Dean’s Undergraduate Award Spotlight: John McClure

Dean’s Undergraduate Award Spotlight - John McClure

By Brittney Barron

John McClure is a recipient of the Dean’s Award for his paper “Differential Vulnerability to Climate Related Disasters Among Communities Along the Santa Cruz Coastal Landscape.”

Q1: Can you tell me about the research that you did and the kind of things it consisted of? 

My thesis is a case study of how pre-existing social inequalities embedded within the landscape will be exacerbated by future climate disasters and will shape how climate change impacts coastal communities around the world. There are a lot of preexisting social and economic inequalities that have been embedded within our landscape over time which have not yet been dismantled. These inequalities will really end up impacting who is most affected to the impacts of climate change and in what ways. As we are seeing now with the current covid19 crisis, the impacts of disasters are not always experienced equally and can be driven by existing social and economic structures in place. I argue that we will likely see similar effects caused by the climate crisis.

In my thesis I look at the different parts of Santa Cruz that are most at risk to sea level rise and increased flooding of the landscape. I then looked at who was living in these most vulnerable locations, I looked at demographic information on age, income, ethnicity, and found that, on average, there were more people of color and of low income that were located in these environmentally at-risk locations. I then looked into reasons for why these communities that were most environmentally vulnerable were also the communities that were the most socially vulnerable, and the possible core drivers behind those inequalities and subsequent vulnerability to potential climate disasters in Santa Cruz.

I then come up with possible policy and climate adaptation and mitigation measures that could be taken up by the city of Santa Cruz in an attempt to further dismantle those social inequalities as well as implement socially equitable climate adaptation measures to protect both the coastal environment and the residents who are most at risk.

I ended up winning a Dean's Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research in 2020 for this research.


Q2: What motivated you to research this? 

I took my ANTH senior seminar with professor Andrew Mathews on the topic of environmental anthropology at the end of my 4th year which was just an amazing opportunity for me to work closely with the professor and deepen my research into these topics. The course really allowed for the students to be independent in our research and the different topics that we decided to research on. This is the course where I came up with the idea to do this research project on differential vulnerability to climate disasters and where I produced the first version of the thesis. I was motivated to do this project because the idea that some people were at more risk of climate change and environmental risk due to factors like someone’s race/ethnicity, age or economic status was deeply troubling to me. I’ve always been interested in studying the effects of climate change, and this gave me the opportunity to do that while also attempting to identify and address existing inequalities in Santa Cruz.


Q3: What kind of obstacles did you come across throughout your research?

There were a few obstacles that I encountered during my research, most notably the COVID 19 global pandemic. Due to some of the Shelter-in-place restrictions that were put into place in California and around the world, I wasn’t able to do all of the in-person ethnographic research that I had intended to do because I was not able to be in that landscape in person. Additionally, people’s availability to talk and be interviewed was postponed due to the chaotic nature of a global pandemic and the tolls that can take on both professional and personal life.  Instead, I decided to interview people within the community remotely who were available to gather the information that I needed to complete my paper.


Q4: How did the anthropology department help you in overcoming those obstacles?

When I returned this winter, I decided I wanted to continue doing research at UCSC on a topic that was relevant to Santa Cruz, and so I decided to continue doing research on the project that I began working on in my ANTH senior seminar. After consultation with my ANTH advisor, I decided to reach out to Professor Mathews to see if I could enroll in an independent study course with him for the winter quarter where we could work more on my paper and expand my research and luckily, he agreed. Instead of doing a formal thesis within the department, I decided to do an independent study with my mentor to work on producing my independent thesis within the Anthropology Department which provided me with more flexibility. Without the guidance and help from the ANTH department faculty and advisor, I would not have known about how to enroll in an independent study or how to reach out to my professor.


Q5: How do you think that your experiences in doing research are unique to UCSC or to the department of anthropology itself?

It certainly has been an interesting 5th year for me and an interesting way to finish up my undergraduate career. I went from being in the middle of some of the most historic protests in modern Chilean history while abroad this fall to coming back to Santa Cruz and being in the middle of the graduate student strike on campus, to then experiencing the current covid worldwide crisis. Although it’s been a tough and challenging year in many ways, I have learned more this year than any other year during my career at UCSC, both personally and academically, and am thankful to the ANTH department and UCSC for allowing me to realize and pursue my passions and interests. 

By Brittney Barron. Brittney is a Lead Peer Advisor with the Department of Anthropology.