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Meet Michelle Dovil, Ph.D., Tia Maxwell and Tenesha Washington

Faculty-student team investigated attachments to place and risk perceptions in coastal communities

Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal cities and other communities, where sea level plays a role in flooding, shoreline erosion and hazards from storms, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Michelle Dovil, Ph.D., at left, Tia Maxwell and Tenesha Washington conducted research through North Carolina Sea Grant headquartered at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Sea level rise increases pressure on vulnerable populations, particularly when coupled with economic, public safety and other environmental concerns. Despite these unfavorable forecasts, millions of people choose to reside along the coastlines. To help build and preserve resilient, strong communities, researchers seek ways to prepare residents for environmental uncertainties of the future. Part of that research involves studying how coastal residents internalize risk and maintain their attachments to particular places. The research will prove useful to the public and governmental officials charged with determining preparedness and response programs.

Recently Florida A&M University Assistant Professor Michelle Dovil, Ph.D., and undergraduate students Tia Maxwell and Tenesha Washington studied these topics through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Summer Research Team (SRT) Program for Minority Serving Institutions.

The SRT Program is designed to increase scientific leadership at Minority Serving Institutions in DHS research areas. The program provides faculty and student research teams with the opportunity to conduct research at university-based DHS Centers of Excellence.

During the 10 week appointment, Dovil, Maxwell and Washington conducted research through North Carolina Sea Grant, headquartered at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Their project was affiliated with the Coastal Resilience Center at UNC-Chapel Hill; a DHS Center of Excellence. Frank Lopez, extension director for North Carolina Sea Grant and the state’s Water Resources Research Institute served as their mentor.

“Our hope for this research was to find solutions that support the mission of the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen preparedness and resilience of residents in North Carolina, and educate the public and policy makers about ongoing environmental changes and how they will affect communities,” Washington said.

Using survey questionnaires, Dovil, Maxwell and Washington collected data in Wilmington and Elizabeth City, coastal communities at risk of inundation by rising sea levels.

“The way residents of coastal communities internalize environmental risks plays a critical role in risk communication, coastal management and climate policy,” said Washington. Informed by the data, the team provided critical analysis on issues related to coastal residents’ sense of place, perceptions of environmental risks, attitudes regarding flood insurance, willingness to relocate and trust in government to manage sea level rise.

Under the guidance of Dovil, Maxwell and Washington expanded their research skills and collected vital information through direct-from-constituent insight. They personally engaged with 300 coastal residents.

“In this study, we examined sea level rise through the lens of place attachment, a theoretical framework that suggests bonding to specific locations, which results in a commitment to place,” said Maxwell. “We constructed our project from start to finish; it was enlightening to be a part of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process, research question construction, data collection and data analysis.”

Their research from the DHS Program is being published under the title “The Place We Call Home: The Risk Perceptions and Place Attachments of Coastal Communities at Risk for Sea Level Rise in North Carolina.”

For Dovil, the DHS Summer Research Team program provided an opportunity to continue her dissertation research project. “When I graduated from Howard University in 2018 with my doctoral degree, I knew I wanted to research more vulnerable coastal communities and how they were being impacted by climate change. This experience and our access to several experts and specialists along with the resources provided by North Carolina Sea Grant and the Coastal Resilience Center have significantly influenced my research,” Dovil said. Recently Dovil was awarded more than $69,000 from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to conduct additional research on the impacts of climate change on coastal communities.

“My ultimate goal is to write a book on the experiences of coastal residents who are currently threatened by sea level rise both domestically and internationally,” Dovil said. “This program not only gave me another opportunity to pursue my dreams of researching additional coastal communities, but also combined my passion related to mentoring and advising college students,” she said.

“As a professor, I would love the opportunity to either create or teach a course on climate change, environmental inequality and/or homeland security at Minority Serving Institutions. I understand that minorities are underrepresented in the fields of weather and climate change, and I have made it my mission to teach, train and mentor the next generation to fill this gap,” said Dovil.

Following the program, Washington graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from Florida A&M University in 2020. She is now an analyst of financial crimes occurring within financial institutions. “I enjoy this field because I use my degree and collaborative, analytical, writing and decision-making skills to complete the job tasks,” said Washington. “I also want to continue studying environmental changes and their effects on the criminal justice field, particularly in the prison system.”

Washington benefited from the research experience because she developed confidence in her capabilities and gained insight into diverse career options. “The program taught me how to find my voice and learn to advocate for myself and my ideas. I learned how to comfortably communicate and network with others and build my professional brand. I formed better collaboration skills as this program required working with others, taking critiques in assignments and tasks, and using the feedback to improve my skills. This program definitely enhanced my presentation skills through conferences and oral poster presentations, and I learned how to confidently project and convey important information in a succinct and concise way,” said Washington.

Additionally, Maxwell earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology in 2019 from Florida A&M University and has received a full scholarship to attend Florida State University for graduate school in 2020.

“My experience in North Carolina, in particular my network’s expansion, introduced me to a variety of professionals within hazard mitigation and coastal management who had insight into how a multidisciplinary approach is pivotal to the success of policy and planning. These insights have influenced my view significantly. I am now pursuing a graduate degree in urban and regional planning with hopes of combining my love for cities and city planning with my concerns for socioeconomic and environmental justice for minority populations. With that focus in mind, I intend on participating in other internships in my home city with the goal of refining my research skills as well as learning about the practical skills necessary to be a planner,” said Maxwell.

“After continued education, I look forward to a career in public service, as I strive toward becoming a regional planner in communities that face significant environmental challenges, and one day hope to return to academia as an instructor. I plan to devise projects and policies that mitigate the threat of rising sea level and other coastal concerns while fostering and maintaining a community culture dedicated to sustainability and resiliency.” said Maxwell.

The DHS SRT Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by Oak Ridge Associated Universities.