Madhavan a Pioneer as a Psychologist on Bay Advisory Panel
Poornima Madhavan, a young member of Old Dominion University's psychology faculty, has been elected to the Chesapeake Bay Program's Science and Technology Advisory Committee (STAC), an elite group made up mostly of oceanographers, marine biologists, engineers, economists and agricultural specialists who help shape measures designed to protect and restore the bay.
The election of a psychologist to STAC breaks with tradition and indicates that these experts who are interested in the health of the bay are expanding their outreach in order to win popular support, said Larry Atkinson, director of the university's Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative (CCSLRI).
"Professor Madhavan's election is good for her and the university, as well as STAC, and is evidence that we were wise to have a multidisciplinary thrust for our ODU initiative," Atkinson added.
Madhavan said she hopes her work with the committee will expand understanding of the "people problem" aspect of climate change and sea level rise. "There is a lot that the public can do in developing environmental resiliency, and social science can play a big role in mobilizing the public toward action."
Atkinson met Madhavan after he took the helm of the CCSLRI that ODU President John Broderick launched last year. The initiative's mission was cast in broad enough terms to include faculty from all six of ODU's colleges, and Atkinson conducted a campus survey in order to identify those whose expertise and research interests could support the mission. Madhavan was one of the first to step forward.
She joined ODU in 2007 as an assistant professor of psychology and quickly established herself as professionally versatile. In conjunction with her joint appointment at ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), she founded the Applied Decision Making Lab, which promotes research in human decision making in simulated environments. She also teamed with ODU colleagues in business and communication to launch a much publicized project - it has been the subject of numerous national media stories - that probes decision making strategies adopted by potential homebuyers who search the Internet when they are in the market for a new home.
Earlier this year, Madhavan and three ODU colleagues won a seed grant of nearly $40,000 to develop a climate change project titled "Human Dimensions in Public Engagement and Support for Environmental Resiliency Policies." Working with her on the project are Maura Hametz, associate professor of history; Leona Tam, assistant professor of marketing; and Cynthia Tomovic, professor of STEM education and professional studies.
The decision making processes that Madhavan studies involve the difficult choices that people must make in the face of risks, stress, time pressure and uncertainty. She said she joined Atkinson's team because she wanted to research the public's response to scientific evidence about climate change and sea level rise and its implications for addressing flooding issues in the local community. Climate researchers have identified the Norfolk region as second only to New Orleans among U.S. cities in vulnerability to rising sea levels. At the same time, a 2010 ODU survey in the Norfolk region found about a quarter of the population believing that climate change is not a serious concern.
Madhavan posed these questions: "Why are communications on climate change failing to get public attention; what can be done to create a sense of urgency required for public discourse and action; and, how can we encourage the development of public support for policies that lead to environmental resiliency?"
Through contacts that Atkinson had made - he is the Samuel and Fay Slover Professor of Oceanography at ODU - Madhavan was invited to give a talk in Annapolis, Md., in March at a Social Science and Chesapeake Bay Restoration Workshop conducted by the Chesapeake Research Consortium. The talk focused on how people understand and cope with the risks and psychosocial impacts of climate change.
Social science research findings identify a "finite pool of worry," she told the audience. This may mean that people have reached their threshold for worry because of current pressing economic or health concerns and have very little capacity left for worrying about climate change. Furthermore, a coastal town with a mobile population is less likely to have "place attachment" that, for example, would make people feel emotionally connected to a city threatened by sea level rise.
Madhavan emphasized the need for social marketing techniques tailored to specific populations to address the issues of perceived urgency and people's willingness to take action to combat the impacts of climate change.
Michael Paolisso, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, heard Madhavan's talk and was impressed. He is an at-large STAC member and he nominated her for election to the committee, also as an at-large member.
"What Poornima's work brings to STAC's interest in bay restoration, including impacts of climate change, is a focus on human psychology and decision making," Paolisso said. "To date, what social science research we have done has focused on the economics and sociocultural factors that affect individuals and communities in terms of their knowledge and behavior towards bay restoration. Poornima adds that psychological focus that is missing, and I think she will help STAC expand its understanding of the range of social science approaches. It is also very useful that her work is formal, systematic and experimental, as well as field based."
As for Atkinson, he believes Madhavan's election "is an example of how ODU has the experts to help" with CCSLRI issues. "We just need to make the right contacts to get things initialized. That is part of my job and it is nice to see such a quick success."
Atkinson also pointed out that ODU professors who serve on advisory committees such as STAC gain experiences that enhance the education of ODU students and their research opportunities.
The 40-member STAC also includes Margaret Mulholland, an ODU associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences and an expert in nitrogen cycling in aquatic systems.
This article was posted on: July 25, 2011
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