Meirah Williamson
Pronouns: she/her
University of Florida

Adviser: Dr. Esther Mullens

Focus Area:

Research Statement:
My research interests broadly lie at the intersection of extreme weather and society. My current research with Dr. Esther Mullens examines Excessive Rainfall Outlooks (EROs), which are probabilistic forecasts of flash flooding risk across the continental United States made by the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center (WPC). We are examining flash flooding events that were not forecast by EROs, and seeing if they had any economic damages or fatalities or injuries. We’re also looking at the meteorological and hydrological precursors to these damaging events to see if there are any patterns. Flash flooding events are one of the most deadly hazards in the US and world wide, so we’re hoping that we can highlight regions and/or seasons that are poorly forecast to help the WPC in improving EROs (or tell the WPC that they’re doing a great job!).

Who is she?
Meirah is a second year Master’s student in the Geography Department. She is a Wisconsin native who moved to Florida for grad school.

How did she get here?
Meirah grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, near where the Yahara River crosses the isthmus between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. With water on three sides, the basement would flood every year, but she was able to spend hot summer days swimming in the lakes and cold winter days walking on the frozen lakes.

As a child, Meirah was made keenly aware of extreme weather events when her family would take shelter in the basement during tornado warnings. While returning in a bus from a 6th grade field trip, her entire class had to shelter under tables at a McDonald’s, when tornadoes and waterspouts made the roads unsafe. It all worked out in the end, but the experience caught her attention.

 

When Meirah finished high school, she attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned a B.S. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. While there, she did undergraduate research using QGIS (open source GIS software) to perform spatial analysis of the urban heat island (UHI) effect on freeze warnings and frost advisories in Madison, WI. She found that urban Madison would often not dip to temperature thresholds required for a freeze warning/frost advisory when one was issued by the NWS for Madison. The isthmus (the most densely built up part of Madison) was often the warmest part of Madison during freeze warnings/frost advisories, staying several degrees on average above the temperature thresholds. Many families of color, including immigrant families, and families below the poverty line use urban gardens as a food source in Madison. This research could help the NWS better tailor their forecasts to account for the UHI effect, and make sure that people relying on gardens for sustenance know when they actually need to worry about their crops (e.g. cover them to prevent frost). “ I really enjoyed doing this spatial analysis,” Meirah said, “and seeing that — yes, there does seem to be something here that can be improved on to help the NWS improve their forecasts and thus people relying on weather forecasts; combining extreme weather and society.“

During her senior year, Meirah spent a semester abroad at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark. When she arrived, she only needed a single class to graduate – Climate, Weather, and Plants – to fulfill a Biology requirement. This left her free to explore Copenhagen by bike – and also to spend weekends visiting Berlin, Lisbon, and San Sebastian by train.

After completing her Bachelor’s degree, Meirah moved to Berkeley, California for an internship at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab – where she developed benchmarks for the Panama Rainfall Gradient project. While the research questions didn’t perfectly align with her interests, she loved working as part of a collaborative team, which was very different from the solo research she did during her undergraduate degree.

One day, while perusing a listserv, she saw that Dr. Esther Mullens was advertising a Research Assistant position at the University of Florida, focusing on extreme precipitation, climate dynamics, and climate and weather impacts on infrastructure and vulnerable populations. It was a perfect match, so Meirah applied to become a GeoGator. A few months later, she and her bicycle moved to Gainesville.

What’s she been doing at UF?
Since joining Dr. Mullens’ lab in the Fall of 2019, Meirah has been exploring the National Weather Service’s Excessive Rainfall Outlooks (EROs) product – looking for edge cases where flash flooding was not predicted in the forecast but happened all the same. When there are few people – like in parts of the Rocky Mountains – an unforecasted flash flood has little impact on people. An unexpected monsoon in the normally arid, but high population desert southwest, can turn deadly and cause lots of economic damage. By examining the complex interplay of rain, topography, soil moisture, and atmospheric conditions, Meirah is working to identify when and where the EROs break down, to improve flash flooding forecasts.

