Meet EOAS’ New Faculty Member Victoria Ramenzoni

Dr. Victoria Ramenzoni

I firmly believe that an understanding of the pathways in which adaptation occurs, its processual and operative nature, is key for advancing sustainable solutions.”

By Carol Peters

Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (EOAS) faculty member Dr. Victoria Ramenzoni, is an environmental anthropologist who specializes in mixed methods, behavioral ecology, cognitive sciences, decision-making, climate change, advanced multivariate analysis (multilevel, structural equation modeling, regression), policy, in the geographical areas of South East Asia, Latin America and the U.S.

Being a social and behavioral scientist specialized in coastal and marine landscapes, her scholarship is focused in the understanding of the many and multiple ways in which humans interact with their environment.

She joined the faculty in the Rutgers Department of Human Ecology this fall, having previously served as Associate Research Scientist and International Engagement Officer at the Harte Research Institute, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Ramenzoni received a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia Department of Anthropology in 2014. The title of her dissertation was “Effects of Socio-Environmental Variability and Uncertainty in Decisions about Fishing Effort of a small-scale Tuna Fishery in Ende, Eastern Indonesia.

Excited to have joined the faculty at Rutgers, Ramenzoni said “EOAS is an example of transdisciplinary science at its best. I believe that many of the challenges that we face today, such as recovery and response to rapidly intensifying hurricanes or the longer-term impacts of rising sea levels, can only be addressed by hands on, collaborative solutions. To be successful they must be integrative, and this means reconciling multiple tools, techniques, views, and perspectives.

“I have learned in my short experience that this is the hardest part in solving real life problems: getting really smart people to collaborate and work in sync without downplaying or overshadowing quieter voices. I am looking forward to learning from the work and extensive experience of many of my new colleagues and hoping to help as best I can to share my own strengths and skills.”

Looking forward to teaching as well as broadening and deepening her research interests, Ramenzoni said, “I consider that teaching and mentoring students can be one of the most rewarding and important tasks that I can perform as a scholar and as a person. To inspire others to pursue their very own path and to ensure that we appreciate the academic legacy we have received are two of the contributions I want to make.”

In the Q&A below, Ramenzoni describes the research she is currently focused on, and new collaborations she hopes to form at Rutgers and in New Jersey.

Q&A: Professor Victoria Ramenzoni

What are some of the behavioral adaptations and solutions you propose and are working on in order to solve global environmental problems? What are the environmental problems you are most focused on now?

As of now I am focused in the following projects:

  1. Understanding the combined effects of climate change and oil and gas extractive activities in coastal communities in Texas with support from the National Academies for Sciences, Medicine and Technology.
  2. I am conducting research in Cuba to study dietary and behavioral changes related to climate variability and adaptation among coastal communities in Sancti Spiritus, and includes colleagues from the Museum of Anthropology (Montané) and from Universidad de la Habana.
  3. Finally, I am hoping to continue my work in Eastern Indonesia to explore household nutritional and behavioral strategies to deal with climate change (overfishing, changes in species compositions, hydrological drought) as well as socio-economic change. This includes a more careful exploration of physical activity levels and how they relate to uncertainty and environmental variability.

Do you plan to develop new interdisciplinary partnerships, or research and teaching collaborations across Rutgers? If so, which departments do you plan to collaborate with and why?

 Because my research has direct implications for the formulation of adaptation policies, fishery regulations, and the adaptive management of resources, I plan to extend the impact of my work by continuing and pursuing new collaborations with decision-makers in local, state, and federal agencies and non-government organizations. As of now, I am hoping to develop a collaboration with the departments of Marine and Coastal Sciences and Anthropology, the Climate Institute and EOAS here at Rutgers. I am also working with other colleagues from Camden to strengthen research activities in Cuba.

 Will you continue to be involved with the Trinational Initiative between Cuba, Mexico and the U.S.? Will you invite other Rutgers scholars to join the initiative? Can the findings from this initiative be applied to NJ marine ecosystems?

I am hoping to continue my work in Cuba over the next few years to come. This includes continuing my participation at the Trinational Initiative and facilitating any kind of opportunities for other researchers in the coastal and marine disciplines that are interested in expanding their work to Cuba. I believe that there is a lot to learn from the way this island nation has addressed the tasks of preparing, mitigating, and responding to extreme events and climate change. Another issue of importance is evaluating the effects of tourism and developing alternative income options for local communities. Cuba has had an innovative approach to local development and environmental conservation that has singled the island out as one of the few countries to achieve high levels of human well-being. Therefore, I am hoping to be able to assist local communities along with researchers, practitioners, and decision makers in New Jersey that may be interested in learning more about these efforts. I am also committed to continuing my collaborations with Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, to advance ongoing work on recreation fisheries in Cuba, the development of socio-economic indicators of coastal community resilience, and several other efforts.

What factors first inspired you to become interested in the field of human ecology and determine the focus of your research and teaching?

 Being a social and behavioral scientist specialized in coastal and marine landscapes, my scholarship is focused in the understanding of the many and multiple ways in which humans interact with their environment. Exploring processes of adaptation in highly variable and uncertain environments, how households make decisions in terms of subsistence, has been the focus of my research. I concentrate in identifying and investigating the bioenergetic tradeoffs that coastal communities and households experience while buffering the costs of adaptation. This means exploring which/to what extent socio-ecological factors affect decisions about resource use and nutrition, as well as physical activities and effort.

