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Kirk Jalbert

Driven to Explore

December 19, 2017

When Kirk Jalbert was growing up in Billerica, Mass., he spent much of his time devouring science fiction books: Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Frank Herbert’s Dune.

He loved the feeling of being dropped into an unexpected world and exploring it for a few hundred pages, but he was more excited by the kind of thinking that prompted the stories in the first place.

“Science fiction is a genre that starts with a question,” he says. “‘What happens if you alter the terrain of a planet, and what would that do to its citizens?’ Or, ‘What would you do if you had a time machine?’”

Later, when he began his college search, he knew he wanted to continue exploring the way science and technology intersected with the world. He considered many schools—Cornell and MIT, for example. WPI won him over.

He was intrigued by a new science and society degree that some faculty members were just beginning to develop. WPI made Jalbert’s decision easy—with a solid financial aid package. As a first-generation college student, he was committed to making the very most of the experience.

“People in technical fields greatly benefit from reading widely across history, philosophy, politics, and art. One quickly realizes how inseparable these worlds really are. Choices made in the sciences inevitably impact society and we must be attuned to these realities in our work.”

An Education Driven By Questions

Jalbert majored in computer science, but he leavened his technical courses with humanities classes that allowed him to think about the big questions that had long fascinated him. “I took pretty much all the philosophy, art, and history courses I could get my hands on,” he says.

He pulled those threads together for his Interactive Qualifying Project, interning for Massachusetts state senator David Magnani, who was then chair of the Science and Technology Committee. He listened and took notes as constituents weighed in on an appropriation bill designed to bring more technology into the classroom.

He worked on the project in the mid 1990s—an inflection point for educational technology. “We were debating whether or not there should be laptops in the class- room,” he recalls. “It was one of the first times that different agencies were having to grapple with technology in that way.”

It was a debate that might have fueled its own science fiction book: “What happens when machines teach our children?” Now, of course, the debate is all but settled. Classrooms today are filled with many types of sophisticated technology.

Later, for his Major Qualifying Project, Jalbert analyzed who was using interactive technologies in the displays and exhibits at the Worcester Art Museum and how it shaped their experiences. His MQP was one of the first at WPI to study the human side of human-computer interactions.

David Samson, associate professor of art history, says Jalbert’s ambitious projects on off-the- beaten-path topics rejected a deep curiosity that seemed to be embedded in his DNA. “Kirk was always a more-than-one-discipline pursuer of big questions,” Samson recalls, describing Jalbert as a student with strong drive to educate himself.

That curiosity was the thread that nudged Jalbert from one path to the next, pursuing ever-larger questions in increasingly expansive ways.

“Pipelines are designed to transport resources from one site to another. In the process, they can create a dissonance in our sense of where resources come from, but at the same time can connect people from different backgrounds along the route who find themselves at similar risk.”

Exploring New Worlds

After graduation he headed into a corporate IT position, a common path for computer science majors. It might have seemed to be a dream job: the position paid well and he was quickly promoted. But to Jalbert, the work felt less meaningful than the projects he’d been tackling at WPI.

He cast about for other opportunities and was offered a job in a digital printmaking studio. The role required him to do high-end imaging and editing work for artists, and the miniscule salary (“a tenth of what I’d been making,” he recalls) didn’t deter him. The chance to work in a world sloshing with creativity inspired him, and he left the corporate world without a second thought.

Soon he was more immersed in the art world than he might have imagined, given his computer science background. He pursued his own artistic interests more seriously, and he brought his technical background to bear on photography and other types of art, including interactive sculpture, sound, and video installations.

He landed a job as an adjunct professor teaching photography courses at Clark University, and later earned a master of fine arts at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

If the turn to art seemed surprising, the philosophy that propelled it was familiar. Jalbert was using art as a way to explore some of the same questions that fueled his interest in science fiction novels as a kid. “Science fiction is about asking a question and writing a whole book about it to see where it goes,” he says. “I wanted to bring that same approach into an arts environment.”

As he delved further and further into his art and teaching, his interests expanded. Jalbert shifted his teaching to include more media, culture, and technology studies courses, knowing he wanted to go deeper into these topics.

Making Difficult Science Widely Meaningful

In 2010, Jalbert began a PhD program in Science and Technology Studies at RPI, where, in some ways, he found his way back to where he’d started—examining the ways science and technology shape society and culture, and how that process can work in reverse, as well.

One of his first research projects involved designing and deploying “culturally situated” software and hardware tools for STEM education workshops with Navajo school groups. Little did he realize that spending time in the Southwest would radically change the direction of his work. Witnessing the extent to which the coal, oil, and gas industry dominated the Navajo Nation landscape had a profound impact.

“I grew up in Massachusetts where people don’t really think about where their energy comes from, or how it impacts people who live everyday with fossil fuel extraction. It’s an ethical dilemma that’s difficult to ignore once you see it.”

