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Department of Geography

"Almost a universe unto itself"

Leigh Johnson is a Verena Meyer Visiting Professor at GIUZ in the academic year of 2023/2024. She talks about her research and teaching, why she chose GIUZ for her sabbatical and what she will miss when she leaves Zurich.

Leigh Johnson

Christian Berndt: What exactly is a visiting professorship? And the Verena Meyer scheme? 

Leigh Johnson: The Verena Meyer Guest Professorship is a funding scheme of the University of Zurich to invite women professors to raise their visibility as role models for junior researchers within the university. More generally, a visiting professorship is usually a position held by someone taking a research sabbatical from their main institution, in my case the University of Oregon, in Eugene. 

There you are a Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies. What are you actually doing in research? 

One major focus is the ways markets are made for climate risk, and particularly financial instruments and insurance products to transfer climate risk. Right now I’m looking at insurance policies for sovereign governments, particularly governments in Africa who buy insurance policies for drought and tropical cyclones. 

Another strand of my research focuses on what I call “adaptation labor” - the work that people do to adapt to climate change. This is very often unrecognized, unwaged, and sometimes not considered “work” at all. So my research tries to document these dynamics, but also to build theory about how we can understand it within political economy and political ecology. Within that framework, so far I’ve been examining two very different examples. One is the organization of work on soil and water conservation landscape features in arid East African rangelands, and the other is the fire suppression work done by incarcerated people fighting wildfires in Oregon.   

And why did you choose GIUZ as the place for your sabbatical? 

Well, I wanted to come back ever since doing a Postdoc and an Oberassistenz position here. I worked at GIUZ from 2011 through early 2016, and my oldest daughter was actually born in Switzerland. We wanted our children to experience Switzerland and to return to places and people that we remembered very fondly. And academically, it is a very vibrant place with a lot happening, so a smart venue for a sabbatical that would be both familiar and stimulating. 

Right. And during your time here at the department, what were the main things that you have been doing? 

Many things! In the autumn, I began working on a new extension of the research on adaptation labor, into ecosystem-based adaptation and restoration. As an academic fellow of the Digital Society Initiative, I started studying the digital crowdfunding platforms used to finance ecological restoration work, trying to understand how the logic of digital platforms mediates and shapes the labor of restoration. I have continued developing that work in a coauthored paper with Karin Schwiter in Labor Geography. 

Second, I began research in Kenya on soil and water “bunds”. These are small earthen semicircles that catch water runoff in arid and semi-arid rangeland landscapes, with the goal of regrowing perennial grasses for livestock grazing. I was able to do some field work in Kenya and present some preliminary results in a talk at GIUZ. 

I also gave numerous other talks in London, Paris and Lausanne. I also very much enjoyed teaching in the geography master’s course “Global Economic Geographies of Food and Agriculture” with you. It was a highlight to get to return to that course and interact with master’s students again. 

And finally, as part of the Verena Meyer program, I have developed and led different workshops both on being a mentor, and on developing your mentoring network for assistant professors and for postdocs/Oberassistent:innen, respectively. 

How does GIUZ as a place of work compared to your institution? 

I think it's very different because the department here is so large. It is almost a universe unto itself; there is always something happening within the department. So you do not have to look far, and you can’t possibly meet everyone or attend everything you’d like to. My departments in Oregon are relatively smaller, so one ends up interacting with more units across the university. 

There are also many more master’s students at GIUZ, and in general, students pursue master’s degrees in geography far more frequently in Switzerland than in the United States. I really enjoy and value that kind of seriousness and deep inquiry by students who may or may not pursue a further academic degree. That is very special, important training, and I think it is only possible given the particular funding conditions here.

There is also life beyond work. What did you do in your free time while being in Zurich? 

Well, first of all, I really enjoyed running and finding new paths through the forests around the northern side of Zurich. And a lot of our time involved taking our children – who are age 5 and 8 - to see different things. Lots of hiking, feeding goats, exploring the mountains. We just got back from a train trip to Tirano along the Albula/Bernina lines and taking them to the Morteratsch glacier. 

I there anything that you missed while in being in Zurich? 

Well, I find cycling in Zurich quite intimidating, so I miss my ebike and the calmer streets in Eugene.

And what do you think you will miss when you are back in in Eugene? 

Trains and public transportation! 

Christian Berndt

Weiterführende Informationen


Leigh Johnson, Dr.
Academic Guest
Economic Geography

Digital Society Initiative UZH
Personal website - University of Oregon, Eugene