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Graduate Degrees and Disasters: Learning from Social Scientists in the U.S. Federal Government


Recorded Forum: May 5, 2023
Time: 11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. MDT


Professional social scientists offer a diverse skillset that many government agencies need in their employees—communication, project leadership and management, research innovation, and policy translation, to name a few. If you might be interested in working for the federal government, you won’t want to miss the next edition of Social Science Fridays!

This second session of our new series, which will be held from 11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. MDT on Friday, May 5, will offer an opportunity to learn from social scientists working at agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Geological Survey. Panelists will talk about their educational backgrounds, social science research expertise, and current responsibilities. They will also share tips for those considering government service as a future career. 

This is a timely conversation. Social scientists with advanced graduate degrees are seeking out a wider range of employment pathways. For example, in 2021, only 36% of doctoral recipients were employed in academia—a 25% decrease in the past two decades, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates. In social sciences, 48% went into full-time positions in academia, representing nearly a two-thirds decrease since 2001.  

For those considering other options for their master’s degrees or PhDs, especially those who study disasters, government agencies can provide opportunities to make a difference. Data from the annual census reports of the Social Science Extreme Events Research (SSEER) network suggests that nine percent of SSEER researchers work for a local, state, or federal government agency. We hope you will join us to learn more from some of the top social scientists in our federal mission agencies. 

Panelist Bios:

Keely Maxwell is a general anthropologist in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Research and Development. She works in the Center for Environmental Solutions and Emergency Response, where she out carries out applied social science research on community resilience, environmental cleanups, and disaster waste decision-making. Dr. Maxwell is the coordinating lead author for a new chapter in the Fifth National Climate Assessment titled “Social Systems and Justice.” She has a PhD and a Master of Forest Science from the Yale School of the Environment and a bachelor’s in biology and environmental studies from Williams College.

Sara McBride is a crisis communication response leader with 20 years progressive experience in risk, hazard, science communication, public education, disaster risk reduction, community resilience, and international humanitarian response. Dr. McBride is a social scientist with expertise in mixed methods and a specialty in content and critical analysis. Her professional communications accomplishments include serving as Public Information Manager for GeoNet/GNS Science during the Kaikoura Earthquake and Second-in-Command for Christchurch Earthquake Response. Her extensive international and domestic on-site crisis communication and emergency management experience includes work in New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Fiji, Namibia, Hawai’i, and Washington. She is proficient in French and Solomon Islands Pidgin.

Cassandra Shivers-Williams is the social science deputy program manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Program Office. Her research expertise includes understanding social and personal factors that affect human decision-making during threatening situations. In her current role, Dr. Shivers-Williams offers administrative science support for NOAA-funded researchers and provides social science expertise to various partners and stakeholders. She received her bachelor’s in psychology from Southern University and A&M College and her master’s and PhD in social psychology from Howard University. She is also an alumna of the NOAA Cooperative Science Center for Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology, which is how she got her start at NOAA.

Tyson Vaughan is a civil works and water resources policy analyst and a subject-matter expert in the social dimensions of disaster recovery and risk reduction, community resilience, and environmental collaboration and public engagement. As a sociologist at the Institute for Water Resources (IWR), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), he works to improve federal policy, engage the public, and enhance the resilience of American communities facing environmental risks. Dr. Vaughan holds a PhD in Science & Technology Studies from Cornell University. His doctoral dissertation examined expert-facilitated public participation in recovery planning in post-disaster Japan. Furthermore, he has studied public participation in scientific research (a.k.a. “citizen science”), post-Katrina participatory recovery planning in his hometown of New Orleans, and recovery from industrial mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan.

Host Bios:

Heather Champeau is a research assistant and applied sociologist at the Natural Hazards Center and a graduate student in the department of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. She manages data for the Social Science Extreme Event Research (SSEER) network, a platform designed to support the advancement of social scientists who study hazards and disasters. Champeau’s dissertation uses a subset of SSEER data and offers an in-depth investigation of social science extreme events researchers in the United States, an increasingly influential group to understand as we face changing climate impacts.

Jessica Austin is a graduate research assistant at the Natural Hazards Center and a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her work supports the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure CONVERGE facility. Additionally, she is the primary data manager for the Social Science Extreme Events Research network and the Natural Hazards Center’s Quick Response Research Award Program. Before returning to full-time study, Austin held multiple policy and administration roles in state, federal, and nonprofit public health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Austin holds a Master of Public Administration from Western Michigan University and a Master of Science in Anthrozoology from Canisius College.

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