Building on his research experience with farmers in Uganda, Guatemala, and the United States, Sean's doctoral work focuses on subsistence agriculture in El Salvador. Collaborating with El Salvadorian local authorities and the Ministry of Environment, Sean uses remote sensing and GIS to shed light on how agriculture can be practiced to improve and protect vital ecosystem services.

Sean Smukler
United States
UBC Public Scholars Award

Research Description

My research in El Salvador is part of a USAID-funded project led by the Earth Institute to investigate and promote sustainable alternatives to degrading slash and burn agriculture. I work at the landscape scale to map trends in ecosystem degradation and model how conservation management could protect and enhance ecosystem services.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

I think being a Public Scholar can mean different things to different people. To me, being a scholar means taking responsibility that the research results I produce are sound, thoroughly investigated, transparent and unbiased. Being a public scholar means focusing my research on issues that are of critical and timely importance to large segments of society – especially those that don’t have the resources to take on those issues themselves. This requires listening to the public and a willingness to incorporate the knowledge and priorities of non-academics into research questions and methods. It also means communicating research results in a way that is accessible to the public and can be incorporated into decisions and policies.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

I think this initiative is a great push toward broadening the way we think about a PhD and the careers that it can lead to. The networking and workshop events proposed by the PSI will provide students with excellent opportunities to interact with people and organizations outside of academic institutions. I think this gives students a chance to explore complementary ways of communicating research results beyond the traditional scientific publication. The financial support and official recognition by UBC of pursuing public-centered research should also give students the flexibility to formally include alternative products in their dissertation.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

I have a strong interest in working in government, industry or the non-profit sectors. Much of my PhD work concerns managing large spatial data sets and making that data available to the public in an open, accessible and interactive way. I think there is an increasing interest from all three of these sectors not only in utilizing spatial data but engaging the public by making it interactive and visually pleasing.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

I have been engaging with the larger community at several levels. Working directly with farmers, I’ve been collaborating with the University of El Salvador to set up some on-farm trials to test different nutrient management strategies. The farmers participate in these trials and can learn new techniques and draw their own conclusions, in addition to receiving soil analyses from their fields and recommendations based on the research results. My research has also engaged a local government office, La Mancomunidad La Montañona, to address water quality issues and provide immediate recommendations identifying priority areas for a project they will be starting this year. Finally, I’ve been working with the Ministry of Environment to explore ways in which my research methods could be incorporated into national environmental monitoring strategies.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

I hope to contribute tools and knowledge that are of immediate use in developing land-management policies for the community of La Mancomunidad La Montañona. Community leaders are hoping to establish a combination of policies, incentives and/or regulations to reverse land degradation and enhance ecosystem function through better agricultural and forest management. Hopefully my work can provide the data needed to implement a system and monitor it over time. On a more broad scale, I also hope that the communication of my research through interactive web-maps can serve as a model for making research data and results accessible to a variety of stakeholders for immediate use in decision-making.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I have worked so many different sorts of jobs in my life!  Pursuing a graduate degree has been a great opportunity to specialize and develop some technical skills while also broadening my perspective on a whole suite of topics and issues.  It has also helped me to approach my work with an open and critical mind, seeking solutions using logical but creative methods.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

I was introduced to a faculty member here (my current supervisor) with interests that aligned with mine – applied research on sustainable agriculture in less developed countries. He was starting a project in El Salvador and looking to hire someone to do more or less exactly what I would like to do going forward.  It was a great fit. The fact that I could live in Vancouver and play in the mountains on my days off sealed the deal! 


To me, being a scholar means taking responsibility that the research results I produce are sound, thoroughly investigated, transparent and unbiased ... It means focusing my research on issues that are of critical and timely importance to large segments of society.