New Faculty Profile: James Rising

April 15, 2021 Written by Adam Thomas

Could you give a little background about yourself?

I did my undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). When I was there, I started out as an electrical engineering and computer science major but eventually graduated with a degree in philosophy.

As we are talking, I am drinking out of a mug from a program I was in while I was there which was all about undergraduates teaching other undergraduates. So while I was there, I got to create a lot of fun classes and seminars—“Lego Robotics,” “Technology and Culture,” “Grand Unified Theories.”

I did not go back to school until about six years later, after being a software developer for a little while, and then I did my Master’s and Ph.D. at Columbia University. I was part of a Sustainable Development program which actually, Kimberly Oremus [CEOE Assistant Professor] also went through. Since then, I have done a couple of post-docs, and I just came over from a research position in London. 

Could you talk about your post-doc experience?

Coming out of my Ph.D., I did a post-doc at UC Berkeley, as part of an interdisciplinary program there called the Energy and Resources Group (ERG). ERG brings together natural scientists, social scientists, and engineers to think about global problems, and it was a nice break from the tendency for pessimism that I had found in economics.

Then I did a short, 6-month post-doc at the University of Chicago at the Energy Policy Institute, called EPIC. The researchers at EPIC are always looking for a way to help policymakers make better policy, and put a lot of effort into communicating their work outside of academia.

In 2017, I went to London to work on the Grantham Research Institute, which is an institute of climate change and economics. As a research fellow there, I had the opportunity to work on a lot of different issues, like helping the UK government understand unquantified climate risks, working to build a research network around “just transitions,” and teaching 150 students a year about climate change. I also ran a salon on culture and society.

What would you say is your specific research focus?

I have a couple specific research focuses. First, I try to understand the risks of climate change for society. I am particularly interested in how changes in the environment are going to impact agriculture and fisheries and the vulnerable communities that rely on them. 

My other research focus is integrated modeling and the modeling of complex systems. For example, I study and develop a complex model of how water, energy and food interdepend in the United States.

I find ways to bring these two focus areas together often: understanding the risks of climate change usually requires a lot more than just analyzing data. You need to understand adaptation, winners and losers, and what the world might look like in 50 years. For example, I have done a lot of work on the future of coffee under climate change, but every coffee-growing region is different. And they all depend on each other through the global coffee market. To understand the fate of coffee farmers, you need to look at everything together.

You might notice that I do not have any marine schools in my academic and professional experience. But one of the best examples of complex interactions between humans and the environment is fisheries. Fisheries connect the complex food webs under the water with complex social and economic relationships above it, and the whole system is highly sensitive to climate. This is one of the perfect places where climate risks and complex modeling come together. 

How did you get interested in modeling and climate change work? 

Originally, I got interested in this because I wanted to know personally how I should spend my time to make the world a better place. With the world changing rapidly, I had no idea what issues were important and what kinds of solutions actually work. So I had to go back to school and learn more. 

I worry a lot about the fate of the natural world over the course of the next century. Human activity is affecting every corner of the planet, and the only way to save the planet is by solving humanity’s problems at the same time.  We need a way where we can get what we need while the natural world gets what it needs. That is why we need researchers who try to understand both the human world and the natural world. That is why we need to think about complex interactions between these two worlds. Finding solutions when there are complex interactions gets really tough, and we need models to help us by representing that complexity.

What is your favorite part about this type of complex research? 

I love the research process. The biggest surprises in research are not the results from any particular analysis, but the way your perspective changes over the course of a project. Whenever you start out a project, you always imagine that it will be short and easy and you sort of know where it will end up. But you are never right. You always learn so much. You always get a little bit of a hint that the data or the model gives you early on to suggest that you are asking the wrong questions, and you sort of brush it aside, at first. Then it becomes more and more obvious that actually, it is not the data or the model that needs changing, it is your own understanding that needs to become more sophisticated. I just love that process of realization. 

When did you arrive at UD?

I started the position at the beginning of the year but since it has all been under COVID, I actually have not had a chance to spend any time there. One of the things that drew me to UD was just how friendly and engaging all the people here are, and unfortunately, I have only been able to get together with everyone through Zoom. 

What are your impressions of the University and of the School of Marine Science and Policy?

I really appreciate that it is an interdisciplinary school. It is one of the oldest schools that has been trying to bring together natural science and social science, and my sense is that those interactions between disciplines are happening all the time. Whether through formal collaborations, or ideas coming from students, or just random conversations, people are always learning from each other. 

What are you most looking forward to about being at UD? 

I am really looking forward to some new collaborations and being in a place where real on-the-ground science is done. As a social scientist, I do not have many opportunities to interact with people who are going out on boats to actually collect the data that is needed to understand some of the processes that I am concerned about. 

I am also looking forward to spending more time teaching. I find teaching such an exhilarating experience, interacting with students who always have new ideas or different ways of thinking and new energy. So I am excited about interacting with students and in particular, finding students who are excited about some of the same issues that I am. 

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