From his home base in Indianapolis, O’Neill Assistant Professor Nathan Cook is working on projects from around the world, specifically in what is known as the Global South—what some call the developing world.
In countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Cook looks at common-pool resources—things like groundwater basins, shared irrigation systems, rainforests, and other resources used collectively by rural communities.
Cook’s studies have taken him to various countries throughout his career, including Nepal where the government allows village-level committees of local people to manage most of the nation’s forests.
“Nepal’s program is widely praised as a success story for the rest of the world,” he says. “Programs like this are not only meant to reverse deforestation, but also to provide livelihood benefits to rural villagers who participate in forest management.”
Cook’s focus extends beyond how these types of resources are used and managed. He also examines the impact that management has on marginalized communities, and how to make more equitable and inclusive policies to govern common-pool resources.
Now, he’s taking a big step forward in doing just that. He was recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to study how local governance initiatives in multiple low- and middle-income nations can be more inclusive of local people—especially people belonging to historically marginalized groups.
“There are often missed opportunities to help the most marginalized groups,” he explains. “This is because many community-based initiatives fail to encourage participation that is broad and inclusive.”
Cook traveled to Kenya this summer to begin laying the groundwork for partnerships with Kenyan organizations running community-based natural resource management initiatives, and with local survey firms who will help study those initiatives. He says this multiyear project will be the largest he’s undertaken—but one he’s excited to work on for many reasons.
“I wanted to study natural resources not only because they are important to society, communities, and individuals, but also because it makes my world bigger,” he says with a smile. “I have the most fun job in the world because I get to go to other places and learn about other people’s contexts. That’s a lot of fun.”
Cook says another aspect of his work—teaching—also expands his world, all from the classroom.
What do you enjoy about teaching?
“I get a lot out of just interacting with students every week and I’ve learned things from students that enriched my understanding of the things that I study.”
Why is it important to incorporate students into your research work?
“Some people just learn better by doing. I know I am that way. Research is just one of many ways students can apply the ideas they’re learning about in class in a more hands-on way. Plus, I enjoy working with students. I get a lot of enjoyment out of watching them discover things and taking them on this research journey.”
Why should students come to O’Neill Indianapolis?
“At O’Neill, we’re educating both current practitioners in our graduate programs and the next generation of practitioners in our undergraduate program. That’s important in terms of shaping practice for the future. We also have a broad faculty base in terms of what we all study and our areas of expertise. That depth and breadth of knowledge benefits our students’ understandings of many issues. Plus, both O’Neill and our university really emphasize community engagement in all the research and teaching we do, which makes O’Neill Indianapolis very unique.”