Climate change is one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced, and UBC Sociology alumni are leading the charge.
Leora Courtney-Wolfman graduated from UBC with a Major in Sociology in 2013 before travelling to Austria, where she is currently pursuing a PhD at the Vienna Doctoral School of Social Sciences. She now works on the “CHAP” project, investigating how climate change contributes to occupational injuries.
We spoke to Leora about her research in Vienna and how she applied the things she learned at UBC Sociology.
How has climate change impacted occupational injuries?
Existing research suggests that some physical jobs, which are associated with lower socioeconomic standings, will be significantly affected by climate change. This is especially the case for regions where temperatures might become too hot for people to safely work during the day.  However, from a demographic perspective, climate change is one piece of a much larger picture. For instance, people are getting older and retiring later, which means the age structure of different jobholders is changing. At the same time, job-specific risks like cardiovascular stress or repetitive strain interact with age. When you bring climate change into that mix (like hotter summers or Vancouver’s wet, rainy season), the compounding health burdens show how multidimensional the problem is.
Behaviour and social context are also important. For example, people are incentivised to take health risks when their earnings are tied to output, like in piecemeal agricultural and manual labour—these jobs are well associated with summer heat injuries and dehydration. But what about other folks like health care aides who face slip-and-fall hazards when transferring patients from a vehicle? Or who experience traffic accidents commuting between one of multiple jobs during a storm? Our dataset includes all occupational injuries from 2010 to 2018 for Greater Vienna, categorised by occupational characteristics, the nature of the injury/illness, and demographic details, which allows us to uncover such nuance.
Can you tell us a bit about your time at UBC Sociology? How did your time here prepare you for what you are doing now?
In 2013, I moved to Vienna to pursue an MSc, and I credit a lot of my success to how well UBC Sociology prepared me. First, I can’t understate how valuable the program’s focus on research methods has been. Wendy Roth’s SOCI 217 (Research Methods) and Sean Lauer’s SOCI 328 (Social Statistics) gave me the tools and self-assuredness to link theory to its applications. When I wrote my thesis, Heatwave vulnerability and Vienna’s ageing population, I was confident in my methodological choices. The original plan was to do something quantitative, but the available data wasn’t suitable, so I decided to do a content analysis instead. My thesis was selected for one of three “best master’s thesis awards” by the university, which I only mention because I really credit my UBC education for how my thesis turned out, as well as my excellent thesis supervisor, Prof. Ulrike Schneider.
Second, I received strong mentorship from professors like Tom Kemple and Rima Wilkes. I was a working-poor student from Toronto, so I often felt like I had nobody to turn for academic support. Tom and Rima consistently gave me helpful, engaging feedback even after I left UBC.
After graduating, you had a bit of time working in the private sector before returning to academia – can you tell us a bit about what the experience of moving from being a student to the workplace was like for you? How do you deal with the challenges that emerge from doing work that wasn’t related to your area of study?
I wanted to stay in Austria after my MSc, so I took the first job I could get, which was a technical writer position at a software firm. Working in an unfamiliar field showed me how transferable academic skills are. Plus, there are plenty of additional skills you pick up along the way. For example, working in software introduced me to version control, which is essential in that field, but rare in the social sciences despite its huge applicability.
The technical writing job also served as a wake-up call about academic accessibility: Just because academics agree on something, it doesn’t mean that everybody else outside that bubble will. It changed how I think about policy-oriented research: What good is my work if I’m preaching to the converted, but other people don’t agree with (or feel threatened by, or can’t access) what the “experts” say? We can really see this playing out with epidemiologists and COVID-19 right now.
How’d you end up going to Vienna? What brought you back into the academic world?
I found an interdisciplinary MSc in at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Wien) called Socio-Ecological Economics and Policy (SEEP) that looked perfect. At UBC, I developed a policy-oriented interest in natural disaster vulnerability and population dynamics, which I wanted to synthesise in grad school. SEEP places a strong emphasis on using multiple approaches and cross-disciplinary teamwork to the address social, ecological, and economic crises of our time. As a bonus, SEEP had a demography specialisation. Following my graduation from SEEP and nearly four years in my subsequent technical writing job, I realised I’d be much happier back in academia. I started applying for research positions and got offered one from the WIC just before COVID shut things down. It was a pretty lucky outcome, both job and timewise.
Can you tell us about your experience as a copy-editor? What work did you see sociologists in Vienna getting up to? What excites you about it?
On top of everything else, I’ve been a freelance copy editor since around 2014. As a huge bonus, most of my clients are local sociologists, which kept me engaged with academia when I was in the private sector. My advice to students who’d like to pursue copy editing is to start with a topic you understand well, because it can be difficult to judge whether something is jargon or a language error when dealing with unfamiliar scientific topics.
There’s a lot of impressive immigration and ethnicity-related research coming out of Vienna right now. Assistant Professor Michael Parzer’s latest work unpacks the intersection of “refugeeness” and ethnic labelling amongst Syrian artists in Vienna. This work introduces Parzer’s theoretically novel “double burden of representation,” which builds on Kobena Mercer’s “burden of representation” faced by Black artists. Likewise, Dr. Ana Mijić’s work about the (re)construction of self vs. the “Other” in Vienna’s Bosnian diaspora provides vivid accounts of how people negotiate multiple, conflicting identities in a post-war context through their everyday interactions. Her research really captures the struggle between collective trauma and individual reconciliation. Both authors illustrate the value and real-world applicability of sociological theory to contemporary challenges, especially when it involves marginalised groups or contentious topics. Plus, the insights gained from these two papers are nice examples of what qualitative methods can accomplish.
What was the experience of moving to Europe like for you? Were there things you learned as a Sociology student that changed for you when you went to Vienna?
As a UBC Sociology student, I was quite interested in immigration-related topics. However, I went from being a Canadian citizen with an academic interest to becoming an immigrant and experiencing what that entails, while still interacting with the topic academically. It forced me to re-think what it means to be an outsider in a sociological context as I read research that I didn’t feel was entirely representative of my own immigration experiences.
Social structures and institutions play a larger role in research design than I initially realised. In Canada, integration is (broadly speaking) an immigration issue that is the state’s responsibility. This is reflected by English/French language learning programs, interpretation services, and multiculturalism initiatives, among others. As a result, I think a lot of Canadian research focuses on proposing solutions to perceived problems; like, how can we improve ELL programs or make people more tolerant to newcomers? On the other hand, integration is incumbent upon the individual in Austria: The onus is on me to become fluent in German and figure out the country’s cultural norms. Therefore, I see a lot of research-oriented towards describing problems, like how do immigrants experience applying for unemployment benefits if they can’t speak German?
This is not to say either of the approaches are wrong or that one is better than the other. Rather, it underscores why it’s so important for academia to become more accessible so that there’s a greater diversity of experiences and perspectives informing research and building off each other. It also points towards the benefit of doing collaborative international research, to introduce sociological perspectives from outside the prevailing norms of the Anglosphere.
 Kjellstrom, T., Briggs, D., Freyberg, C., Lemke, B., Otto, M., & Hyatt, O. (2016). Heat, Human Performance, and Occupational Health: A Key Issue for the Assessment of Global Climate Change Impacts. Annual Review of Public Health, 37(1), 97–112. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032315-021740