The new geographers: Six faculty hires are driving the future of the field

Angela M. Rogers
September 19, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Six new tenure-line geography faculty started this fall in the Department of Geography, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. They will conduct research on a wide variety of subjects including water, climate change, natural hazards, remote sensing, social networks, data mining, economics, and inequality and diversity.

“The new geographers are bringing in not only their scientific expertise but also experience in using multiple research methods, and a dedication to engaging livelihoods and environments,” said Cynthia Brewer, professor and head of the department. “Their expertise will also be used to create new courses for our students.”

Trevor Birkenholtz joined the department as an associate professor of geography. He is a political ecologist and development geographer with regional interests in South Asia and the United States, empirical interests in water development, and methodological expertise in mixed methods field research.

From his fieldwork and engagement with local stakeholders in a variety of contexts, Birkenholtz has come to see that the biggest threat to a safe and sufficient water supply for all is not scarcity but our current political economic system, as well as the global underfunding and rollback of environmental institutions and regulations.

“Most people in most places are in favor of tighter rules around water protection and management,” Birkenholtz said. “Yet we don’t get them very often or without protest given the influence of big capital on environmental politics. Fortunately, there are many committed people around the world who are working to reverse this trend.”

Panagiotis Giannakis joined the department and the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute as an assistant teaching professor. His research focuses on the relationship between organizational, and physical and social network space.

Giannakis said he has always been interested in issues of equity and justice. Over the past decade, he’s noticed significant changes in workplace attitudes and polices toward LGBTQ concerns.

 “In my research, I am trying to combine the findings and insights derived from social networks analysis and geography to identify how the two planes — network and physical — can affect social networks,” Giannakis said.

Helen Greatrex joined the department as an assistant professor of geography and statistics. Greatrex studies how rainfall is measured and used for decision-making: linking research on rainfall hazards, exposure and vulnerability and impact. She focuses on supporting the design of index-based weather insurance for farmers. 

Greatrex said index insurance now covers millions of farmers around the world, especially across Africa, the United States, India and China, but it is still complicated to find appropriate indices that link weather and farm damages. She works with insurance programs around the world to answer unresolved questions, looking at the spatial statistics of rainfall information and linking them to actual damage or human impact.

“This might include core rainfall research on the best weather statistics to use, or social research on how insurance programs affect farming communities,” she said. “My research spans working directly with farmers across Africa on custom product design, with national meteorological agencies on satellite rainfall uncertainty, and with business leaders on how to model uncertainty.”

Emily Rosenman joined the department as an assistant professor of geography. She is an urban and economic geographer who explores the connections between finance, urbanization and inequality.

“Poverty is often framed as normal in a market-based society,” she said. “While I agree that the presence of poverty is inevitable under capitalism, it is produced by market processes that also benefit from it.”

For this reason, Rosenman prefers the term “impoverishment,” because, she said, “it directs our attention to the social relationships of power and privilege that are actively producing and reproducing geographies of poverty.”

As a political economist, Rosenman studies relationships of power and asks questions about who benefits — and who does not. “Those questions are also deeply geographical, as historical spatialities of investment and disinvestment produce urban space as desirable or not desirable for potential investors,” she said.

Luke Trusel joined the department as an assistant professor of geography. He is an earth system geographer whose research focuses on understanding the impacts of climate variability and change on the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. 

“Because melting will accelerate in a warming climate, there are many areas of science working to address this big question,” he said. “The one I work most closely with is assessing changes to ice sheet surface mass balance, which is the balance between snow accumulation and ice melt. There are fundamental, and surprisingly simple, questions we still have such as ‘How much melt water is being produced on the ice sheets? Where is the water going? How does water impact ice dynamics and stability?’”

Trusel takes a holistic approach to answering those questions by combining different approaches for collecting data: satellite observations, ice cores and climate models.

Manzhu Yu joined the department as an assistant professor of geography. Her research focuses on spatiotemporal theories and applications, atmospheric modeling, environmental analytics, and big data and cloud computing to solve pressing issues in natural hazards and sustainability.

Yu is developing a model to identify especially vulnerable populations.

The core methodology of Yu’s research is spatiotemporal data mining, modeling, analysis and visualization.

“Extreme weather events are intrinsically spatiotemporal and highly dynamic, so to better understand the complex patterns of these events, spatiotemporal methodologies are essential,” Yu said.

Yu has observed that we are experiencing more frequent natural hazards with higher intensity due to climate change. “Patterns demonstrate that the characteristics of natural hazards are changing,” Yu said. “For example, hurricanes are moving more slowly after landfall, dumping more rain on the affected areas and creating more severe floods. Extreme weather events are breaking records at a faster pace, making it harder to use historical statistics to explain and predict future events. Therefore, mitigating the negative impacts of these natural hazards is becoming more challenging.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 23, 2019