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A ‘SURGE’ of Diversity in Disaster Research

CEHC’s DeeDee Bennett Leads Minority Scholars to U.S. Virgin Islands through NSF-Funded Project

20 students from across the nation joined CEHC's DeeDee Bennett in the U.S. Virgin Islands this summer.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Aug. 27, 2019) – As Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through the Caribbean in 2017, devastation from the Category 5 storms was felt not only in Puerto Rico, but the entire region – including the U.S. Virgin Islands. Residents living on the small group of islands are still recovering nearly two years later, with many of their homes uninhabitable, and limited resources to return to normalcy.

College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC) Assistant Professor DeeDee Bennett has taken interest in the U.S. territory’s recovery efforts, not only as an opportunity to help those in need, but also as a unique learning experience.

The 'SURGE' Project

Bennett is the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Minority Scholars from Under-Represented Groups in Engineering and the Social Sciences (SURGE) Capacity in Disasters project. Through SURGE, she focuses on two societal challenges – the underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in hazards and disasters research and the disproportionate impacts of disasters on underserved racial and ethnic minority communities.

Bennett, along with her three co-principal investigators, two evaluators and about two dozen faculty mentors, have recruited a cohort of minority graduate researchers from across the country to join the SURGE team over the project’s two-year pilot period. The group traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands for week-long trips over the past two summers to work with partners Greg Guannel from the University of Virgin Islands and Imani Daniel from the St. Thomas Recovery Team.

“The idea with SURGE is to build a pipeline of racial and ethnic minority scholars that are focused on disaster response and recovery,” Bennett said. “We are exposing our SURGE students to real crisis situations. Through the project, they are gaining the hands-on experience and mentorship necessary to become the next generation of minority STEM scholars, and new perspectives on the lasting impacts natural disasters have on vulnerable communities."

In its inaugural year, 10 SURGE students joined project team leaders in Saint Thomas and Saint John to explore the visible social, environmental and infrastructure-related impacts following the 2017 hurricane season. Another 20 students continued the work on both islands in June, engaging in various research and service projects with community leaders and on-site partners. The group presented findings at the National Hazards Workshop in July.

Broadening STEM

SURGE is one of 69 NSF INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) projects nationwide, which all focus on diversity, inclusion and broadening participation in STEM fields.

DeeDee Bennett accepts 2019 Kay Goss Technology and Innovation Award on stage at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Higher Ed Symposium.
Bennett (middle) was awarded the 2019 Kay Goss Technology and Innovation Award at FEMA's Higher Ed Symposium in June.

Although the project has focused on graduate researchers, Bennett plans to expand SURGE to undergraduates, and high school students. She received funding through the Strategic Allocation of Resources (stAR) program to include UAlbany students in the project’s next trip.

“We’re already seeing a huge impact from our work in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and look forward to returning once again with even more students,” Bennett said.

Other co-PIs on the SURGE project include Hans Louis-Charles, assistant professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, Terri Norton, associate dean for students and strategic initiatives and associate professor in the College of Engineering at Bucknell University, and Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center and professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Evaluators included Nnenia Campbell, research associate at the Natural Hazards Center and Jenniffer Santos-Hernández, research professor in the Centro de Investigaciones Sociales at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras.

Bennett was awarded the 2019 Kay Goss Technology and Innovation Award at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Higher Ed Symposium in June, named after the first woman to serve as associate director of FEMA.

You can learn more about her SURGE project here.

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