NHERI Stories: Resilience for All
Disaster Researcher Natalie Coleman Uses Big Data to Understand Disproportionate Infrastructure Impacts of Natural Hazards
Published on September 12, 2023
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Texas A&M University
My name is Natalie Coleman. I am originally from Laredo Texas, a border town between the U.S. and Mexico. I got my undergraduate degree in civil engineering at Texas A&M University in 2020 and then started the PhD program. Right now, I am going into my fourth year in the PhD program.
Natalie Coleman presents her research findings at the 48th Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop, July 2023.
Natalie Coleman, Disaster researcher and PhD candidate, Texas A&M University.
Can you describe your research?
My research interests are about finding ways to integrate equity into the way we manage infrastructure systems after disasters. So, I see myself as a disaster researcher with a deep understanding of infrastructure. I have some experience with Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and with winter storm Uri in 2021, during the pandemic, mostly with events affecting Texas residents.
I do have a civil engineering background and training; I will be studying for the fundamentals of engineering exam this fall.
But as for my research, it’s focused on disaster research. When I communicate with civil engineers, I have that engineering knowledge and background. So I can let them know, for example, ‘these are the methods that disaster researchers typically use to analyze infrastructure. These are new ways, based on equity-in-disaster research, that we can improve.’
For example, one of my earlier projects was trying to understand the impacts of Hurricane Harvey on the Houston population. There were a lot of water, transportation, communication outages. My research centers on the Texas area, although I’ve done studies elsewhere.
Who are the populations you’re trying to serve?
Obviously disasters affect everyone — but they don’t affect everyone equally. So I try to understand disproportionate impacts, looking mostly at lower-income households, households with minority residents. For example, a Hispanic population might not be as prepared because of language barriers, or it might not have the social systems in place when a disaster does happen. Also, I look at households with young children, households with elderly residents, and those that are dependent on medical devices. These are generally the populations I look at, to determine if they are able to withstand infrastructure outages.
What spurred you to become a disaster researcher?
Growing up in Laredo, in a lower-income area, I could see how we were more exposed to less-maintained, less-focused infrastructure. Sometimes there would be water contamination, or there would be cracks in the road that weren’t really addressed. So that was something I wanted to focus on when I became a civil engineer.
And then, while in my studies, Hurricane Harvey hit. That was in 2017, when I was a sophomore. I was able to work with different organizations on campus to collect resources and funds to send to people who were impacted by Harvey. This was a large aid effort, and I was not the one leading it, but I had an opportunity to collect resources in my dorm hall, and coordinate with people after the disaster, especially in areas that were not given a lot of national media attention. So that made me recall my background — in that there were certain areas that always tend to be ignored in extreme situations.
Then I saw a research opportunity at the Urban Resilience.AI Lab at TAMU, to work with the Hurricane Harvey event. I spoke with the advisor, told him about my passions in civil engineering, and he introduced me to this project where I could actually see how different populations were affected differently. It was a wonderful opportunity. It lined up with my interests at the time. Since then, I’ve been getting more and more involved with disaster research.
What are some details about your research?
Much of my work involves data and data analysis. I look at what happens [to infrastructure and communities after the event and report the data. Which I think does bring awareness to what’s been going on in those under-served communities. Before I joined the lab there were very few studies or papers that tried to connect equity and infrastructure. There was a lot about equity and disasters, and a lot about disasters and infrastructure, but not that direct connection between equity and infrastructure. — which is my focus.
Some of the significant findings we’ve made are that people in lower income areas aren’t able to afford power substitutions, like power generators. Which makes them more vulnerable.
I hope over time that I do bring more awareness to these issues. As I mature as a researcher, I hope I can work directly with communities — for example to improve disaster education and provide more concrete solutions. But I believe that it’s really important just to provide the evidence of disproportionate impact after extreme events. To show: Here is the evidence that these things are happening over and over again, across different disasters, across different areas.
At this stage of my career, I haven’t worked directly with a community yet. But I know there’s potential for it. But already a lot of people have cited our work to support their policies and planning. So, tangentially I know that the research I do is helping, and I know other researchers like me are doing great work.
Do you have advice for undergraduates interested in disaster research?
I have general advice for college students who may be interested in the field but feel they might not have the right qualifications.
I think that, especially in disaster research, as these new research networks like NHERI are being made, and are becoming more interdisciplinary, I think the most important thing is to have the passion and the interest for the field. The skills will come along the way as you get invested into your studies.
Something that I tell people is a little bit surprising. Right now, a lot of the work that I do is based on machine learning and processing big data. But in my undergraduate studies, I did work in empirical surveys and statistical analysis. Much different. It was through my PhD education that I was able to learn these new tools and develop my research in the way that it needed to go. Based off the research questions that I’m finding.
So it all ties back into your passions and your interests. What are you wanting figure out? What are you wanting to solve? And then you can learn from other people, formally or informally, the right tools, the right skills, that you need.
I also would say: apply to any opportunities out there. And do not feel intimidated. I believe that anybody can be a researcher if they invest the time. And I know it’s a little harder for some people than others; but I think that as long as you have that passion and support network, you’ll be able pursue the project that you want to.
Any suggestions for forming a support network?
I think it’s good to identify role models in the field and then, hopefully, reach out to them. That could be an older student or graduate student. Or an advisor whose work you are passionate about. Maybe directly meet with them, if that’s a possibility, or just read their work, follow the webinars that they’re doing. That slowly starts to connect you.
Also, I know the NHERI Graduate Student Council has been a great source of connection for me personally. Just knowing there are other people who are interested in the work that I do. So I think if people are wanting to do research they should find the connections either through role models, mentorship, or through a network of scholars.
Resilience for All
In this Q&A series, we profile NHERI researchers working to improve resilience in underserved populations.