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Sociology Professor's Focus Changed From 'How' to 'How To Make it Better'

Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018


Courtney Flint with John Cockett, Joseph Ward, Derrik Tollefson and Larry Smith

Courtney Flint, professor of sociology, recently presented her Inaugural Lecture to commemorate her promotion to full professor. From left: John Cockett, First Gentleman; Flint; Joseph Ward, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences; Derrik Tollefson, department head of Sociology, Social Work and Anthropolgy; and Larry Smith, USU interim provost.


Courtney Flint began her career as a natural resource sociologist with a question: How do communities react to risks and hazards in their surrounding environments?

She interviewed and observed Alaskans and Coloradans whose backyards had been devastated by bark beetles.

She surveyed farmers in the Midwest whose efforts to drain flat fields allowed nitrogen and other contaminants to flow into rivers and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.

Later, she consulted with residents of Alaska Native communities about the role of wild berries in fighting against the rapid increase of diabetes.

These days, she told an audience of colleagues and well-wishers gathered to hear her Inaugural Lecture as a new full professor, her original question has evolved.

“I started out really wanting to understand how communities respond to risk,” she said. “But what I find myself thinking more about is the pursuit of wellbeing. And it’s this question that really pulls me forward in my scholarship.”

Flint, a professor of sociology in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University, described her career and accomplishments in her presentation as part of the Inaugural Lecture series, which is designed to honor and acknowledge a faculty member’s advancement to professor.

Interim Provost Larry Smith, who hosted the event at the official USU president’s home, said the lecture series began in 2002 to “recognize those individuals who have reached the top rank in the academic profession, that of full professor.”

Flint’s expertise on the intersection of people and nature has earned her global recognition. Here’s just one snapshot: Her current schedule has her collaborating with scientists in Europe and advising a new university research unit in South Africa joining a global network of mountain observatories.

In all her roles, she’s a passionate advocate of the social sciences serving as equal partners with the physical science in the management of natural resources, particularly in rural landscapes and communities.

For instance, there was an emergency call from Montana in 2012. Researchers at the Flathead Lake Biological Station had long been experts on lake-river ecosystems and the food web.
“But there was a little problem,” she said. “They’d pretty much willfully ignored anything to do with humans in their science for a very long time — and had been very successful in doing so.”

Now, the University of Montana was seeking her help in bringing people into that equation and asked her how fast she could get there. She flew to Montana two days later and spent two years working closely with them.

Even when she arrived at Utah State University in 2013 to work with a large, multi-university project on water sustainability and watersheds, she turned heads in an early meeting. The scientists who’d scribbled notes on the board had put “physical stuff over here and social stuff over there,” she remembers, gesturing to the far side of the room.

She walked to the front, erased the social science material and rewrote it “smack in the middle.” The social aspect remains a central focus of that project, iUTAH: (Innovative Transitions in Arid-Region Hydro-sustainability) and they have made great strides in tackling Utah’s water issues, bringing together researchers from social science, biogeochemistry, engineering, landscape planning, water sciences, and more.

Just prior to her Inaugural Lecture, Flint learned she’s been re-appointed to a scientific board that advises the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She rejoins the 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors, following a controversial announcement in spring 2017 that she and other scientists were not being reappointed to this advisory committee that provides recommendations to the EPA’s Office and Research and Development.

On the EPA board, she chairs the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Committee. Her role, she says, is to provide an objective scientific review of EPA science and research programs, and at the same time “facilitate the process of being mindful of the needs of communities,” she said.

Flint recounted the moment her research priorities shifted from communities’ reaction to hazards to their proactive efforts toward their own wellbeing.  It was in Point Hope, an Alaska Native community bruised by climate change, soil contamination, and other social and environmental calamities. After months of working with the area’s young people, she said, they pushed back against the “depressing” research.

Luckily, she said, she was allowed a second chance. “And together we changed the entire focus of this project to values and wellbeing,” she said. “We still got to the risks, but they were able to share the value of their community and what was important to them and their future.”

She added, “I came into this focusing on risks and hazards, but these kids showed me the importance of wellbeing and brought it right to the top of my research agenda.”

For more information on Dr. Flint, see https://sociology.usu.edu/people/directory/courtney-flint

For more in iUtah, see http://iutahepscor.org/

Contact and writer: Janelle Hyatt, Janelle.hyatt@usu.edu, 435-797-0289





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