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

December 2, 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.  Robert Hobbins Robert Hobbins Download Full Image

“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. 

Ashley Richards

Communications Specialist , School for the Future of Innovation in Society


Film student earns degree, learns to navigate life as an Uber driver

December 2, 2020

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

When Christian Sherman transferred to Arizona State University from a community college in southern California, she didn’t know what to expect. She had been treading water in her job at a small-town Starbucks. She loved her coffee, but she had bigger dreams: She wanted to work in film, and she wanted to experience everything. Courtesy photo of graduating ASU student Christian Sherman. Christian Sherman. Download Full Image

“I want to travel the world,” she said. “I think there is so much beauty and I want to see it all.”

Sherman was introduced to ASU through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan. She enrolled in the university’s film program and her life began to take shape.

Of course, there were twists and turns in her plan. When she got involved in several film productions, Sherman needed more flexibility in her schedule. So, she left Starbucks and began driving for Uber. She also relocated to the Phoenix area.

“I think Uber-driving really helped me learn the city of Phoenix,” she said. “I absolutely love the Scottsdale and Tempe area. Also the sunsets are amazing.”

In addition to the scenery, Sherman enjoyed the “schmoozing” opportunities that arose from interacting with her passengers. “I came into contact with some amazing people — even some who had watched films I had worked on,” she said. “I met retired producers and actors while Uber-driving so it was an amazing way to network and just spend the day talking to great people.”

The past year has not been without its challenges, including moving again – this time to Texas to help her mother – as well as dealing with COVID-19 in her family, but Sherman has stayed focused and relentlessly optimistic. This fall, she is completing her BA in film and media studies through ASU Online.

As for what’s next? “I am currently working on a feature script,” she said. “So look out for anything with my name on it!”

Sherman shared a bit more about her career plans and her drive to succeed in an interview for ASU Now.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I would have to say my “aha” moment happened when I worked on my first TV series. It was shot in the middle of the Mojave Desert and it was about 115 degrees outside. All of the cast was covered from head to toe in dirt and we were sitting in a gutted-out airplane. The plane was extremely hot and even had controlled fires set all over it. I remember jumping out of this plane onto a huge slide and then the rest of the shoot was us laying in the dirt on tarps from sunup to sundown. I just remember everyone complaining about the heat and not wanting to show up the next day and I was like, “This is the best thing ever!” I was so amazed by everything going on around me, and I knew this was where I wanted to be.

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

A: I think moving to Arizona from a small town in itself was a huge learning experience, from driving in a city to realizing that there are more jobs in the world than being a teacher, doctor, etc. I was shocked that there were these huge buildings with thousands of people working in them, in careers I had never even heard of. That’s small-town living for you! I also think my mind was opened to the struggles all different people go through, from cultures to race to homelessness. Many of those things I really was not privy to before and seeing the struggles outside my little fish bowl really made me aware and a more compassionate person. I am always searching for a way to do more and learn more.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I actually worked for Starbucks and working there led me to ASU. However, at the time I had many film projects come up and decided I needed something more flexible so I started driving for Uber so anytime a project came my way I could drop what I was doing and go. It was the best thing I could have done. It allowed me to meet great people and really hone in on my craft in the film industry. Although I definitely miss making my hazelnut mocha with soy every morning.

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

A: I definitely have had some amazing professors, especially during COVID. I have had extremely helpful professors such as (New American Film School faculty) Chris Chandler, (religious studies Instructor) Doe Daughtrey, and (Arabic and linguistics Instructor) Umar Sulayman,  just to name a few. All my professors have offered extra time for video chats and help with any of the students’ questions. They have all been really great! I think, though, my screenwriting professors have been my most influential to my career, because I really grew as a writer and was encouraged to submit my work and follow a career in screenwriting for a major TV series. So I would especially like to thank Hesser, Osbourne and Winters for making me a more confident writer and teaching me different ways of creating enjoyable content. I also want to thank my adviser Linda Sullivan because she has been my greatest advocate next to my fiancé. She is an amazing person and I was truly honored to have worked with her over the years through my schooling.

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

A: The best piece of advice I have would be to keep going no matter how hard it gets. You are not alone, you can do anything you set your mind to! It’s OK to change your mind and if you're passionate about it, do it, don’t let others discourage you from your dreams. YOU GOT THIS!!! Oh and if you need that extra cup of coffee, go ahead and drink it!

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: My most favorite place to study would be in front of the fireplace with instrumental music, a great smelling candle, and a cup of hot chocolate in my favorite motivational cup. Also, I am an online student so I had to create an environment at home that felt perfect for my studies.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Due to COVID, some things have been temporarily put on hold. I actually am planning on taking an elementary school teaching job and spending time with my younger siblings before they graduate high school next year. So for the next year, I will be in Texas. I actually just arrived last week. Once things go back to normal I have a couple internship opportunities with a couple different production companies all I need to do is pick one. I am really putting the time into thinking which one I will choose because after my internship I will be working for the company and want to make sure I choose the right fit. There are so many great opportunities out there and I am excited to see what the future holds.

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

A: I am passionate about many things for which I could use $40 million dollars, such as protection of wildlife, (reducing) homelessness, and (helping) children in foster care. So I definitely would put the money towards one of those. I think I would probably do my research and figure out which needs the most help and start there. I am very sensitive and emotional when it comes to anything or anyone being in pain or suffering and I think all three things definitely need to be addressed. I think as a society we need to appreciate the world around us and all do our parts to make a difference. Even if you can only help one person, child, or living thing, then you have succeeded. There is a quote I absolutely love and want to leave you with by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children… to leave the world a better place… to know even one life breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Manager, marketing + communications, Department of English