While Meirah used GIS analysis for her senior thesis, she was learning it as she went. Now that she’s studying hazards as a geographer, she’s been building her skills in Dr. Ash’s GIS Analysis of Hazard Vulnerability. The course “really piqued my interests in how we spatially understand vulnerability and risk among communities to extreme weather,” says Meirah, who is incorporating advanced GIS techniques into her research.

Over the summer, she teamed up with fellow Master’s student Holli Capps, working as the grader in Extreme Weather. Many of the students were non-geography/science majors. Meirah enjoyed the enthusiasm of interacting with the undergrad students – who in many cases didn’t realize that they were interested in science until they took the course.

How has she been holding up during the pandemic?
The first few months of the pandemic were disorienting – due to the lack of clear messaging on what we should and should not do. Once it became clear that outdoor activities are fairly safe, Meirah became more comfortable going outside. She’s been touring the State Parks that are accessible by bike – going as far as Fanning Springs and the Nature Coast Trail, where you can get off your bike and jump in the cool, clear springs. Meirah bought a car over the summer and is looking forward to exploring more of Florida’s wild places.

Meirah has also been getting out of the house to do good in the community. The Civic Media Center’s Free Grocery Store moved from an in person store to a bag and delivery model. Meirah has been volunteering by bagging groceries to help folks who are food insecure. Now that she has a car, she’s planning on making delivery runs as well.

When she’s not exploring the region’s bike trails or helping keep our community fed, Meirah has been playing her oboe (she has played since she was 11) and watching the best season that the White Sox have had in years.

 

Leandra Merz
Pronouns: she/her
Graduate Representative 2020/2021
University of Florida

Adviser: Dr. Brian Child and Dr. Jane Southworth
Focus Area: Global Environmental and Social Change

Research Statement: My research centers on the study of human-environment interactions through the fields of geography and ecology. Specific areas of interest include community based natural resource management, people and parks, human dimensions of wildlife conservation, human-wildlife conflict, and coupled human and wildlife systems. My geographic focus is southern Africa with an emphasis on Zambia and Mozambique. I use participatory methods in the field combined with quantitative analysis in the lab to better understand these complex coupled human and natural systems with the joint goals of conserving wildlife and improving livelihoods.

Who is she?
Leandra Merz is a fourth year PhD student in the Geography Department. She is a Florida native and UF alum, who returned to Gainesville to pursue her PhD. She will serve as a Graduate Representative for the 2020/2021 academic year.

How did she get here?
Leandra grew up in West Palm Beach, Florida. As a child, she admired Jane Goodall and was fascinated with lions. She aspired to be a conservation biologist and imagined herself following prides of lions across the Serengeti.

When she graduated from High School, Leandra knew she had to go to the University of Florida and enrolled as a Wildlife Ecology and Conservation major. While in WEC, she studied abroad in Tanzania, studied Orca behavior at SeaWorld during a summer internship, polished her Spanish, began studying Swahili, and earned minors in African Studies and International Agriculture Studies – all in three and a half years. During this time, she pivoted from an interest in direct conservation work to a focus on sustainable development. She realized that people are the greatest threat – addressing the human dimension and sustainable development is the best way to conserve wildlife.

Leandra at Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital

Leandra’s interest in sustainable development led her to a year in Zambia with the Peace Corps. She was assigned to a project with the Zambia Forestry Department linking income, food, and the environment to advance sustainable livelihoods without damaging forests. While working with the Peace Corps, Leandra learned Bemba – a Bantu language indigenous to Zambia. She returned to Florida unexpectedly, for health reasons and had not applied to any graduate schools.

She started volunteering at the Palm Beach Zoo where she was quickly hired as a zookeeper. Leandra worked as a swing keeper, working with anteaters, lemurs, and Florida Panthers. A zookeeper’s days are long – filled with feedings, meds, training, cleaning, giving conservation talks, second feedings, and locking up for the night. “There were very busy days. It wasn’t something I could do forever, but I loved it while I was doing it!”.

