Meet PhD Research Fellow Terin Mayer

By Julia Weimer

Meet Terin Mayer – a PhD Research Fellow at Freshwater focused on groundwater governance with a fascinating story. Read what he has to say about his journey into the world of water allocation and climate resilience, his fellowship with us, and the importance of protecting our ecosystems.

Terin stands on a bridge overlooking a river with his family

Q: Where did you grow up? 

A: My family and I moved quite a bit growing up. Georgia, Bolivia, Alabama, Spain, Montana, Chile, Colorado — by the time I had graduated high school I’d lived half my life outside the U.S. I benefitted greatly from expanded horizons but, by the time I came to Minnesota for college, was looking to put down some deeper roots. My spouse Leah was born and raised in Duluth, and together we’re excited to be building our home here in the Twin Cities. 

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and your educational journey. 

A: I studied Philosophy at Carleton College. Philosophy gets a bad rap as a “useless liberal arts school” kind of study, but I think it really helped me develop as a critical thinker and person. I took some environmental ethics courses that really spoke to me. After school, I ended up working in policy advocacy and civic engagement, driven a lot by convictions to help build a better society that came out of that thinking. After a few legislative sessions and election cycles, I was hungry to understand more about some of the big forces shaping the policy process, so I went to graduate school. Initially, I went for a policy masters degree, but I caught the research bug and decided to pursue a PhD. 

Q: How did water and the environment become a significant focus for you?

A: I think many folks feel a deep love for the outdoors — that’s definitely a part of it for me. But I think another big part was looking at maps. As someone who had spent so much time traveling, I was keenly aware of borders and fascinated by them. How could these somewhat arbitrary lines end up having such a big influence on society? I started paying attention to the way waterways and water bodies ignore so many of the political jurisdictions we create. All the sudden it felt like a real puzzle — how is it that this resource that cycles and connects, that we depend on fundamentally, is managed by all these different cities, counties, special districts, states, some overlapping some barely connected. 

Q: How did you first discover Freshwater, and what motivated you to pursue a research fellowship here? 

A: I initially read a request for proposals from a regional funder asking for a study of groundwater governance, which was work right up my alley. My PhD advisor helped me get connected to Carrie Jennings, who was pulling together a proposal for the work. We really hit it off and I was excited to build the work plan and conceptual framework for the work alongside an amazing team. When the opportunity came open for me to continue working on the groundwater work at Freshwater, I couldn’t say no! 

Q: What have been some highlights of the fellowship? 

A: I’ve been really thrilled to present our work to a variety of audiences of water resource professionals and federal and state agency staff. It’s really clear to me that our work is filling an important gap in focus and attention on groundwater policy. I think Freshwater’s policy work is also filling this super important bridge space — connecting scientists and policy administrators, fostering mutual learning, and hopefully identifying focal areas and developing policy ideas for sustainability and environmental justice. I’ve seen small and large instances of that and it makes me really glad that Freshwater and organizations like it exist. 

Q: Why is clean, reliable, healthy water important to you?

A: It’s more apparent to me than ever just how small a part of the human relay race I am. Being a relatively new parent with my own parents and in-laws living and active in our lives, I’m just especially conscious these days of the passing of generations and the inheritance we leave. It’s a sobering responsibility, but one that I want to be hopeful about: that we can design a way of living within a healthy planet with thriving ecosystems and sustain that forever. 

Q: Do you and your family have a favorite place in Minnesota? 

A: The BWCA is a singularly magical place that I think many Minnesotans take for granted.  

Q: What is next for you on your career path? 

A: I’ll be finishing my PhD in the spring and am actively looking for research and policy related work in the upper Midwest. I’m not exactly sure what that will look like, but I’m eager to play a part in helping our region build climate resilience and adapt to the changes and stresses that will take place over the next generation. 

Q: Do you have any advice for future generations of Minnesotans regarding our waters or the environment? 

A: Obviously, this would need to be massaged depending on the audience, but I’d want to instill a healthy suspicion for a mainstream view that seems to go pretty unquestioned: anthropocentrism. It’s kind of a technical word, but the perspective I’m thinking of is the view that humans are the only beings to whom moral obligation can be owed. To be clear, I think you can get pretty far developing good environmental policy and politics just based on protecting the value nature provides to people. If we really protected nature’s full value to humanity that would be amazing. But even then, I fear that we would be missing something fundamental. I think it’s entirely possible that all the nonhuman life and miraculous dynamic churning systems of the earth have some essential and intrinsic value. What if when you feel that awe in the presence of a river, lake, forest it’s not just in your head? What if you’re witnessing something real, worthy of reverence in its own right? Give this alternative a chance to root in your mind, and it can crack you open in some powerful ways. 

Q: What do you and your family like to do together in your free time? 

A: Right now we’re really enjoying living vicariously through our toddler, to whom even the Tupperware drawer is a trove of wonders.