Research & Teaching In Action

Check out the UMass Geography highlights on pages 5 to 8 of the 2019 Geosciences Newsletter here.

ISSR Current Scholars 2020-2021

Dr. Eric Thomas, talks research and first semester at UMass

AMHERST, MA – Trained as an environmental anthropologist and ethnographic researcher, Eric Thomas has used his wealth of knowledge about the environment to transform UMass’s geography program as he takes on a new role. 

With a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Thomas has come back to the Northeast to inspire students and get them hooked on the topics of sustainability, globalization, food systems, aquaculture, and environmental decision making. 

Invited by UMass’s Department of Environmental Conservation during our Fall remote semesters, Thomas has taught a course on environmental decision making and a directive readings course in political ecology for the Geography department. 

This Spring, Thomas is currently teaching “Sustainable Food Systems,” which looks at food production, consumption and sustainability from an environmental anthropology perspective. His focus for this course is diving deep into asking what does sustainability really mean and to whom. 

“My students have done an outstanding job in adapting to remote learning… their professionalism is so great, along with the work that they are willing to put in even though we’re not all in the same place. It’s been a pleasure working with students who are so adaptable,” He says. 

But outside of the Pioneer Valley, Thomas has often taken his work below the equator to Chile. In Chilean Patagonia coasts, Thomas has spent five years documenting the relationship between industrial aquaculture, specifically in salmon farming, and its relationship with the local white/mestizo population. Thomas looks to understand how locals are impacted by this industry both economically and ecologically. 

“When I was doing my undergraduate studies, I had a background in French and researched in West Africa…but I wanted to do comparative research in a variety of post-colonial contexts. I went to Santiago to teach myself Spanish because I knew that I wanted to look into the community’s similarities and differences in handling their colonial contexts. While I was down there, there were big protests and media coverage about the coast concerning ecotourism, aquaculture, and fish farms. They were trying to figure out the future of the region.” 

Thomas expresses that he often goes back to Chile after graduate school and conducts projects that further assimilate himself into Chilean culture as he helps the community understand aquaculture production.

Thomas believes that his unique ethnographic research has helped him spark passion in his students. He expresses that he is excited to continue that spark across campus during his new routine at UMass. 

Dr. Thomas is a lecturer in the department of Environmental Conservation and Geosciences at UMass Amherst. He is an environmental anthropologist whose research applies a critical development perspective to contemporary state and capitalist projects along remote resource frontiers. For the past five years he has conducted ethnographic fieldwork on the coast of Chilean Patagonia, where a series of harmful algal blooms have resulted in the closure of fisheries and mass mortality events at local salmon farms. In the wake of these disasters, his work examines the relationship between industrial aquaculture and artisanal fishing in remote coastal communities as well as the long-term sustainability of these sectors of the coastal economy. His methods include participant observation, career histories, participatory mapping, surveys, and semi-structured interviews

Dr. Britt Crow-Miller, Co-founder of ‘City Wild’ is bringing new sustainability to UMass

Amherst, MA – Senior lecturer of Geo-sciences and Environmental Conservation Dr. Britt Crow-Miller, has virtually taken UMass Amherst by storm with her joint graduate and undergraduate classes. 

It’s nice to be back teaching about the things that I am most excited about, which are at the intersection of environmental issues and social-political issues,” said Crow-Miller. 

Previously teaching at Arizona State University, Dr. Crow-Miller is now finishing her first remote semester with UMass’s Geography department. 

She says that this Fall semester has been great for her, “I’ve already had years of experience with online teaching, but I think my students [this semester] have been very adaptable and flexible as much as they can. I’ve been running my classes synchronously, and everyone has been so eager to talk and participate – so that’s really nice.” 

“I haven’t met any of my colleagues face to face yet… I’m not even sure where my office is on campus, I haven’t been in any of the buildings. So it’s a strange time to start a new position but I have managed to make connections with students and faculty members – especially my students, they help me feel grounded at UMass,” she continues. 

Dr. Crow-Miller says that she was drawn to UMass because of the excitement that the CNS staff has shown her, as she discussed her plans to integrate ‘City Wild’ into her teachings. 

