In the Path of Disaster

Monica Dix travels to a hub of natural calamity to probe its risks and resilience.

August 28, 2023

Tyler Applegate

Monica Dix.
Photo credit: courtesy of Monica Dix

“My goals have always been to find how to pursue public service through science,” says Monica Dix ’20, whose Oberlin majors in geology and politics set the stage for exactly such a career path.

Dix’s journey has been marked by a keen interest in the intersections of natural disasters, governance, and societal resilience. Her quest to understand these complex dynamics led her to the doors of the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago, where she’s been putting her degree to use on environmental enforcement issues under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Now she’s on the verge of being transported from her midwestern home to the verdant landscapes of New Zealand, a nation prone to natural disasters in part because of its position between two tectonic plates. In early 2024, she’ll begin studies related to New Zealand’s disaster preparedness at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch with support from a Fulbright Study and Research Award.

We caught up with Dix to learn more about her work at the EPA and her upcoming journey.

What inspired you to apply for the Fulbright?

In wanting to pursue a degree in disaster risk and resilience, I found that a lot of U.S. programs approached the field through single disciplines that focus on security frameworks that prioritize the needs of those who hold power and resources over community needs. After receiving the Truman Scholarship in 2019 and Nexial Prize in 2020, I knew I had the resources to support going abroad to study in an environment that was more interdisciplinary and focused on participatory governance and transforming communities and institutions in positive ways to prepare for and respond to disaster. 

Aotearoa [the Māori term for New Zealand] sits at the intersection of nearly every possible natural hazard and therefore has sophisticated disaster resilience strategies, while also politically valuing indigenous representation and community participation in governance in ways that are incredibly exciting to research.

Researching the way Aotearoa navigates creating substantial new water regulations will give me a banquet of new ideas to bring to my current professional role and long-term goal of resilient water quality and quantity for Midwestern communities.

How did you land with the EPA?

After graduating from Oberlin, I received funding through the Truman Foundation’s Summer Institute Program to work with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Natural Hazards Mission Area on some of their national and international work related to disaster resilience, data, and mapping. I transitioned in August 2020 to my current role at the EPA. It’s a combination of field work investigations, oversight, and collaboration with our legal team to pursue cases under environmental laws, incorporating administration initiatives related to climate change adaptation and environmental justice. It means so much to me to work on these issues in a region that I care so deeply about, and I love traveling to communities all over the Great Lakes and taking time to appreciate our unique history—including bizarre roadside stops courtesy of Atlas Obscura and Roadside America!

I’m also grateful to be an active member of my union at EPA, working to lobby for federal workers and environmental issues, and I also serve as the current chair on the Geological Society of America’s Geology and Public Policy Committee, developing policy position statements on key geological issues. 

How did Oberlin help shape your career path?

I’m so grateful to many mentors in both the geology and politics department and beyond, but especially [geology professor] Amanda Schmidt for her support as a long-term research and academic mentor and Fulbright recipient herself. I’m grateful for the way that members of the Oberlin community so unquestioningly supported my desire to pursue interdisciplinary work, and I have always been able to rely on them for support, advice, and letters of recommendation, even after graduating. 

In many ways, I think that taking a politics seminar titled Action in the Anthropocene during my second year was a major catalyst carving a path for understanding the way that politics and geology come together in contemplating disaster and climate resilience. I’m also really grateful for the kindness of folks in the Fellowships and Awards office for helping me decide what scholarships best supported my graduate school ambitions and all their patience is guiding me and so many other students through application processes.

I have Oberlin to thank for immersing me in a community culture where I built the initiative to try new things, organize workshops, and bring people together. That skill set has helped me so much in post-grad life.”

What sparked your passion for cultural exchange?

Since leaving Oberlin, one of the ways I’ve continued to learn outside my professional work is through folk school education, even taking some of these skills and experiences back to my local community through workshops I organized with neighbors in Chicago. I’m really excited to transpose my experiences with midwestern folk schools into a new community and always enjoy seeing the way that the community-building practices reflect back on the holistic goals of my research. I absolutely have Oberlin to thank for immersing me in a community culture where I built the initiative to try new things, organize workshops, and bring people together—I’m sure I’m not the only Obie who has found themselves in more organizations than they could count on one hand! But the flipside is that skill set has helped me so much in post-grad life.

What are you looking forward to most in your Fulbright experience?

One of the things I miss most about Oberlin is the opportunity to continually learn and indulge my curiosity. I’m excited to have an entire year set aside to dig into the many questions that witnessing the state of disaster resilience and water regulations have raised for me, especially with the healthy work-life balance that Kiwis are known for.

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