., Ding, K.J., Fisher, D.H., Morkel, C.P. and Hill, E.L., 2022. A systematic review of geospatial representation of United States community water systems. AWWA Water Science, 4(1), p.e1266.
  • McDonald, Y.J. and Jones, N.E., 2018. Drinking water violations and environmental justice in the United States, 2011–2015. American Journal of Public Health, 108(10), pp.1401-1407.
  • McDonald, Y.J., Grineski, S.E., Collins, T.W., and Kim, Y.A. (2015). A scalable climate health justice assessment model. Social Science & Medicine 133, 242-252.

Ole Movig is assistant professor of history and of communication of science and technology. Molvig explores how science, technology and society interact, and he has research interests in the digital humanities.

Dan Morgan is principal senior lecturer in Earth and environmental sciences and associate dean in the College of Arts and Science. His primary research is on glacial geology, and he hosts field trips for students.

Sample of publications:

  • Putkonen, J., Bergelin, M., Balco, G., Morgan, D.J. and Matheney, R., 2019, December. Ancient Ice Preserved Under A Meter-Thick Layer Of Debris; Ong Valley, Transantarctic Mountains, Antarctica. In AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts (Vol. 2019, pp. C41E-1509).
  • Boschetty, F.O., Ferguson, D.J., Cortés, J.A., Morgado, E., Ebmeier, S.K., Morgan, D.J., Romero, J.E. and Parejas, C.S., 2022. Insights into Magma Storage Beneath a Frequently Erupting Arc Volcano (Villarrica, Chile) from Unsupervised Machine Learning Analysis of Mineral Compositions. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, p.e2022GC010333.
  • Wang, S., Morgan, D.J., Miller, E., Megerian, C., Grunow, A. and Cribb, W.W., 2021, December. Changes in Glacial Flow Patterns and Provenance of the Mid-Miocene in the Friis Hills and Olympus Range, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. In AGU Fall Meeting 2021. AGU.

Jessica Oster is associate professor of Earth and environmental sciences. Her research group interprets records of past climate change from stalagmites, which are particularly sensitive to changes in rainfall amount, source, and seasonality. She also aims to understand how modern cave systems respond to seasonal and interannual environmental changes with an eye toward using this understanding to provide an interpretative framework for calibrating paleoclimate records from cave deposits. Presently, her lab has active research projects in California, Tennessee, Wyoming, India, and the ABC Islands. She also directs Earth Horizons, which is a partnership between the Vanderbilt Earth and Environmental Sciences Department and the TSU College of Agriculture funded by the National Science Foundation. The goal of the program is to strengthen the pathway for students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in the geosciences  to succeed in geoscience careers and graduate programs.  For more information, see her website.

Sample of publications:

  • Tabor, C., Lofverstrom, M., Oster, J.L., Wortham, B.E., de Wet, C., Montañez, I.P., Rhoades, A., Zarxycki, C., He, C., Liu, Z. (2021) A mechanistic understanding of oxygen isotope changes in the western United States at the Last Glacial Maximum. Quaternary Science Reviews 274, 107255.
  • Oster, J.L., Covey, A.K., Lawrence, C., Giannetta, M.G., Druhan, J.L. (2021) A reactive transport approach to modeling cave seepage water chemistry II: elemental signatures. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 311 353-373.
  • de Wet, C.B., Erhardt, A.M., Sharp, W.D., Marks, N.E., Bradbury, H.J., Turchyn, A.V., *Xu, Y., Oster, J.L. (2021) Semi-quantitative estimates of rainfall variability during the 8.2 kyr event in California using speleothem calcium isotope records. Geophysical Research Letters e2020GL089154.
  • Oster, J.L., Weisman, I.E., Sharp, W.D. (2020) Multi-proxy stalagmite records from northern California reveal dynamic patterns of regional hydroclimate over the last glacial cycle. Quaternary Science Reviews, 241, 106411.
  • Ronay, E.R., Breitenbach, S.F.M., Oster, J.L. (2019) Sensitivity of speleothem records in the Indian Summer Monsoon region to dry season infiltration. Scientific Reports 9:5091, doi:10.1038/s41598-019-41630-2.

Tasha Rijke-Epstein is assistant professor of history and a historian of Madagascar as a node of Indian Ocean cosmopolitanism. She has research interests in urban history, material culture, built forms, museums and public history, and politics of kinship and belonging. Her current book project begins with a question: Why after nearly two centuries of peaceful coexistence among multiple ethno-linguistic and religious groups in Mahajanga, Madagascar, was there a sudden eruption of violent riots against Comorians in 1976-77 resulting in 1,000 deaths and the mass expulsion of 16,000 people?

Sample of publications:

  • Rijke-Epstein, T., 2019. The politics of filth: sanitation, work, and competing moralities in urban Madagascar 1890s–1977. The Journal of African History, 60(2), pp.229-256.
  • Rijke-Epstein, T., 2021. On humble technologies: containers, care, and water infrastructure in northwest Madagascar, 1750s-1960s. History and Technology, 37(3), pp.293-328.