After two years at the Palm Beach Zoo, Leandra returned to Gainesville, where she took a Master’s of Sustainable Development Practice at the University of Florida. UF’s Sustainable Development program is structured as a practical program. Under the supervision of Dr. Brian Child and Dr. Renata Serra, Leandra learned Swahili (under the FLAS program) in preparation for a practicum in Mozambique with the Southern African Wildlife College. She worked with the Mangalane community in Mozambique – helping them gain their fair share of park fees paid to the national government and helping build institutions for self governance. The degree culminated in Leandra publishing a report – Situational Analysis of Mangalane, Mozambique for a Community Based Natural Resource Program.

Leandra really enjoyed learning and was a bit of an overachiever in school, but she also liked working with people in the field. She had promised herself that she wouldn’t waste time earning a PhD, so she moved with her husband to Zambia, where they founded IIM International – short for Imiti Ikula e Mpanga, a Bemba proverb meaning “small trees grow to be a forest” – a nonprofit that helps Zambian children finish High School. They started off by identifying the primary hurdles that the children faced. Nutritional issues, illness, and transportation problems caused poor attendance, so IIM International built a home where children have regular meals, bed nets, doctors appointments, and guards. IIM International also partnered with a local school and provided scholarships to provide funding for boarding students. So far, 29 students have graduated from the program and there are currently 24 students living at the home, or on scholarships at the local school.

After three years in Zambia, Leandra’s husband had to return to the United States for medical treatment. Leandra decided to return to UF to earn a PhD in the Department of Geography, with her Master’s adviser Dr. Brian Child and Department Chair Dr. Jane Southworth.

What’s she been doing at UF?
The Geography Department has been a great fit for Leandra’s research on coupled human wildlife systems in Southern Africa – “My research is very interdisciplinary so Geography is a great fit because it is inherently interdisciplinary and has a strong focus on human-environment interactions.” She has been using her strong connections to WEC and CAS, and building new relationships with folks in Sociology.

GeoGator and baobabs

Leandra is currently working on the following projects:

  • How attitudes toward wildlife are formed and how they vary across space in Mozambique
  • Land-cover change in Kasanka national park and its buffer zone in Zambia
  • The complexity of tolerance toward wildlife in Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park
  • Variations in vegetation health in Zambia’s semi-protected Game Management Areas
  • Social and ecological factors influencing pangolin trafficking in Zambia

Leandra recently published A Metacoupling Framework for Exploring Transboundary Watershed Management which explored how the water supply of small communities in the Limpopo River Watershed is vulnerable to transnational upstream issues. In this paper, she applied Remote Sensing skills she learned in Dr. Southworth’s GEO5037c Remote Sensing of Environment as well as Geospatial modeling techniques from Dr. Reza Khatami’s GEO6938 Geospatial Modeling. Anticipating future work in Mozambique, Leandra has also been taking courses in Portuguese (also under the FLAS program).

At UF, Leandra hasn’t just been taking courses, writing papers, and doing fieldwork – she’s also teaching Physical Geography, Economic Geography, and Human Footprints on the Landscape. This Fall she’ll be teaching GEO3372 Conservation of Resources.

As if that wasn’t enough, Leandra is one of the Grad Reps for the 2020/2021 school year. “Grad school can be difficult to navigate, but I think that as graduate students we can help support and encourage one another through the difficulties. I decided to run for grad rep because I want to support and encourage newer students and to help our department become even stronger. I hope to focus on regular communication, social opportunities, and providing links to helpful resources from the department, college, university, and other organizations.”

How has she been holding up during the pandemic?
During the lockdown, Leandra has had plenty to do. She and her husband started fostering a 5 month old little girl in addition to the 12 year old boy they’ve been fostering for the last year. They all live together on a 10 acre farm between Newberry and High Springs with 100 ducks, 6 goats, 2 dogs, and a cat. She has also somehow found time to take some exciting teaching workshops from home, along with occasional trips to O’Leno State Park.

