People of IonE: Meet Melissa Kenney
Melissa Kenney, IonE’s Associate Director for Knowledge Initiatives, originally hails from the east coast and brings her passion for partnership and policy to the bold north. A past AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, Kenney’s work revolves around multidisciplinary support tools and collaborative decision-making processes methods. She’s an expert at bringing people together to create multidisciplinary research teams, then helping them to contextualize the data and bring it to bear where it matters most.
Her work has led to more than 50 publications, $5M in grant funding, and 100 invited talks and events, including at the National Academies of Sciences and the White House. At IonE, Kenney works alongside faculty, the management team, UMN’s systemwide campuses, and community members to build relationships and synergy across IonE’s broad research portfolio.
Between catalyzing team-based approaches to science and moving her family cross-country, Kenney sat down with us to talk identifying strengths, finding entry points, and transcending boundaries to create powerful collaboration.
Let’s start off with an easy one: What drew you to IonE?
IonE is a really unique and special place. There are very few places in the United States where there’s such a strong cohort of diverse experts on sustainability issues who are all working toward not just understanding what the problem is, but also figuring out the solutions that can help us to live more sustainably. Being able to direct a research portfolio that is really focused on making the world a better place is kind of the dream.
You’ve worked both inside and outside of academia. What do you think is the best part of working in a University system?
I love the freedom and independence that comes with being at a University. One of the things I learned while working in government is that one of the unique roles experts at universities can play is being an independent voice – providing strong evidence for both understanding the problem and the solution. That dual role means we’re not just describing the doom and gloom of environmental problems, but also exploring which solutions might be best in different places given different people’s goals and values. In this, I think there is a real opportunity for universities to expand the scope of how they have societal impact versus how they have operated historically.
As the climate crisis becomes something we can no longer ignore, universities can play an increasingly larger role in providing strong evidence and information to help support better decision-making in how we think about and manage our environmental systems. I think that’s one of the most important roles IonE can play as we deploy our strategic plan; being an independent scientific voice that isn’t advocating for one particular solution, that isn’t coming at things from one particular perspective, but is really trying to make sure that strong scientific information and strong evidence is being brought to the conversation.
And a team dedicated to Knowledge Initiatives – which you are leading – sounds like it would fit into that perfectly.
Yes. A lot of research at universities is done in a very individualistic way. I think the real strength of IonE is valuing our collective effort instead of just our individual effort. If we’re going to make a really big difference, if we’re really going to shift the needle on these issues, it’s not going to be just individual voices, it’s how we bring people together in a choir so that we have a much louder voice together than we do individually.
Have you always been interested in sustainability, or is that something that’s developed as you’ve gone along your career?
Just like most doe-eyed teenagers, I always had a very strong interest in working on environmental problems. I remember writing my college essay — probably like many other teenagers — it started: I want to save the world. I didn’t know exactly what that meant then, but I feel like now I’m getting an opportunity to do it. So yes, I’ve always had an interest in sustainability. When I got to college, all I wanted to do was take environmental science classes, and it seemed so clear to me that if that information was going to be used, you had to think about the people. Getting more involved on the decision-making side, I went straight into the Ph.D. program at Duke University to work on improving water quality in the U.S. and how we set standards. Because environmental standards are not just set based off scientific evidence; there are societal goals that come into play about what’s an acceptable level of pollution, what we’re willing to put up with, given that we also want cities, and we want people, and we can’t have pre-Columbian conditions in lots of places in the United States.
It was fun to think about those things very explicitly. I know not everyone feels comfortable talking about it in these ways because they feel like it might be compromising some level of environmental integrity that we might want to achieve. For me, I think if we’re not talking about it explicitly, we’re not being realistic about how we need to be managing our environmental systems, given that we have lots of goals that we’re trying to achieve in our communities. That’s the heart of what I do in my research. I think about how we can improve the way that environmental decisions are made by both public and private sector organizations by improving the evidence that is provided to inform those decisions.
