National Drought Mitigation Center


Schwartz brings together physical and social sciences in dissertation

June 3, 2024

Caily Schwartz (shown here with her dog Finn) has been a graduate student with the NDMC since 2021. During her time, she has been weaving quantitative and qualitative data together to improve drought communication efforts.

By Emily Case-Buskirk, Communications Specialist

Caily Schwartz is interested in how the physical sciences and social sciences can work together, especially when it comes to drought and climate science. 

Her dissertation, “Further developing Drought Early Warning Information Systems using mixed-methods and multiple streams of data,” seeks to bring together traditional sources of data with qualitative information to help people be more prepared for drought. 

“I'd say the overarching connection was what data or methods can we use to better communicate drought for the purpose of early warning,” Schwartz said. “And either add data or add a better way to be able to do that." 

Schwartz has been a graduate student with the National Drought Mitigation Center since 2021. During her time, she has been weaving quantitative and qualitative data together to improve drought communication efforts. 

She first became interested in drought and how it impacts communities in her undergraduate studies, where she researched storm surge, sea level rise and the vulnerability of local businesses in Alabama and Mississippi.  

Schwartz has a BS in Environmental Science from Auburn University and an MS in Earth System Science from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. In August, she will earn a Ph.D. in Natural Resource Sciences with a specialization in Human Dimensions. 

Bringing in the human side of science is important, she said, because that means science is connecting with society and effecting positive change. 

“I was really interested in that and bringing in more social science because I think there's a pretty big gap,” she said. “... I wanted to be able to take the remote sensing and somehow connect the human experience to things.” 

She said part of the reason she chose UNL was for the social science aspect the program provided. During her time in the program and working at the NDMC, she learned more about sociology to start bridging the divide between social sciences and physical sciences. 

“In general, studying humans is really hard. The two sides of things approach science differently ... I think that contrast was really interesting,” she said. 

She considers the quantitative data favored by physical sciences to be more widely applicable, whereas qualitative data used in many social sciences to be more of a “snapshot” of a moment in time. 

"You can usually cover a bigger extent or a bigger time period (with quantitative data). Adding qualitative data is kind of that snapshot of right then and there, which is a little different than more traditional drought monitoring efforts,” she said. “But it's still useful and can help you navigate how to move forward in education and communication.” 

Schwartz presented some of her research at the 2023 American Geophysical Union Annual Meeting in December 2023.

Schwartz used both types of data in her dissertation. In a chapter about agricultral drought, she conducted a focus group with dry bean growers. Through the process, she gained qualitative insights that strengthened her dissertation, such as the fact that the color of dry beans also affects the yield profits. 

“There's so many other intricate details that they're managing and that they have to take into consideration,” she said.  

Working with an interdisciplinary team at the NDMC and having Tonya Haigh on her committee were both instrumental in shaping her dissertation, she said. One of her personal highlights was traveling to Alaska, where she helped present a drought game to facilitate discussion of resource allocation and drought issues with local stakeholders. 

“I've really appreciated having a larger team that covers these different aspects of drought,” Schwartz said.  

During her time at the NDMC, she also got to attend the American Meteorological Society’s Summery Policy Colloquium, a weeklong event that helped her learn more about the intersection of science and policy.  

By networking with other graduate students, federal workers and Capitol Hill staffers, Schwartz discovered an interest in translating science to societal applications. 

“As I've done my PhD, I've realized I want to be more in that translational role of, how do we take science and turn it into something that people can make decisions based on,” she said. 

To further pursue this interest, she accepted a position as a human environmental scientist with the Global Water Security Center in Alabama. Part of the University of Alabama System, GWSC translates science to help decision-makers improve water, energy, food and health security. 

Although she said she’ll miss the trails and restaurants of Lincoln, she’s looking forward to moving back to Alabama, where she’ll be closer to friends and family. Schwartz also plans to get involved with water conservation groups in the state.