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Journalism Student Completes Thesis on Texas Drought and Wildfire

by Kaci Fowler

Robert Eshelman
Robert Eshelman studied extreme weather events and climate change vulnerability for his thesis project at the Graduate School of Journalism.

“Environmental politics is a part of who I am,” said Robert Eshelman, an aspiring journalist in Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Robert used an Earth Institute travel grant to learn and write about sustainability in his senior thesis. “I am telling stories that will have a true impact on the environment.”

Robert credited his mentor and professor from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program in Health and Science Journalism, Marguerite Holloway, with “bestowing knowledge, expertise and support” regarding his research topic. His thesis, entitled, A Social and Scientific Autopsy of the Texas Drought and Wildfires, explored the ongoing drought in Texas and the wildfires that result. His research also looked at the United States’ vulnerability to environmental changes and the nation’s capacity to adapt to those changes using cutting-edge scientific methods aimed at determining relationships between extreme weather events and climate change.

Traveling to Texas allowed Robert to uncover compelling accounts of human interaction with the environment. “The cultural narratives of the hardened settlers facing landscape changes, and the ways in which they manage their lifestyles through sheer will, are impressive,” Robert reflected.

Uncovering the “texture of people’s lives” made for challenging work. A typical day of reporting for Robert consisted of meeting with foresters, mayors of small towns and ranchers to explore the impact of the drought on living conditions and future recommendations to combat the drought. “It is incredible how people adapt to their environment,” he said. Robert found that the drought raised questions about human interaction in other states, and he is interested in incorporating his thesis into a greater research project in the near future.

Robert described his time with the Earth Institute as a “profound experience that allowed for more divergent reporting.” He found the research opportunity to be a “natural match” for his thesis as it resonated with the Earth Institute’s mission.

After graduating in May, Robert will complete two research fellowships at the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting’s 14th Annual Science Workshop for Journalists: Global Change in Coastal Ecosystems and ClimateWire. At Metcalf, Robert will study the impacts of climate change on coastal communities and will later complete a six-month reporting fellowship at ClimateWire in Washington, D.C.

Kaci Fowler is a student in the Master of Science in Communications Practice program in the School of Continuing Education at Columbia University.

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