Q & A with Carissa Slotterback
It is hard to imagine anyone more suited to engagement work than Carissa Slotterback.
Carissa Slotterback, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where she teaches courses in environmental planning, public engagement and sustainability planning. Among other leadership roles across campus, she serves as director of the Humphrey School’s Urban and Regional Planning program as well as director of the Resilient Communities Project, a university-community engagement program focused on sustainability. She is actively involved in interdisciplinary partnerships and projects throughout the U and serves as adjunct faculty or fellow in multiple departments, institutes and centers.
Recently, Slotterback accepted a part time appointment as director of research engagement in the Office of the Vice President for Research. In her new role, Slotterback will help to advance collaborative research throughout the university and facilitate alignment among the U’s multiple strategic initiatives related to research. Among other responsibilities, she will lead planning efforts for the university’s upcoming Convergence Colloquia, a series of events designed to bring researchers together from across the university around specific, interdisciplinary research topics. Slotterback also serves on the Executive Steering Committee for the research strategic plan, Five Years Forward.
How did you end up working in your field?
As I was growing up, I spent a lot of time outdoors and developed a strong interest in protecting the natural environment. As I started college, I started to make the connection that the way we grow and develop cities has significant environmental impacts. I came across the urban planning field unexpectedly and quickly realized that a key way to advance the environmental protection I wanted to achieve, was through more sustainable urban development practices.
What is one of the most promising projects you’re working on right now?
I’ve had the pleasure of working for more than five years with a collaborative group of researchers to explore how we can advance biomass production in agricultural landscapes as a means of protecting the environment. I’ve learned so much from my interactions with colleagues in other disciplines – agriculture, soil science, landscape architecture, geography and others – as we’ve worked together to build a truly transdisciplinary project. We have also worked directly with key community stakeholders, including interests representing agriculture and natural resource protection, to ensure that our work is relevant and grounded in conditions on the landscape and in communities. The project recently received a MnDRIVE transdisciplinary research award, which will allow us to engage additional stakeholders and bring in additional disciplines such as computer science, biosystems, and economics to further enhance our impacts.
What do you think makes the University of Minnesota unique?
Both its location and the fact that it is so comprehensive. The U has experts working on almost every topic imaginable. And, we’re fortunate to be located in an urban area that is widely recognized as being innovative and sees the university as an important partner. As a faculty member, it’s a stimulating environment in which to do this kind of interdisciplinary work in way that is more engaging, collaborative, and impactful.
What do you think about the university’s vision for research and what challenges do you foresee in bringing about the kind of cultural or administrative changes necessary to successfully achieve it?
The Five Years Forward plan is really exciting. The focus on transdisciplinarity and knowledge transfer characterize the work that I have done and am trying to do. In addition, the plan’s focus on proactively advancing a culture of serendipity at the U is particularly exciting. I’m really interested to see what kind of impact this focus has on how we interact, the resources available to support collaboration, and whether it potentially breaks down some of the barriers to actually doing work across disciplines, departments and colleges.
As these new plans are implemented, it’s clear that cultural and administrative changes, especially in such a large institution, are always hard and often slow. At the same time, I think we have an opportunity to create incentives that can help facilitate those kinds of changes. We need to think about the kinds of faculty we want to hire, who’s coming to this university. We want to attract and retain the kind of faculty who we want to do this work and who are effective in doing it. Having a big vision that people buy into is critical in bringing about the kinds of changes that are needed.
You were involved in developing recommendations for the Twin Cities Strategic Plan. What opportunities do you see for alignment with the goals for research?
As we look at focusing on the emerging set of grand challenges outlined in the plan, there are a lot of natural areas for alignment with research, and we are already doing great research in the areas that have been identified so far. While the specific grand challenge topics are important, it’s even more important to consider what the grand challenges focus says about our university. To me, the focus on grand challenges signals a shift in our orientation from internal to external. The grand challenges framework helps us to think about our role in our community, in our state, and in our world and asks us to consider how to further develop the institutional structures and capacities to take on this role.
What excites you the most about your new role with OVPR?
Engagement is really at the heart of the research and teaching that I’ve done since I arrived at the university in 2004. In this new role, I get to take that focus to an even broader level, looking at enhancing the capacity across the university system, and looking at ways to be even more strategic in bringing engagement to research that’s already going on here.
What makes you particularly suited to or interested in engagement work?
I feel extremely fortunate to be in a position where I can influence and inform students and facilitate change and opportunity in communities through the work I do at the U. As a first generation college student, I have always felt a responsibility to give back and to do work that is directly relevant and impactful. I could never sit in my office and do my own research. My work is better and the impacts greater because of the engagement and collaboration I’ve been able to achieve.
What advice do you have for young people today thinking about their careers?
I always tell students to keep an open mind, to take a lot of different kinds of courses. I tell them to think about what they have a passion for and figure out the mix of tools and skills and knowledge they’ll need to do that well and with legitimacy. They should also anticipate that the things they may be doing in the future might not exist right now. In many cases, students and future practitioners will have a chance to integrate their skills and expertise to create the work that they want to do.
Erin is assistant communications director for the Office of the Vice President for Research and senior editor of Inquiry.