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

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Graduate Students - Karen Hutchins

Karen Hutchins, PhD
Visiting Assistant Professor of Communications and Journalism, University of Maine

Following is information on Karen’s research interests as a graduate student with the Sustainability Solutions Initiative.

What problem/s are you working to solve?
They key problem that our team is addressing is the disconnect between knowledge production and “real-world” action. University researchers produce knowledge, but often, it is not used in decision-making, the suggested solutions do not match the needs of communities, or researchers are not studying the issues communities need us to investigate. In order to help address this mismatch, my research focuses on contributing to models of stakeholder-university collaborations by identifying and exploring the factors that influence the likelihood and style of those partnerships. The belief is that improving researchers’ working relationships with stakeholders will make research and solutions more relevant and useful to stakeholders, and better aligned with community needs.

What progress are you making toward solutions?
Our research is contributing to solutions by helping to understand, analyze, and inform the development of community-university partnerships. We believe these partnerships are critical for developing sustainable solutions. My primary research involves a statewide survey sent to more than 2,500 municipal officials in every community in Maine.

Through this survey, we identified current problems facing municipalities and assessed factors that influenced the likelihood of officials’ interest in developing a community-university partnership, as well as their preferred partnership structure, in terms of the level of involvement in problem identification, research, solution development, and implementation.

Thus far, our analyses show that municipal officials’ belief that university researchers can assist them with solving problems in their communities is the strongest predictor of their interest in a partnership. We are continuing our analyses and our outreach to municipalities, and we will be conducting additional surveys to expand and improve our model.

How could your findings contribute to a more sustainable future in Maine and beyond?
I believe that improving connections between university and college researchers and stakeholders in Maine will contribute to a more sustainable future. This research will help us find more effective ways for universities and communities to work together by identifying stakeholders’ partnership preferences prior to collaboration. Findings also will determine key factors that may help improve collaboration between researchers and stakeholders in order to better identify solutions to some of the state’s most pressing sustainability challenges.

Why did you decide to join SSI?
I joined SSI because I wanted to be involved in research that would help Maine communities. I also wanted the opportunity to gain experience and learn from disciplines outside the field of communication through the interdisciplinary collaborations SSI promotes. SSI has provided me with the expectations, guidance, and flexibility to conduct interdisciplinary research and to work on research that really matters to Maine, in collaboration with stakeholders.

What’s the best part about collaborating on SSI research projects?
The best part aboutcollaborating on SSI research projects is that you get to learn from an amazing group of people and expand beyond individual disciplines. I am working on projects and learning about issues that I never imagined when I entered my PhD program. Working with these diverse groups not only improves my understanding of and ability to study the problems I am researching, but it also expands my social network. I am gaining invaluable experience as an SSI graduate student, and I know it will be a critical part of opening doors for future work.

Where’s your favorite place in Maine?
That’s a hard question because I have multiple favorite places in Maine! I love Bethel because my family grew up there, and we’ve been visiting my grandparents there since I was born. When in Bethel, you are surrounded by the Western Maine mountains, in a beautiful community, and have numerous opportunities for fishing, hunting, hiking, or skiing. On the other hand, I love the West Branch of the Penobscot River because I’ve spent many happy summers there fishing, hiking, and rafting with my boyfriend, who is a white water guide. The Millinocket Region has a friendly and close community, and I feel lucky to be around them each summer.

What’s your ultimate Maine experience?
Fishing at Nesowadenhunk Lake. I love the peace, quiet, and outstanding fly-fishing for native brookies. We’ve started a family tradition of traveling there each summer. Few experiences make me happier than driving out into the middle of Maine’s North Woods with family and friends, fishing, and enjoying its remoteness and the beauty of nature.

Mud season survival strategy?
I don’t wear shoes that I value, and I accept that my car and home floors will be muddy…no sense fighting the inevitable! I also gear up for fishing season because with mud comes spring and with spring comes fishing!

What sustains you?
My family sustains me. They are the most significant part of my life, and they keep me grounded. Taking time to get outdoors, exercise, and relax also is critical. For my work motivation, I find it particularly helpful to visit the Maine communities, the Maine lakes, streams, mountains, and wild areas that we are working to sustain to remind me of the importance of this work.

Additional information on Karen and her SSI team:
SSI Project: The Knowledge-to-Action Collaborative

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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