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Meet KIETS Climate Leaders Scholar Alexandra Hays

NC State student Alexandra Hays

Alexandra Hays, a master’s degree candidate studying natural resources management and policy in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State, is one of three students in the College of Natural Resources to be selected for the 2022 cohort of the Climate Leaders Program.

The Climate Leaders Program — administered by the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology & Science (KIETS) — aims “to build strong partnerships among students, faculty mentors, and internship hosts while working together to develop solutions for mitigating and adapting to climate change impacts.”

During her time as a Climate Leaders Program Scholar, Hays is studying the socioeconomic impacts of climate change policy implementation, especially for marginalized communities, under the guidance of Justin Baker, an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources.

“Ultimately, I’m hoping to provide an analysis centered on a demographic of people that are generally excluded during the policy development process,” Hays said. “By centering my model on data specific to the region and population of interest, I’ll hopefully fill a gap in the data, which generally overlooks these effects as a consequence of aggregation.”

We recently spoke with Hays about her experience as a Climate Leaders Program Scholar and the impact she hopes to make through her research. Check out the Q&A below to learn more.

Why did you choose the Forestry and Environmental Resources program at NC State for your graduate studies? 

I chose the Forestry and Environmental Resources program because I wanted to get additional hands-on research experience in environmental economics. I previously completed some applied econometrics work as an undergraduate and took classes that overviewed environmental economics and/or sustainable finance, but I never had the opportunity to do my own research in the field. 

What does it mean to you to be named a KIETS Climate Leaders Scholar? 

I’m very grateful to be a part of the KIETS Climate Leader Program. I have learned so much from my fellow scholars as well as the monthly meetings we attend. The meetings cover a new topic each month, so we’re always learning about different areas of sustainability. The interdisciplinary nature of the program lends itself to a very collaborative and open environment, where each of us can learn and share knowledge on our respective areas of focus. 

What challenges are you hoping to address through your research? 

I’m doing research for my thesis on food insecurity among farmworkers in the Central Valley stemming from various water allocation scenarios pursuant to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires groundwater basins to substantially reduce consumption over the next 20 years. Given the farmworker’s household water insecurity issues and simultaneous reliance on the agriculture sector for employment, this policy presents a tradeoff that has yet to be quantified/estimated but will significantly impact the day-to-day well-being of these individuals. I’m using a mix of socioeconomic and environmental data to try and estimate these food insecurity impacts.

What motivated you to pursue this research? 

I knew from the start that I wanted to do research in the social/environmental justice space. I got the idea of food and water insecurity modeling from my advisor, Dr. Justin Baker. One of the projects his lab had been working on when I applied to the master’s degree program related to this issue of water and land use modeling in the Central Valley, specifically focused on cropland and potential changes stemming from SGMA and climate change scenarios.

This problem is so important because traditional market mechanisms may result in severe inequities in the distribution of negative effects. Without adequate consideration for these communities, who have been historically marginalized and excluded from decision-making processes, they will likely face disproportionately high consequences from water reduction requirements. However, this legislation is necessary and will yield benefits for these same communities. 

In what ways has your faculty mentor helped to guide you through this research? 

When I was contacted by Dr. Baker, we discussed a few projects, but this one stood out as an opportunity for my research to explore questions of social inequities and highlight issues experienced by historically-marginalized populations. Dr. Baker has given me a lot of freedom to explore different angles for this topic and has guided me toward this final project goal of modeling future food insecurity under different water allocation scenarios. He has helped shape my personal aspirations into a tangible project goal, and continues to support me through collaborative feedback.