Kathleen Burns

Kathleen Burns.
Not only have I had the opportunity to meet and learn from a variety of experts ranging from famous atmospheric chemists to former U.S. ambassadors, I also have had the experience of helping build a team of undergraduates, graduates and faculty across an entire year.

Degree

Ph.D. in English

Project Team

In the spring of 2017, my faculty advisor in the English Department reached out to ask me if I was interested in conducting summer research for a Bass Connections team studying “CFCs.” Totally nonplussed, I reached for a dictionary. As I later discovered, CFCs, or “chlorofluorocarbons,” are a unique field of chemicals that were widely used in air conditioners, refrigerators and packing materials until scientists discovered they were depleting the ozone layer. CFCs, as it turns out, were the prime culprits of the ozone hole!

The Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk team, or D-CIPHER for short, planned to bring together faculty and students from the fields of law, science, public policy and the humanities to study the history of these ozone-depleting chemicals in terms of risk and decision-making. While I wielded little knowledge of atmospheric chemistry as an English grad student, the interdisciplinary spirit of the project piqued my interest.

Fueled by my academic and personal drive to bridge the gap between scientists and the larger public, my initial summer position as a research assistant for D-CIPHER has since translated into two years of Bass Connections participation, first as a course manager for the 2017-18 D-CIPHER project on CFCs and ozone and now as a course manager and co-instructor for the team's follow-up 2018-19 project on local case studies of drinking water.

Not only have I had the opportunity to meet and learn from a variety of experts ranging from famous atmospheric chemists to former U.S. ambassadors, I also have had the experience of helping build a team of undergraduates, graduates and faculty across an entire year. By the end of our first year, we had created a small community within the larger university.

For any graduate student who is thinking of joining a Bass Connections project in a membership or leadership role, my advice is to embrace the opportunity even if the project doesn’t overtly align with your current research. If anything, my year learning about ozone depletion has helped shape the topic of my dissertation project more than any other single source at Duke. It revolutionized the way I think about risk, weather, climate – even air conditioning!

Back in the fall of 2017, I actually missed our first ever D-CIHER team meeting. Stranded in Houston because of Hurricane Harvey, I stayed to help my parents weather the storm. As I watched both the news coverage and the rising flood waters approach my parent’s Houston home, I began to think of the hurricane and its aftermath in terms of our Bass Connections project, specifically how we communicate and perceive risk. In this case, I began to contemplate the limits of language in defining floodplains.

Out of sheer luck, my family's house in the 500-year floodplain escaped the flood waters, while those in the neighboring hundred-year floodplain did not. But what does a 500-year floodplain mean exactly? That the area floods once every 500 years or so? Actually, no. It means that the likelihood that our house will flood in any given year is about 0.002, a 0.2% percentage that barely holds meaning let alone water.

As experts now argue, climate change is upending these carefully guarded probabilities, and with it, our ability to communicate their meaning and import. Risk is always a moving target – a lesson I learned throughout the D-CIPHER project as we discovered how the impulse to “solve” or manage risks through technical innovations only gives rise to more and different risks. For example, we studied how ozone-depleting chemicals such as CFCs were phased out, only to be replaced by HFCs, chemicals that were later found to exacerbate global warming.

While rooted in the sciences, our Bass Connections project broke down the technocratic logic that humans can engineer their way out of the globe’s ozone or climate change problem. Over the course of the year, we learned that any kind of shift will require an overhauling of how we think of and thus narrate our climate problem; it will require a coming together of different kinds and types of expertise, of the humanities and the sciences and of traditional as well as nontraditional forms of knowledge. At Duke University, a Bass Connections project is an excellent place to start building these diverse coalitions.