Meet the team: New Co-Directors – Professors Karen Johnson and Gretchen Larsen

Oct 3, 2022 | IAS News, Meet the team, Transformations (Issue 7)

Professor Karen Johnson joins the IAS as Co-Director for Science on 1 October 2022. Karen has had an interesting career, starting off in Blyth ending up working as a hydrogeologist in the Water Industry in Watford. She returned to the North East for family reasons and started her PhD as a mature student at Newcastle. After her PhD Karen worked as a consultant, enjoying the freedom to undertake a part-time art degree at the University of Sunderland. She started working as a Researcher part-time before working part-time was a big thing in academia, although she says this was largely because there was only enough money to pay her for 3 days a week. However, this was her first introduction to ways of working differently and in a way, her first introduction to interdisciplinarity.

Although trained as a natural scientist at Cambridge she has, since her art training, always sought out opportunities to work across the disciplines and has rarely worked on a project without engaging other disciplines. Her PhD was in mine water treatment using wastes as resources, and she was one of the first to start promoting a circular economy in environmental engineering. Her Challenging Engineering Fellowship from EPSRC allowed her to put her beliefs of the importance of community-led regeneration and circular economy as well as the importance of interdisciplinary training into practice. She won the Philip Leverhulme Prize for her ROBUST project (Regeneration of Brownfield Using Sustainable Technologies, 2009-14) and trained the team in both science and social sciences. The work resulted in several academic publications but more importantly educated 5 people in interdisciplinarity and had significant environmental and societal impact (see Soil Health REF impact case study).

Her scientific expertise is in carbon stabilisation and pollutant immobilisation on minerals and she has a track record of publishing both in top engineering and science journals such as Environmental Science and Technology and Nature Comms. But her passion is soil. She is determined to break the institutionalised soil illiteracy that is prevalent across the globe. Probably her proudest moment at Durham was working with MPs over several years through the ROBUST project on soil health, work which culminated in the launch the Environmental Audit Committee’s Soil Health Inquiry in December 2015 in Westminster. Her more recent rebuilding soils work turns Roosevelt’s quote on its head, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself” to become “A nation that rebuilds its soils rebuilds itself”. Karen works with many international colleagues, policymakers and farmers across the world to help get the important message that healthy soil underpins all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals out there. She is acutely aware of the importance of narrative, and the arts and humanities and social science in achieving this ambition and believes the IAS is the perfect place to marry the disciplines together to achieve such ambitions.

Karen has worked at the IAS before from 2018-19 when covering for a colleague’s leave and was keen to return as soon as this vacancy arose in order to help others achieve their vision. Karen’s thoughts on joining the IAS are given below:

“As an Environmental Engineer who has worked in the Water Industry and then moved into soil health research I know all too well the importance of interdisciplinarity in addressing the world’s global challenges and in answering some of our most confounding philosophical questions. In my previous roles at Durham so far, both as Director of Research for Engineering, Director of EDI for Engineering and Chair of the University SDG group I have developed significant experience of engaging in and educating on both the importance of good communication in research. I have always understood the importance of interdisciplinarity in addressing issues of sustainability but have come to realise that it also helps in tackling our biases. Not just potential biases in terms of background, culture and ethnicity but in terms of what you believe as a scientist or what your beliefs are as a social scientist or an artist. I find that working together across the disciplines, across backgrounds and cultures and across sectors (academic, community, policy, and other stakeholders) is the key to robust research. Teams that are diverse in not only subject fields but in people are the ones that are most creative and I believe harness the best innovative thinking as well potentially producing the most workable and holistic solutions to global challenges such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I take my citizenship roles very seriously and am very proud to be part of the IAS. Specifically, I am keen to meet new people, help those people realise their visions and fulfil their potential. I am also looking forward in helping extend the IAS’s reach, particularly with regard to global south communities, the general public and to early career researchers”.

Professor Gretchen Larsen joins the IAS as Co-Director, Business, on 1 October 2022. Gretchen moved to the United Kingdom in 2003 after completing a Bachelor of Commerce (Honours), a Master of Commerce, and a PhD in Marketing at the University of Otago, New Zealand. She joined the University of Bradford as a Lecturer in Marketing, moving to King’s College London in 2009, before joining Durham University in 2013 as an Associate Professor in Marketing.

Based in the Department of Management and Marketing, Gretchen is an interpretivist and critical consumer researcher. Her expertise lies in the relationship between consumption, marketplace cultures, and arts and creative industries. Much of Gretchen’s research focuses on identity and its relationship to consumption, and more recently, she has begun to address affective and embodied interactions with sonic phenomena in the marketplace. Her research has had a substantial impact on the development of the field of arts marketing, both in terms of building knowledge as evidenced in her research grants and publications which include articles in leading academic journals, a co-authored book Music, Markets and Consumption (2013), and chapters in edited collections; and in building up the academic infrastructure underpinning the growth of the field. For example, Gretchen was a founding co-editor and latterly Editor-in-Chief of Arts and the Market, she is an associate editor and editorial board member on several key journals in the field, and was a Deputy Chair for a related Academy of Marketing Special Interest Group. Beyond her research and teaching, Gretchen is an active contributor to the life of the University. Her most significant contribution to date has been in equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) where she played an important role in integrating EDI into the fabric and culture of Durham University Business School and the University as a whole, through various roles including Athena SWAN Champion for the Faculty of Business (2015 – 2018) and Faculty Lead for EDI (2018-2021).

Here Gretchen shares some thoughts on her role at the IAS:

“Interdisciplinarity has always been central to my work. While based in business and management, my area of expertise is located at the intersection of the social sciences and the arts and humanities, particularly the arts and the market. This is an intersection long filled with tensions; where the stereotype of the bohemian artist who creates ‘arts for art’s sake’ is often juxtaposed against that of the ‘sell-out’ such as chart-toppers and record company execs driven by the base materiality of market success and profit (Larsen and Kerrigan 2018). While pervasive, this is however just one, arguably limited view. An interdisciplinary approach to research and practice that enables collaboration across perceived boundaries, reveals arts marketing as a nuanced and highly co-constitutive space of innovative creativity that is valuable in a multiplicity of important ways.

Underpinning my approach is the belief that the role of academics is to actively participate in, and contribute to a rich, vibrant, collegiate, and inclusive academy, so that as a whole, we can push the boundaries of knowledge and challenge orthodoxy through rigorous, innovative and impactful research, scholarship and teaching. As the world in which we live grows increasingly complex, there is an ever-greater need for interdisciplinary approaches in order to sense and make sense of it in ways that are meaningful and fruitful. However, interdisciplinarity is not always easy to do in an academic world that has been categorised and organised along disciplinary boundaries – from the Departments and Faculties in which we are located, to the field specific journals and conferences in which we publish, and the degree courses through which we educate. The role of the Institute of Advanced Study is integral in providing a space within the University in which interdisciplinary research can flourish and to push forward the knowledge and practices of interdisciplinarity. I look forward to supporting the work of the IAS by fostering fruitful connections, facilitating spaces for the generation of new ideas and projects, and championing the new knowledge that emerges.”


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