Derby Diaries: A Transformative Experience

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I entered Derby Hall in 2008, yet I suspected and hoped it would be a transformative experience. I found faculty research grounded in the physical and social sciences both intriguing and daunting, especially since I earned an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences. And I knew that OSU’s Geography program was long-respected and highly ranked in the field. The next two years–plus an additional four years spent earning my PhD–proved to be an excellent fit and provided me with a strong foundation for my academic career and personal life.

My Geography courses were demanding and rigorous, yet flexible enough to accommodate my research interests. My graduate student peers provided much needed levity in the form of office banter, trivia nights and High Street outings, and testing my (inferior) ping pong and badminton skills. And Staff like Diane Carducci and Colin Kelsey were warm and supportive. Friendships and professional networks developed during that time remain strong to this day.

My advisors Becky Mansfield and Kendra McSweeney supported my multidisciplinary pursuits in History, Rural Sociology, and Public Health. They, along with Nancy Ettlinger, Joel Wainwright, and Cathy Rakowski, among others, encouraged me as I developed research projects in Nicaragua and Latin America. As a Teaching Assistant, graduate students Eveily Freeman and Jessica Barnes modeled excellent undergraduate teaching and opened my eyes to online learning, which has proven immensely helpful in the last two years.

SUNY Old Westbury students and I (lower right) visit a coffee farm near Matagalpa, Nicaragua, in March 2018.

Ultimately, my years in Derby Hall prepared me for my current position as an Assistant Professor of Public Health at SUNY Old Westbury. My broad background and pedagogical training suited my current department’s diverse liberal arts courses: Introduction to the Social Determinants of Health, Global Health, and Research Methods, to name a few. The Environmental Justice course that I developed is heavily inspired by the Nature and Society courses that I took in Derby Hall. I am particularly proud of having taken undergraduate students to Nicaragua and Bolivia; if travel restrictions ease in time, I’ll add Cuba to that list this summer!

Community celebration at Sure We Can, a not-for-profit that supports informal recyclers and advocates for their well-being in Brooklyn, New York, where I serve as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors.

Finally, my time at OSU helped me realize the importance of community. Ed Malecki, Ola Ahlqvist, Alvaro Montenegro, and Max Woodworth regularly ate lunch with graduate students in the lounge, and Morton O’Kelly, Kendra McSweeney, and Becky Mansfield hosted get-togethers in their homes. Importantly, these conversations and gatherings gave me an idea of what work-life balance and parenthood as an academic might look like. (My first child was born in December 2021!) Also, they reinforced the importance of building community beyond Derby Hall and academia, and the possibilities that arise from scholar-activist engagement.

In sum, my time in Derby Hall was truly transformative, and I am happy to be part of OSU Geography’s storied history!

Chris Hartmann, MA (2010), PhD (2016)

“Before-and-After” Pieces of the Climate Change Puzzle in Bolivia

As other colleagues have previously posted in this blog, un-immersive fieldwork1 has endless options that can unravel new ideas and research approaches. Inspired by Max Woodworth’s re-visitation2 to his photographic archives, I started looking back at my pictures of Bolivia – both my native land and my dissertation study site. Ever since I moved to the US in 2016, I have been able to go back to my home country twice per year, and only for a few weeks each time. This means that my photographic collection is intrinsically incomplete chronologically. However, when re-imagined as scattered pieces of a puzzle and integrated with images from other sources, it is possible to recognize some intriguing “before-and-after” stories. These other sources are various and somewhat unorthodox: Google Earth imagery, online newspapers, sometimes even pictures from unrelated trips. Capturing either the aftermath scenes, or unplanned “beginnings,” these images accompanied my journeys researching mountain ecosystems in Bolivia. The stories that these images narrate remind us that the impacts of climate change are true and tangible even in very short intervals of time.

For example, in July 2016, I joined my co-advisor Karina Yager from Stony Brook University on a few trips to the Bolivian Altiplano. We were surveying potential study areas for future research on bofedales (high altitude wetlands of the Andes). While in the Hampaturi Valley, we observed the surroundings of a water reservoir and took some casual pictures of the site (Figure 1a). What I did not know at that moment is that a few months later, the drought caused by the 2015-2016 El Niño would completely dry out the reservoir. When I came back to Bolivia in December that year, I was able to see it with my own eyes. The scene was heartbreaking. Not only were a quarter of million people of La Paz left without water service for months, the vegetation was also dead, the birds were gone, and the dry bottom of the reservoir revealed something that surprised me: the reservoir for the city’s drinking water was built over a former bofedal (Figure 1b).

