Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Chicago scholar Sabina Shaikh and her seven-year-old daughter resolved to get outside every day. They found time to bond before remote school and teaching on Zoom each morning by going to a neighborhood park, which became a perfect place to exercise and explore nature.
Venturing out even in rain and sub-zero windchills, they observed the change of seasons in minute detail: fresh snow in winter; their favorite magnolia and cherry trees budding and blossoming; birdsong rising over the course of spring; a cicada emerging from its exoskeleton; and dozens of migrating monarch butterflies resting on branches in late summer. They even raised some caterpillars of their own and released them.
“Paying attention to and embracing nature in cities is not a new concept by any means, but I think there’s so much more we can do if we’re engaging with the spaces we inhabit,” said Shaikh, an economist and social scientist who studies the environment.
This philosophy is reflected across her work: In addition to directing the Program on the Global Environment, which houses the undergraduate College’s environmental and urban studies major, Shaikh is the faculty director of the Chicago Studies Program and a co-lead of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation’s Environmental Frontiers initiative.
Together, her roles speak to her commitment to getting students engaged—both with the city of Chicago and with sustainability initiatives on campus.
Rethinking the relationship between humans and nature
Shaikh was inspired to study environmental economics by her own undergraduate courses at the University of Wisconsin as well as her upbringing near Milwaukee, where her lifelong fascination with the Great Lakes began. At UChicago, Shaikh seeks to foster student interest in environmental issues in a way that can lead to meaningful impacts.
She teaches several experiential courses in which students learn about the environmental aspects of life in cities and attempt to “green” operations in food service, recreation and campus life. Shaikh also teaches in the Calumet Quarter, an immersive quarter in which students and instructors explore the region encompassing Chicago’s Southeast Side and northwest Indiana through coursework and field trips.
By embracing the region as a local case study, the students are able to think critically about how ecology, human economic activity and public policy influence one another.
“In Chicago—or wherever you happen to be—getting outside of the classroom, observing what’s around you and using it as a subject of inquiry can add so much depth to your understanding,” Shaikh said. During non-pandemic times, she also co-leads the Mansueto Institute’s student research experience in the Galápagos Islands, which focuses on urbanization and sustainable development in the unique ecological context of the islands.