Degree: Ph.D. in Planning, Policy, and Design
What made you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
Growing up in a city like Pune, in India, which has always been at the forefront of the social and educational progress in the country, there was never a question of not pursuing a graduate degree. My family – an interesting blend of academics, social workers, and political activists – ingrained in me that I was very fortunate to be in a position to pursue higher education, and that I should strive to use this opportunity and my education to help people.
Why did you choose to come to UCI?
I realized early on in my educational life, that I was interested in studying how people interact with the environment, which led me to adopt an interdisciplinary approach. Through my bachelors, masters, and Master of Research degrees, I attempted to work in both social and physical sciences for course-work and research. I was also always interested in the water sector, particularly issues regarding access to water and conflicts over water. Water, in my view, is not just a natural resource, but is also a critical part of people’s spiritual, religious, social, and political identity – which makes it extremely complex and interesting. While applying for PhD programs, I was specifically looking for a department and professors under whose guidance I could learn more about water through an interdisciplinary lens. In this search, I contacted Prof. Richard Matthew (my advisor) and Prof. David Feldman, who encouraged me to apply to UCI.
If you are conducting research, how would you explain your research and its significance to others?
As a fourth-year doctoral candidate, I am working on two research projects:
My doctoral research work aims at understanding the persistence of water-access conflicts in Mumbai, under the guidance of Prof. Richard Matthew
Since colonial times, people and communities in and around Mumbai have been constantly in conflict with each other over access to water. Over the last few decades, there have been instances of protests, riots, famous court cases, water theft, informal water markets, water capture, and political power-play when it comes to water access in Mumbai. The governing bodies have responded through numerous attempts of revamping water supply policies, such as privatization, introducing new regulations, and even creating an independent regulatory authority (at the state level) to address the water scarcity felt by the city since independence. Yet the conflicts persist. I am interested in understanding the roots, nature, and persistence of these water-access conflicts in Mumbai and looking at underlying socio-political, and especially historical, mechanisms that might have made this persistence possible.
Participatory system dynamics modeling of Sediment Management in Southern California, a part of the SedRISE project in the UCI Blum Centre for Poverty Alleviation (link: http://blumcenter.uci.edu/rise/sedrise/)
Due to climate change, coastal communities around the world are looking for ways to protect vulnerable infrastructure, people, and ecosystems in the event of sea level rise. In the coastal region of Southern California, sediment has long been considered as a nuisance or a waste product, but it is now increasingly being recognized as a potential solution for protecting beaches and wetlands, and for combating coastal flooding. There is a need to understand how sediment is managed in such situations, and what could be the future options available. Focusing on sediment management in two of the largest estuaries in Southern California, Newport Bay Estuary (NBE) and the Tijuana River Estuary (TRE), my part in the research project involves understanding how various decision-makers on different levels understand the system and take decisions. In individual interviews with them, I tried to draw a causal ‘mental map’ of the system from their viewpoint. By overlapping all such individual mental maps, we were able to get a qualitative model that has a holistic view of not just the natural, but also the human part of the system of sediment management. In the next stages of the project, we will convert this qualitative model into a quantitative tool that will help the decision-makers to see how their individual decisions change or affect the system.
What are your hobbies/passions outside of research?
In 2011, I first left India, and moved to Budapest for my master’s degree. The new experiences and adventures that the city offered to me made me want to explore the world. I started saving up my student stipend, and travelling whenever possible. In 7 short years, I have travelled to 25 countries and explored numerous cities. Learning about new cultures, history, art, and food is my biggest passion. I am also a voracious reader, an (overly enthusiastic) amateur baker, a tea lover, an aspiring barista, and an occasional painter.
What are you most proud of accomplishing (so far) in your graduate program?
My previous degrees were oriented more to field research and research methods. Before I came to UCI for my PhD Program, I had shied away from social science theories. In my second semester, I took my first theory class (Prof. Martha Feldman’s Theories of Power and Empowerment), and even though I struggled very much, I realized that I enjoyed theory. I also realized that if I wanted to be a good researcher, I needed a good grounding in social science theories. Through independent study courses under the guidance of my advisor Prof. Richard Matthew and by taking ‘History and Theory’ seminar courses in the History department over the last three years, I have worked hard at getting a solid theoretical grounding. That was a difficult learning curve, but definitely the most rewarding experience for me in UCI, and I am proud that I did not give up on theory.
What advice do you have for a new graduate student in your program?
My advice for a new graduate student would be to take as many different courses and independent studies, both within and outside the department, that don’t necessarily align completely to your initial ideas of what your research is going to be. Try out new classes, topics, theories, and methods. You might decide that you don’t want to pursue those things further, but you might also stumble on something that changes the way you think about your own research. For me, it was history and theory.
What do you see yourself doing in five or ten years?
All said and done, I am a researcher at heart, and I enjoy fieldwork, data collection, and data analysis. I have found over the last three years of my PhD, that I don’t necessarily mind writing as well. I am still unsure whether I want to pursue an academic or non-academic career, but I am sure that in five or ten years, I will still be doing research that I enjoy, hopefully in some interesting locales.