April 12, 2019

PhD student seeks to build a sustainability community of practice on campus

Alexander Wilkinson addresses world’s greatest challenges through interdisciplinary sustainability research

Are you a faculty member in nursing, arts or engineering? How about business or medicine? Regardless of your faculty or department, your work could be linked to sustainability, as well as other campus faculty who research similar problems, but from a different disciplinary lens.  

These are the connections that Alexander Wilkinson, research analyst on the University of Calgary’s Sustainability Studies team, is trying to identify. How many campus faculty members are conducting sustainability-related research? And, how do we bring them together to promote sustainability research?

In his role, Wilkinson is developing a database so that UCalgary has an inventory of its sustainability-related researchers, providing the ability to build an interdisciplinary sustainability community of practice.

“We want to bring researchers together and be leaders for interdisciplinary sustainability research. Currently I’m cataloguing all sustainability and sustainability-related research being done across campus,” says Wilkinson.

“One of the goals of the Sustainability Studies team is to build a community of practice to push sustainability research forward and bring researchers together who are looking at similar sustainability problems from different disciplinary perspectives. Most of the challenges society faces can’t be solved by one discipline, so we really need to promote interdisciplinary approaches if we’re going to address issues like climate change, food security and environmental degradation.”

Together, a community of practice can tackle applied projects addressing a variety of societal and environmental issues. The database will allow UCalgary to know who is doing what on campus, determine where there is overlap and identify opportunities for researchers to potentially collaborate on sustainability projects.

In addition to the community of practice, Wilkinson also conducts applied sustainability research as a PhD student through UCalgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design. In his PhD, Wilkinson is conducting research on two case studies with a focus on community health and well-being, sustainable development, resilience and capacity development for effective local responses to change.

The first case study is a project in partnership with the Artic Institute of North America (AINA), amongst other external partners. Together, Alex, AINA and external partners are implementing a food security intervention project where they are using a containerized hydroponic system, with a complementary renewable energy system, to sustainably grow fresh produce in rural northern communities.

“One goal of this research is to use hydroponics to provide northern communities with fresh produce all year long,” says Wilkinson. “We’re trying to determine if we can produce food in an off-grid scenario in the middle of winter in the Yukon when it’s -40 degrees and there is only one hour of sunlight.”

The second case study focuses on the effect of water scarcity and climate change on Southern Alberta farmers and ranchers. This study combines local knowledge with ecological, policy and meteorological data to help develop effective responses to change so that farmers, ranchers, and policy-makers can plan for future uncertainties in Southern Alberta’s changing climate.

Through his PhD, Wilkinson hopes to demonstrate the need for interdisciplinary sustainability research and attract other faculty and students to do this type of research. 

“We’re hoping to attract more people to work with us on other applied research projects,” says Wilkinson. “We really want to promote the culture of interdisciplinary research and sustainability across campus and encourage anyone interested in doing this to contact me.”

The University of Calgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a roadmap for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. We aim to become a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in our academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability.