Social Justice and Agriculture; Jenny Lovell Makes the Connections

The doctoral candidate's professional and educational career brought her to UCSC in pursuit of interdisciplinary solutions.

October 01, 2015


Jenny Lovell, harvesting and threshing rice at the Rice Harvest Festival at the International Rice Research Institute near Phnom Penh in December, 2013. Credit: Jenny Lovell.
Jenny Lovell is a PhD Candidate in the Environmental Studies program at UC Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam, where half of all the rice in Vietnam is produced.
Lovell’s research examines “how water management changes have driven shifts in agricultural production, what physical and social factors limit rice production in the delta, and how male and female farmers make different choices on a household level to adapt to those limitations,” she said.
Her interest in how modified landscapes affect social and environmental interactions began as an undergraduate at Tulane University. “I was lucky enough to take a capstone course that sent our cohort throughout the Mississippi River Basin to explore the socio-ecological system.”
“We learned personal stories of the environmental racism that plague the area, nicknamed ‘cancer alley’ due to the oil refinery impacts on African American community health,” she said. “These experiences sparked an enthusiasm about working to improve environmental quality and marginalized populations that may not have the means to combat larger forces of industrial change.”
After graduating from Tulane, Lovell worked as an environmental project manager, working on various projects, on the local and national level. “Having worked with federal and state agencies, public and private clients, I grew to thoroughly understand the environmental policy landscape in the U.S. and California. “
Pursuing a doctoral degree at UC Santa Cruz, Lovell said, was something she’d thought about for a while. “I had my eye on the UCSC Environmental Studies department for quite some time because of its interdisciplinary approach,” she said. “The program requires a mixture of natural and social science expertise, which I believe is crucial for solving environmental challenges.”
However, her graduate career started at the University of San Francisco, where she earned her Masters of Science degree while working. “I first pursued an advanced degree while I was an environmental consultant because I wanted to challenge myself intellectually. I studied post-disaster recovery in Haiti,” she said, referring to a series of hurricanes and tropical storms that struck the island country in 2008. “I valued that experience greatly, but wanted to expand and deepen my scholastic undertaking.”

Example of a mixed cropping system: flooded rice field (foreground) with fruit trees, stockpiled rice straw for animal feed, and livestock (background). Credit: Jenny Lovell.

Lovell next moved to Thailand, working for an eco-tourism company helping diversify incomes after the 2004 tsunami. She visited a community garden managed by the local youth organization, in Ban Thalai Nok. "The garden was home to a composting system, recycling center, and diverse species of edible and companion species,” she said. “My experience in Thailand inspired my return to academia to incorporate research in sustainable agriculture with my desire for social justice.”
Now as a doctoral candidate at UC Santa Cruz, Lovell is planning for the next next-phase – the post-graduate school life – one that will incorporate her agricultural research and her experiences with social justice. “I am pursuing a PhD so that I can teach at a four-year institution, while continuing to conduct research I feel is valuable to my study system. I hope to incorporate undergraduate education with my field season, training student researchers to be future interdisciplinary researchers.”
“I am passionate about teaching and believe the undergraduate window is an important time in early career and goal development,” Lovell said. “In this way, I can contribute critical thinkers and critical research that work towards solutions to our most pressing food system challenges. “

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