How to Ask for Help: the Fulbright Research Files

First, a little background about just what it is that I am doing as a Fulbright researcher in Baja California. I study the impacts of climate change on the coasts of Latin America from both a scientific and human perspective. Stories and personal experiences of living on the coast are not used by the scientific community to build more robust climate solutions, nor is scientific information transferred in a digestible way to the people who are most impacted by climate change. I suspect that the stories of how coastal people adapt can provide both mitigation and adaptation solutions to climate change that are not revealed in the numbers. Both data and stories together give us a better picture of how to adapt, how to influence politics when you are the little guy or gal, and where and how these solutions could be transferable.

Don Chayo on his rancho bordering the Bahía de La Paz.

Don Chayo on his rancho bordering Bahía de La Paz. Understanding how he survives could help others do the same.

For the first part of my research, I use a bunch of data to make a map of the coast that shows social vulnerability to the hazards of sea level rise. Using the InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs) model and ArcGIS (Geographic Information System) software, I can integrate information about the physical makeup of the coasts with information about natural habitat such as mangroves and coral reefs. The map also includes social data, like age and income, or whether or not a household has a tile or dirt floor. I can then understand which coastal communities coastal people are most vulnerable to storm surge, inundation, and erosion. The final product is a map outlining the coast that uses red to show the areas that will take the biggest beating as storms become more powerful and sea level creeps higher, bringing bigger tides and waters that don’t recede.

Boats in the wake of Hurricane Odile, September 2014. The was the most powerful storm to hit the Baja peninsula in 50 years.

Boats in the wake of Hurricane Odile, September 2014. The was the most powerful storm to hit the Baja peninsula in 50 years.

What this means in action: I spend countless frustrating hours pouring through governmental, non-profit, and academic papers and websites search for free, publicly-available data. When I actually find data, I then have to wrangle it into the proper format, then stare in disbelief as, once again, I have transposed México onto Greenland.

So, México. When acquiring scientific data in the US, I start my search with friends and colleagues and ask for their recommendations, then send out emails to distant researchers.  Remarkably, most reply and send me in the right direction to find the data I need.

I have sent these emails in México, but the replies have been limited. The culture of being glued to one’s computer has not seeped entirely into the researcher ethos here. In addition, there are websites with national, downloadable data, but because I am unfamiliar with searching these sites, I had not successfully found the data I needed. Finally, the ethic of data sharing varies widely with researchers and institutions worldwide. Sometimes people don’t want to, or cannot, share their hard-earned data.

Nor do I have any idea if the data I want even exists. The Sea of Cortez is extensively studied by Mexican and US institutions. But has someone mapped the entire shoreline, pressing a GPS ‘mark’ button for a sandy beach here, or a rocky beach there? I can read about it and reconstruct it in my mind from John Steinbeck’s 1940 journey in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, but I need data that has an “x” and “y” coordinate so I can plug it into a map.

What happens to the shallow waters, mangroves, and tourism of Playa Balandra as the sea rises?

What happens to the shallow waters, mangroves, and tourism of Playa Balandra as the sea rises?

Here, the value of stories, anecdotes, and observations reach out of the soil like a sprout with roots stretching the globe. Stories can fill in the gaps, ground the data, and illuminate the differences between why one community changes with the tides and another washes away. After I have a vulnerability map, I will interview everyday people living and working on the coasts, as well as researchers, city planners, fishermen, and citizens young and old to understand how some places are more resilient than others when faced with (climate) change.

That's a solar panel powering the outdoor stove and kitchen behind it.

That’s a solar panel powering the outdoor stove and kitchen behind it. Outside of La Paz, Baja California Sur.

But I would still like to find the map-able data if it exists. Suddenly, amid my bleary-eyed internet searches, I stumbled upon…my horoscope.

Now don’t get me wrong, as a scientist, I’m a western-minded eternal skeptic. But I know good advice when I hear it (sometimes.) For the New Year, the planets and stars had this suggestion: Ask for help. From everyone and anyone. Ask everywhere. Ask the lady selling churros on the street, you never know where the knowledge lies. Just stop trying to go it alone.

At first, this message flitted through my mind and I continued to fret in front of my computer screen about my lack of data. But I slowly began to see the resources all around me. I reached out to an organized and brilliant woman whom I suspected might be at UNAM (Universidad Autónoma de México, the academic research leaders in México): she replied immediately and began to help me sleuth for my data. My roommate and sister-from-another-mother, Laura, is part of a network of savvy, powerful, intelligent women who run environmental non-profits and organizations in La Paz. I had not reached out to them specifically for data because they have largely focused on fisheries, yet they were all interested in my research. I could just ask. So I did. I made a specific list of the data I hoped to acquire and clicked “send.” They all replied immediately and enthusiastically. One woman redirected me to a dynamic, genuine researcher at CIBNOR (Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste) who turned out to be the Deep Throat of climate data mining in Mexico: she shared years of knowledge with me in an hour. She walked me through data locations and their idiosyncrasies (for example, always try to download with Windows, not Mac.) None of these people were my original affiliations for my Fulbright, but all I had to do was ask.

Meredith of Niparajá, and Cris and Laura of EDF. Laura doesn't always wear an electric crown, but when she does, she kills it.

Meredith of Niparajá, and Cris and Laura of EDF. Laura doesn’t always wear an electric crown, but when she does, she kills it.

Asking for help/data is about making myself vulnerable and open to failure. So when I stand before this potential failure, what exactly does it look like? No data? But that’s what I already HAVE.

How else could I fail? People could turn their noses up at my research. Yet not only is this unlikely, but I personally believe in the power of combining story and science and have the support of my colleagues, government, and academic institution. How else? People could think I have been moving too slowly to acquire data. But instead, I have met with encouragement, empathy, and recommendations to contact people with a reputation for sharing knowledge.

Ultimately, the people who have opened their minds and databanks want to protect the places and communities they love. They are wise to know that we have to build toward it together. When I put in the effort, especially to meet in person and hear their explanations and tell them about my research, the flood gates blow open. Plus I get to meet remarkable people.

Places worth keeping.

Places worth keeping.

I may still meet obstacles or rejection; in fact, I will. But I have now thrown myself on the altar of assistance. The trick wasn’t just to cast a wider net, but to fish in my backyard with my neighbors. And it is only through practice that I will learn to reach out as a reflex.

So, do you know anyone I should ask for help?

5 Responses to How to Ask for Help: the Fulbright Research Files

  1. Bill January 22, 2015 at 8:42 pm #

    What about the community of cruisers plying the western coast of Mexico? They have charts and GPS units and they’re usually connected via mail or weather or cruiser’s networks? Might they already have information useful to your research, or could they be assembled into an extension of your capabilities?

    • curlyreilly January 22, 2015 at 8:49 pm #

      Bill, brilliant! I have been thinking quite a lot about this, especially for historical buoy, wind, and wave data! I was planning to reach out to buoyweather, sailflow, and GARMIN to see if they will share data. Any suggestions? Were you thinking even sailing forums?? (I love that!)

  2. dreizlin January 23, 2015 at 6:24 am #

    Wonderful piece Jess, please keep sharing!

  3. Dr. Rebecca Hernandez January 23, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

    I like tortles.

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