A Climate for Connecting

Produced March 04, 2019

A connection between three professors has launched more than five years of multidisciplinary projects funded by the nation’s top research agencies.

When Assistant Professor Lisa Reyes Mason interviewed for her job in the College of Social Work in 2013, she asked to meet someone with UT’s Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment. Her interview included a discussion with Chris Cox, then director of ISSE.

“I was really interested in landing somewhere where there was space and interest in multidisciplinary work,” Mason said. “It made a big impression on me that the director of an engineering center would come to an interview for a social work candidate. He was interested in ISSE connecting with the social sciences.”

Cox introduced Mason to two other new professors, climatologist Kelsey Ellis and environmental engineer Jon Hathaway, during their faculty orientation. “What was unique is that we were all interested in urban environmental issues,” Ellis said.

Ellis, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, specializes in specific hazard climatology: hurricanes and tornadoes. Hathaway, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, studies urban hydrology and green infrastructure.

Over the past five years, the three have collaborated on multidisciplinary research projects that help people understand their vulnerability to the elements and make decisions based on accurate weather data. Some projects aim to provide city officials with information on how green infrastructure projects could positively affect neighborhoods.

Their first project examined how climate affects people in neighborhoods. The team placed weather sensors in Knoxville neighborhoods to capture data for temperature, humidity, and wind.

a stormy Knoxville skyline
Severe storms in Knoxville on April 27, 2011 caused widespread hail damage and flooding. Photo by Knoxville News Sentinel.

“Faculty tend to be inherently curious people,” said Cox, who is now head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “It’s a small step to extend that curiosity, to wonder how other disciplines contribute to understanding of an issue.”

A current project between Hathaway and Mason, funded by the National Science Foundation, combines flood control with an understanding of people in the community. The goals are to produce a smart system capable of adjusting flow as a situation demands and to encourage ways to slow flooding and erosion.

“It’s not just social science in isolation or engineering work in isolation—it feeds each other,” Mason explained. “The engineering team can say, ‘We need this kind of information about people, and we don’t know how to ask those questions or collect that data.’ Then the social work team is able to craft our interviews in a way that is really meaningful.

“It’s one of the beauties of this kind of multidisciplinary work. When you’re really a team, it’s not just an add-on. It’s important for me that my work addresses inequality or includes an equity or inclusion aspect. As a social worker, that is what I am ultimately interested in.”

A photo of Kelsey Ellis, Jon Hathaway, and Lisa Reyes Mason
Kelsey Ellis (left), Jon Hathaway (center), and Lisa Reyes Mason (right).

Social work doctoral student Jayme Walters worked with Mason and Ellis on the National Severe Storms Laboratory’s Vortex Southeast project. The goal was to understand and improve public response to tornado warnings.

“Each professor brings a unique perspective and set of skills and knowledge that truly enhances the quality of research,” Walters said. “Working on this team has allowed me to consider more deeply the influence of geography on social problems.”

The professors agree that their colleagues’ expertise has changed how they approach their own work. “My work with Lisa has helped me add a human component to my extreme weather research that I otherwise would have missed,” Ellis said.

Hathaway’s interest in using sensors to collect data from the environment has expanded. “I do a lot of field research, going out and taking measurements of environmental conditions,” he said. “That was a good piece for me in the work. I don’t know much about weather—Kelsey was able to make sense of the data and inform the final placement of the sensors.”

Mason believes the key to successful multidisciplinary work is humility. “You have to have a real willingness to ask questions when you don’t understand something,” she said. “That’s good teamwork.”

This story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary celebration. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.