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Double celebration for new PhD graduate 24/05/2017

It’s a double celebration for GNS Science emergency management specialist Sara McBride who was conferred with her doctorate at Massey University’s graduation ceremony in Wellington this week. After she packs her gown and mortarboard away, she will head to the United States to take up a prestigious two-year post-doctoral Mendenhall Research Fellowship.

Sara McBride

Dr Sara McBride. Photo – Hamish McCormick

Awarded by the United States Geological Survey, the fellowship encourages researchers to build on their science research and practical skills.

Dr McBride’s PhD is in Media Studies. Her thesis, titled “The Canterbury Tales; Learnings from the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence to inform better public communication models,” explores how communicators and emergency managers can develop better ways of engaging with their communities to encourage preparedness and resilience.

Key findings include tapping into communities’ own knowledge and involving them in communication planning from the outset, to make scientific knowledge relevant to individual situations and needs.

Dr McBride, who is originally from Washington State, says winning the fellowship was unexpected, as she has not followed the typical line of study for the prize referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Geosciences Fellowships.”

“I was surprised when I received word that I had the Fellowship; I didn’t follow a traditional academic career pathway having had time as a practitioner and, as a social scientist, we don’t often receive fellowships from geoscience focused agencies. It is a real honour.”

The vision of the United States Geological Survey is to be a world leader in the natural sciences through scientific excellence and responding to society’s needs.

Dr McBride’s fellowship will examine communication research regarding earthquake forecasts and earthquake early warning programmes in the United States. Fellows are appointed for two years and receive full salary and benefits.

She has mixed emotions about leaving Wellington, where she has worked at GeoNet and GNS Science while being supervised on her thesis by staff at Massey University led by Dr Elspeth Tilley from the School of English and Media Studies and Professor David Johnston from the Joint Centre for Disaster Research.

“Without the support of GNS Science, I would not have had the opportunity to do a PhD. In many ways this isn’t my Mendenhall but rather GNS Science’s and Massey’s through the Joint Centre for Disaster Research. The team at Massey has supported me every step of the way and I’m very grateful.”

Dr McBride started her career in emergency management working between 2006 and 2010 as the public education and public information coordinator for the Canterbury Civil Defence and Emergency Management Group.

She was in the thick of the emergency response in the immediate aftermath of the magnitude 6.3 Christchurch earthquake in February 2011, working with the earthquake response teams. Her specific role was Public Information manager second in command in the emergency operation centre in the Christchurch Art Gallery.
“It was a very stressful time for everyone. I knew deep down, that people would recover because Cantabrians are notoriously strong people but the wounds were deep. I had a lot of questions about what happened and how I could have done my job better; those questions led me to Massey University.”

Since submitting her thesis she has been working at GeoNet as their information management team leader. A recent highlight was in the role of GeoNet public information duty officer for the magnitude 7.8 Kaikoura earthquake of November 2016.

The USGS started the Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program in 2001 in honour of Walter C. Mendenhall (1871-1957), the fifth director of the USGS. Between 12 and 20 Mendenhall Fellowships are awarded each year.

When Mendenhall was appointed as director in 1930, the USGS's budget was $US2.87 million. Today its budget is over $US1 billion. In spite of the difficult times during the Depression and the beginning of World War 2, Mendenhall encouraged the USGS to emphasise the necessity of basic research. He created an environment in which, in the words of the Engineering and Mining Journal, "scientific research, technical integrity, and practical skill could flourish."