Figure 1. Aiuan Kkota reservoir in July (a), and December (b), 2016. The reservoir dried out as a consequence of the El Niño 2016. Photo credits: Gabriel Zeballos

That was not the only body of water that dried out that year. The second largest lake in Bolivia, Lake Poopo, also disappeared. I visited the lake from the coastal town of Huari on June 2017. Despite some recuperation of the water levels in the previous months, I could observe the abandoned boats (Figure 2a). The soil was strikingly salty and the bottom was dry as far as the eyes could reach. It reminded me of the pictures I had seen from the Aral Sea. In August 2019, I went back to Huari. I was on a fieldtrip to the Bolivian Southern Altiplano. I took a short detour from my way. I needed to go back to the same place where I saw the abandoned boats in 2017. This time there were no boats, but also, almost no water. My powerful camera was able to capture some water bodies far on the horizon (Figure 2b). Flocks of flamingos were present. To see wildlife always warms the heart, although I knew that the economic activities of the anglers were never going to recover to levels of the past. The former anglers probably had migrated to other regions already by that time. They are climate refugees.

Figure 2. Lake Poopo in June 2017 (a) and August 2019 (b). The second largest lake in Bolivia dried out several times in the past five years. Photo credits: Gabriel Zeballos

Two thousand nineteen was also a hard year for my hometown, La Paz. In January, a landslide wiped out an entire segment of the Llojeta neighborhood, a sector built a couple of decades ago over a former waste landfill. Even 11 months later, when I took a picture from a cable car, the area still looked destroyed and under risk of collapse. An image from the History tool from Google Earth can give a better idea of how Llojeta appeared before the landslide (Figure 3a). It is not news that Google Earth has this useful application to view several older images of scenes, but to be able to capture a picture from the terrain gave me a better idea of the scale and magnitude of the event (Figure 3b).

Figure 3. Llojeta neighborhood in early January 2019, before the landslide (a), and December 2019 (b). The red outline shows the sector destroyed by the massive landslide. Photo credits: a) Google Earth, b) Gabriel Zeballos.

Later that year, the Amazon Rainforest from Bolivia and Brazil suffered one of the worst wildfires in recent history. I happened to visit one of the most impacted sites a few months before the beginning of the wildfires. The site of the picture is called the Serranía de Chochis. Besides its natural beauty and biological richness, this region belongs to one of the UNESCO’s World Historical Heritage sites: The Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos. The image on the left (Figure 4a) is the one I took with my cellphone camera in early January 2019. The image on the right belongs to an online newspaper ( (Figure 4b). That is what was left in late September 2019.

Figure 4. Serranía de Chochis in January (a) and September (b), 2019. The wildfires destroyed over 6 million hectares only in Bolivia. Credits: a) Gabriel Zeballos, b) Gabriel Zeballos based on a picture printed in Periódico Opinión.

In the early nineteenth century, the French explorer Alcides D’Orbigny commented about his travels through South America4:

“If the Earth disappeared, leaving only Bolivia, all the products and climates of the world would still exist. Bolivia is the planet’s microcosm. Due to its height, its climate, and its infinite variety of geographical nuances, Bolivia becomes the synthesis of the world.”

For almost two centuries, D’Orbigny’s descriptions and travel logs were the single piece that portrayed Bolivia’s natural and cultural richness5. Today, his images comprise a new puzzle that is excruciating to fill. A puzzle where Bolivia is still a microcosm of the Earth. Only that this time, Bolivia is becoming the synthesis of the environmental degradation and global climate change that affects the world at large. Can we, as a global society, be an active part of the restoration of our common house?  Without really knowing the answer, it inspires me to look at the next image. It is a rendering from a picture of the day in which the rainfall extinguished the wildfires in the Eastern Bolivian Forest. The firefighters’ joy says it all (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Bolivian firefighters and volunteers celebrate under the rainfall in September 2019. Drawing: Gabriel Zeballos based on a picture published on Pagina Siete


Post Scriptum

I finished writing this text in June 2020. However, until the publication of this post, I did not get response from the mentioned newspapers in order to get the copyrights of the referred pictures (Figures 4 and 5). That is why I sketched the images instead. Interestingly, by drawing the gray landscape and then the people’s joy, I unexpectedly felt an abstract closeness to my homeland albeit the abstract and real distance. Un-immersive work is not any simpler than an in-situ study but it is just different. Thus, combining both it is possible to add new dimensions of understanding to one’s research.

