Antoinette WinklerPrins

Q&A With Antoinette WinklerPrins, Incoming Director of the Environmental Studies Programs

Antoinette WinklerPrins will be the new director of the Environmental Studies Programs in the Advanced Academic Programs at JHU, starting July 1, 2013. She holds a PhD in Geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and taught geography and environmental sciences as an associate professor at Michigan State University from 2000-2013. Sinead Goldman and Dan Kulpinski interviewed her April 30.

Q: What convinced you to take this position, to leave Michigan State and join Johns Hopkins?

A: In 2010 I took a job at the National Science Foundation and my whole family moved to the D.C. area. I’ve been working there since then on leave, on loan from Michigan State. But we, for a variety of reasons, wanted to stay in this area and so this was an opportunity that presented itself. I was very excited about it, because one of the things I really care a lot about is graduate education, and as a geographer I’m very interested in environmental issues, and there’s a lot of mixing between geography and environmental science and studies. And so for my own career this felt like a really good move in that I could go back to teaching, something I’ve really missed doing…

Q: We’re also curious if you’ll be teaching any classes in the AAP program.

A: I will be and I’m very excited about that. Essentially as the director I can choose what I want to teach, but this fall because my background is really, well I have a variety of things in my background, but one of them is food and agriculture, so I’ll be teaching an Environmental Issues of Food Production course, which will be a new elective that we hope to develop.

Q: Is there a class in one of the Environmental Studies programs you’d be most excited to audit, if you were auditing a course?

A: Yeah, I like that question. There’s one, and I’m forgetting the exact name now, it’s something about Chesapeake watershed ecosystems and ecological management, that’s one I would love to go sit in on and have an excuse to join, because I’m still relatively new to this area, and so learning the local environment– I’m very familiar with the Great Lakes area because I spent a lot of time there, but the Chesapeake I would like to learn more about, so I figure by sitting in on that one I would learn. (Editor’s note: 420.625 Chesapeake Bay: Ecology and Ecosystem Management)

Q: And speaking of sitting in on classes, we were curious on your thoughts on the different learning formats offered at Johns Hopkins. We have online classes, some that incorporate video conference classes, and then the traditional in-classroom, and as we’re experiencing, some that mix both.

WinklerPrins Amazon tributary

Antoinette WinklerPrins, right, canoes on a small Amazon River tributary in 2003 with her field assistant and local research partner, Perpetuo de Sousa, and de Sousa’s niece and husband. (Photo by Christina Hupy)

A: Well my background has included large lecture, seminars, fully online and hybrid teaching, all of those things. I think probably from the student perspective, the ideal is a hybrid format, because then you can use the strengths of both formats. Because I think in-class teaching and learning, I think certainly for graduate students that interchange that you can have in a room is one that can be reproduced online, but it’s different. So I think there’s strength to that. But then when there are more sort of competency-based types of courses, I think there’s a lot of delivery of that that can be done really well online. And so there’ll be some courses that are sort of a blend. The research is showing, too, that from a learning perspective, the hybrid often is best for outcomes.

As an instructor I think probably the in-class is the easier one…whereas anything online or involving people who are remote, there has to be a little bit more prep than in-class…

Part of my challenge will be to try to find the instructors in the formats that they’re best at doing. But then  meeting the student demand, too. And as different kinds of students come into the program, their interests and learning styles will vary too.

Q: What’s your vision for the AAP Environmental Studies program?

A: Well, I hope to grow the program and to really think creatively how best to use what Hopkins is strong at and well-known for, and leverage that into programs that are exciting, that are cutting edge and that are dynamic and can adjust to demand. So some programs I think need a, possibly a little rethink, a retool, an assessment of in this D.C. environment — although obviously because students take it remotely, it’s not just D.C., but I have to think nationally and internationally — what are students wanting out of a master’s degree that is something environmental? What are the kinds of skills, what is the critical thinking background that they need, and to hopefully come up with one that isn’t replicated somewhere else, that offers things that are exciting.

