Research Spotlight: Dr. Alice Cohen

Research Spotlight aims to shed light on the diverse research culture of Acadia University by celebrating the work and interests of our researchers. Each profile features six questions: five about research, one just for fun. Learn about what’s happening across campus and get to know the faces you see every day.

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Dr. Burc Kayahan

Dr. Alice Cohen

Earth and Environmental Sciences

Faculty of Science

In terms of research, what are you working on right now?

I’m writing a book with Andrew Biro about Canadian environmental politics. There are a few books on the subject, but they tend to focus on governments and government institutions as the be-all and end-all of environmental policy and decision-making. That’s only part of the picture. 

For example, if you look at the debate over Northern Pulp in Pictou County: it’s not really about what the law says, or who’s in government. It’s about pollution, jobs, and how you make decisions as a community. Our book looks at not only the formal governance institutions but also economies, identities, and communities, and how they shape Canadian environmental politics more broadly than just the outcome of elections and what laws exist.

Andrew and I have both taught Environmental Politics classes here at Acadia, and we want to expand what’s out there. We both thought, “what book would I like to use to teach ?” We're trying to write that book. 

Q: Anything else?

My second project is supported by a Harrison McCain award, and looks at the politics of knowledge with respect to water governance and how we make decisions about water

One of the trends that we're seeing in water governance is a move towards community-based water monitoring (CBM), which is where community groups who are concerned about something in their water will set up systems to monitor the waterways in their own community. 

In 2016/17, I worked with collaborators in BC to survey more than 200 CBM organizations across Canada and asked questions about what they were testing for, how they were funded, who interpreted their results, what they were doing with their data, etc. A policy report and an academic paper came out of that, and a lot of people found it really useful because it was the first time this data had been collected and was available.

One of the interesting findings that emerged from the survey was that when we asked “why are you monitoring what you are monitoring,” the most popular answer was “because it's what our equipment can measure.” So the technology and funding programs are enabling communities to test their water – but they’re also dictating, in large part, what can be measured and what’s important. That’s an interesting finding, because most of the academic literature only talks about CBM as if its empowering communities to measure what’s important to them. And it is – but our research suggests that these programs are also being shaped by what the technology can measure and what their funders require. And often these programs are implemented to pick up on where provincial or territorial programs left off. So, it’s more complicated than communities just going out and measuring what they want to measure. 

Q: It sounds like you work with groups across Canada and on issues that span the country. Does being at Acadia, all the way out here on the East Coast, compel you to reach out in order to be able to connect with people in your field?

Yes and no. I did my PhD at the University of British Columbia, so I have a lot of connections on the West Coast. And the water world is really small, so we're all in touch with each other.

On the other hand, I had crossed paths with Andrew Biro a couple of times before coming to Acadia. And when we started talking about doing this book project, I realized that I had never had the experience of working on a project with someone on the same campus before – at least not since my PhD – and neither had he. We decided that rather than writing our own pieces and sending them back and forth by email – which is what you would do if you were writing a book with a colleague on the other side of the country – we would actually sit down and write it together. So we meet once or twice a week – we block it off, like a real appointment – and we sit down for two hours and just write. It's probably my highest-words-per-week produced of any project I've ever worked on. It’s been really good.

Q: How do these projects fit in with your broader research agenda? 

I could say that my research agenda is about water, but really it's not. What I’m really interested in is the relationship between people and place, and how different people, communities, and groups navigate that relationship. I have found water to be a very good tool for understanding that relationship.

In North America especially, there is this idea that there are people, and there's nature, and they are two separate things – but they're not. For example in Ontario, post-Walkerton, there are strong protections for any body of water that is a source of drinking water,  which don’t apply to bodies that are not. But water doesn’t work like that: it mixes; it moves around. This false division is one of the themes Andrew and I are exploring in the book.

Q: Are there any key pieces of advice you give students before they embark on a research project?

Be excited about your research project, because you're going be sick of it by the end. If you don't love it at the start, I don't know how you’re going to make it through.

Q: What are you doing for fun these days?

I spent a lot of time skating on the Wolfville reservoir this winter. There’s a group of local volunteers who measure ice depth, and shovel and snow blow a big oval around the whole reservoir, so you can skate around it. 

In the summer time, my partner Jamie and I sometimes go canoeing in the evenings. We go to the north mountain: Gaspereau Lake, Black River Lake. It’s really fun to get out on the water on those long summer evenings.

Research Spotlight is an initiative of the Research & Graduate Studies office. If you would like to suggest someone to be featured in this series, or if you would like to be featured yourself, please contact Omar Bhimji, Research & Innovation Coordinator:

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