City Wild’ is an “environmental non-profit organization aimed at inspiring curiosity about the natural world through hands-on learning for kids and families,” co-founded by Dr. Crow Miller as a transformation from her previous work.

“In the last several years, I have moved away from my active research on water politics in China. I have transitioned to a community-level focus on sustainability issues, leading me to create a non-profit called ‘City Wild’ that was originally based in Portland. The idea was to create opportunities for kids and families to connect with nature in the spaces around them.” 

She elaborates that the organization has allowed her to bring the love of sustainability back to the local underrepresented communities, whereas, it has often been outsourced to other nations. Her goal for this non-profit is to help people to recognize the beauty in the wilderness.

“I think it’s really important for people to recognize the opportunities to make a connection [with nature] no matter where they are, even if you’re in an urban setting – you can still explore city parks to learn about the species around you, and how humans fit into that bigger picture,” she said. 

This “bigger picture” is being brought to the Amherst community in Summer 2021 through the City Wild’s mobile sustainability classroom. These community courses will be taught by  Dr. Crow-Miller on a renovated vintage airstream trailer with COVID-19 preparations in mind. 

“The plan right now is to have some programming this summer, so we’re [myself and two students] going to start honing in on connections this Spring and soon have it up and running  – but the bus is currently in Oregon,” she says. 

With her passion set on renovating the connotation of sustainability in the Amherst community through her courses and research with City Wild, Dr. Crow-Miller is excited to join UMass; and she is looking forward to meeting everyone face to face soon. 

Dr. Britt Crow-Miller is a Senior Lecturer in the Departments of Environmental Conservation and Geosciences at UMass Amherst. Her academic research is focused on environmental politics, sustainability, global development, and water resource management in China and cities of the Western U.S. In 2018, Britt founded CityWild, a nonprofit organization with the mission of inspiring curiosity about nature through fun, exploration, and hands-on learning for kids and families, including those in underserved communities. The foundation of CityWild was laid in Portland, Oregon, and the organization relocated with Britt to New England in 2020.

By Le Tran

 A New Era for Computing and GIS: Hour of Cyber Infrastructure

Forrest Bowlick, Director of the MS-Geography program in Geospatial Information Science and Technology (GIST) and Lecturer in GIST, says one of the new projects he is currently most excited about Hour of Cyber Infrastructure. Hour of Cyber Infrastructure is an educational project geared towards developing new methods for people to learn about cyber infrastructure. What is cyber infrastructure? Cyber Infrastructure are the tools, technologies, and physical hardware that make up digital communications. Hour of Cyber Infrastructure merges computer programming and GIS to build on interconnecting ideas. Forrest and his colleagues are working on putting together strategic learning materials. This project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). While they have a number of draft lessons, they are about to pilot their first lesson. Within these lessons, there are lots of questions and central ideas squeezed into 1-hour time slots. This project is specifically designed for people who are interested in GIS and/or computation, and acts as a bridge to connect and intertwine the two. Not only is this information useful to any data-intensive job, it is also covers a variety of different fields such as agriculture and homeland security. Cyber Infrastructure is becoming increasingly present in all fields, and will become more of a necessity in the coming years. Forrest specifically finds this exciting because it is about the intersection of different domains and ideas for educational materials. Eric Shook, a geographer and computational scientist at the University of Minnesota, is the Principal Investigator for this project. Karen Kemp of USC Dornsife, Anand Padmanabhan of the University of Illinois, and Forrest, are all Co-Principal Investigators. Fritz Vandover and Coleman Shepard also contribute to this project, making a team of six. Forrest Bowlick, along with six others, are working on their website This idea originated from a paper the creators published years ago about GIS and computing. Check out their website,, for lessons and additional materials to help you learn more about cyber infrastructure. Forrest is a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Forrest also leads the graduate program for a Master’s in GIST. Before becoming a lecturer at UMass, he studied GIS at the University of Northern Colorado, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography. He continued his education at the University of Idaho (M.S., Geography), and Texas A&M University (PhD, Geography).  Kelsie Butler, 11/09/19, based on interview with Forrest on 10/09/2019.