Claim your curiosity.

Ward Lyles

Mentor Spotlight | Summer 2019

Department: Urban Planning, School of Public Affairs and Administration

Describe your research/creative scholarship in a few sentences that we can all understand: I am fascinated by questions about how people interact with the natural environment and the built environment. Core themes that cut across my research are how can we think, feel, and act with more compassion so that all of our communities – urban, suburban, rural, and natural – can be more sustainable. My particular area of research is in the realm of natural hazards and disasters and adapting to climate change.


Q: How did you first get interested in doing research or creative work?

A: As long as I can remember I’ve been curious. And, to me, research and creative work is about exploring new ideas, information, conversation, activities and so on. In an academic sense, I recall doing a research project in high school trying to understand what makes Beta fish attack each other, color or shape. I used Lego sharks and color blocks to try and isolate the cause of the Betas’ distinctive flaring of gills. I cannot remember now what I found, though! Since then, I’ve done an undergraduate thesis on underwater avalanches off the coast of Antarctica, a master’s thesis on billboard regulation in Wisconsin, and a doctoral dissertation on networks of professionals working to reduce risk from hurricanes and floods. The key thread, I think, is curiosity about people interacting with the quote-unquote natural world.


Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?

A: A lot, actually. Almost all students in Urban Planning are getting their degree to jump right into a career-track job in public service in one way or another. One might think that research would be a distraction from building skills like leading public engagement processes, creating maps, and coming up with visions for the future. But, really, almost all of their work professionally amounts to research: what do people in this neighborhood want in the next ten years? Why is this bus route or bike route not working the way we want? And so on. By working on research projects, they learn how to identify a problem or question, how to think about what they want to measure and how to look at data from multiple angles, how to communicate what they discover, and how to do all of this while keeping in mind that the perspective and values of other people are of core importance. It’s both quite simple and tremendously complicated at once.


Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research or creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?

A: Two things: I love working with other people. I especially enjoy working with students whose identities and experiences bring diversity to the research project. Often, too, I encounter students who are only beginning to become aware of how much positive impact they can make. Unfortunately, almost all of us have stories in our own heads about why we can’t do something new and different or why someone else is better suited. One of my favorite parts of being a professor is helping students discover that they can do really impressive things and that they can generate legitimately new knowledge about the world. Second, I really just love learning. Reading books is great, but so too is collecting and analyzing data that no one has looked at in a certain way before. For me, as a planner, a particular benefit is that our work is directly relevant to critical issues of public prosperity and health, like reducing negative impacts of disasters and climate change.


Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?

A: Jump in and get your feet wet. A huge factor in determining your enjoyment and success will be the people with whom you work. If your first experience or two is not great, don’t stop trying to find the right research team. Once you do, it will be empowering and fun.


Q: For many students, doing research or a larger creative project is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems.  Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected?  Or about any tricks or habits that you’ve developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?

A: One that comes to mind is quite sad, really. I had driven to Florida to do two sets of interviews. On the day I had completed the first set I got a call from the second location. The person on the phone was clearly upset and shared with me that the supervisor – my key informant in that part of the study – had just died unexpectedly from a heart attack in his late 60s. Obviously, at that moment, my research did not matter in comparison. But, I was a doctoral student feeling lots of pressure and one of my four case locations had just become much less valuable from a data and analysis perspective. At that point, though, I postponed all of the other interviews. I guess the upshot is you never know what might happen in research because you are dealing with real life. You have to be adaptable, from an intellectual standpoint and from an emotional standpoint.


Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?

A: I spend time with family, I read non-fiction books outside my field, and I ride my bike on the gravel roads of Kansas. There’s chores and other stuff, but family, reading, and cycling are my passions.

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