Betsey A. Robinson teaches courses in the architecture, art, and archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean world. Her primary research interests include Greek and Roman architecture and art, ancient cities and religious sites, and landscapes—actual, imagined, and as represented in ancient art and literature. 

Sample of publications:

  • Robinson, Betsey Ann, Sophie Collin Bouffier, and Iván Fumadó Ortega, eds. Ancient Waterlands. Presses universitaires de Provence, 2019.

Paul Stob is a professor of communication studies, American studies, and communication of science and technology. His research and teaching focus on the intersection of rhetoric and intellectual culture, with particular emphasis on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in the United States. This focus includes the ways that scientists, intellectuals, and educators communicate their ideas to general audiences, especially via speeches, lectures, and popular talks. In addition, he is the co-author (with Stephen E. Lucas) of The Art of Public Speaking (McGraw-Hill Higher Education), now in its thirteenth edition. He contributes to the communication, methods, and practices courses in the climate studies major.

Sample of publications:

  • Ray, A.G. and Stob, P. eds., 2018. Thinking Together: Lecturing, Learning, and Difference in the Long Nineteenth Century (Vol. 16). Penn State Press.
  • Stob, P., 2020. Intellectual Populism: Democracy, Inquiry, and the People. MSU Press.
  • Lucas, S. E. and Stob, P. 2020. The Art of Public Speaking, Thirteenth Edition, Specially Adapted for Chinese Readers. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.
  • Stob, P. 2021. “Robert Ingersoll.” The Cambridge History of Atheism, Vol. 1 (pp. 531–549). Cambridge University Press.
  • Stob, P. 2021. “The Rhetoric of Work and the Work of Rhetoric: Booker T. Washington’s Campaign for Tuskegee and the Black South.” Nineteenth-Century American Activist Rhetorics, (pp. 76–88). The Modern Language Association.

Anand Taneja is an assistant professor of religious studies.  He works on the religious and cultural traditions of South Asia, specializing in the anthropological study of contemporary Islam, Indian popular culture, and inter-religious relations between Muslims and Hindus. He also studies religion, the environment, and climate change.

Sample of publications:

  • Taneja, A.V., 2021. “Sharing a Room with Sparrows: Maulana Azad and Muslim Ecological Thought.” In Cosmopolitical Ecologies Across Asia: Places of Power in Changing Environments, edited by Riamsara Kuyakanon Knapp, Hildegard Diemberger, and David Sneath. London: Routledge, 2021. Pp. 228-242.
  • Taneja, A.V., 2018. Jinnealogy: Time. Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi. Stanford University Press.

Lori Troxel is professor of the practice in civil and environmental engineering and director of undergraduate studies in the department. Her design experience includes designing foundations for electrical power equipment, inspecting supports in nuclear reactors, and designing prestressed bridges. She also leads an interdisciplinary study abroad course on sustainable building and infrastructure has helped Vanderbilt engineering students study abroad in Northern Ireland and Spain.

Zdravka ("Zee") Tzankova is research associate professor of sociology and associate professor of the practice in climate and environmental studies. Her research and teaching span a range of issue areas, from climate governance and renewable transitions to the public and private governance of environmental and labor practices in agriculture and food production. Zee’s current work, teaching, research, and practice, is focused on the roles that business can play in advancing socially just sustainability transitions. She examines NGO and stakeholder strategies for mobilizing corporate action on climate and ecosystem protection. She studies the range of impacts from corporate climate and sustainability initiatives, both intended and unintended impacts, positive and negative ones. She strives for actionable research that helps maximize positive impacts from the environmental and climate initiatives of business. Through a Climate, Health, and Energy Equity Lab (CHEEL Lab) based at the Wond’ry, she is currently offering Immersion experiences focused on research and design work towards overcoming sustainability-equity tradeoffs in climate and environmental governance. 

Matthew Zaragoza-Watkins is assistant professor of economics. He studies the intersection of industrial organization, energy and the environment. His research explores the design and performance of economy-wide and sector-specific environmental policies. He also served as a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Sample of publications:

  • Bento, Antonio, Daniel Kaffine, Kevin Roth, and Matthew Zaragoza-Watkins. "The effects of regulation in the presence of multiple unpriced externalities: Evidence from the transportation sector." American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 6, no. 3 (2014): 1-29.
  • Borenstein, Severin, James Bushnell, Frank A. Wolak, and Matthew Zaragoza-Watkins. "Expecting the unexpected: Emissions uncertainty and environmental market design." American Economic Review 109, no. 11 (2019): 3953-77.
  • Rittenhouse, K. and Zaragoza-Watkins, M., 2018. Anticipation and environmental regulation. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 89, pp.255-277.