S.E. (Sarah) Wolfe, Ph.D.

I am an Associate Professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS, formerly ERS) at the University of Waterloo. My Post Doctoral research was completed in ERS at the University of Waterloo. My PhD (2007) is from the University of Guelph’s Department of Geography, MA from the University of Toronto’s collaborative program in Political Science and Environmental Studies, and a BA from the University of Guelph’s International Development program (Biophysical Environment). As part of my undergraduate program, I studied at the University of Haifa through their English-language program.

Below, you will find the description of my research program as it has evolved over time. There are three key points to keep in mind as you read the academic bumpf:

First, I’m a ‘water person’ to the core. I’ve been fascinated/obsessed by water issues since childhood. My grandfather built wooden sailboats for fun and some of my earliest memories are sailing with him. Even today, if I’m not researching water, I want to be on, in or near water.

The second thing to keep in mind is that I am constitutionally incapable of working within disciplinary boundaries. I’ve tried, found it painful and then sped back to transdisciplinary.  I’m a pragmatist and willing to poach ideas from any discipline that offers useful insights or methods (defn: geographer?).

And third, the thing that drives me to research and teach every single day is that I’m worried about the world the children — yours, mine, theirs — will inherit. I talk about ‘hero projects’ in my research: figuring out why we — as individuals and as a society — make the decisions we do about water is my hero project. If we can figure out water — something so essential to our very existence — then maybe, just maybe….


The objective of my transdisciplinary research program is to generate scholarly and policy discussions within the context of climate change uncertainty and extreme water events (drought/flood).

My research approach is to gather, translate and combine the insights from geography (space/place attachment), environmental/social psychology (behaviour choices, belief-value systems and social milieu), cognitive science (emotion regulation), and knowledge management (information transfer) with findings on water decision-making processes. (On my next sabbatical I’ll begin examining religion, conversion theory, ritual and awe emotions as related to water.)

My focus is understanding the ways that individuals make water decisions outside of formal institutional rules, processes and policies. I examine individuals’ values, beliefs and emotions (e.g., fear and awe) that are socio-culturally derived, often implicit and not readily quantifiable by standard metrics. I use mixed qualitative and quantitative methods to better explain how individuals and institutions make their water decisions under scarcity conditions.

I ask questions such as these:
1) Will individuals’ cognitive and emotional processing effect their perceptions, definitions and prioritisation of water issues?
2) Do these individual-level responses then scale up to group or societal decisions about water management?

By looking at the individual as a ‘micro-level’, it becomes possible to examine the foundation assumptions underpinning the water literature’s standard explanations of political will, economic incentives, policies/regulations.

My previous work explored ideas related to

  • Knowledge management and social networks in Canadian and southern African water efficiency communities of practice (PhD; 2004-2007).
  • Social capital, decision-making and organization processes; education and private sector initiatives related to water efficiency and sustainability; and mentorship and gender variables in Canadian and Israeli water policy development (PostDoc; 2006-2009).


My new research on awe and water has been funded through a two-year SSHRC Insight Development grant (2019) while my ongoing mortality fear and water decisions is supported by a four-year SSHRC Insight grant (2018). Doctoral research on gender, mortality awareness and water technology is supported by the University of Waterloo’s HeforShe Gender Equity Research grant. My previous work on ‘water cognition’ was funded by a SSHRC Insight Development grant (2012) and then a SSHRC Connection (2014) grant.  Earlier research on gender and water careers is supported by a SSHRC Standard Research (2011) grant.

My doctoral research was supported by SSHRC (three-year) doctoral fellowship and the International Development Research Centre (two-year) Window on International Development awards.

Now that the ink is dry on my tenure letter, my next adventure will be to start fundraising to support a “Centre for Environment and Emotion Research”. True, the name needs work… but the idea and research opportunities are very exciting.


I have published in the academic, industry and general press:

For more details, please refer to my cv and professional profiles at the University of Waterloo, ResearchGate and on Academia.edu.

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I view the water-and-society relationship as a complex interaction over time, space and culture. Water decisions represent how societies and individuals understand these relationships and are also indicative of what societies prioritize and value.  For example, individual and policy decisions around water efficiency reflect economic, ethical and social values as well as engineering history and an anthropogenic perspective on the environment.  Similarly, the inclusion or exclusion of some types of knowledge or some stakeholder groups can reflect power structures, gender and cultural norms, and dominant or diverging worldviews about the nature of science.