Rob Weiner – News and Stories
The 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth left Roberta (Rob) Weiner “terrified” by climate change. As a double major in environmental studies and political science at the University of Chicago, the West Lafayette native would later become involved in environmental justice work in that city. “A lot of it was about building new narratives around environmental issues, which could be quite technical scientific issues with complex technological causes,” Weiner said, citing discussions of fracking and coal mining. in Illinois as examples. After living briefly in California and observing people’s reactions to cutting-edge technologies being tested there, Weiner returned to West Lafayette to earn a master’s degree in the social sciences of natural resources under Linda Prokopy, department head and professor of horticulture and landscape architecture. “I came back for the program because it was specifically about the interest in engaging stakeholders in different planning and action processes related to the environment,” says Weiner. As a masters student, they explored climate communication in national and international contexts and attended UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) conferences. When Linda Pfeiffer, associate professor of science communication and MS committee member at Weiner, had an opening for a graduate research assistant, they decided to stay at Purdue and start a PhD in science communication in the spring of 2020. “The reason why I was drawn from environmental justice to science communication is that there was a stark difference between what I saw in An Inconvenient Truth and the effects of climate change on real people – compounded through disinvestment in their local communities and environments,” says Weiner. “It’s really important to me that people have access to the knowledge they need in an accessible way, so they can express and fight for their needs and desires.”
“My current research focuses on advanced technology and how people interact with it and make decisions about it – the area that sits right between sociology and psychology,” Weiner says. Through interviews and focus groups, Weiner collects and analyzes respondents’ opinions on a wide variety of topics, from climate change and changes in their communities to technologies such as plant genetics and big data. Weiner hopes the research will inform communication strategies that will make agricultural science accessible to the public and help people make decisions amid the influx of technologies that affect them. The work resulted in the publication of three articles in the journal Climate change and a fourth in Public understanding of science.
Weiner cites it as a “great experience” to have helped Pfeiffer and Steve Hallett, professor of horticulture, to design a new course, Environmental Communication (ASEC 48500) and to work as a teaching assistant for this course and two others. Weiner’s experience in community and labor organizing and coordinating campaigns around environmental and economic justice issues led them to establish Graduate Rights and Our Well-Being (GROW) at Purdue. The organization’s goal is to help graduate students “understand what our rights are as employees and how to defend those rights,” Weiner says.
“I really enjoy the teaching aspect and the kind of research I can do in academia,” Weiner says of future projects, but they might also be open to working in a public sector climate office, a position science communication or an emerging technology agency. They credit Pfeiffer with insisting that his graduate students maintain a healthy work-life balance. As a result, Weiner takes the time to understand and appreciate the local ecology and to seek out edible and medicinal species in the wild.