Gabriel Zeballos, Ph. D. Candidate

Department of Geography,

The Ohio State University



  1. Kendra McSweeney: Un-immersive-fieldwork
  2. Max Woodworth: Re-visiting the Field Through Old Fieldwork Photos
  4. Dí­az Arguedas J. Alcide d’Orbigny: Estudios sobre la geologí­a de Bolivia. El naturalista francés Alcide d’Orbigny en la visión de los bolivianos. 2002:195-209.
  5. Aguirre RDA. Alcide d’Orbigny en la vision de los bolivianos. Bulletin de l’Institut francais d’etudes andines. 2003 (32 (3)):467-477.

Un-immersive Fieldwork

For me as for many geographers, fieldwork implies immersion. That is, immersing myself in a place I seek know better; immersing myself in the language and cultures of research collaborators. For over 25 years, on and off, this immersive research approach has included travel to Honduras, where I have worked with indigenous communities in the Moskitia region to understand their economic and political relationships with the biodiverse forests of their homelands.

Now, in a global pandemic, social immersion is neither possible nor advisable. Does that make fieldwork impossible? Certainly, it challenges the sorts of social interaction that, in my experience, can yield ‘ah-ha!’ research moments. Like the time I’d spent the day doing ‘participant observation’—helping a friend weed her bean field under a cloudless tropical sky. As we poled her canoe back to the village, she casually mentioned some forest lands she’d claimed since the massive flooding from Hurricane Mitch a few years before. Her comment led me to ask new questions about how the community had rebounded from the disaster, which ultimately revealed surprising strategies that challenged common understandings of rural peoples’ vulnerability to climate shocks.

Professor Kendra McSweeney during a research trip in Honduras. Photo courtesy of Kendra McSweeney.

But as we’ve all learned, social interaction doesn’t end just because we can’t travel, or meet face-to-face. And neither does fieldwork. This past month, Deborah Lupton, a sociologist in Australia, began to crowdsource fieldwork strategies for the COVID era. The result is the open-source Google doc, “Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic.” The options seem endless: on-line surveys, wearable cameras, ‘epistolary interviews,’ diaries and journaling, video-based focus groups, and much more.

I’ve used some of these strategies, and I can attest to their effectiveness not only as a fieldwork ‘hack’ but also as a way to deepen solidarity across space. I’ve been doing research with Honduran collaborators remotely for a while now. Not because of a pandemic. My research has been virtual ever since drug traffickers took control of travel routes through the Moskitia, and since indigenous communities have been wracked by the violence and in-fighting that the traffickers and corrupted officials deliberately foment. My friends there tell me they can’t guarantee my safety, and I know that my presence would compromise theirs.

So, we “meet” and “talk” via WhatsApp, Facebook and Messenger. It still feels odd receiving texts in Tawahka and Miskitu; even stranger receiving cell-phone video from a village that still has no running water or electricity but does, if you climb a nearby hill, get cell phone service. Peoples’ willingness to stay in touch with me is, of course, predicated on that prior time spent together, the trust built from shared experiences in the past. For the same reason, the biggest challenge of remote communication, for me, is to do right by the testimonies that my friends send me, describing their lives of fear, insecurity, and poverty. They have asked that I help to spread the story of their situation. In effect, they’re asking me to leverage my privileged remoteness from their everyday experience; to make good use of our socially distanced worlds. In this case, that means mobilizing their words to help explain and denounce the drug war violence that they endure. For several years now, this goal has guided my research program.

Professor Kendra McSweeney presenting her research and findings at the United Nations. Photo courtesy of Kendra McSweeney

So, yes, the pandemic is challenging how we do fieldwork, and probably will for a while. It is one thing to maintain contact with long-term collaborators via technology; it is quite a different task to initiate new fieldwork connections in a “remote” mode. How do you build trust with potential collaborators with whom you can’t share space? Is there any virtual equivalent to the social connection sparked over a shared pot of tea? These are the sorts of questions that will likely be answered in the months and years ahead, as we adapt to this new research reality. I am hopeful that we might find, in these strange times, surprising ways to build social connections across space, in ways that hold promise for not only making our research better, but more meaningful.

Kendra McSweeney

Professor, Department of Geography