RUNC: Caela O’Connell

Caela O’Connell studies how people relate to social and environmental problems.

Caela O'Connell sits in front of a projection of a hurricanephoto by Andrew Russell
October 12th, 2022

Caela O’Connell is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences. She studies how and why we change our ideas, practices, and beliefs about the environment through the lens of rural and coastal communities facing disasters, economic issues, climate change, and other social and environmental problems.

Q: How did you discover your specific field of study?

A: My senior year of college. I took a course in sociology that was taught by an anthropologist. Reading the materials and hearing his stories about research felt like coming home. The anthropological lens was something I’d been searching for without knowing it.

Q: Academics are problem-solvers. Describe a research challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it.

A: I first got interested in studying disasters and natural hazard events when a major hurricane disrupted my dissertation field research as a graduate student. First and foremost, it was devastating for the people who lived there — but it had some pretty big impacts for me, too. I had to completely redesign my research because all of the comparative data were destroyed, and the research design and questions I had spent three years carefully preparing with the help of my advisors were all useless. It was a formative moment for me, and I realized that I could use the time I’d already spent in the field combined with what I was seeing happen after the disaster event to design a new, and likely much stronger, research project.

Q: Describe your research in five words.

A: People love water — not floods.

Q: Who or what inspires you? Why?

A:Children! I love seeing the world through their questions, watching them explore nature, and hearing their genuine compassion in response to learning about society’s problems like inequality and environmental degradation. The world’s kids are my biggest source of hope and motivation: I want to be part of handing over a world with fewer problems than we have today.

Q: If you could pursue any other career, what would it be and why?

A: Likely botany or costume design. I love anything to do with plants and admire the deep dives botanists can take when they are focusing on a particular genus or species, rather than systems-level research. I’ve also always loved designing clothes and costumes. I learned to sew growing up in my 4-H club. I worked as a designer for the theatre and dance program through college and then fulltime for a bit in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore afterward. I still do freelance work occasionally. It’s wonderful to create with your hands, and I love helping others’ characters and visions come to life through fabric.

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