Dr Lara Mani, Research Associate
Lara is a Research Associate in Communication and Outreach for CSER's 'A Science of Global Risk' project, covering a wide array of global catastrophic risks. Lara works towards building an empirical evidence base for a variety of outreach and communication techniques adopted to present global risk. She also works to understand how an improved knowledge of global risk can translate into action. Lara has an undergraduate degree in Geological Hazards from the University of Portsmouth and a PhD in Geo-communications from the University of Plymouth. Her PhD research aimed to establish the effectiveness of using video game technology in volcanic hazard education and communication practices in the Eastern Caribbean.
Keywords: risk communication, volcanic risk, evidence-based outreach, education.
Can you tell us about your route to CSER?
My route to CSER is a little bit meandering... My initial undergraduate degree was in Geological Hazards (Applied Geology) from the University of Portsmouth. This was looking at various geological hazards to understand how we can study, prevent and mitigate the risks - from landslides to volcanic eruptions, seismic hazards and subsidence. After my degree, I worked in industry as a Geotechnical Engineer on redevelopment projects throughout the UK. After a while, I decided I want to push myself a little further in my academic career and follow my passion for volcanology, opting to do a Masters in Volcanology in Clermont-Ferrand, France. In 2013, I began a PhD at the University of Plymouth looking at the more social side of volcanology – how we can communicate volcanic hazards with at-risk communities. My research adopted the use of gaming and I designed and developed a bespoke video game to communicate about volcanic hazards with communities on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent. It became apparent to me during my PhD that, as a field, we regularly employ various creative approaches to communication and outreach within disaster risk reduction, with very little evidence to support the use of such media. My research aimed to start plugging this gap but evaluating the use of games for learning, engagement and long-term knowledge gain.
At the conclusion of my PhD, I had become an interdisciplinary researcher and I wasn’t quite sure where I fit within the academic world. I spent some time back in industry whilst seeking opportunities, eventually discovering CSER and the Existential Risk field. CSER’s interdisciplinary nature was exciting and I was lucky enough to join the team in early 2020 as a postdoc.
What is your main area of expertise?
My main skill is in providing empirical evidence to support the use of education and outreach techniques by employing a wide range of evaluation methods. I aim to understand what methods of communication work well for what audiences, and whether these tools can be used to bring about real change and drive action. I try to provide evidence for things like sustained knowledge and learning, improved motivations and heightened engagement. I am also a passionate communicator often found undertaking outreach and education sessions with a wide range of audiences.
Please tell us about your current research at CSER?
At CSER, my work looks to understand the best methods and tools for communicating about Global Catastrophic Risks. I’m interested in understanding how we can communicate these high-impact low-probability events in a way that can promote action towards their mitigation and prevention. One method we’re already using at the centre is a scenario-based RPG – Intelligence Rising - for AI foresight work with stakeholders. I’m seeking to understand just how well the game can be at engaging stakeholders in conversations about AI safety and ethics, and if it can impact upon the decisions they make.
On top of looking at the tools and methods, I’m interested to understand peoples’ perceptions towards GCRs – to what extent do the public understand these risks, how do they feel about them, and do people believe that these risks could impact upon their daily lives. Perceptions of GCR is an essential first step in order to understand which messages and tools might be the most effective in bringing about impact.
I’m also continuing some of my research into volcanic risk and the interactions between volcanic hazards and societies.
What are your motivations for working in Existential Risk?
The field of Existential Risk and Global Catastrophic risk is new to me but instantly piqued my curiosity. I really like that the field was tangential to my work in the Geoscience community, but felt prescient and exciting. As I’ve entered the field, I’ve seen how important this work is, and how we can use our voices to bring about change and action to halt some of our harmful practices. What keeps me motivated is my desire to live in a world where we can feel safe and equal, but also that for our short spell in the Earth’s history, that we leave the world in a better state than when we found it.
What do you think are the key challenges that humanity is currently facing?
Currently, for me, the climate crisis must be at the top of our agendas. We must move conversations on from whether climate change is real or not, and discuss how to make real change and take actions. The challenge is really on to get people to realise the repercussions of their actions – especially if the felt consequences are on the other side of the world, or invisible in our oceans and atmosphere. I believe that in order to really tackle the climate crisis, we must first confront other issues inherent in our societies – inequality and poverty. Without confronting some of the issues that underpin these catastrophic risks, we can’t seek to prevent and mitigate against them.
For people who are just getting to grips with Existential Risk, do you have any recommendations for reading?
It was quite overwhelming for me entering the field to get to grips with the literature, so I created a reading group within the Centre. Drop me an email, and I’d be happy to share our reading list. Otherwise, as a gentle intro, I recently enjoyed some documentaries on Netflix – ‘The Social Dilemma’ and David Attenborough’s witness statement on biodiversity loss and the climate crisis – ‘A Life on Our Planet’.