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Student Spotlight: Olivia Meyer

Our first student spotlight of Fall 2022 is Olivia Meyer, a second-year Ph.D. Student in Geography and Environment, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

Background and Research Interests 

I’m a graduate student in the Department of Geography and Environment and a Student Affiliate at the East-West Center. While I’m originally from Virginia, I also lived in Kentucky during my master’s before moving to Honolulu. My dissertation research is titled “Plastic Panacea: Exploring the ‘Circular Economy’ of Plastic Waste in Thailand,” and I work primarily in Bangkok and central Thailand.

I’ve always been passionate about environmental issues. As an undergraduate, I was committed to environmental justice organizing and co-founded a fossil fuel divestment campaign aiming to connect my Virginia university’s economic investments to the climate-related risks communities were facing around the world. This led to my finding a home in the Geographic Science department. I was fortunate to build relationships with faculty mentors in the department and beyond, which sparked my interest in pursuing graduate school and research in Southeast Asia. After graduating with my B.S. in 2016, I worked at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, Thailand. I assisted with horticulture lab experiments, taught English, edited scientific papers, and got to experience being part of a dynamic group of environmental researchers. 

I returned to school in 2018 and completed my M.A. in Geography at the University of Kentucky. My master’s research was based on two months of fieldwork in the Bangkok metropolitan area and over 30 interviews. Using feminist political ecology, I demonstrated how expert knowledges originating from international media and prominent Thai government and plastic industry institutions presume to define Thailand’s plastic waste issue while sidelining grassroots demands for regulations. I was particularly interested in how global scientific expertise and discourses that blamed Thai consumption obscured other sources of waste along the commodity chain (e.g., plastic waste imports). While in Kentucky, I was also involved in various local research and community organizing roles. I served as Conference Chair for the tenth annual Dimensions of Political Ecology conference, which drew about 500 attendees. I worked as a research assistant for The Food Connection, where I developed grant writing, data processing, interview transcription, and coding skills. This included coordinating advisory board logistics with a healthcare system for a multi-disciplinary pilot produce prescription program in eastern Kentucky. Additionally, I worked to restore voting rights to people with felonies in their past and I served as a field organizer for a campus and public healthcare employees union for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. 

Now, I am a Ph.D. student in Geography at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship recipient. I draw from my experiences with environmental research and social justice organizing to research how power (e.g., political-economic) shapes environmental issues. Specifically, my project examines the role of plastic initiatives in shaping the vision and practice of Thailand’s circular economy. While many ambitious circular economy targets fail, the frictions between global processes (e.g., certification metrics, foreign investments, recycling quotas) and local realities that mediate Thailand’s circular economy remain under-examined. My project examines why circular economy solutions succeed or fail by attending to local social conditions that mediate circular economy participation and knowledge production and their implications for regional and global sustainability.

Life outside of school:

I’m a member of Academic Labor United (ALU), which is building graduate worker power to gain rights such as a living wage, healthcare access, and more. While my Thai language studies are related to research, I also find it one of the most rewarding parts of my experience at UH. The FLAS has opened so many doors to be able to speak with my friends in their language. I love watching Thai dramas and trying to teach myself how to sing in Thai as well.

I also enjoy using photography and film to communicate about my research and am looking for new ways to incorporate them as teaching tools. 

~Learn more about Olivia on her personal website