Working where science meets policy 

New assistant professor Morgan Levy takes advantage of the unique opportunity to research water science and environmental policy through a joint appointment with GPS and Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Oct. 26, 2020 | By Virginia Watson | GPS News

news_morgan-levy1.jpgScientific research and data should be at the heart of environmental public policy, and new assistant professor Morgan Levy is contributing to bridging the two in her new position with the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. 

Levy has a dual appointment between GPS and Scripps Oceanography’s Climate, Atmospheric Science and Physical Oceanography (CASPO) division, which she said allows her to mix her hydrology background with her interest in doing policy-relevant research. 

“The joint appointment is a great fit or me because GPS has a teaching focus on data analytics and geographic information systems (GIS), while Scripps has a focus on the physical sciences, which gives me an opportunity to do collaborative research, teach and recruit students and postdocs across both areas,” Levy said.

Levy’s research focuses on a broad range of hydrology-related topics, like the effects of land use or land management actions on surface water runoff or groundwater stores. Recently, Levy and GPS associate professor Jennifer Burney, along with other Scripps Oceanography colleagues, published a study that shows a way to improve groundwater monitoring by using a remote sensing technology (known as InSAR) to bridge gaps in the understanding of sustainable groundwater in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

“Many threats to people, economies and ecosystems are governed by connections between climate and hydrology,” Levy said. “Policy solutions to challenges like freshwater availability, food insecurity and the transmission of many diseases rely on understanding how society interacts with natural and engineered water systems. For this reason, I work to understand feedbacks between humans and different components of the water cycle, such as rainfall and river flow. Ultimately, my goal is to inform the design of management and policy that supports sustainable freshwater systems.”

Levy’s ongoing research in these fields is a continuation of her 2018 appointment at GPS as a postdoctoral researcher, working with Burney as part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

“As someone from a water science background, I would not have originally gravitated toward GPS, but the environmental policy focus at the school and faculty interest in working with scientists ended up making GPS a good fit for someone like me who is interested in interdisciplinary, policy-relevant work,” Levy said. 

Levy went on the academic job market at the end of 2019, ultimately securing her position and transitioning from postdoc to assistant professor during the novel coronavirus pandemic, which Levy called “strange and challenging,” particularly as a parent.

news_morgan-levy2.jpgShe will start teaching in the spring quarter, where she will be at the helm of a course on spatial data and remote sensing for environmental policy. In her classroom, Levy said she works to impart practical data analysis tools, as well as an understanding of how water system processes are central to their lives and future work.

“Literacy and skill with rapidly expanding catalogs of physical and social data are not only critical for the assessment of environmental issues but for management and policy issues broadly,” Levy said. “I also hope to encourage the use of contemporary water science topics as a lens through which to think not only about environmental policy, but also about environmental equity and justice.”

When Levy isn’t working, she takes advantage of San Diego’s temperate weather, natural beauty and unique urban environment. 

“It’s a big city that does not feel like a big city but instead feels like a patchwork of small, interconnected towns – each with their own set of restaurants, breweries, grocery stores, parks, etc., all of which are unique and home to a genuinely diverse population,” Levy said. “As a native Californian, I think San Diego flies under the radar. It’s not Los Angeles or the Bay Area – it’s not hip, and to me, that makes it really cool!”

Levy’s hobbies are as varied as her academic interests – arts and crafts; outdoor activities such as hiking, backpacking and camping; and even watching what she calls “bad TV.”

“These days, I’m just happy to get to go to the park, the beach or the zoo with my family and dog,” she added.

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