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Human Behavior’s Influence on Scientific Advances

Posted on Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Scientific advances depend on more than just research in a lab. Innovation also depends on people and their behaviors. ARCS Scholar Alum Gretchen Engbring, PhD, is a Sustainability Social Scientist at Stanford University.  “While we often think about scientific advancements as biophysical and technological (such as driverless cars or carbon capture technology), I hope that the coming decades reveal a wave of social science innovations in fields from political science to psychology,” she explains.

“For example, how can we shift economic systems and consumer culture to be more compatible with environmental health?” Engbring asks. “How can we leverage behavioral and social psychology to combat racism and xenophobia? I firmly believe that the human mind and social systems we create are shaped by some of science’s most exciting and promising frontiers today,” she says.

In her work for Stanford, Engbring leverages key findings, principles, and methodological tools from social sciences to help understand and promote sustainable behaviors among the Stanford community. She says her work integrates science and practice by conducting direct research with various Standford communities that directly informs campus sustainability policies, programs, and practices.

She explains: “For example, my team is studying how the university community interacts with the campus waste system through surveys, waste tracking, and observational studies. Our findings then help us to design more effective and inclusive communications and waste-related infrastructure that helps the university reduce landfilled waste and related greenhouse gas emissions.”

Engbring received her PhD in Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. She is grateful for the ARCS Scholar Award because she “believes deeply in the ARCS mission,” she says.

The ARCS unrestricted funding for graduate students “is critical given the high costs of graduate education, housing, healthcare, childcare, and more.” She used her ARCS funding to help cover expenses while conducting fieldwork abroad, and it helped when “unexpected barriers – from canceled flights to earthquakes – threatened to derail my research.”  

Now, Engbring is an ARCS Oregon Chapter board member. As VP of Scholar Relations for the chapter, she values the opportunity to meet current scholars. “I never cease to be amazed and impressed by our scholars,” Engbring says. She says that serving at the board level allows her “to take an active role in the organization as it evolves and grows to better support STEM education. It has been a leadership, networking, and skill-building opportunity.”