Interdisciplinary Focus

Elizabeth Whiting Pierce's research interest in river and environmental governance is not typical of a degree in religion. But then again, the flexibility of interdisciplinary scholarship in the Laney Graduate School is not typical of many graduate schools.

We caught up with Pierce this past summer to learn more about her work and how Laney programming is helping to take some of the stress out of the job search.

Please describe your research project.

My dissertation, Fighting Democratically, Fighting Adaptively: Standards of Procedural Justice for US Interstate Water Allocation Conflict, highlights the procedural challenges, which beset US interstate water allocation policy-making. It then outlines standards of procedural justice which might guide reform of interstate water allocation decision-making and conflict resolution.  

How did you arrive at this topic?

My first exposures to environmental ethics fell on either end of the wild/domesticated spectrum. My undergraduate biology degree trained me to appreciate pristine wilderness, to recognize the elegance of natural systems untouched by human hands. My childhood experiences of gardening, and post-college experiences as a community garden manager, showed me the possibility of intimacy among persons and domesticated natural systems. River governance happens somewhere between these two extremes, and it appeals to me for that reason. We have to use water for drinking, irrigation, electricity, etc. And yet, we need our wetlands and riparian systems to remain wild to some degree. This wildness lets them clean the waters we drink, sustain fish populations we eat, but also provides spiritual inspiration and social connection.

That being said, river governance is not exactly a standard feature of religious ethics doctoral coursework. I could not have found this topic if the Laney Graduate School and the Graduate Division of Religion (GDR) did not provide students such flexibility in proposing interdisciplinary classes. My exposure to environmental governance as a scholarly field of inquiry and political praxis happened during a directed reading seminar taught by Lance Gunderson in Environmental Sciences and Bobbi Patterson in the GDR. We really wanted Dr. Gunderson to teach us Resilience Theory, and we really wanted Bobbi Patterson to help us figure out what religion had to do with it. They did, and the class was a turning point for me.

What drew you to the Laney Graduate School?

Initially, I was drawn to Laney's GDR because Ted Smith, a GDR alum and then professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, told me the atmosphere was collaborative and warm to interdisciplinary work. He suggested I speak with another graduate of the GDR, Kevin O’Brien, who teaches and writes on religion, ethics and ecology. Dr. O’Brien traced his own scholarly journey at Emory for me,  explaining how he’d found himself teaching Environmental Ethics in his last couple years. After that conversation, I scoured Emory’s websites for signs of sustainability scholarship and practice and landed on the Emory as Place program and the Piedmont Project. The more I learned about Laney, the clearer it became that this “place” both welcomed interdisciplinary scholarship and, particularly in regard to sustainability, provided the intellectual and institutional resources, which that kind of scholarship requires. 

The Laney Advantage

Aside from your academic pursuits, what Laney programming have you found to be particularly helpful?

This past spring, I attended several career-focused events organized by Laney. After attending 4-5 sessions, I felt my professional options open up, and my anxiety regarding life after graduation dissipate tremendously. These programs give students the tools to match their expertise with rewarding careers within and beyond the academy. At a professional networking lunch called the Laney Exchange, I met an LGS alum who had graduated just a year before and was happily employed at a research consulting firm. She told me some of the tricks of breaking into that industry and explained the perks of her job—the opportunities for collaborative research, travel, working on a social problem of personal concern, and geographic flexibility. Another workshop focused on turning a CV into a resume, a skill I immediately used to apply for an internship and will no doubt use again. Another workshop helped me begin developing my “professional story.”

This programming is tremendously important. It gives students who feel anxiety about the academic job market the skills they need to put their doctoral degrees to other kinds of good use, for the world, for their own livelihoods and for Emory’s reputation. It’s also important for students who are absolutely sure they want to be academics. Knowing you have a choice about a professional path helps you make that decision with more clarity and less panic.