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Holly Beach, Louisiana, after Hurricane Rita (Photo by Win Henderson)
October 26, 2016

UMass Boston PhD Student Earns Fellowship to Study Gulf Coast Resilience


  • Boston

There is no way to entirely avoid disaster. Hurricanes, oil spills, and floods are all risks that Gulf Coast communities must face. Debra Butler, a PhD student in UMass Boston’s College of Management and an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) Fellow, wants to find new ways for these Gulf communities to mitigate the impact of natural and manmade disasters.

Butler is the recipient of a Gulf Coast Research Program Science Policy Fellowship through the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The one-year program offers a $45,000 stipend, mentorship, and professional development opportunities to PhD students and recent graduates. Butler plans to study the coastal communities of the Gulf region and find ways to translate indigenous and local knowledge into public policy action. Butler grew up in Mobile, Alabama, where she came to understand the importance of the coastal ecosystems that surround the city. Her research area will now stretch from Panama City, Florida to Galveston, Texas.

Butler came to UMass Boston to pursue a PhD in organization and social change. She was drawn to UMass Boston’s unique programs and transdisciplinary approach to learning.

“I thought it was interesting that in the management program, scholars can look at organizations as fluid entities,” Butler said.

Butler said she also enjoyed the opportunity to work with her IGERT fellowship cohort, which included students from science, policy, and management backgrounds.

Butler hopes to work with coastal communities to improve their resiliency against “shocks” like natural disasters or oil spills. Her research while at UMass Boston has centered on the communities surrounding Plum Island, and the coastal town of Scituate. She sees parallels between coastal New England communities, Gulf Coast communities, and even coastal communities in the Caribbean.

“I understand the beauty and the draw of being near the water, but is a condo with an oceanfront view the solution?” asked Butler, “We need to look at alternates, like adaptable, mobile structures, and ecotourism.”

Butler hopes that by drawing upon the knowledge and culture of these communities, policymakers can come up with solutions that work for residents and the environment.