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Senator George J. Mitchell Center & Maine's Sustainability Solutions Initiative

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Alumni - Michelle Johnson

Research Assistant, Sustainability Solutions Initiative
PhD Student, School of Forest Resources

What problem/s are you working to solve?

How can we use co-produced land use suitability maps to model alternative futures in a way that planners and citizens can both 1) understand the models and 2) use them to solve their problems.

How can we understand how the presentation of these maps and associated stories of the future can affect how the public evaluates these types of planning projects?

What progress are you making towards sustainability solutions?

A main focus of my dissertation has been examining the psychological impact of viewing scenarios, in terms of the potential for citizen engagement. I also have been part of a larger Alternative Futures project, working with stakeholders to develop land use suitability models and to create future scenarios of landscape change.

How could your findings contribute to a more sustainable future in Maine and beyond?

Such modeling applications can assist with 1) creating a common ground for discussions of contentious land use issues and 2) providing a vehicle for envisioning possible futures. The surveys I am working on will also measure individuals’ responses to these models and this process.

Why did you decide to join SSI?

I decided to join SSI to be a part of a research team working on real-world, place-based issues related to sustainability.

What’s the best part about collaborating on SSI research projects?

The exchange of ideas.

What is the one research paper that you believe best reflects the work you have done with SSI?

My favorite dissertation chapter is: Does Imagining Future Land Use Conditions Affect Citizen Engagement with Land Use Planning?

Why is this paper important?

With all of the focus on stakeholder and citizen engagement that is occurring in natural resources, it is important to remember participation is not evenly distributed among citizens. One way to improve representation is by increasing public participation. This paper identifies a potential mechanism to explain why scenarios of community change have the potential to increase participation in land use planning efforts: self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a concept referring to one’s belief that s/he can achieve a result from a behavior. A survey experiment I conducted indicates that viewing scenarios increases one’s sense of self efficacy, thereby increasing intent to participate in land use planning activities.

What is one of your favorite conferences you have presented at, and why?

The International Symposium on Society and Resource Management. It is a relatively small conference with a focus on social aspects of natural resources. We had a strong UMaine/SSI contingent when I attended, and it was easy to strike up new conversations with people conducting interesting, applied research.

Looking back, describe the best experience you have had with the SSI team.

Collaborating with other students from my cohort on a scientific paper.

When do you expect to graduate, and what do you see as the next step in your academic or professional career?

I expect to graduate in May 2014 and will then work as a Social Scientist/Ecologist for the US Forest Service’s NYC Urban Field Station, a part of the Northern Research Station.

How has your SSI training impacted the trajectory of your graduate studies and your plans for the future?

My role at the NYC Urban Field Station is to facilitate both social science and ecology research, along with their integration. SSI, with its focus on interdisciplinary research of socio-ecological systems, directly resulted in my successful application for this position.

Where’s your favorite place in Maine?

Anywhere lakeside or oceanside.

What’s your ultimate Maine experience?

Hiking Katahdin. June 2013. Now I’m planning my next trip up.

Mud season survival strategy?


What sustains you?

Maintaining hope about the future and wonder about the present day.

Additional Information on Michelle and her SSI Team

SSI Project: Mapping a Sustainable Future
Advisors: Rob Lilieholm & Chris Cronan

Image Description: Mitchell_Ctr_kw72615

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Contact Information

Senator George J. Mitchell Center & Maine's Sustainability Solutions Initiative
5710 Norman Smith Hall
Orono, ME 04469
Phone: 207.581.3244E-mail:
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
A Member of the University of Maine System