I am a human geographer and cultural anthropologist interested in how people envision and design pathways to social and ecological well-being, especially in spaces of uncertainty, change, or crisis. I began my broad training as a social scientist at Macalester College, where I double majored in Anthropology and Geography. Under the mentorship of the anthropologist, Jack Weatherford, and through a friendship with a Mongolian student attending college in the Twin Cities, I became fascinated by transformations taking place in Mongolia following the collapse of socialism and the intertwined effects of climate change and new mining investments in the country. I obtained a PhD in Geography from Clark University, completing a dissertation that ethnographically tracked the evolution and impacts of Mongolia’s much-hyped 2011-2012 mining boom. I expanded that research as a postdoctoral researcher working with a team of anthropologists at University College London to examine emerging subjects in Mongolia's economy of flux. My latest research is action-oriented, focusing on the social dimensions of decarbonization in Ulaanbaatar.
My research has been externally supported by grants and fellowships from the European Research Council (as part of the Emerging Subjects project based at UCL's Department of Anthropology, 2014-2018), the US National Science Foundation (Graduate Research Fellowship, 2010-2013), the American Center for Mongolian Studies/Henry Luce Foundation (Dissertation Research Fellowship, 2011-2012), the US Fulbright Fellowship (2005-2006), and the Macalester College Lilly Summer Research Fellowship (2003).

Research Projects

Social Dimensions of Decarbonization

Ulaanbaatar is the coldest and most air-polluted capital city in the world, with an energy system completely dependent on coal. What will it take for the city to reduce this dependency and decarbonize? What would an energy transition mean for residents? How do energy and well-being interconnect? I explore these questions as part of the applied anthropology and humanistic engineering project that I am part of at MIT, Anthro-Engineering Decarbonization at the Million Person Scale.

Booms and Busts

My PhD and postdoctoral research traced the kinds of bodies, politics, and environments that have come into being through sharp rhythms of boom and bust in Mongolia's emerging extractive economy. While my dissertation focused on Mongolia's highly anticipated mining boom, my research shifted to examine what is at stake when large-scale mining moves away from promising national development and economic growth to servicing foreign debts and attempting to alleviate an economic crisis. Though not explicitly about Mongolia, my interest in boom-bust dynamics led me to think broadly about recent shifts toward more contingent and temporary forms of ownership at local and global scales. With Rebecca Empson, I co-organized a conference at UCL about Rethinking Usufruct in the Global Economy and co-edited a special interdisciplinary collection of essays on Temporary Possession for Cultural Anthropology's Theorizing the Contemporary series

Dust Exposures

While living with nomadic herders and migrant workers in a coal boomtown in the Gobi desert near the Chinese-Mongolian border, I witnessed how the elusive and seemingly simple substance of dust has become a serious matter of concern. For people in this region, the interplay of systemic environmental changes with new cross-border economic activities and open-pit coal mining developments has made daily life consumed with cleaning, breathing, choking on, and eating dust that is considered toxic to the well-being of humans and livestock, which many depend on for their livelihoods and as a primary food source. I have studied visceral and atmospheric encounters with dust, and am interested in how these encounters inform knowledge about contemporary life and possible bodily, economic, territorial and ecological futures.   

Navigating Political Noise and Uncertainty

This research explored the strategies that Mongolians employ to make judgments about politics in a democratic system that is very unpredictable and noisy. I have looked at this topic through small projects ranging from an ethnographic study of a nationwide cash transfer scheme allegedly financed by mineral revenues to examining the implementation of a digital text message referendum to gauge the opinion of Mongolian citizens about how to address a looming economic crisis. Through collaborative research and writing with the anthropologist, Tuya Shagdar, we examined the moral and instrumental value of electoral gifts like cash and foodstuffs distributed by aspiring political candidates to rural citizens during a parliamentary election season.