Women of Impact: Bonnie Colby

Oct. 19, 2023
Bonnie Colby

Bonnie Colby is a leader in natural resource and environmental economics. For her contributions to research, education, and outreach, she has been honored with a Women of Impact Award by the Office of Research, Innovation, and Impact.

From an early age, Bonnie Colby’s interest in nature was sparked by going on excursions with her family to the great outdoors. She didn’t always know she wanted to be a scientist, or that she would one day help community leaders solve their problems. But she knew she was curious about how people managed their rivers and how it affected their environment and communities.

“My father was a civil engineer, so we stopped at every hydroelectric dam around the United States over the years of my childhood,” said Colby. “I got really curious about what these dams meant for the rivers and the lakes, and why we decided to build them there.”

Today, Colby is at the forefront of natural resource and environmental economics. She has authored over one hundred journal articles and eight books, and her research, teaching and outreach emphasize water supply reliability and adaptation. Her work doesn’t stop at resource management—she regularly helps community leaders, such as senators, tribal council members, and city water managers, solve their natural resource conflicts, too.

Colby noticed that different parties engaged in complex multi-year negotiations over water resources would sometimes reach an agreement that resulted in a positive change. She was interested in finding out the inner workings of how these parties negotiated and applied practical problem solving, so she focused her work on neuroeconomics — or how different parts of the brain communicate with each other when decisions are being made.

“When you had good leadership and professional mediators and facilitators in these negotiations, the processes started to work a lot better,” she said. “I thought, ‘The economic context hasn't changed, but something else has changed.’ That's when I started to study neuro-behavior.”

Currently, Colby enjoys working on joint projects with colleagues across the UArizona campus. She focuses on strategies to manage groundwater use to preserve stream flows and the plants, wildlife and human communities that depend upon rivers. Her research team creates sophisticated models that look at different climate scenarios over time and the effect they have on the arid western U.S. and the region's economy.

For those who don’t yet know if science is for them, Colby urges students to pursue what is most interesting to them. To those curious about rivers, lakes and wetlands (like she was at a young age), every part of the world has intriguing challenges and many career paths to pick from. If students focus on water, people and the environment, the possibilities are endless.

“Consider the kinds of things that you've really loved and have been interested in ever since you were a little kid. They're not silly. They actually tell us something about ourselves that can be very useful,” she said. “There's always lots and lots of choices. Pick the one that really suits you, whether you like to be a manager, or a technical person, or a mediator.”

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