Anthropology and sustainability student Molly Seidel crosses disciplinary boundaries to address real-world issues

Author: Tessa Bangs and Megan Valley

Molly Seidel 800 Recent Arts and Letters graduate Molly Seidel completed a capstone project that combined her environmental anthropology work with her passion for sustainability.

For 2016 Notre Dame graduate Molly Seidel, a major in anthropology was the perfect foundation for her interest in sustainability.

Seidel — a four-time NCAA individual national champion in cross-country and track and field — supplemented her anthropology major with coursework in environmental science before adding the sustainability minor.

Her capstone project for the minor brought together her environmental anthropology work with her passion for sustainability. A Wisconsin native, Seidel examined the Ice Age Trail, which stretches 1,200 miles across her home state and is run by the National Park Service in partnership with the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

"Molly’s research was truly interdisciplinary, blending ethnographic study of placemaking with preservation of open space and natural landscapes,” said Rachel Novick, director of the minor in sustainability. “She was even able to integrate her love of running with her personal explorations of the Ice Age Trail. Her capstone project elegantly demonstrated that sustainability is not about choosing between the needs of nature and the needs of people, but rather about bringing those needs into alignment through cultural and scientific lenses."

Seidel, who returned to Notre Dame in 2016-17 to compete in her final year of eligibility in indoor and outdoor track, worked with the alliance on trail building and community outreach projects in summer 2015 and wanted to study how the trail affects perspectives on the environment and motivates people to protect natural resources in the surrounding areas.

“I was amazed by how the trail brings people together and encourages greater environmental sustainability,” she said, “and seeing this made me want to investigate the positive effects that the trail has on its users.”

Eric Haanstad, director of undergraduate studies in anthropology, said Seidel’s research evoked sites of “community engagement and environmental conservation.”

“She was able to integrate participatory methods and athletic engagement on the trail with ethnohistory and videographic analysis, creating a cutting-edge project that is soundly based in the lived experiences of local communities," he said.

In 2015, Seidel won the department’s David Huffman Scholar/Athlete Award, which honors a student with “outstanding performance in the major and athletics.”

After Notre Dame, Seidel will pursue a career as a professional runner, and later perhaps pursue sustainable business development, potentially focusing on product design and environmental management.

Her coursework and research experiences in both the College of Arts and Letters and the College of Science have opened a lot of doors, she said, along with giving her the opportunity to study what she loves.

“Having the flexibility to explore my love of science and my love of the liberal arts has been a priceless experience,” Seidel said. “I’m very grateful I was able to have that opportunity here.”