Research Gate

Google Scholar

Focus Area 4: Global Environmental and Social Change

This focus covers the areas of (a) Politics and the Environment; (b) Resources, Environment and Society; and (c) Regional and Global: Economic, Political, Demographic, and Social Change.

Politics and the Environment

Environmental issues are increasingly politicized. This section will investigate the two-way interactions between politics and environmental change at local, national and international scales. Political Ecology is one frame to understand multi-scalar interactions from the global to the local level and how it unfolds in specific places, presenting social and environmental challenges.

Courses:

  • Seminar in Political Ecology
  • Human Footprint on the Environment
  • Environmental Catastrophes, Tipping Points, and Catastrophes
  • Global Connections, Development and the Environment
  • Wildlife Economics

Resources, Environment and Society

Generating, managing, and sustaining resources and coping with the consequences of their use have and will continue to be one of the main challenges confronting human societies. In this section we engage the dynamics of environmental security, including food, water, energy, and biodiversity, and challenges from local to global scales. Understanding the coupling of natural and human systems is essential to ensure a resilient future for humans and ecosystems.

Courses:

  • Conservation of Resources
  • Environmental Biogeography
  • The Geography of Crop Plants
  • Plants and Spirituality
  • Pop Music and Culture
  • Seminar on Amazonia

Regional and Global: Economic, Political, Demographic, and Social Change

The world in becoming increasingly integrated and globalized, but retains tremendous cultural and environmental diversity. In this section we explore multiple dimensions of economic, political, demographic, and social change and interconnection in the world’s major regions (Africa, Latin America, Asia, And Europe). We also examine forces and factors affecting international business, trade, immigration, and global production and consumption networks.

Courses:

  • Economic Geography
  • Face of Florida
  • Geography of a Changing World
  • Geography of Global Economies
  • Global Africa Diaspora
  • Introduction to Human Geography
  • Housing, People, and Places
  • Population Geography
  • Social Geography
  • Urban and Business Geography
  • Courses in Regional Geography (Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin American, United States and Canada)

Core Faculty

Dr. Abe Goldman and fellow researchers, Tanzania

This focus covers the areas of (a) Politics and the Environment; (b) Resources, Environment and Society; and (c) Regional and Global: Economic, Political, Demographic, and Social Change.

Politics and the Environment

Environmental issues are increasingly politicized. This section will investigate the two-way interactions between politics and environmental change at local, national and international scales. Political Ecology is one frame to understand multi-scalar interactions from the global to the local level and how it unfolds in specific places, presenting social and environmental challenges.

Courses:

  • Seminar in Political Ecology
  • Human Footprint on the Environment
  • Environmental Catastrophes, Tipping Points, and Catastrophes
  • Global Connections, Development and the Environment
  • Wildlife Economics

Resources, Environment and Society

Generating, managing, and sustaining resources and coping with the consequences of their use have and will continue to be one of the main challenges confronting human societies. In this section we engage the dynamics of environmental security, including food, water, energy, and biodiversity, and challenges from local to global scales. Understanding the coupling of natural and human systems is essential to ensure a resilient future for humans and ecosystems.

Courses:

  • Conservation of Resources
  • Environmental Biogeography
  • The Geography of Crop Plants
  • Plants and Spirituality
  • Pop Music and Culture
  • Seminar on Amazonia
A place to call home, between the Madeira and Purus Rivers, Amazonas State.

Regional and Global: Economic, Political, Demographic, and Social Change

The world in becoming increasingly integrated and globalized, but retains tremendous cultural and environmental diversity. In this section we explore multiple dimensions of economic, political, demographic, and social change and interconnection in the world’s major regions (Africa, Latin America, Asia, And Europe). We also examine forces and factors affecting international business, trade, immigration, and global production and consumption networks.

Courses:

  • Economic Geography
  • Face of Florida
  • Geography of a Changing World
  • Geography of Global Economies
  • Global Africa Diaspora
  • Introduction to Human Geography
  • Housing, People, and Places
  • Population Geography
  • Social Geography
  • Urban and Business Geography
  • Courses in Regional Geography (Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin American, United States and Canada)

Core Faculty