An interview with Dr. Elizabeth Koebele

Dr. Elizabeth Koebele is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she has been since 2017.
Published in Social Sciences
An interview with Dr. Elizabeth Koebele

Please tell us about your research interests.

In arid areas across the globe, demand for freshwater is outstripping supply. As an environmental social scientist and policy scholar, I study the political processes through which policymakers govern scarce water resources to meet the demands of a diversity of competing users. Most of my research occurs in the western United States, where the majority of available freshwater is used for irrigated agriculture. Other demands include municipal and industrial supplies, energy generation, and environmental and recreational flows. Ensuring enough water is available to meet all of these demands has become increasingly challenging, especially as more people and businesses have moved to the arid West. Moreover, while intermittent drought has always been a fact of life in this region, climate change is further affecting water availability by reducing the extent of mountain snowpack and shifting the timing of annual water runoff. As a result, both humans and the environment are experiencing severe negative impacts, and the potential for conflict among various water user groups is heightened.

When attempting to address the complex problems associated with water management in arid areas, our ability to increase total water supply is fairly limited. However, we can change the rules, or institutions, that govern how water is allocated and used. One approach to doing this that I am particularly interested in is called collaborative governance. Collaborative governance processes engage a variety of stakeholders in consensus-oriented deliberation about public problems. These processes are increasingly being used as an alternative to “top-down” or “command-and-control” governance in the environmental sector, where they bring together stakeholders from the public and private spheres to make and implement policies that increase resource sustainability. While certainly not a silver bullet, collaborative governance can help stakeholders learn from one another, recognize shared goals and values, and develop creative, “win-win” solutions to environmental management.

For the past six or so years, I have studied how collaborative governance is being used at different scales to manage scarce water resources across the Colorado River Basin. Broadly, this line of my research seeks to understand how and why oppositional stakeholders engage in collaboration and what effects it has on policy and environmental outcomes. Since moving to Northern Nevada two years ago, I’ve also begun to study collaborative policymaking processes in the Lake Tahoe Basin, where economic development and environmental protection goals are deeply intertwined but often at odds, leading to a history of contentious policymaking.

In addition to my research on collaborative governance, I’ve published on environmental regulatory processes, disaster and hazard management related to wildfires and flooding, urban water sustainability, and policy process theory. Now, my research interests are expanding even more as I work with public policy graduate students at the University of Nevada, Reno – I currently have a paper under review that I co-authored with a student on education policy!


What has your journey been to this point?

My journey began when I pursued concurrent bachelor’s degrees in secondary education and English literature though Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, with the goal of being a high school teacher. During that time, a wonderful professor named Dr. Mark Lussier mentored me through an honors thesis that explored the role of science in Romantic poetry and its implications for the modern-day sustainability movement. That project taught me the value of thinking and working across disciplines, which continues to be a cornerstone of my scholarship. It also taught me that I really enjoyed scholarly research and writing! I went on to teach language arts just outside Phoenix, Arizona, but I remained interested in questions of sustainability – and specifically the sustainability of the extremely dry city where I lived. Could those concrete-lined canals of water snaking through the desert really provide enough water for Phoenix’s booming population? Where did that water even come from?

Thanks to a biologist friend who roped me into volunteering with his field research team, I soon learned that some of Phoenix’s water comes from the Colorado River. The team was studying a prehistoric-looking fish called the Razorback Sucker. It is native to the Colorado River but became critically endangered when habitat-altering dams and diversions were built on the river throughout the 20th century. Ironically, those same dams and diversions helped deliver water to Phoenicians like me. They also brought water to farms throughout the state and generated crucial hydropower for the region, among other uses. I quickly realized that sustaining water for my desert city meant taking water away from other people and species. It felt like a zero-sum game.

This experience, paired with my budding love of interdisciplinary research and writing, inspired me to pursue a graduate degree in environmental studies. Once again, I was fortunate to find a truly amazing mentor and friend, Dr. Deserai Crow at the University of Colorado Boulder, who furthered my journey. Deserai helped me realize that the issues I was concerned about – the seemingly unavoidable tradeoffs between the well-being of people and the well-being of the environment – were not only scientific questions, but also political questions about power and priorities. In my dissertation, I researched how the seemingly zero-sum nature of water management could be disrupted through collaborative approaches to water policymaking and governance in the Colorado River Basin, from its headwaters in Colorado to its delta in northern Mexico.

Thanks to the support of Deserai and many others, I am now an assistant professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Nevada Reno. This is sort of a dream job for me – I get to teach, research, and engage in interdisciplinary collaboration, all while living in a gorgeous area of the western U.S.


What are you most proud of in your career so far?

I’m extremely proud to have recently received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to study urban water sustainability with an amazing team of collaborators. Getting funding to do research is always great, of course, but one reason I am so proud of this accomplishment is because of the origin of the project. It began as an idea that three of us on the research team, each from different academic disciplines and universities, developed as graduate students. We wanted to better understand how and why urban water utilities transition toward more sustainable water management practices despite significant financial and political barriers – and we thought that an interdisciplinary approach was the only way to really answer those questions. Fortunately, we applied for and were awarded a small grant from NSF’s Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in 2014 to develop and pilot test an approach for studying urban water management transitions. Five years later, as faculty members, we now have the opportunity to expand our research significantly, engage more deeply with stakeholders, and develop results that will impact how cities manage water across the U.S. Another reason I am particularly proud of this accomplishment is because it allows me to support and train graduate students and post-doctoral scholars as they pursue team-based scientific research. I am excited to serve as a mentor and pay forward the amazing support and encouragement I received in graduate school. Finally, I’m thrilled to see a major science funding agency support this kind of interdisciplinary, applied research!