“It’s hard to believe that 30% of our nation’s energy still comes from coal-fired power plants, a technology that dates back to the 19th century. As we transition to renewables, we must also find ways to transition communities that have been dependent on coal production for generations. Part of this will be retooling STEM education to prepare the next generation for careers in sustainable and environmental responsible jobs.”

As part of his dissertation work, and with support from the National Science Foundation, Jalbert delved into understanding how people in these communities responded to environmental and public health risks. In particular, he studied citizen science water monitoring groups that were popping up in the Northeast in response to shale gas extraction. (Research indicates that such work can have an impact on both groundwater and surface water quality.)

He examined where these groups were being launched, who was sup- porting them, and why. It turned out they were most likely to be found where there were universities, funding organizations, and retirees who had time to volunteer. In general, impoverished areas did not have such groups. Equally interesting, he studied how average citizens became fluent in science and used data to tell compelling stories.

During his fieldwork he connected with FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit that helps the public understand the risks of oil and gas development. The organization specializes in science communication, such as infographics, maps, and digital storytelling.

Jalbert was focused on the academic work that would land him a PhD, but he also deeply appreciated FracTracker’s overarching philosophy. By 2015 he had joined the organization full-time as an employee; he is currently the manager of community-based research and engagement. He also now sits on the state of Pennsylvania’s environmental justice advisory board.

On a daily basis, he’s charged with projects, including mapping, data analysis, and writing, linked to the oil and gas industry. He occasionally leads “difficult data” workshops in communities where oil and gas industry projects, such as pipelines, are likely to have an impact. As part of these efforts, he nudges concerned citizens to share their biggest questions—and he works with them to create a plan to help answer them.

 Recently, for example, he helped community members in Greeley, Colo., understand   what it meant when an oil and gas company announced it planned to put in a well pad—   an area cleared for natural gas and oil extraction— just 600 feet from a middle school   playground in a low-income, Latino neighborhood. He and others on the team led a   workshop, mapped the area, wrote about it, and translated much of the work for the   predominantly Spanish-speaking community.

 The work attracted national attention, and the community is continuing to debate the best   path forward.

Though the work is time-consuming, Jalbert has appreciated the chance to have a real impact. He sees it in the meetings, and he can measure it when he posts a story on the website that pulls in a thousand readers. In recent years, FracTracker’s easy-to-understand data has been cited by one government official as a key source that led New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban hydraulic fracturing in the state. “This work gives people real tools to be able to protect their communities and determine their own futures,” says Jalbert. As he came to realize both the pitfalls and the potential of how citizens use data to get more involved in environmental debates, he wanted to be able to move beyond a single application; to use this knowledge to help answer the bigger questions about science, technology, and people.

Soon, he’ll be in a role that will allow him to do just that.

“Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is a heavily industrialized process that often catches communities by surprise. A typical well pad hosts as many as 30 well heads. Each of those wells requires companies to haul in millions of gallons of water and chemicals. With each well taking three months to drill, residents experience this process for years. There are presently more than 10,000 hydrofracking wells in Pennsylvania alone, nearly all of which are in residential and agricultural areas.”

Thinking about the Future

In June Jalbert will bring his unique skills to Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, where he’ll become a tenure-track professor with a joint appointment in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering.

The role will connect work in the social studies of science and technology to applications in informatics. He’s excited to be able to transport the lessons he learned from facilitating public engagements with extraction issues and apply them to other types of problems.

The move seemed like a clear next step in forwarding his most powerful questions to a much bigger stage. “Finding pathways to expand civic engagement when people are coming to terms with some of the greatest dilemmas of our time, such as climate change for instance, will require that we rethink our relationships to institutions and each other. How can we utilize novel technologies to enable these transitions, to build a more sustainable and equitable future?”

The questions are lofty, but their implications are real. Jalbert has begun to understand their ramifications in a more visceral way—he and his partner became parents of a son in September, and he thinks constantly about the world that their child will grow up in. He feels the weight of that responsibility, and hopes he can encourage the students he teaches to take their own power as citizens—and the work they do in the sciences— seriously.

“It’s often the case that students assume engineering is exclusively about the problem itself and not the application or implications,” he says. “But if you work on water systems in Flint, Mich., or you’re asked to adjust software in a car to illegally pass emissions inspections, you’ll have decisions to make about whether those things are right or not,” he says. “How can we ensure that students develop a sense of responsibility about their work and to society?”Ultimately, he hopes his own story can encourage his students to think broadly about how they can use their education. “There is no obvious path,” he says. “But if their careers are guided by a passion for inquiry, a willingness to take risks, and a strong sense of ethics, then I think the next generation of scientists and engineers will truly change the world for the better.”

First published in WPI Journal, Winter 2017 edition