UVA's Environmental Institute announces the 2024 Environmental Futures Fellows: Heather Christensen, Luka Hamel-Serenity, and Jenny Tran.

UVA’s Environmental Institute announces awards to three University of Virginia graduate students as the 2024 cohort of Environmental Futures Fellows. This program awards summer funding to student researchers investigating critical issues on environmental change.

This year, the Institute is proud to announce three 2024 Environmental Fellows: Heather Christensen, working alongside undergraduate student Rachel Weghorst, Luka Hamel-Serenity, and Jenny Tran.

“This year’s cohort of Environmental Futures Fellows is, as usual, an impressive group of early-career scholars,” said Karen McGlathery, Director of UVA’s Environmental Institute. “The projects are very different from each other, and they all bring thoughtful academic rigor and research to finding solutions to some of the world’s most pressing climate challenges. It is a pleasure to support each of these.”

Heather Christensen headshot
Heather Christensen will research the impacts of storm-related flooding on the mobility-impaired population.

Heather Christensen (Graduate Research Assistant, Environmental Sciences)
Rachel Weghorst (Undergraduate, Environmental Sciences)

Christensen and Weghorst are researching how storm-related flooding impacts the mobility-impaired population in Norfolk, Virginia. Part of the project is to complete a spatial analysis of hydrologic, infrastructure, and social factors that influence flood hazards and vulnerability of the Norfolk community.

This work acknowledges how climate-driven environmental hazards can disproportionately impact populations as the disabled and mobility-impaired are particularly vulnerable to flooding.

"This fellowship will allow Rachel and me to engage further with Norfolk residents,” said Christensen. “It is critical with community-based research to incorporate lived experience and feedback from community members throughout the course of a project. Rachel and I plan to be in Norfolk to learn from residents about how flooding has impacted them so we can best address their concerns through our research. As a disabled scientist, I am thankful for the opportunity to research how the needs of this community can inform flood risk assessment."

Luka Hamel headshot
Luka Hamel-Serenity is working to tell the story of climate and development impacts in Norfolk.

Luka Hamel-Serenity (PhD, School of Architecture) 

Luka Hamel-Serenity studies the relationship between coastal communities, the built and natural environments, and climate change in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic. He will be leveraging the EI Environmental Futures Fellowship to further his research into resident perceptions of environmental dynamics in Norfolk, Virginia, a topic he explores in the Constructed Environment Ph.D. Program at the School of Architecture.

Hamel-Serenity hopes to use the findings from this fellowship and his dissertation research to tell the story of climate, development, and environment in Norfolk, a city that has become a microcosm of activism, research, and experimentation around sea level rise which has the potential to impact other regions.

Jenny Tran headshot
Jenny Tran will work on Vanuatu, a small island developing state in the South Pacific, a climate-vulnerable community.

Jenny Tran (MPP, Batten School)

Vanuatu, a small island developing state in the South Pacific, ranks first on the world’s disaster risk list, according to the Pacific Response to Disaster Displacement Project. There is a need for these communities to adapt to and deal with flooding impacts. Tran will travel to Vanuatu to continue researching challenges to flood management and potential engineering and policy solutions to improve water quality.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. My research and advocacy work will help one of the most climate-vulnerable communities on earth overcome an important challenge,” said Tran. “I am immensely grateful for the fellowship and looking forward to gaining invaluable insights into my research from this experience!"



UVA’s Environmental Institute has multiple programs with the aim to train the next generation of leaders in integrative research for environmental solutions. For more information on the Environmental Futures Fellows, including how to apply, click here.