Can you speak to any challenges that you had to overcome?

I’d like to speak to two major challenges I’ve faced that have shaped me significantly. The first is that I am a first-generation college student. Neither of my parents attended any college, and even though they both were supportive of my education, I was at a pretty big disadvantage as far as understanding what college was all about and what opportunities were available to me. I applied to one undergraduate institution that was 30 minutes away from where I went to high school, largely because they proactively offered me a scholarship that covered my tuition. I didn’t know what most of the available majors were, and I certainly didn’t think I was capable of pursuing something outside of the strengths I developed in high school, so I stuck with what was familiar. I worked multiple jobs to pay my rent and expenses, and as a result, I didn’t really get to participate in campus life or extracurriculars until my senior year. I consider myself so fortunate to have found an amazing mentor because I definitely didn’t think that undergraduate students could participate in scholarly research, much less conduct and publish their own research as I eventually did. Admittedly, I was still pretty clueless when I applied to graduate school two years later, not understanding that funding was available via mechanisms like teaching and research assistantships. Now, as a faculty member at a public, land-grant university that serves many first-generation students, I think this challenge has become one of my biggest assets as far as relating to my students’ needs and experiences. I have been fortunate to mentor a number of first-gen students, and I’m ecstatic that one is beginning her master’s degree this year at the same institution where I received my undergraduate degrees.

The second challenge I’d like to address is that of being an interdisciplinary scholar. In graduate school, I forged my own path as far as putting together course work and a research agenda that met my needs and interests. While I truly believe that interdisciplinarity is the only way to address our major societal issues, I often felt like I had a “mile-wide, inch-deep” education. I was explicitly told by faculty members in my graduate program that I was not going to get an academic job in a disciplinary field, so I shouldn’t waste my time applying. Now that I am faculty in a disciplinary department (Political Science) that doesn’t match the words on my PhD diploma (Environmental Studies), I often struggle to meet multiple sets of expectations and define who I am. This becomes even more complicated when engaging in large, collaborative research projects, like the NSF-funded project I described above. I certainly haven’t overcome this challenge, but I’m learning to be more confident in the fact that I do contribute unique insight and skills to multiple fields – and I’m often the person who plays the difficult, but really fun role of integrating knowledge across fields. I’m also grateful for those people who continue to champion me. For instance, I’m one of the first social scientists, and the first member of my college, to be elected to the faculty of the Hydrologic Sciences graduate program at my university. Some current faculty members are really resistant to having someone as “non-traditional” as me involved in the program, while others recognize that some student and faculty research projects might benefit from looking at water resource issues from a different angle (especially as it’s increasingly mandated by funders). It’s a difficult landscape to navigate, particularly as an untenured faculty member, but I plan to keep researching and publishing in this space. I hope it opens the door for future scholars with interdisciplinary backgrounds to feel more welcomed and valued in academia.


What advice would you give your younger self?

Be willing to try more new things, even when they’re unfamiliar, or hard, or you fail! This was so difficult for me, especially as a young woman. While I was intellectually curious, I mostly stuck to things (topics, hobbies, etc.) that I was already comfortable with, largely out of fear of failure. To this day, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s perfectly okay to not be an expert in something and still try to do it. In working with my graduate students – who are really smart and have really diverse interests – I am constantly challenged to step outside my comfort zone. Turns out that I’m learning a lot and enjoying it too. This is true in my personal life as well. I wasn’t athletic growing up, but over the last four years, I’ve found a passion for racing cyclocross and road bicycles. Because I infrequently win, it’s pretty easy to want to skip a race or quit altogether. But almost every time I put myself out there, I learn something new – how to pedal more efficiency, how to corner more tightly – that makes the experience feel really rewarding. I try to instill this mindset in my students, especially because I think that we only find our true passions and make unique contributions by exploring a lot of different opportunities, including those where we don’t succeed. Paired with that, I would also tell my younger self (and current students) to find people who support you and to nurture those relationships, even during the tough times. Academia is much more of a collective effort than people like to let on.

What are your predictions for your field in the near future?

There’s an interesting debate about whether “public policy” is indeed a field of its own, but for the purposes of this interview, I’ll assume it is. As you can probably tell from my previous answers, I expect the field of policy and governance, especially in the environmental domain, to become increasingly interdisciplinary. In order to make good policy choices under dynamic and uncertain conditions, we need a better understanding of both the physical and social aspects of the systems we are trying to govern. Consequently, I also expect the policy field to become increasingly collaborative – a shift I think we are already seeing in funders’ priorities and publishing trends. Related to these predictions, I think we’ll see policy scholars using increasingly sophisticated experimental and computational methods to collect and analyze data, as well as to model complex behaviors like decision-making. This resonates with a broader move in the social sciences from research/theory that describes to research/theory that predicts and potentially prescribes, though both types are equally valuable in my mind. Finally, I hope that policy research will include more integration among researchers and stakeholders/communities, both to help scholars better understand critical lay knowledge and local concerns, and to ensure that the results of our scholarship and useful and accessible. It’s often difficult and costly to do this kind of participatory research in a genuine way, but I think it’s absolutely essential and hope we see more of it in the future.

Photo credit: Heidi Littenberg

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