I think being in D.C. though, one needs to really keep a pulse on what the demand is here, certainly in government and contractors, what they’re looking for topically and skills wise, too. What’s going get people a job, right? Because ultimately, if you come back and get a master’s degree or you go right on to get a master’s degree, most students have some vision of where they want to go, but is that vision going to match what’s actually available? So I’m looking forward to learning that landscape and then to hopefully maneuvering the program so that we’re attracting the students who feel they are going to go out and get the jobs they want.

Q: What plans do you have for new courses?

A: Food and agriculture is certainly one, environmental security is another one that I would like to investigate, that I think is a really important topic right now. So looking at the environment not just as a…whether it’s health related or environmental management or environmental quality, but also as a security issue, as a threat, to potential destabilizing in certain parts of the world, where environmental change may precipitate, or combined with social dimensions, could lead to more instability politically. And there apparently is quite an interest in this at the State Department right now, and I think getting a course on that I want to do right away. Again, trying to be responding to what’s a buzz, and I think with this kind of science background that students in this program are getting, they’ll be getting more of the human dimensions, tying it in to a field, for example, called political ecology, I think would be beneficial.

Q: You’ve been a world traveler since a young age, and have conducted research in Brazil, Mexico and Kenya. What was your favorite experience doing research in the field, if you can name a number one? Or your top few?

Maasai Mara

The Serengeti Plain, aka the Maasai Mara, stretches to the horizon in this view from a hot-air balloon. (Photo by Antoinette WinklerPrins)

A: Yeah, there have been some very cool experiences. I’d say that overall, though, the thing that’s exciting, difficult but exciting, is the research I’ve done on the flood plain of the Amazon River, which is an area that is really quite inaccessible by road. So you have to travel by boat on Amazonian river boats, and live and work on boats and sleep in hammocks, and things like that, which are difficult in practice but are pretty amazing in that it really immerses you in a very different way of life that’s eye-opening. Whether you’re looking at, and I’ve done social dimensions work, so interviewing people as well as doing soil sampling, so the more physical side of environmental issues. And either way, you can’t help but be immersed in this other way of life, which means another way of thinking, and being on the river, and a river that floods and where flooding doesn’t mean disaster. So it forces a mind reset.

In terms of landscapes, the Mara in Kenya is pretty spectacular to see, what some people call the Serengeti Plain or the Maasai Mara, which is the reserve that I was , where I had a doctoral student who was doing his dissertation. In terms of spectacular landscape, it’s the kind of place you wake up and go, “I’m in a movie!” You know one of those nature movies, because there’s the giraffe, there’s the hippo. And I had the experience of doing a balloon trip over the Mara, which is really one of those chilling moments in your life, of just thrill. So those two I’d say are highlights.

But I guess the other highlight I would say a lot of the work I do, as I mentioned my own research sits at the edge of the human and the physical environment and so immersing yourself and talking with people and learning about people’s humanity and finding ways of connecting with all sorts of new people around the world I always find really great.

Q: What book are you reading now?

A: Ha ha, yes, I like that one because I’m a very omnivorous reader. It’s the “What’s on your nightstand?” question. And my nightstand has a pile of books. Actually the book I’m currently reading is called “Het Diner,” and it’s in Dutch, and it’s because as you probably figured out if you looked at my website I originally was a Dutch citizen before I naturalized in 2007. And to keep my brain from completely forgetting my native tongue I decided to read this book in Dutch, although it’s received critical acclaim in English, too. It’s called “The Dinner,” and it’s a piece of fiction about family dynamics but related to social dimensions, societal issues in the Netherlands. So it’s a very, very good read, it’s almost sort of a thriller.

But my normal reading is actually more non-fiction. So I just finished reading Charles Mann’s “1493,” which is a really excellent book. I also have John McNeil’s “Something New Under the Sun,” which is an environmental history of the 20th-century. And I’ve done Koeppel’s “Banana,” and Ian Frazier’s “Travels in Siberia,” so there’s sort of a pile there, together with a number of Economist magazines that I’ve half-read.

Q: You also hold a position at the National Science Foundation in the Geography and Spatial Sciences program. What do you do there and what do you like about it?

