Celebrating Our Contributors #1

In the past two years in March, we have celebrated members of the EHN community who, despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19, completed their degrees—and we would like to continue that tradition of celebrating their achievements.

This month, we will once again publish a series of posts to showcase the work and recognize the accomplishments of nine EHN contributors who graduated in the past year. Today, let’s toast to Kyuhyun Han, Aly Kreikemeier, and Tiffany Nichols!

Dr. Kyuhyun Han

Graduated in December 2022,
PhD in History earned
at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Dissertation titled:
“Seeing the Forest Like a State: Forest Management, Wildlife Conservation, and Center-Periphery Relations in Northeast China, 1949 – 1988.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your dissertation?
My dissertation analyzes environmental science and forestry conservation in Northeast China during the early years of the People’s Republic of China. It challenges this premise that Mao-era China (1949-1976) was environmentally ignorant and isolated from the global development of environmental consciousness by considering Chinese policy in the context of the transnational development of environmental consciousness during that time. My research shows that the massive deforestation and species extinction in the Northeast was not the result of an absence of state regulations, but rather a product of bureaucratic compromises, local economic practices, and the government’s relationship to indigenous peoples. My research illustrates that the current issues of Chinese state-initiated conservation also have deep historical roots dating back to the 1950s and the 1960s. These included lenient enforcement of regulations on human utilization of natural resources and insufficient state control of the illegal trade in animals, a practice that was blamed for enabling the recent coronavirus outbreak. 

What was one thing that stood out to you, a cool find you came across, or something that surprised you in the course of your research?
What I found most striking was how the local cadres redefined state language, made compromises, or even secretly manipulated reports to “take care” of the local people. Many local cadres forged fake reports to allow slash-and-burn cultivation that the state banned to prevent forest fires for poor local farmers who desperately needed to expand farmland in the 1950s. Many cadres created wildlife sanctuaries following the state order in the 1960s and then opened them for poor hunters in the region. They also found loopholes in state regulations and provided ways for local people to hunt some of the most endangered animals under state protection, such as the Amur tigers, without getting in trouble. And it was these interactions at the grassroots that eventually changed the course of centralized forest protection policies when they hit the ground. 

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
I was fortunate to finish my three-year field research in Beijing and Northeast China, particularly in Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces, just a few months before the COVID-19 outbreak. One thing that I (and many other fellow China historians) had to deal with was the severe censorship of the PRC archives and libraries. I eventually had to rely a lot on cast-off materials sold in on and offline markets in China—the practice called “garbology.” Indeed, some of the best and most influential sources that I used in my research came from this practice, especially when studying ethnic minorities. For instance, I came across a valuable five-book government document collection on Orochen settlement in Heihe, Heilongjiang, as well as old newspapers, ethnographic records, and even children’s books on the Orochen people. They told me stories of opium addiction issues among the Orochen people, Orochen women’s role in the state hunting industry, forest protection, and local economy, and more detailed interactions between Orochen people and the majority ethnicity Han cadres which unfortunately is impossible to get from official archives. 

What kept you going?
Honestly, I think what kept me going was that my dissertation was also a story about many adorable animals indigenous to Northeast China, including but not limited to the Amur tigers, Asian black bears, muskrats, roe deer, and red-crowned cranes. I think the stories of animals that ventured into human settlements, the intriguing, curious, and often humorous anecdotes of the two species met in the forests, and the beautiful illustrations and photos of the animals really made the dissertation writing process much less painful. 

Dr. Alyssa Kreikemeier

Graduated in January 2023,
PhD in American Studies earned

at Boston University.

Dissertation titled:
“Aerial Empire: Contested Sovereignties and the American West.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your dissertation?
My dissertation examines efforts to define, control, and manage air as a natural resource from 1870 through 1990 in the U.S. West. Cases cover topics conventionally studied separately, including health and disease, nuclear testing, air pollution, and military airspace. One key thread that weaves these distinct aerial stories together is  how efforts to manage air as a natural resource mediated relationships between tribal, federal, and state governments.

What was one thing that stood out to you, a cool find you came across, or something that surprised you in the course of your research?
I’m always curious about how and why places with similar physical geographies develop in strikingly different ways—think: New Hampshire vs. Vermont or Arizona compared to New Mexico. Given that my parents fled Colorado for Montana as its population boomed in the 1980s, I was intrigued to learn just how hard boosters along the front range worked beginning in the 1930s and 1940s to promote Colorado as the nation’s mountainous playground. This included mailing postcards and pamphlets to Americans throughout the country (if you’re interested to learn more, check out William Philpott’s Vacationland).

One more curiosity that feels relevant today comes from history of air rights which offer fascinating stories—some of which border on the absurd. In 1878, Montana’s Supreme Court reasoned that a hunter firing a shot over someone else’ s land constituted a trespass. Fifty years later, a spate of cases resulted in new precedents that allowed airplanes to travel above peoples’ homes but determined specific conditions under which victims of “aerial trespass” could seek compensation. Air rights are often discussed in urban environments, but their contestation is just as crucial to battles over land access in rural places. As recently as 2021, hunters in Wyoming seeking to access public land blocked by a private ranch used a tall ladder to climb over no trespassing signs that stood, with nothing else, in the middle of open space. They’ve since been sued by the owner of Elk Mountain Ranch for trespassing through his airspace.

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
The COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down within the first few months of my dissertation research. As a result, I spent the next 8 months writing a new prospectus, basically, that outlined digital archives and sources I could use for each chapter. That set me back a year, but I was surprised at how much I could do with digitized archives. Additionally, I found some smaller local archives that allowed visitors. This changed the nature of my project to be more modern and more political in focus and method.

