Pooja Kanwar (continued)

Following in her father’s footsteps, she went to the University of Iowa to study geography and environmental studies while completing undergraduate research in India on water supply and sanitation issues.

“It was my first really deep dive into environmental studies where I examined case studies about how water infrastructure is managed,” she said.

Kanwar’s next stop was Antioch University New England where she studied watershed science and geomorphology. Her master’s thesis expanded on her undergrad work, exploring rainwater harvesting issues in a village near the Kabini River in South India. “I began looking into the ‘people’ side of things, like what role did community engagement play in the efficacy in rainwater harvesting,” she said.

She picked up more practical experience as a water project coordinator at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, jumping into acid rain monitoring and wetland science. She also created a network of volunteers to monitor water quality along the Connecticut River.

After being accepted into the UVM PhD program, she worked as a Gund Fellow in the sustainability office, tracking UVM's sustainability progress through an annual greenhouse gas inventory, piloting the AASHE STARS system for tracking activities, and working with students on various service-learning and senior capstone projects.

Kanwar's dissertation research remained international in breadth, migrating from India to New Zealand. Kanwar investigated Kaipara Harbour through an ecological risk assessment and governance analysis, examining competing demands on the resources of the ecosystem. Included in the study was an analysis on the extent to which water policy included the values of the Aori, the indigenous peoples of New Zealand.

Several UVM mentors were especially supportive in this academic journey, including Breck Bowden (the Patrick Professor in Watershed Science and Planning in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources) and Chris Koliba (Professor of Community Development and Applied Economics).

“It was great for me because at that time working across disciplines was not necessarily the norm—the Gund was creating that kind of environment,” she said. “The study touched on indigenous values, policies, planning and governance and ecological economics watershed science.”

At UVM she also taught classes, weaving the hard and soft sciences together in her curriculum.

“I was a big fan of methodological pluralism—including both scientific and theoretical perspectives to offer a more complete picture. That also includes anecdotal work—bringing the human stories, feelings and emotions to case studies.”

Kanwar was interviewing for tenure track and post-doctoral positions when she received a job offer out of the blue from the U.S. Forest Service. They needed a natural resources planner in the Superior National Forest based in Duluth, Minn.

“I got the call eight months after I submitted the application and I had almost forgotten about it,” she said. “I loved teaching, but I really wanted to know what it’s like to be on the ground as a practitioner.”

At the Forest Service she oversaw the land and resource management planning process, including implementing and monitoring the land and resource management plan. She leaned heavily on the teaching and interpersonal skills she honed at UVM to coordinate forest planning with local and regional stakeholders.

Her stomping grounds included the Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Canada which she describes as one of most pristine wildernesses in world, where water “is as clean as it gets.”

Kanwar still finds opportunities to feed her thirst for new knowledge and explore new places. About five years ago she migrated to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources based in St. Paul as water policy consultant.

She has a hand in generating legislative reports, completing water availability assessments, designing drought plans: “anything water policy touches—it’s a great fit for my background.”

Another of Kanwar’s initiatives is a public service program “We Are Water.” She works with historians on how to communicate the story of water and connect citizens of Minnesota to water resources.

“If you can have that one-on-one connection where somebody understands how important water is to them, it will help prioritize water and protect it as the valuable resource that it is.”