A: I’m a program officer which means that I’m one of the people who directs the Geography and Spatial Sciences program. Program officer positions are science management positions. We manage the incoming proposals and the decision-making process of deciding which proposals are recommended for awards. The goal of the National Science Foundation is to makes awards to scientists conducting highly meritorious basic  science research projects. There are three of us who run this program, and we see many environmentally oriented proposals submitted to our  program. There are various directorates and programs that fund environmental research, but for a lot of scientists who work at the edge of people and the environment, geography is the place to go…

Q: If students wanted to read one of your journal articles or research papers, which one would you point them to?

A: My favorites of my own writing. There’s one in there I wrote with the anthropologist named Hugh Raffles (now at the New School in NYC), and it appeared in the Latin American Research Review. (Get article via JSTOR.) It looks at an aspect of environmental history in a different  way, looking at Amazonia and the impact of people on Amazonia in a different way than most people would normally think of, in that we considered particularly the impact people have had on the fluvial dynamics. Because a lot of native Amazonians and then people who inhabit the flood plain area today actually manipulate streams and side streams in a very subtle way. It’s a story we tell in that article, it was actually very fortuitous. He was getting his PhD at Yale and I was in Madison at the University of Wisconsin, and we wrote that article completely without ever having met. We wrote it because we were both finishing our dissertations and we had both found essentially the same thing, but in slightly different places in the Amazon, and conceptually we were very similar. So we wrote it together and it’s a piece I still like reading. When I do I think, wow, I wrote this, how cool! I like it because it really I think makes people think very differently about Amazonia.

And the other one, I actually brought the book that I can share with you. I have a PDF of it but it may be worth trying to get a better PDF of it. It is a chapter in a book called “Globalization and the New Geographies of Conservation,” that my dissertation advisor, Karl Zimmerer (now at Penn State U), put together.  It is the publication that resulted in a a workshop he held many years ago  that involved all of us who ultimately contributed to this book.  I have a chapter in here called “Urban House-Lot Gardens and Agrodiversity in Santarém, Pará, Brazil: Spaces of Conservation that link Urban with Rural.” And what this is about is research I did after my dissertation on people who had moved to urban areas in Amazonia, but they’re using their backyards as spaces of production. Just like people are doing urban gardening here in a bigger way, well people in developing countries have never not done it.

So what I looked at is not just the production of the gardens, but actually the agrobiodiversity that is circulated, the plants and materials within families and and among friends in a  very complex social gifting network. Because many new migrants  live mostly in the informal sector – they’re in the monetized economy but a lot of what they do is  gifting and barter. And so part of that system of circulation is plants, seeds, fruit and I looked at this from an agrobiodiversity conservation perspective. Because there in that circulation there is preservation of varieties and actually augmentation of, for example, mango varieties. We’re all used to thinking, you know, a mango is a mango. Well not when you go to Amazonia and there’s 10, 15 different kinds of mangoes. And the mango didn’t even come from Amazonia, it actually came from India. So there is a network of agrobiodiversity that I talk about in  this chapter and it’s another one that when I read it today I think,  oh, that’s cool, I wrote that. So those are some of my favorites, but I’m certainly happy to share any of my articles.

(Editor’s note: Here’s a link to an article related to the work she discussed in “Globalization and the New Geographies of Conservation”: WinklerPrins, A.M.G.A. and P.S. de Souza.  2005.  Surviving the City: Urban Homegardens and the Economy of Affection in the Brazilian Amazon.  Journal of Latin American Geography 4(1): 107-126. Get article via JSTOR)

Well, that’s all the questions for today. Welcome to Johns Hopkins!

(Top photo by Sinead Goldman)

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One Response to “Q&A With Antoinette WinklerPrins, Incoming Director of the Environmental Studies Programs”
  1. I’m really interested to see what new courses develop. As an alum, I’d like the opportunity for continuing my education without seeking another degree. I’m finding that I lack certain skills not covered in the MS program that are required by many environmental science positions. Perhaps others have these skills if they have an undergraduate science degree (and internship experience), but as a career-changer, it has been difficult to find a foothold in the job market on the merits of the degree alone.

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