Graduate Student Spotlight: Miku Lenentine

Miku Lenentine, graduate student

Miku Lenentine is a predoctoral research associate at the University of Washington. She works with Professor Stanley Asah in the School of Environmental and Forest Science’s Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management Lab.

Miku is assessing the social impacts of biofuels in the Pacific Northwest. Specifically, her research examines the social discourse regarding biofuels through a computer-assisted content analysis of online news articles, blogs, websites, and social media. She is also applying Q-methodology (a research method used in social sciences to study people’s viewpoints) to examine values, attitudes, and perceptions of different stakeholders. Miku attended Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, graduating from Huxley College of the Environment with a Bachelor of Science in ecology. She completed a Master’s of Resource Management from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia in 2010.

When did you first get interested in environmental social impact work?
I was exposed to this as a master’s student working with the Packwood community near the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The community had undergone huge changes as a result of the closing of their local mill and the dwindling timber industry. The community came together with all of the different stakeholders and developed a collaborative called the Pinchot Partners that is still going today. Working with the community and subsequently volunteering with the Pinchot Partners really impressed on me the value of the “human” element in natural resource management. It has also given me great respect for the importance of understanding that everyone has something different to bring to the table. In the end, we are all there because we care about the same things. We are all people with similar, if not the same, basic desires and goals. This is such an important message in doing conservation and natural resource work.

What types of social impacts are you assessing for the AHB project?
I am specifically interested in exploring social acceptability of biofuels within sociopolitical, community, and market domains. In addition, I am considering this process as it exists at the level of general policy, local community, and even households and end users. This includes identifying how policymakers and important stakeholders understand issues regarding biofuels in the Pacific Northwest.

How are you assessing them?
“Understanding” of an issue develops as individuals and stakeholders communicate and engage with each other in the public sphere. At the policy level, for example, this might include communication (papers, blogs, news articles, tweets, etc.) exchanged by researchers, government officials, environmental organizations, and community advocacy groups.

Through strategic sampling we are able to access a record of actions stakeholder groups are engaging in as they co-construct the social meaning of biofuels. My aim is to examine the social discourse within three major spheres of communications—small group interpersonal settings (e.g. focus group interviews), the general media (newspapers, websites, and blogs), and social media through the examination of Twitter. I chose these forms of media because they provide access to all three domains where society operates. They also represent a broad range of communication medium that take place in the public sphere.

I am exploring stakeholder perspectives about biofuels expressed by leaders of energy associations, labor unions, different farm and grower associations, environmental and community advocacy groups, investment companies, research institutions, and policy makers. I am specifically considering how biofuels are understood as a potential problem, as part of a solution for sustainable energy, and in terms of general benefits and concerns.

I am also examining discourse in the form of tweets produced by individuals; industry representatives such as business owners, energy associations, and machinery operators; news organizations; environmental and community advocacy groups; and others. I am analyzing information about the communication type and media used, the major themes and sub-themes, the sentiment, and also online influence through actions such as retweets and mentions.

What are some of the questions you ask in focus groups?
Focus groups were conducted using open-ended questions and attendees were allowed to lead the conversations. Examples of some of the initial questions included: What do you think about growing hybrid poplar for biofuels? What are some of the benefits? What are some of the things you might find challenging? Results from these focus group discussions were then used to design studies which are being conducted online and administered via email and phone. I am also conducting follow-up email and phone conversations with participants who are interested.

Which stakeholder groups are you targeting?
There are many, including: Farmers/Growers; Grower Associations; Dairy Industry Associations; Cattle Ranching Associations; Refinery, Fuel or Energy Producers; Energy Associations; Bioenergy, Biomass, Renewable Energy Companies; Labor Unions; Investment Companies; Academic Institutions; Private Research Organizations; Government Representatives (State and Local); Native American Tribes; Conservation or Environmental Organizations; and Community Advocacy Organizations.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?
The most rewarding aspects of this work are being able to connect with the stakeholders through email and phone conversations and really hear what they have to say on this issue. A lot of people feel very passionately about this topic and are not always asked to share their opinions so directly. I am excited about being able to present the areas of agreement back to the stakeholders so there is a clear path going forward.

How do you think this work will impact the project?
I think this work will help provide the data needed for policymakers and natural resource managers to identify the “best” options for promoting and developing socially acceptable biofuels policies, programs, and projects. The results can be used to help decision-makers identify priority areas for focusing biofuel and alternative energy development in the Pacific Northwest. They might also support the implementation of such policies and programs by providing the data needed for the creation of social marketing and communication efforts.