Visiting scholar brings fresh eyes

Siew in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, northwest China

This summer, the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is hosting visiting scholar Tuck Fatt Siew, a postdoctoral researcher at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany, who is exploring ways to integrate ecosystem services valuation into watershed management in China.

Visiting scholars bring fresh perspectives, “positive disruption” to the day-to-day way of seeing and doing, says Lewis Gilbert, IonE’s managing director. Visiting scholars are not paid by the University or IonE but are given desk space and the use of office equipment.

“I’ve worked a lot on water-related ecosystem services and thinking about design and monitoring of payment for watershed services projects, but my work has really been focused in the tropics,” explains Kate Brauman, lead scientist of IonE’s Global Water Assessment and Siew’s sponsor. “Because Tuck Fatt’s project is focused in an arid region, we’ve been able to get into the details of what parts of these projects are general and what are specific. Things like identifying important hydrologic fluxes, and also issues like how water users might be similar or different and have similar or different demands. It’s also been a lot of fun to compare and contrast the theoretical models and ideas we have about ecosystem services,” she says.

We asked Tuck Fatt about about his experience at IonE and the role of visiting scholars in academia, and here’s what he had to say:

How did you become a visiting scholar at the University of Minnesota?

It happened by chance. I got to know Kate when I emailed her for a copy of her paper, Ecosystem Services and River Basin Management. After we’d exchanged a few emails I asked if there was an opportunity to become a visiting scholar with the Institute. And I received a positive answer.

How is your research related to Kate’s work?

I’m involved in a German-Chinese consortium project, sustainable management of river oases along the Tarim River in Xinjiang, northwest China. In this project, I’m working on the integration of ecosystem services into land and water management in the Tarim River Basin using a transdisciplinary research approach. One of my core tasks is to integrate scientific and stakeholder knowledge on land and water management as well as ecosystem services in the area. Therefore, I work very closely with German and Chinese scientists from multiple disciplines and Chinese stakeholders from multiple sectors.

Another main task, which is also my major work focus while I am at IonE, is analyzing ecosystem services trade-offs in the Tarim River Basin using Bayesian network modeling. I apply this model to assess impacts of water and land use, such as irrigation of cotton fields, on ecosystem services and to optimize a bundle of ecosystem services. For Bayesian network modeling, which is a participatory method for transdisciplinary research, we are integrating data and information from various sources including literature, expert knowledge and results from the consortium project.

As you can see, Kate and I are working at different scales and in different focus regions using different approaches. What connects us are the issues related to water and ecosystem services.

What do you hope to learn while you’re here? Who are you interacting with?

I wanted to come here to learn about the approaches and methods used for ecosystem services assessment from different perspectives and continents. By interacting with ecosystem service experts here, I wanted also to improve my Bayesian network model. I know that there are many experts in the office where I am sitting. So far, I’ve talked to a couple of people from the Natural Capital Project and of course Kate, who is a close collaborator. There was also a great opportunity to talk to a Chinese visiting scholar while she was here. At the beginning, I presented my work at two different group meetings which paved the way for further interactions.

I see this visiting scholarship as an exchange program which is not only about improving my research work. Of course I intend to look for further project collaboration as well as to have a joint publication with Kate or others as concrete output of my visit. But I am also very much interested in gaining new perspectives and broadening my horizon with respect to understanding how people work and how life is like here as compared to Germany or Europe. I like to discover the world. And I want to improve my English.

How do you like it here at IonE?

I like the working environment here. I share a room with a Ph.D. student in Frankfurt. Here it’s open, I have a lot of space but can work privately on my computer.

What do you think of the Twin Cities? What have you seen?

I like it very much, it’s very green. I am told I am very much lucky to be here in the summer.

I’ve explored downtown and walked along the river by Nicollet Island. I take the light rail, it’s very convenient to get downtown and to St. Paul. And I went to the Mall of America, which was amazing. There is no big mall like this in Germany. I’ve also been to Minnehaha Park and enjoyed the green surroundings. Lately, I rented a green bike and cycled along the river. And I visited the Mill City Museum and Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I like them very much. I found a Malaysian restaurant and had a dish my mother only makes at Chinese New Year, with cabbage and mushrooms and glass noodles. Buddha something. Also something called poppiah, like spring rolls. It was very authentic. I also joined happy hours and the fireworks on the Fourth of July. That was fun.

Do you have any other plans for the summer?

I have some big trips planned to D.C., Chicago and San Francisco.

Would you recommend the visiting scholar experience to others?

Definitely. IonE is a great place to be at. The working environment with all the facilities is amazing. That’s the place where innovative thinking is promoted and emerging. And people here are very friendly and helpful. Being here, I feel very much integrated to the group. The visiting scholar experience will surely help advance one’s personal and career development.

Banner image: Siew in the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China (photo courtesy of Tuck Fatt Siew).