Nelson Institute students inspired to join national community science effort

Teaching students how to address challenges like flooding, natural resource conservation, and water quality while also navigating communities’ interests and concerns can’t be fully accomplished in a lecture hall.   

That’s why at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies students join interdisciplinary teams and tackle real-world environmental challenges in partnership with communities. These traits align with the goals of Thriving Earth Earth Exchange–an American Geophysical Union program that advances local solutions to scientific problems–and inspired three people affiliated with the Nelson Institute to join cohorts of community science projects. 

Lindsey Taylor, ’21, and Andrew Aslesen, ’10, are part of the inaugural state-focused cohort launched by Thriving Earth Exchange and supported by UniverCity Alliance and Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities Network (EPIC-N).


“I was drawn to apply to this particular cycle because I thought that the opportunity to be part of a Wisconsin-based project with other Wisconsin fellows and Wisconsin communities was just too special to pass up,” said Taylor, who is working with the City of Ashland as a Community Science Fellow.

Aslesen, a source water specialist with the Wisconsin Rural Water Association, will be a community leader for the City of Abbotsford. 

“When we’re working with communities on protecting their drinking water, we’re always looking for innovative and creative ways to get meaningful action on the ground,” said Aslesen, who received a master’s of science degree in Water Resources Management with an emphasis in Hydrogeology.  

Over the next year, 14 Wisconsin communities, including the City of Ashland and Abbotsford, will work with volunteer project managers (also called Community Science Fellows) based across Wisconsin. 

One aspect of the Community Science Fellow role is to connect the community’s project with technical experts on community-identified challenges related to natural resources, climate change, and natural hazards. Those who are interested in volunteering as a technical expert can view available projects on Thriving Earth Exchange’s website.  

“Community science” is important because it is directly engaging anyone who wants to be involved in science, so it’s not limited to researchers at institutions. It has a special place in my heart—I really care about science, but I didn’t have the desire to be the scientist. Seeing examples and opportunities for community members to be participating in science projects–even if they don’t have a scientific background–is really powerful. —Lindsey Taylor

The Wisconsin cohort illustrates Thriving Earth Exchange’s commitment to being a scientific ally to local communities. 


“The state-based approach is important because it allows fellows and scientists to spend time in the communities they are working with, because it supports community-to-community connections, and because a state-based network is a great bridge between local solutions and national or even global impact,” Thriving Earth Exchange Director Raj Pandya said. 

Pandya said the organization is eager to work with and learn from UW-Madison and perhaps use this first state-based cohort as a model for working with other universities. He said the Nelson Institute understands the “power of community and collaboration” and is “committed to working across boundaries.” 

Nathan Schulfer, director of international and professional programs for the Nelson Institute, said Nelson “emphasizes people in all its work, from degree programs to community outreach.” This includes courses that partner with communities through UniverCity Alliance, which is a program on campus that connects Wisconsin local governments with resources to solve community-identified challenges.

“By extending coursework outside of the classroom, working on real world problems, it gives our students the experiences they need to succeed in these spaces once they graduate,” Schulfer said.

Schulfer said it is not surprising that the Thriving Earth Exchange is working with Wisconsin for the first state-based cohort. 

“For thousands of years, people living on the land we now call Wisconsin have cared deeply about our environment,” Schulfer said. “In our professional master’s of science programs alone we’ve graduated many dedicated and thoughtful conservation students from Wisconsin who recognize that meaningful change most often starts right here at home.”  

Interdisciplinary approach

In a separate cohort that launched in February, current Nelson PhD student Ciaran Gallagher is working as a Community Science Fellow. Gallagher is studying the intersection of climate change, air quality, public health, and environmental justice.  

“I wanted to engage with communities in a really meaningful way,” said Gallagher who is paired with a volunteer advocacy coalition focused on ending lead poisoning in Cleveland, Ohio called Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH).  

Gallagher, Taylor, and Aslesen were drawn to the Nelson Institute’s programs, in part, for the institute’s dedication to interdisciplinary learning and scholarship that aim to address societal problems related to the environment and sustainability. 

This trait makes Nelson Institute students, both graduates and current scholars, a natural fit for the Thriving Earth Exchange Program. Paul Robbins, the dean of the Nelson Institute, said students want to solve problems for communities. 

For me, “community science” begins with community priorities … to begin with community priorities and then end with community impact. Figuring out what is the deliverable and how is this project going to make a change in their community that’s meaningful. It’s working together with members of the community, even them driving the questions that are being asked. —Ciaran Gallagher

“I’ve never seen a generation so committed to solving challenges,” Robbins said. “Nelson students–all double-majors–are required to graduate with a capstone experience about the planet’s future. They are naturally drawn to local problems and to public service in Wisconsin.”

“It’s at their core already,” Robbins said.

Taylor, who works as a Conservation Programs Coordinator at the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, said she was drawn to the Environmental Conservation master’s program because it is not a thesis- or a research-based program and focuses on interdisciplinary learning, professional development, and leadership. 

Learning skills like project management, facilitation and active listening during her degree’s required capstone project translated well into her work with the Natural Resources Foundation and with Thriving Earth Exchange.  

“My program has fully prepared me to engage with partners, successfully facilitate meetings, and guide the project toward success,” Taylor said.

For Gallagher, pursuing a program that is positioned to impart transferable skills to work on environmental programs was important because she knows she wants to pursue jobs outside of academia. Gallagher was primarily drawn to the Nelson Institute for the mentorship opportunities under Professor Tracey Holloway and the Energy Analysis and Policy (EAP) graduate certificate program in the Nelson Institute. 

Gallagher said the Nelson Institute has cemented her position as an interdisciplinary thinker, which has helped her as a Community Science Fellow. For example, though the project she is paired with through Thriving Earth Exchange requires qualitative skills outside of her expertise, Gallagher is able to connect across disciplines. 


“Despite that lack of practitioner expertise, I’m able to engage on the scientific questions, figure out what type of scientists we need and what type of questions we want to ask alongside the community,” Gallagher said. “Since I’m also not just a hard scientist who only knows how to talk about science, I like to think that I am able to be an effective communicator.”  

I think “community science” when I hear of having the community be involved and take some ownership in the project. I don’t necessarily want to be the one to go into the community and say, ‘This is what you need to do to fix it.’ We’re there to help provide technical expertise and guidance and help measure and monitor. In community science, you have the community coming up with the solution. —Andrew Aslesen

Aslesen emphasized the value of the Nelson Institute connecting different scientific disciplines and people across a variety of fields to consider solutions to problems. 

“That’s a really important way of doing science,” Aslesen said, “having people with different perspectives and different scientific expertise coming together. That’s definitely something we learned at the Nelson Institute.” 

This story was originally published in The Commons, a publication of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Read the full July edition, and view the web version or previous editions from the “News” tab on the Nelson Institute website.

—By Abigail Becker