The most important part of my methodology was learning how to work with Indigenous communities. As I relied on government documents, the Indigenous perspectives in my research are primarily tribal, so I could contact those leaders to identify how different nations approached research. I still have a lot to learn, but I think the crucial lesson in my dissertation process was the importance of being very clear and honest about the kind of research I’m doing and the kind of research I’m not doing. It forced me to be explicit about the constraints of my scholarship regardless of my aspirations. It also taught me to acknowledge and abide by constraints on my scholarship regarding ownership that few historians concede.

On the daily, I found it crucial to write first thing in the morning and ignore email and other demands for good chunks of time (2-6 hours daily when I was in the thick of it). I kept a daily log of what I did with a note on what to do next. Scrivener provided an excellent place to do my first-phase writing, organizing mini essays and archival notes, and when I got to full drafts of chapters I moved to word to polish and finalize them. I use Zotero for sources and learned the importance of including photos of boxes and folder numbers when making pdf’s of archival documents. When I got close to my defense I gathered colleagues and friends to discuss my work with me. This offered a chance to practice fielding questions but also the opportunity to share my work with friends and community members, which I found meaningful.

What kept you going?
Early on writing routines and groups were a real godsend. I found that signing up for talks or conferences gave me nonnegotiable deadlines that pushed the work forward. As I got closer to my defense, I planned a long break and exciting trip that I had to look forward to afterward. I had also committed to my next/current position as a postdoc, so that required me to finish before 2023.

Dr. Tiffany Nichols

Graduated in November 2022,
PhD in History of Science earned
at Harvard University.

Dissertation titled:
“Constructing Stillness: Theorization, Discovery, Interrogation, and Negotiation of the Expanded Laboratory of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your dissertation?
What if someone asked you to hold a four-kilometer-long ruler absolutely still to measure a distance one thousand times smaller than the diameter of a proton? How would you prevent the environmental disturbances from the laboratory, the surrounding natural and built environment, and anthropogenic noise from disturbing your measurement process? In my dissertation, I argue that gravitational wave physicists of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) were able to accomplish this feat through constructing stillness to detect minute length deformations caused by gravitational waves. These gravitational waves are generated from the most violent events in our universe, such as the collision of two black holes. They stretch and squeeze spacetime as they ripple through the universe.

What was one thing that stood out to you, a cool find you came across, or something that surprised you in the course of your research?
The process of constructing stillness includes not only instrument design; it also requires a detailed understanding of the natural and built environment that the instrument is sensitive to. For example, the local environments and habitats of the two interferometers—the L-shaped instrument with four-kilometer-long arms located in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana—often disturb these instruments. The physicists must understand these disturbances so that they can filter or remove these aberrations from the data output by the interferometers. A notable disturbance included ravens peaking on the accumulated ice around the cryogenic pump for water at the Hanford location. The peaking disturbed the instrument in such a way that the ravens’ search for water mimicked how gravitational waves from black holes affect the instrument.

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
The siting of scientific instruments, a seemingly boring topic, is a crucial step in constructing stillness because the noise profiles of the surrounding environment influence the operation of highly precise LIGO interferometers. This was a surprising find. Physicists tried to interpret remote sites as quiet and unoccupied, despite that being far from the case. Using methods from environmental history and turning a lens to the land hosting LIGO’s facilities—an act uncommon in the subfield of the history of physics and the study of physical science facilities—allowed me to explore how the physicists created processes to claim that their sought-after spaces were empty. These methods also revealed the ways that the various local communities resisted the placement of the instruments through their nuanced understandings of the environment and preexisting land uses. I used my legal background to uncover this rich history by locating land use, tax, appraisal, land transfer, and other legal documents. I also engaged in mixed methods through participant observation of the physicists and engineers to discern how they understood the environment through the various sensors of the interferometer systems. Since the time span of my dissertation was 1968-2017, I was able to extend my research beyond the written archival record to include interviews of key players ranging across physicists, Congressional officials, local residents, and state and federal government offices including those at the National Science Foundation.

What kept you going?
I was thrilled to find that understanding abstract ideas of science, such as the merger of black holes, requires a vast knowledge of the minute and tangible features of surrounding environments and local communities. Too long have historians of physics focused only on physicists, technicians, traditional laboratory environments, and funding sources. Through my research, I argue that conservationists, blueberry farmers, ravens, and pine trees had just as much influence over the experiment as the physicists. My research and efforts inspired the creation of a siting group that will consider the numerous facets of siting—not only those required by the experiment—for the Next-Generation Event Horizon Telescope. For this effort, I stressed the need to incorporate scholars from a wide array of backgrounds and areas of expertise from the social sciences and humanities—sadly still uncommon in astronomy and physics—given the complexity of locating scientific facilities that can have profound effects on the surrounding environment and local communities. 

*Cover image: “Amphibious Thinker” by EHN’s content editor Evelyn Ramiel.

[*Cover image description: An artful collage of different overlapping and layered images of pictures and objects. In the background, there is a white spiral notebook, overlaid with clippings of printed texts that are geometrically arranged. There is also an airplane ticket, a picture of a pair of scissors, as well as a cutout of a brick building with many windows. At the center of the image lies a royal blue seal, with icons of the four seasons, a clock, and a desk with the silhouette of a graduating student in their academic robe, reading a book. In the foreground and at the bottom of the image, there is a bright pink lizard with purple polka dots and a layer of soil.]