Peek was born and raised in Kansas, where she completed her undergraduate work in sociology at Ottawa University. She earned her master’s in education at Colorado State University then her PhD in sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Peek discusses growing up in a tornado-prone state. She has vivid memories of the storm cellar during tornado watches, and her grandparents’ barn and home being damaged by a tornado. But she did not consider a career in the field of natural disasters until she became a graduate assistant at the Natural Hazards Center at UCB, which, she says, launched her career as a disaster researcher. As a sociologist, she sought to study inequality in society, but as a grad student she also became intellectually fascinated with the interdisciplinary nature of the field. And she deeply appreciates the care that practitioners and policy makers bring to research. Today, she directs the Natural Hazards Center, which was founded over 40 years ago.
Peek explains that the center is one of the nation’s oldest social science and multidisciplinary research centers. It was founded by Gilbert White to assess and to reduce losses from natural hazards by bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers. She says the center’s goal is to make a more just and equitable world where humans can live in harmony with nature. It is vital to translate knowledge to communities, she says.
The center’s Quick Response Research Program, funded by NSF, provides small grants to researchers to collect perishable data after a disaster. The researchers then write papers and new grants which can lead to breakthroughs. Peek cites an example of a graduate student who looks at the use of prisoners for labor in disaster-response situations.
In order to bring researchers together, the center holds an annual workshop in July. Also, working with partner organizations, the center provides a publication called Disaster Research as well as one called Research Counts, 700-750 word stories with key insights. Peek says the idea is to get knowledge out to communities who may not have time or resources to read scholarly research. She says the idea is to democratize knowledge, to get it into the hands of people on the ground.
The CONVERGE center honors the growing body of knowledge in convergence science. One of NSF’s 10 big ideas, convergence is about diverse scientific fields joining to solve key problems – such as mitigating damage from natural hazards.
Peek says that although the language of convergence may be new, the approach is not. She hopes that the CONVERGE facility will systematize multidisciplinary research and provide a structure for social science researchers to work with the engineers in the facilities under the NHERI umbrella.
Peek helped develop the NHERI science plan, where she helped bridge the divide between social and engineering sciences. She sees many interconnections and possibilities for research.
She discusses “team science,” which necessitates developing a process for researchers with different perspectives and skills to talk to one another. Researchers need to learn to co-define problems, she says, and develop a shared language.
Peek says CONVERGE had 5 major tasks in the works. One is partnering with NHERI’s DesignSafe team to develop and build social science and interdisciplinary data models. Like the engineers using DesignSafe, social scientists will be able to publish and share their data, protocols and instruments.
The CONVERGE team also is working with the NHERI RAPID facility at the University of Washington to develop a social science component of the “RAPID App.” Peek says this will allow for social scientists and multidisciplinary teams to use the App for reconnaissance and recovery research. She is excited, for instance, to