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How students incorporate sustainability in their master thesis

Many students are finishing their master thesis on sustainability this summer. In this blog, we reflect on their topics, approaches, and goals by highlighting theses from Governance of Sustainability, European Law, Global Archaeology, Computer Science: Artificial Intelligence, Industrial Ecology, and Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology.

The end of July: summertime. Most students have left the university campuses weeks ago, most staff is now on holidays. While everyone is reflecting on another busy, strange, but hopefully fun and productive academic year, a few students are still at top-level concentration, hidden behind their laptops, typing away. It is high season for master theses, with deadlines and defenses (and eventually graduations!) coming up. A stressful, but also exciting time for the many students who are finishing the final product of their studies before they leave university. In this blog we highlight six master students from different faculties of Leiden University, who have incorporated sustainability in their transdisciplinary master thesis, relevant to some of the world’s most pressing issues.

The relationship between nature and health. On the left you have the various nature types. On the right you see the various health effects nature has. (Thijs Jannes).

The relation between nature and health

Thijs Jannes is currently finishing his MSc Governance of Sustainability. He is writing his thesis on the accessibility of nature and its direct mental and physical health effects on humans. “I try to lay the foundation for assessing if people across the globe have sufficient access to nature,” Thijs explains.  “Last year, the UN recognised that a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right. To realise this resolution, a decent amount of nature needs to be provided.” In his research, Thijs examined 22 review papers and analysed the correlations between nature types and health effects. His verdict after six months of reading, coding, and analysing? “There seems to be a positive correlation regarding nature and health, especially for mental and emotional wellbeing. Especially in the urban context, this finding can provide an additional stimulus to improve nature facilities.”

Violating human rights

Also looking at the protection of human rights is Alexandra Masek, who is graduating from the LLM European Law this year. In her thesis she explores the probability of climate-change related complaints reaching the merits stage before the European Court of Human Rights. “I came to the conclusion that meeting the traditional victim status requirement will be extremely challenging in climate cases,” Alexandra explains. “Attributability of alleged damage is difficult to demonstrate, and proving that someone is affected by climate change is challenging, as climate change concerns mostly future risks.” Alexandra’s findings contribute to a broader call for changes in the procedures or the adoption of new protocols that would help bring climate complaints directly to the Court.

Ancient agricultural practices as an example for today

Everest Gromoll is a student of the MA Global Archaeology, studying long-term historical perspectives on modern climate change challenges. In his thesis, Everest is comparing human attempts to adapt the current food production systems to the Anthropocene – the current geological era – with the transition from foraging to farming in the Early Holocene. To write his thesis, Everest used knowledge from a wide variety of fields: “I read anything and everything. I probably spent more time studying modern agriculture, sustainable development, economic, and international affairs than I did archaeology. For months I had no idea how my thesis would come together or what use history could concretely have for sustainability challenges. It was only when I began reading widely into other disciplines that a picture began to emerge.” Everest found that the fundamentals of our approach to food production have changed very little: there is still a strong, short-term focus on intensification and landscape alteration. This is a problem, as current climatic conditions are becoming increasingly unstable after a long period of stability. We therefore need to find new, transdisciplinary approaches to agriculture that “think outside the box and truly break the mould of the last 12,000 years”.

Using artificial intelligence in agroecological research

The value of transdisciplinarity in studying sustainability challenges is also reflected in collaborations between students from different faculties. Job Vink is doing research within the master’s programme Computer Science: Artificial Intelligence. His thesis is not dealing with sustainability as directly as for example Thijs’ research, but is rather foundational for further sustainability research. In his thesis, Job created models that can estimate the height of trees in tropical forests in Africa and Central America at 10 metres resolution. Why is that important? “To save the world of course!” Job declares. “These types of models can be used in all sorts of research such as studying animal behaviour, detecting forest degradation, or understanding the global carbon cycle.” Job’s thesis will not disappear on a (digital) shelf somewhere, but is actually actively used by Industrial Ecology student Alexandra Lecka, who is now using Job’s research as a starting point for her thesis.

A scan of the earth's surface with the “land vegetation and ice” (LVIS) sensor, a laser instrument mounted on an airplane. The height of trees is indicated with a black to red scale, here the brightest red shows a maximum tree height of 45 m and the black areas indicate no trees (Job Vink). Job used this data as validation data for his models.

“Job’s research gives an amazing technical insight into the use of different models for the estimation of tree height. My goal is to transform this into a model estimating biomass to help calculate carbon credits,” Alexandra says. Such collaborations between researchers and students from different faculties are crucial in addressing complex sustainability problems. “On top of avoiding reinventing wheels, building upon each other’s research opens chances for collaboration and communication which can be insightful and interesting in exchanging views from different directions,” Alexandra says. “In this case, Job’s computer science background enriches and furthers my perspective from industrial ecology and this interdisciplinary connection will hopefully result in a nice final thesis!”

Local perspectives on climate change

Whilst Alexandra is only starting her thesis just now, Anna Notsu has finished hers a while ago. Her thesis within the Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology programme was about everyday narratives of climate change in Sicily amidst agricultural transitions. Her approach was again very different from the others’, as she dived into participant observation of farm workers at a lemon farm in Sicily. “I was interested in how people tell stories about climate change – whether or not ‘climate change’ was acknowledged as such.” The skills Anna learned during her thesis are ones that she is now transferring to new students whom she is teaching within the Cultural Anthropology programme. “I try to teach students the importance of ethnographic vignette (detailed, narrative-style storytelling). Precisely because I dealt with an urgent topic such as climate change during my MSc, I wanted to let the reader understand and even imagine or feel what it was like to be “there” in Sicily.”

Farm worker harvesting lemons in Sicily (Anna Notsu).

Whilst Anna has found a job and is looking for an opportunity to stay in academia as a PhD researcher, Alexandra Lecka is still working on her thesis and Alexandra Masek is pursuing a second master’s programme in human rights and humanitarian law. The other three are leaving Leiden University soon, but their plans for after a well-deserved summer break vary. Job is starting a job as a developer at Tikkie, Thijs and Everest are both leaving the Netherlands for an indefinite amount of time: Thijs to discover sustainable farming practices, and Everest to learn about regenerative agriculture.

We are very pleased to see students from a wide variety of disciplines using their background and knowledge to contribute to a liveable planet. The student projects described above are only a small sample of all the master students that relate their thesis to sustainability, in one way or another. One of the aims of the Liveable Planet programme is to bring these people together and share their insights with a broader audience. Are you also starting your master thesis or future career and would you like to contribute to sustainability by incorporating knowledge and views from different fields? Then do not hesitate to get in touch with the Liveable Planet programme to exchange ideas!

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