Spotlight: Sara Sutherland discusses Madagascar, motherhood, and motivation

By Melissa Rapp, GradPost Contributor
Monday, March 23, 2015 11:32 AM

Sara Sutherland works on fisheries research in collaboration with the Bren School.Sara Sutherland is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in UCSB's economics department. She is charismatic, driven, and lucky – she is about to graduate! Sara grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, and completed a bachelor's degree in Psychology at Michigan State University. She completed her M.A. in economics here at UCSB and now teaches business and environmental accounting for UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

Sara shares how studying in Madagascar fueled her fascination with conservation; why a boy named Jack motivates her; and how she avoided near disaster on a camping adventure in The Everglades.

Is there any particular event or events that had a big impact or influence on you and helped shape who you are today?

Sara and her two-year-old son, Jack. While studying abroad in Madagascar, I witnessed environmental degradation and resource depletion on a massive scale. I am very grateful for this experience, which helped me to understand the urgency of the conservation effort in preventing resource depletion, but also the need for consideration of groups or individuals that depend on the resource for livelihoods. After I returned to Michigan, I began looking for graduate programs that address the issues I found both concerning and fascinating.

I was initially inspired to attend graduate school by my experiences with travel, but I have really evolved as a researcher by continuing to expand my experience over time. I have really had to enhance my time management skills and efficiency since having my son, Jack, two years ago.

Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.

There has been a good deal of research on the impacts of rights-based management (quota allocation) in fisheries and other natural resources, but there is a deficiency of economic research addressing the political process of fisheries reform and determinants of stakeholder’s positions on fishery regulation.

 When reading about the Alaskan Halibut and Sablefish Individual fishing quota program, I was surprised to find that rights-based management was first proposed as a potential management regime in 1988, but was not implemented until seven years later. I came to find that this was due to disputes over allocation, concerns for small fishing communities, and other program characteristics.

I found this very interesting and decided to examine the issue further. The first two chapters of my dissertation examine determinants and outcomes of political participation in the formation of rights-based management in fisheries. Rights-based management of fisheries refers to the allocation of a year’s total allowable catch of a given species to individuals or groups of individuals.

In my papers, public participation in the management of fisheries takes the form of attending meetings or writing letters to the management body. I first address the determinants of meeting attendance and whether the meeting attendees are representative of the entire stakeholder population. My second chapter examines determinants of stakeholder position on rights-based management.

What has graduate student life been like for you?

A roller coaster. There have been many highs, such as advancing to candidacy, getting data to answer my research questions, and watching myself evolve as a teacher. This year, I have seen the results of my work in the form of several conference acceptances, which has been exciting. There have been slower periods too, when my research was not progressing as fast as I would like. I also had a really weak math and economics foundation coming into the program, making the first couple of years of graduate school very difficult (to say the least). I had to learn to push on and stay determined despite setbacks.

What do you wish you had known before you started grad school?

I wish I were more familiar with the process of conducting academic research – some ideas don’t work out. That is part of the process. It's OK to quit and go back to the drawing board.

What do you like most about grad school and what do you like least?

I love developing new ideas and learning. I hate being broke. Santa Barbara is an expensive town to live in. It would be ideal if TA-funding and fellowships more closely matched graduate student budgets.

What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?

For me, it is all about the small victories ... they can keep me going for months. I have been even more motivated since having my kid in my fourth year of grad school. As a parent, you want to make your kid proud and do what you can to provide them with the best future possible. Providing for him not only monetarily, but also working to secure the future of our natural resources, are very important to me.

Who are your mentors?

I would have to say my advisors, Chris Costello and Gary Libecap. Their work has paved the way for environmental and natural resource economists, and, in a way, changed the way we address problems in these areas. They are able to approach problems in a unique way and come up with practical solutions in a way that is relevant and that influences policy. In a way, I would say that Gary and Chris have both inspired me and taught me how to "think."

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I am really just happy I have made it this far. Five years ago, I didn’t understand how to develop ideas into actual papers and research projects. I now have four papers in the works. I consider having a child an accomplishment, but finishing graduate school in a reasonable amount of time under these circumstances is certainly notable in itself.

What do you do to relax?

Sara enjoys a break from studying this winter in Utah.Relax? Don't have time for that in grad school! On the day to day, I like to hang out with my kid and garden. … I am also really into creating things – this year’s projects include building a garden from a palette, sewing a scarf and curtains, and building a bookshelf. I really enjoy hiking and camping. Being without cell phone service is very relaxing.

What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

I hope to stay in academia so I can continue to do research and to teach. I have Sara enjoys a break from studying this winter in Utah.learned to love the process of coming up with ideas and constantly learning.

What advice would you give to current grad students?

If this is your passion, keep going. It is a long process ... but you can get through it. You are capable, and are here for a reason. 

I also think that having a nice balance between work and “real life” is important. For me, this requires being mentally present in what I am doing. When I first had Jack, I would find myself stressed about work when I was spending time with him, and missing him while I was at work. Life has become a lot more pleasant since I acknowledged this and made a conscious effort to live in the moment.

I do my best to strive for a work-life balance. I go to yoga weekly and make sure to take time to get outdoors. I have created a lot of great (non-academic) memories while in school. ... Although spending time with Jack is my favorite, just this year I have flown all over the country for weddings.

My most recent adventure was a camping trip to The Everglades and the Keys after a Florida wedding. We rented a skiff boat, drove through The Everglades to the coast, and found ourselves a Key to camp on for the night. When we woke up in the morning, our boat had washed up on the beach 50 feet from the water! We had two hours to get the boat back into the water so I could make the rehearsal dinner that evening (don’t worry, with the help of some logs and leverage, we did it). It was a new experience, and I love that.

Sara almost missed a wedding rehearsal dinner after a boating mishap in the Florida Keys. All went well, however.

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