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PhD student uses diverse background of disciplines to solve complex sustainability issues

Robert Hobbins

Robert Hobbins

December 02, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

When it came time to choose a topic for his dissertation, PhD candidate Robert Hobbins had first-hand experience in what he wanted to research. 

“My house flooded during a historic flooding event in September 2014 in Phoenix, but it was not in a flood zone,” Hobbins said. “The communication of flood risk to homeowners is misleading and not very efficient. I became interested in how FEMA determines flood risk and gives that information to decision-makers and homeowners.”

Hobbins decided to look at how to build more equitable, inclusive and resilient cities to extreme weather events, primarily flooding. He found that in New York City, flood maps had barely changed in 40 years despite recent hurricanes and rising sea levels.

“My work revealed that making changes to flood maps isn’t just about better technologies or better satellite imagery. It’s also about power relationships and dynamics in cities and what or whose data gets integrated. That affects how we build our cities to make them resilient or not.”

Hobbins’ interest in sustainability started even before his house flooded. It was a field he had a lot of interest in and wanted to study more. He appreciated how the School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures gave students the resources, knowledge and encouragement to do actual work, so he decided to pursue a PhD in sustainability.

“Sustainability forces you to look at problems not just as an ecologist, engineer or social scientist, but to utilize all these different perspectives and knowledge and link them together. We need people that can look across multiple fields to solve problems.”

A diverse background of disciplines has helped Hobbins approach these problems in an integrated way. He has studied physics, astronomy, Spanish, education and community development. He was also a science teacher, and in 2010 was given the Arizona Teacher of the Year award by former Governor Jan Brewer and the Arizona Technology Council. 

“Sustainability combines all these fields I’ve studied and allows me to thrive. I love bringing all these different perspectives and ideas to the table to try and solve complex problems.”

Hobbins’ time at ASU has been busy. He is a research intern sponsored by the National Science Foundation and hosted by the USDA Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry. One of the most significant projects he’s been working on is with the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRN), looking at how to build cities to be more resilient to floods, extreme droughts and heatwaves. The project includes creating visions and scenarios of the future in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Hobbins took all that research and created a visual and interactive tool, Visiones de Ciudad - San Juan 2080.

“This project brought together planners, natural resource managers, scientists and local citizens to co-create these visions of the future. But how do we take that work and put it into a usable and accessible format so that we can implement strategies? I created this tool so we can translate all this great knowledge into action on the ground to build more sustainable futures.”

Hobbins will continue his research in his postdoctoral position at the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University.

“I am truly honored to have studied at the most innovative university in the nation — Arizona State — and am thrilled to be joining the third most innovative university — Georgia State. With their solutions-focused approach to learning and research, innovative interdisciplinary educational programs and global reach, institutions like these give me hope that society will have the knowledge, tools, capacities, and solutions to build more equitable, inclusive and resilient futures for all humanity — the objective of my work”. 

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I didn't know all of the diverse ways that the term resilience can be interpreted. It can be a powerful concept to transform societies and cities or simply be used to maintain the status quo of urban development and authority. I had no idea what knowledge systems were — the institutional routines and practices for creating, sharing and using knowledge. These concepts were completely novel to me but became the focus of my entire PhD. Working on the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRN) project fundamentally changed how I look at problems and my intellectual, scholarly agenda. It has been an incredible opportunity to join that network and be inspired by the faculty, city practitioners and other graduate students involved in it.  

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Professor Nancy Grimm has transformed how I think about things and has supported me in every aspect along the way. She taught me that I don’t have to solve the world’s problems in one publication. You can publish a new conceptual model and then later revise it and publish it again. That’s helped calm my perfectionism. I also learned from Professor Clark Miller. Every time I came to him with a new research idea, even in short conversations, he’s blown my mind with how he looks at a problem from a different perspective. And one of the most phenomenal inspirations in my life has been Adjunct Faculty Tischa Muñoz-Erickson. She was my supervisor on the intern grant from NSF at the Forest Service. She's been a phenomenal mentor. Through their advice and unique mentorship approaches, I’ve learned what it takes to become a better mentor for my future students.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: When I was earning my master’s degree, a PhD student gave me the advice to just keep showing up. He said you're going to think this is too hard and want to quit, but don’t give up. Some days I wanted to, but I just kept pushing forward. Whether you’re doing a dissertation or earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree, it comes down to showing up, being persistent and having the grit to finish. That’s the recipe for success.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, sea-level rise in Miami and the recent fires in California are just a few examples of the many intractable environmental challenges that today's cities face. Rather than blundering onward and continuing to design and build our cities the same way we have always done, we need radical and transformative approaches to make our cities more inclusive, equitable and resilient. We need to co-create positive and desirable future visions that embody our hopes and dreams. These visions will then guide us in selecting alternative approaches and strategies today to steer cities along more sustainable and resilient pathways over time. I would start to fund many of the strategies needed to achieve these positive visions. I would create a resilience incubator in each city to serve as a match-making hub to connect community leaders with technical experts and provide the financial resources to implement the most salient co-developed strategies. Hopefully, the success of the incubator projects will draw more attention and resources to scale them up or fund new projects that align with the vision. In this way, we can move from pure ideas and visions for a more sustainable and resilient future to actually begin transforming the physical nature of our cities. 

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