You mentioned that as a high school student you wanted to change the world, but weren’t quite sure how to go about doing it. I’m guessing a lot of students can relate to this. What would your advice be for an up-and-comer in the field?
One, think about those goals that you’re trying to achieve and some of the solutions, because just focusing on the problems can get a little bit overwhelming. And, two, you can’t do everything.
I think it’s really important to pick what you’re good at; some people really like to focus on particular problems, like climate change or safe drinking water, and other people like to focus on methods, like ways that people can make smarter choices, improving our understanding of environmental systems, or assessing the impact of different types of interventions. What I’ve learned within IonE is that we need everyone at the table if we’re going to be really working on these problems in a meaningful way. You can’t be good at everything, but you can be part of a team where you can add something unique and collectively can have a big impact.
You moved from Washington D.C. to Minnesota for this position! What excites you most about this transition?
I’ve only lived on the East Coast — not for lack of trying! — but the opportunities have always been on the East Coast for me, and so I’m really excited to be living in the Midwest. I love the people and the networks here; I think there’s a lot of opportunity to do really great things. One of the first things I did when I joined the Institute was set up a Google doc where people could tell me the restaurants I had to try and their favorite things to do in Minnesota in different seasons. So I have, like, three years of restaurants and fun things to do, which put another way is really a chance to get to know why everyone thinks this place is so special. So I’m looking forward to being a resident who is a tourist for a little while, who gets to explore the place that they live. And I’m particularly looking forward to exploring not just all of the great things happening in the Twin Cities area where I’ll be living, but also the special things at the other campuses that are affiliated with IonE.
What is the single biggest opportunity you see for IonE moving forward?
One of the things that I think is most exciting is that our scientists can collaborate with Communications and Leadership & Education and the EM-Lab teams and really think strategically about how we amplify the work and impact that we’re having together.
I think the other strong piece that we’re bringing, from a research perspective, is that I can think of very few cases where people within IonE are doing research that is only inside the University. I’m going through my list in my head, and every single research project that I’m thinking of, we have partners who are NGOs, we have industry partners, we are collaborating with federal and state agencies, we have utility providers — we have so many partners who are a part of this effort. And we really think strategically about how we can bring people together to work on these problems collectively. Because it’s not just one group that’s going to solve it; it’s really got to be a team effort where everyone’s at the table and everyone’s working together. And that is why I’m particularly excited about our Impact Goals, and the work that we’re doing related to carbon neutrality, sustainable land use, and safe drinking water in Minnesota. That work really embodies the way that IonE thinks about how it engages with our collective community to think about the kind of science that’s needed to achieve those high level goals.
You mentioned your research — do you have advice for scientists hoping to make theirs as relevant as possible?
The thing I’ve learned in working with communities and working in the federal government is that you can have highly relevant scientific information, you can have something that is groundbreaking, but people just don’t read peer-reviewed publications.
It’s critical to know the entry points where that information can make a difference and how you can get that science to the table when people are making decisions. It’s about figuring out how to bring science to bear when it’s important and relevant, and contextualizing the science so it’s meaningful to the decisions and understood by the people making them, who typically are not scientists within your disciplinary community.
That’s where I think there are opportunities to increase the impact of the work that we’re doing at universities. We need to get our science out of the Ivory Tower if we’re going to achieve our collective goals.
What’s something someone wouldn’t know about you?
I’m a foodie, so I really love both trying new restaurants and cooking and hosting dinner parties. I just love being able to get together with people where we can dive into topics in a much deeper way than we can when we’re just passing in the hallway or running into each other at events. There’s nothing that I enjoy more than having conversations about what we would do if we could wave a magic wand and solve various problems, because the best ideas usually emerge as a result of good company,a great bottle of wine, and excellently prepared food!
Grace Becker is the Communications Associate at the Institute on the Environment and an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, where she studies strategic communication, sustainability studies, and Spanish.