Emerging scientist: Sarah Freed

As a global leader in fisheries and aquaculture research, science is at the forefront of our work, delivering robust evidence to policy makers, technological innovations to poor producers and consumers, and novel tools to transform fish agri-food systems. In this series, we profile our emerging scientists, early career research talents who are already making a significant contribution to fisheries and aquaculture knowledge.

Sarah Freed is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at WorldFish Cambodia. As a PhD candidate, she received a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation in the USA where she completed her PhD in Environmental Science and Management. Since joining WorldFish in 2018, her work has focused on two themes: Fish-Rice production systems and community-based governance and co-management of small-scale fisheries.

What are you currently working on for WorldFish?  

I am currently researching the ecological, livelihood, and food and nutrition security outcomes of various fish-rice production systems (through FISH CRP funding), and how to optimize the benefits of rice field fisheries through biophysical and governance enhancements (through USAID funded Rice Field Fisheries II project).

I am also working on empowering communities to study ecological features in their fisheries and account for them in their fisheries management plan (through MACP funded Mekong Fisheries Conservation project), and identifying ways to ensure community-based management committees have the necessary resources and agency to continue activities, especially co-learning among the committees, post-project funding (RFFII project).

What’s your research area?

In two words, I’d say my research area is “wicked problems” – the ones where solutions are elusive, especially because they transcend traditional research disciplines and they seem to adapt to changing conditions. I work on these problems primarily as they pertain to small-scale fisheries.

My background is in applying common pool resource governance principles to small-scale fisheries and using mixed methods and large data sets to answer multidisciplinary questions, often evaluating a mix of human and environmental outcomes from a set of practices or interventions. I am increasingly working on fish in the context of food systems as well.

What’s the most exciting thing about your research area?  

The most exciting thing about my research area is the learning that happens when people come together to work on a problem. Research (the act as much or more than the product) can inform a new way of doing things and broaden individuals’ perspectives, allowing more people to come together and work towards a solution.

What’s the most memorable situation you’ve found yourself in in your research area?  

It’s hard to choose just one. My most memorable situations are invariably during field and community activities. A recent one was my participation during an annual reflection workshop for rice field fisheries management. Community management committees came together, along with NGO and government partners, to share their achievements over the past year and to learn from one another. After some friendly competition to see which committees performed best across several aspects of management, the top committees led study tours so other committees could see their work firsthand. These visits helped participants see the potential of taking their efforts to the next level, and stimulated some serious discussions on strategies for drought and climate change preparedness as well as the process for securing local government engagement and sustainable financing. I was impressed at the level of engagement from all participants and the enthusiasm that permeated the activities and discussions. 

What’s your favorite part of the research process and why (e.g. study design, going to the field, crunching the data, presenting your findings? 

I most enjoy working alongside community members and contributing a small part to their efforts to overcome challenges related to fisheries and food systems. I am learning to do this higher up the policy and decision-making chain as well. 

What innovation do you think has the greatest potential to change your research area in the country you are working in? 

There are lots of challenges in Cambodia and no single innovation will address all of them. Fundamentally, the ‘innovation’ of fisher and smallholder community empowerment and agency in decision-making is most needed because the success of other innovations are limited unless this one is in place. Currently, there’s both progress and limits to implementing this ‘innovation’.

What piece of scientific research that you have conducted in the past 12 months are you most proud of and why (please provide a link if the research is published?  

I’ve been leading a collaboration to synthesize research from four countries on various approaches to integrated fish and rice production. The result provides new insight on addressing current food system challenges. In addition to sharing this insight, my hope is that the final product brings to light the (sometimes long-standing) contributions of these integrated fish and rice systems to a variety of objectives, such as food security and environmental sustainability, and raises awareness that a variety of options are available and should be explored.

What do you hope your research achieves?

I hope that the applied research I conduct will empower stakeholders to organize and implement context-appropriate and adaptable approaches to address the “wicked problems” that affect fisheries and food systems, ultimately, to achieve equitable and secure livelihood opportunities, nutrition security, and environmental sustainability.

What would your dream role be in your research area? 

Aside from continuing research, I dream of facilitating civic engagement in the process to address today’s “wicked problems”.