Two years ago, Ebone Smith set out to study the social impacts of extreme heat and provide solutions to an Oklahoma community. But to her surprise, encouragement and resilience go both ways. Partners and collaborators in northeastern Oklahoma City have infused the University of Oklahoma student’s research with hope and a vision for her career.

Smith is the first recipient of the Research to Transform Diversity Graduate Assistantship from the Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations (CIWRO) at OU. The assistantship offers opportunities to emerging scholars from underrepresented groups to pursue a degree related to one of the five severe weather themes of CIWRO. The assistantship aims to transform the research environment within the weather enterprise by increasing diversity among researchers, topics studied, critical problems identified and lenses through which problems are approached.

Originally from a suburb near the District of Columbia, Smith earned dual bachelor’s degrees in meteorology and communication studies, with a minor in geography, from Virginia Tech. In 2021, CIWRO awarded the prestigious assistantship to Smith, who relocated to Norman to pursue a master’s degree from OU’s Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability on the Environmental Systems track. Smith’s $25,000 assistantship was renewed in 2022 to continue her studies for the remaining duration of her degree program.

Smith is working with multiple nonprofits and community-based organizations to research the impact of extreme heat on a historically marginalized community within Oklahoma City. To build relationships and collect input from stakeholders, she has convened three of four focus groups so far: youth, seniors and the community action team.

“I really want my research to have an impact on people's communities. By doing this research, I feel like I'm accomplishing my dreams,” Smith said. “People are excited to see what my research can lead to. That’s something I'm consistently hearing from the seniors: ‘I can't wait to see what this research does, and I'm really proud of you.’”

The outpouring of support and hope is a sentiment Smith only anticipated from friends and family. In fact, initially, she believed it might be hard to recruit participants for her focus groups.

“It's honestly just warmed my heart because I went into it so nervous. But to hear these sweet comments and encouraging statements from people whom I barely know, it's a different

feeling,” Smith said. “Being here in Oklahoma has just been a very encouraging and supportive experience that I did not expect.”

Although Smith expressed her struggles with depression, her research has fueled her with positivity.

“Even if I’m feeling down, this research has been something that consistently makes my day. Each time I conduct a focus group or work with some of the community leaders, it always uplifts me after that. It just makes me happy,” Smith said.

Smith will finalize her research this summer. Her preliminary conclusions on inequities in the area include high utility bills due to poor insulation, a lack of transportation and cooling centers, and availability of trees and shading. Her last focus group for the project will be made up of mixed-age adults who reside in the area, such as parents and organizational leaders.

Her positive experience at CIWRO has inspired her to continue to study the effects of extreme heat and become more involved in environmental justice after she graduates over the summer.

“This project has opened my eyes to something that I might want to keep doing – working with communities more hands on and co-producing research,” said Smith, who plans to apply for doctoral programs at OU and UCLA.

A resilient leader who has been an event planner for communities since high school, Smith is currently working on founding a collegiate chapter of MANRRS at OU. MANNRS stands for Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences and works to develop a network of students and professionals from academic institutions, government entities and organizations within the industry.