Roux Colab: Students Investigate the Resiliency of Rural Communities

By Rebecca Goldfine
A small group of students is helping a Bowdoin professor collect data on the ability of communities in Maine to weather turbulent times caused by extreme climate events, public health emergencies, and financial downturns.
Four students with Eileen Johnson
Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies and Program Manager Eileen Sylvan Johnson sits between Kyle Pellerin ’26, Emma Olney ’25, Chloe Sheahan ’26, and Evan Grauer. Research assistant Wren West ’25 also made key contributions during the fall semester but is currently abroad, Johnson said.

They are part of the Roux Colab, a research endeavor based in the Roux Center for the Environment and founded by professors Shana Starobin and Eileen Johnson for collaborative social science research. One of the lab's ongoing projects involves understanding the resiliency of rural communities.

The Colab is busy this year, engaging students in three grant funded projects—two from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and a third from the state of Maine. With this funding, the team is evaluating the ability of communities to obtain public funds and how effectively municipalities communicate to their residents, particularly during times of upheaval.

For the last decade, Johnson, a senior lecturer in environmental studies, has focused her research on Maine's small towns and cities, looking critically at their vulnerabilities and challenges. She frequently collaborates with three scholars, Vanessa Levesque at the University of Southern Maine, Kathleen Bell ’90 at the University of Maine, and Jessica Leahy at the University of Maine.

“Rural communities are under-studied and are different from urban ones in terms of their challenges and opportunities,” Johnson said. “My colleagues, all three of us, that is our area of focus.”

The four academics are currently working with nine undergraduates across the three schools, including three from Bowdoin: Kyle Pellerin ’26, Emma Olney ’25, and Chloe Sheahan ’26. In a separate project, Johnson and Evan Grauer ’26 are also collaborating with Maine Sea Grant and the Lincoln County Planning Commission.

Research assistant Wren West ’25 also made key contributions during the fall semester but is currently abroad, Johnson said.

Communicating through crises

When COVID-19 brought life to a standstill in 2020, Johnson realized she had an unusual opportunity to study how rural towns respond to crises.

“Communities that were 200 years old had to shift,” Johnson said. “We realized how important it is for towns, when they’re shut down or incapacitated, to communicate," and how their resilience, and in some cases even people's survival, "is tied to information communication.”

With a small grant from the University of Maine system, she and her colleagues began scraping the websites of 150 municipalities to see how they relayed information and news to residents during the pandemic.

Their research revealed a lot of “success and innovation during a hard time,” Johnson said. “A lot of that was communities doing what they do—they figured it out, and did it. But we also identified information gaps.”

For instance, despite the resourcefulness of many local officials, technological and cultural obstacles—such as people's resistance to new technology or language barriers—limited some communities' ability to effectively deploy digital services. 

In December, 2023, Johnson, Bell, and Levesque published an article on their findings in Government Information Quarterly on the “role of municipal digital services in advancing rural resilience.”

This fall, their work got a major boost when they received a two-year grant for just under $300,000 from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The USDA funded their research, as it fits within its mission to enhance the capacities of rural communities and strengthen their economic development and resilience. While Johnson's research is focused on Maine, her findings will be applicable to towns across the nation.

In their abstract, the researchers explain that “in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic turmoil, and policy changes, rural communities face increasing opportunities to access grant funds, adapt services, and guide major infrastructure investments. Yet, the extent to which rural communities successfully access and leverage these opportunities hinges on community competencies which are not fully understood nor equitably distributed.”

The scope of the grant will allow Johnson and her collaborators to deepen and expand their evaluation of digital communications across Maine, as well as to examine and compare the grant capacities of rural communities. In the latter case, the researchers are looking in particular at how many municipalities across the state are applying for and receiving grant funds, how the money is being managed, and to what end.

“Knowing that so much of that funding is coming from the federal government, we wanted to understand where there are gaps,” Johnson said. 

In conjunction with this project, a Maine agency, the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future (GOPIF), in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, has provided Johnson with a grant that focuses on Maine Won't Wait Community Resilience Partnership, which is designed to help communities plan for and adapt to climate change.

A third award from NOAA's Maine Sea Grant program is helping Johnson and her collaborators continue working with coastal communities to link services—like emergency management and social agencies—to better serve residents who are most vulnerable in a disaster, like the elderly, people with disabilities, and those who live in mobile homes. (Read more about an earlier phase of the project.)

While the focuses of the three grants differ, collectively they will help produce outcomes that could strengthen “community resilience across pandemics, climate change, and economic turmoil,” Johnson said. 

Impact on student researchers

Chloe Sheahan ā€™26
At the Maine Water and Sustainability Conference in Augusta on March 28, Chloe Sheahan ’26 presented one of the two posters on the research undergraduates are pursuing for Bowdoin's USDA grant project.

Pellerin, one of Johnson's research assistants, said he has appreciated the chance to work on a project related to climate change. He's an environmental studies and computer science major. “I thought of this as a good way to learn more about research methods and the environmental study field as a whole,” he said.

Sheahan began her work this fall by creating an inventory of the digital services and platforms—including websites and social media—of every Maine municipality (that's 484 in all). Sheahan has also worked on the analysis of local grants, and says that in the process she's gained social science research skills and become a better communicator, especially around coordinating a multifaceted research project.

Olney, who is also assessing towns' grant capacities, said she was drawn to the project because of her own experience in rural Pennsylvania, where she grew up. 

A government and environmental studies major and biology minor, she is also trying to figure out whether she wants to pursue a career in the sciences or in policy. “I am torn,” she said. "I am trying to figure it out. As graduation looms, I find myself very interested in ecology as well as social science and policy, and it is hard to imagine one without the other.”

She's deliberately seeking experiences across all those areas at Bowdoin “before I have to get a job that makes me do one or the other more.”

These three students will be presenting posters on their research at the March 28 2024 Maine Sustainability & Water Conference.

Gruar said he jumped at the chance to work with Johnson and her team because he hadn't yet done much social sciences research. “I am more of a humanities kid,” he said, adding, too, that “this seemed like a cool opportunity to make more of an impact in the Maine community.” He's from Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Gruar's hoping one day to be an environmental lawyer, and this project, he said “has a lot of applicable skills in terms of communication, synthesizing data, and working with a team.”

“In each of these projects, students are valued members of research teams that span other educational institutions, state agencies, and regional and local organizations. They are learning about how social science advances through collaborations such as these,” said Johnson.