New Penn Global program fosters ethical research around the world

The first student cohort of the Penn Global Research Institute piloted the program this summer in the Galápagos.

Ernesto Vaca and Victoria Moffit sit and smile by the water
As part of the pilot program for PGRI, Penn students like Victoria Moffitt (right) conducted research in the Galápagos with GERA, a research organization co-led by Ernesto Vaca (left). (Image: Victoria Moffitt)

The Galápagos Islands off the coast of mainland Ecuador are home to a long legacy of scientific research. The archipelago’s rich biodiversity inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and its unique wildlife continue to draw researchers from around the world.

But from the perspective of the islands’ residents, scientific institutions have rarely fostered a sense of trust or collaboration. “Science in the Galápagos has traditionally been exclusionary,” says Maddie Tilyou, lab manager for the Galapagos Education and Research Alliance (GERA) and 2019 Penn alumni. “Foreign researchers come in, extract their data, and publish it in English behind a paywall.”

To help reverse that pattern, Michael Weisberg, professor of philosophy at Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences; Deena Weisberg of Villanova University; and Galapagos resident and naturalist guide Ernesto Vaca established GERA, a social ecology lab that emphasizes partnership with the local community. Its mission is to promote ecological and scientific understanding in the Galápagos.

Now, Penn Global is collaborating with GERA to pilot the Penn Global Research Institutes (PGRI), a new initiative that prioritizes long-term, community-driven research around the world. Four undergraduate students and two Master’s of Public Health students formed the program’s first cohort, venturing to the Galápagos this summer to carry out research projects based around the needs of the local community.

A student’s commitment to the program spans the entire year, with the spring dedicated to planning, the summer to research, and the fall to data analysis and presentation. While student research topics for the PGRI’s first iteration varied from engineering to education, a shared focus was the impact that climate change would have on San Cristóbal, the easternmost island of the Galápagos archipelago. Climate change threatens not only the island’s wildlife but also its infrastructure and the health of its residents.

Mapping extreme weather

In 1983, San Cristóbal faced a season of unrelenting rains that residents remember vividly, decades later. Shifting water temperatures and El Niño wind currents spurred storms, floods, and ecological tumult. Models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest that temperatures and precipitation levels will continue to rise in the Pacific Ocean surrounding the Galápagos, which will make extreme weather events like the 1983 El Niño floods even more common.

Third-year student Lía Enríquez wanted to document how San Cristóbal withstood extreme weather events, hoping the weather of the past could offer hints for the future. She says the IPCC models provide a general prediction of what may happen on the island, “but what the community’s knowledge can tell us is what that is actually going to look like on the ground.”

A portrait of a seal at the beach
As part of the PGRI program, students are studying the effects of climate change, which threatens both wildlife and humans living in the Galápagos. (Image: Victoria Moffitt)

Enríquez, an environmental studies major from Ecuador, conducted interviews with island residents to learn how and where extreme weather impacted San Cristóbal, down to the specific roads that flooded and the services that failed. She then used software to map points of concern in future extreme weather events.

Her project, called LAVA-Clima, revealed patterns in how extreme rainfall affected the island. Enríquez learned that in 1983, as well as the similarly stormy years of 1997 and 1998, heavy rainfall flooded the canals that flow from the island’s central higher elevations down to the sea-level coastline. While regulations prohibit residences built too close to these canals, the rules are often ignored. Enríquez identified these houses as being at major risk in future flood years.

Though climate change jeopardizes infrastructure on San Cristóbal, Enríquez also found that the island had “community systems of support for extreme weather events,” even though they weren’t “formally institutionalized,” she says. She hopes that her results will help the community have a clearer picture of how climate change may affect them in the future and adapt ahead of time.

Studying climate anxiety

Stress over the future effects of climate change can lead to climate anxiety, a mental health condition that can stoke feelings of worry, helplessness, and fear. Previous research has shown that children and youth in particular are vulnerable to climate anxiety, with nearly 60% of survey respondents aged 16 to 25 saying they felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” about the future of the climate.

Victoria Moffitt, an MD-MPH graduate student, used her PGRI project to explore how youth in the Galápagos felt about climate change. In a previous summer research project through GERA, Moffitt had conducted a needs assessment with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Health and found that mental health was a major public health concern. However, the impact of climate change on Galapagueño children’s mental health had never been studied. “We weren't sure if the children even were aware of the threats that climate change would be posing to their island,” says Moffitt.

To see how youth in San Cristóbal were responding to the threat of climate change, Moffitt gave participants aged 7 to 17 a blank sheet of paper and asked them to draw what they thought the island would look like in 100 years.

She found that a majority of the children drew negative depictions of the island’s future. Their drawings showed San Cristóbal covered in litter and garbage, with missing or crossed out animals, and even abandoned towns. While some children drew positive interpretations of the island’s future, illustrating volunteer trash collectors and garbage-cleaning drones, it was clear that climate change loomed heavy in the minds of San Cristóbal’s youth.

The members of GERA pose for a group photo by the ocean
Four undergraduate and six graduate students conducted research with Penn faculty and Galápagos locals this summer. From left to right: Michael Weisberg, Maddie Tilyou, Ernesto Vaca, Darby Gallagher, Victoria Moffitt, Lia Enriquez, Arnav Lal, Noah Rubin, and Melissa Nong. (Image courtesy of Maddie Tilyou)

“Even if the children don’t have a perfect understanding of what climate change is, they’re definitely experiencing concerns and, at the very least, a negative perception of what the future of their home is going to look like,” says Moffitt.

Enduring research

The first PGRI cohort will continue to analyze their data and report their conclusions through the fall semester. They’re also laying the groundwork for their projects to continue with future students and residents of the island.

While PGRI will continue to evolve, its commitment to the community will be a constant. “We didn’t want this to be something where Penn faculty and students swoop in and swoop out of a location,” says Laurie Jensen, associate director of Penn Abroad. “A really important piece of PGRI is that it sustains engagement with the community over several years.” PGRI will return to San Cristóbal with GERA for the next two years, with the hope of establishing a long-term commitment after that.

According to Enríquez, a local pastor is carrying on her extreme weather project. “He has contacts in every single neighborhood in the town, and he’s trying to get as much engagement as possible,” she says. “He’s getting a lot off the ground right now.”

Moffitt says she plans to use her results to design school programs about climate change for students in San Cristóbal. Her participants’ drawings revealed that many children conflated climate change with littering, so she hopes to partner with local teachers to address those knowledge gaps. When it comes to helping children deal with their climate anxiety, Moffitt says she wants to encourage art therapy and project-based learning activities that will let students “express their perspective on climate change, instead of leaving it as something that’s brushed under the rug.”

Students and faculty who are interested in joining PGRI can learn more and join the mailing list at Opportunities for Summer 2023 will be announced soon.