Environmental Sustainability is talked about in relation to all aspects of our lives: from creating eco homes and environmentally conscious communities, to sourcing sustainable food, renewable energy, low impact furniture, and clothing.
Learning the importance of how the world works at an early age, Mary Lawhon decided to make it her mission to impact the environment and the societies that control it. Lawhon started her quest for knowledge at the University of Kansas where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies. During her junior year, Lawhon was able to attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa and this sparked an interest in the country. She then took a semester off and completed volunteer work for the South African NGO EarthLife Africa which focuses on Environmental Justice. “There were a couple of countries I was interested in learning more about, but it was South Africa that had the first opportunity and I was hooked,” said Lawhon.
She then went to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa for a Master's in Environment and Development. Her Master's thesis was on environmental coverage of South Africa in the media. When she moved to do her PhD at Clark University, she studied electronic waste recycling in South Africa. “I did interviews with people involved in waste policy, and businesses in the recycling industry,” said Lawhon. “There is a disconnect between the laws and the needs of a community and that is something that needs our attention.”
She followed her third degree with a postdoc at the University of Cape Town at an organization called African Center for Cities. Her research focused on alcohol regulation in Cape Town. “We often make rules based on health measures instead of thinking about alcohol as a social thing,” said Lawhon. “We sought to understand and add some depth to the social processes that influence why people are drinking or not drinking or why they stop drinking at 2am rather than 3am. The formal laws have little to do with what most people do, especially in South Africa and looking at it from the individual perspective instead of the law’s changes everything.”
Lawhon’s first teaching position was as a geography lecturer at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. She then returned to the United States and taught at Florida State before ending up at The University of Oklahoma in 2017. Her current research focuses on infrastructure, mostly in African cities, and how everyone could be moved to a modern grid. “Modern sewers are expensive, waste water, and have a tendency to break in many places, so I don’t think this is a realistic goal right now.” Lawhon is looking for options that are safe, reliable and dignified that are still cost effective.
“I’m also working on a grant focused on waste and sanitation in Kampala, Uganda with two students from Uganda. One goal is to encourage researchers from the global south to spend time in other places as well,” said Lawhon. “The usual way of doing a grant is that the researcher travels to collect data. Rather than me go there and collect data, they've been collecting data and will come here to spend time writing and processing together.”
Lawhon is currently an Assistant Professor in the OU Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability along with her husband Dr. Pierce who has a joint appointment in DGES and Regional and City Planning. The pair have two kids, Malcom and Rowan, 5 and 3. “Our kids are totally part of the department,” said Lawhon. “My kids love coming to work and the building. They think it’s an awesome place to explore.”