I combine behavioral, ethnographic, and modeling techniques to explore decisions about effort, income diversification, and dietary health. Relying on historical ecology, socioecological systems, and place-based perspectives, my research also examines the role of marine landscapes as transitional environments or ecotones.

In these geographies, environmental and anthropogenic changes can progress at a faster pace than in more stable systems resulting in a wider range of cultural and behavioral responses, institutional arrangements, and governance structures.

While many contributions have been made in this field, there are significant gaps in understanding how new patterns of variation can produce alterations in resource use activities, and most significantly, how peoples’ perceptions of uncertainty, their prior experiences, and expectations about future returns or outcomes from particular activities may tailor different strategies for subsistence and correlate with observed behavior.

This is a challenging problem as adaptation is not a one-time event, but a process that unfolds over time. Moreover, what people think or say they do is not necessarily what actually happens…. Therefore, in any given society, even in the smallest village, you may find multiple overlapping solutions to a same problem, as well as solutions that are evolving or being readjusted as new opportunities or challenges emerge. Some of these practices consolidate over time into institutions, and that has been much of our focus of study within anthropology and other social sciences. Yet, how change actually translates into behavior and how new adaptations are tested and adopted is something that warrants more research. In any case, given the dynamic nature of these processes, and that they are immersed within larger socio-ecological complex systems, this is but just one tiny piece in the bigger puzzle.

I firmly believe that an understanding of the pathways in which adaptation occurs, its processual and operative nature, is key for advancing sustainable solutions.

In my teaching I am hoping to explore some of these issues, especially the nature of institutions and change within highly variable environments like coastal areas, how policies and rules emerge and relate to practice, how behaviors are adopted by groups or communities, and how we can define policies that can accommodate flexibility and change but remain effective.

Other issues I am hoping to explore with my students are related to property laws and ownership in ocean and marine landscapes, systems of natural resource use regulation in other cultures and over time, the effectiveness of some of the most adopted policy solutions such as Marine Protected Areas, Fishing Quotas, etc., how coastal communities are changing, and how to approximate/study behavioral processes of adaptation among human populations.

Will you teach undergraduate or graduate courses this year? Will they involve fieldwork?

 I am hoping to teach a class in natural resource policies, I am uncertain about the fieldwork component as of now given time constraints. Yet, I am very committed to creating/facilitating new experiences for students to do fieldwork, internships, and other activities that may bring them into close contact with what is going on outside of the classroom.

Next to academic work, I also believe that exposure to field research is essential to build responsible scholarship and to design projects that can be successfully executed.

What information, knowledge, and critical messages do you strive to impart to your students?

I see the task of teaching as one of empowerment, where students discover through theories and research practices exciting ways of engaging with the world.

Over the course of my career, I have taught or assisted in several types of classes, addressing different academic levels and audiences, and implementing diverse learning styles and mechanisms. Classes include topics related to coastal and marine resources and management, environmental conservation, human ecology, anthropology, cognitive theories, and qualitative and quantitative methods. Although varied, these instructional experiences have resulted in a pedagogic strategy that combines instruments from situational learning, agency, and participatory approaches.

The pedagogic strategy I apply builds upon three elements: 1) the generation of learning opportunities by doing research (learning by doing); 2) the generation of learning opportunities by being exposed to different cultural, institutional, and academic settings (learning by difference); and 3) the shifting in how students define themselves and their role as future scientists or practitioners (positionality). In line with this strategy, my instructional goal is to elicit critical and reflexive engagement with conservation and management issues, theoretical constructs, opinions, and arguments underpinning environmental problems. Secondary goals include the inclusion of diverse perspectives and voices in the formulation of a solution, and the operationalization of theories and concepts into empirical realities.

In order to meet these goals, my teaching strategy relies on developing students’ competencies in both professional and instructional domains. Among professional skills, I concentrate on:

  • Identification and deconstruction of theoretical frameworks
  • Trade-offs analysis
  • Engagement with different approaches, visions, and stakeholders
  • Problem solving; needs assessment, development of solution, evaluation
  • Communication; working across disciplines, stakeholder groups, and cultures; dissemination of results

What factors influenced your decision to come to Rutgers University?

 First of all, Rutgers is a very unique institution. It has a legacy of great minds like that of Dr. Vayda, Dr. Fodor, Dr. Pylyshyn, Dr. Trivers, Dr. McCay, Dr. Tiger, Dr. Spiro, Dr. Rudel, Dr. Gelman, and many many others. It has set the pace of research in so many different fields that I felt honored and humbled when I was invited to visit. I was thrilled by the potential in terms of research and teaching, knowing that the university continues to push the barriers in many exciting and innovative ways. I was also very engaged by the contributions that this campus is doing to applied science and service, how embedded is the university into its larger NJ community and the Nation. These were all great reasons to join the university faculty. Yet, Rutgers has something hard to find in other institutions of its caliber. It is populated by an extremely diverse, vibrant, and thriving community of students, researchers, and professors, yet a community that is pursuant of academic excellence in a very down to earth manner. There are few places where I have seen this combination, and I have been amazed by its results. Looking forward, I am only hopeful that I can make a small contribution to this wonderful mix, and will certainly strive to serve Rutgers’ mission both professionally and personally.