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Research Scholar Advocates Move Away From Coasts

Undergraduate publishes essay in prestigious journal

Corinne Colbert
October 1, 2013

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More than 100 million Americans -- about 40 percent of the US population -- live along the nation's coastlines. That number is expected to rise in coming years. So will sea levels, and the number and severity of extreme storms.

Getting entire cities and towns to move away from the sea seems unimaginable both logistically and economically. But, in an essay published in notable journal Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in June, Ohio University senior Alexandra Slaymaker says we must start grappling with the prospect.

"The time will come when many Americans, and humans living on coasts worldwide, will be forced out of their homes by storms, rising sea level, and other effects of climate change," Slaymaker wrote. "Intranational migration will prove far more fluid if citizens and structures move systemically as a managed disaster prevention method, instead of as a forced response to devastation."

Slaymaker was inspired to writer her "Voices of Tomorrow" essay by the effects of Hurricane Katrina (more than 1,800 dead and $81 billion in property damage) and Hurricane Sandy (nearly 300 killed and $65 billion in damage).

"Proper planning can decrease the impact of these disasters, which are increasing in both frequency and intensity," she said. "My article is intended to spark conversations and action to save lives and build a more resilient America."

She knows it will be a difficult conversation. "Asking people to adopt simple lifestyle changes, such as eating less meat or recycling, can sometimes prove a seemingly impossible task because change is scary," she said. "Asking millions to relocate from their homes is an even more controversial topic. I hope articles like mine will challenge regular citizens. policy makers, and industry to really think and talk about the impacts of climate change, and how to best prepare for the undeniably formidable road to come."

Slaymaker has been thinking big on the environment from childhood. A high school research project on the plight of the Amazon Rainforest cemented her interest.

"My naïve perceptions of the world were replaced with a passionate commitment to help improve it," she said.

She's getting her start at Ohio University, where she is working toward a bachelor's degree in environmental planning and policy with a minor in geography and an environmental studies certificate. That led her to the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, where she is an undergraduate research scholar on the Zero Waste Initiative.

Slaymaker has supplemented her classroom education with a variety of research and field work, including an analysis of storm water management in Cleveland and a survey of urban geography. Last summer, she surveyed best practices in composting programs on U.S. college campuses as a research fellow at the Ivy+Sustainability Research Collaborative at Georgetown University.

"Shared findings will help start and improve waste diversion programs in institutions, businesses, and municipalities," she said.

Even Slaymaker's spare time is environmentally focused: She serves on Student Senate's Sustainability Committee, is the treasurer of the campus chapter of EcoReps, and is one of four undergraduates on the university's Ecology and Energy Conservation Committee. And she's had a real impact -- for example, it was from her initiate that university markets no longer use plastic bags.

Slaymaker's high level of campus involvement won her the 2012-13 Rudy Award for Outstanding Student Leadership.

"Her ability to educate others on sustainability efforts and the environment while sparking an interest in them to care about these issues is fascinating," said Tory Rowlands, who nominated Slaymaker for the honor. (Rowlands is residential coordinator for the Boyd-Truedley Complex, where Slaymaker served as a resident assistant.) "Alex finds a way for any individual to relate to the world around them. Her energy and attitude are contagious."

After graduation, Slaymaker plans to pursue graduate studies in urban planning, geography, or environmental politics. Her goal: to make American cities more sustainable, minimize ecological footprints, and prepare them for the effects of climate change.

That's pretty ambitious ... but it's what you'd expect from someone who thinks big for the most personal reasons.

"I want my nephew and all life to to inherit a habitable planet that will provide joy and beauty," Slaymaker said. "I believe it is the duty of all to help make the planet a better place however they can."