When Center for Social Solutions research associate Julie Arbit first arrived at the University of Michigan as an undergraduate in 2010, her vision for her future was very different from what it is now.

“I first came to the university thinking I would study French and dark room photography,” Arbit reflected, “and then I decided I wanted something with more substance.”

Soon after, Arbit discovered WWOOF—World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms—and began to spend her summers working on farms all over the world. During her stay at a restoration project in Portugal, Arbit was exposed to an entirely different method of food production that would end up changing her life.

“The work they were doing with the earth there—doing things with water and irrigation that the Romans were doing that we no longer do—it just all seemed so simple, and it felt like a good path. I wanted to do something that mattered.”

So when she returned to Ann Arbor the next fall, Arbit started studying what she really cared about: the environment. She graduated in 2015 with degrees in environmental science and biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience and went on to receive a certificate in geospatial technology from Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2017.

Now, Arbit spends her time conducting research at the Center for Social Solutions and working on making her home more sustainable. Inspired by the zero waste movement, Arbit plans to go plastic-free, switch to solar energy, and conserve water through rainwater capture. She also strives to reduce her carbon footprint through how she acquires food.

“Ultimately, I would love to be able to produce my own food year-round, using greenhouses and high tunnels. I also have a community-supported agriculture farmshare, so I get a box of local produce each week. I’m big on efficiency, so that’s where my interest in food systems comes from. Why are we shipping tomatoes 2,000 miles from Mexico when you could grow tomatoes here with the right infrastructure?”
Arbit’s commitment to efficiency also happens to be what brought her to the Center for Social Solutions.

“The job description for my position emphasized efficiency. We want to ensure more efficient distribution of water, because there could be so much more done with the right infrastructure. We haven’t quite figured out the solution yet, but I want to be a part of it.”

At the center, Arbit has dedicated most of her time to researching case studies on past water transfers; she enjoys learning about which methods have succeeded and which ones haven’t. But working at the center has also expanded Arbit’s interests and developed newfound passions.

“It was a lot of fun to create this team effort for the huge collective goal of ending slavery. That’s definitely a new interest that I had never even considered,” Arbit reflects, following the research team’s recent installation of the center’s first major project within the Slavery and Its Aftermath initiative.
This week, Arbit begins pursuing her master’s in Environmental Policy and Planning at U-M. Looking ahead, she hopes to someday work on local environmental policy.

“I don’t want to be writing briefs for Congress or anything like that. I want to emphasize efficiency on a local level. There is so much development going on that ignores what the earth is doing, which leads to consequences. So I’m hoping I can tailor my degree into sustainable planning. I want to work with the earth instead of fight the earth.”