Meet the Team: Morgan Carnes

Morgan graduated with her M.S. in Sustainability from University of South Dakota in 2019. As a graduate student, she worked on the WAFERx project studying social values of land-use in the Upper Missouri River Basin.


Morgan grew up far from the Upper Missouri River Basin, in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. During the 2008 recession, her mom moved to Vermillion, SD when she couldn’t afford to live in the Bay Area anymore, and Morgan soon followed. While she’s not sure how long she’ll stay, she has grown to love Vermillion in a way she didn’t expect.

“I never imagined I’d end up in Vermillion, South Dakota. But, it’s nice here. The people are good-natured, it’s affordable, and you can enjoy life here.”

Her research

Morgan studied sustainability at USD and her research project focused on the way changing environments and social systems in the Upper Missouri River Basin are affect the lifestyles and values of the people who live there. She conducted her research by interviewing people throughout the region to learn about their experiences and what they value most.

While doing her research, she was surprised by how much she empathized with the farmers she interviewed. She says it became not just about environmental sustainability but about social sustainability too.

“Farming is a way of life and seeing it disappear speaks to the larger issues of changing landscape.”

Her research also made her take a hard look at the academic structure, how it was developed, and its limitations. She realized that the way we practice science comes from a colonized perspective and encourages strict adherence to a specific academic structure that does not value other ways of knowing or interpreting knowledge and research.

“Our scientific process doesn’t honor alternate ways of knowing and looking at the world. The scientific method is very rigid and is viewed as the only way to do science, but traditional wisdom and knowledge can shed more light on things than just making scientific observation.”

Her inspiration to study sustainability

Morgan first became interested in sustainability during a trip to Costa Rica when she was in high school. While there she met indigenous farmers and learned about the techniques they used that have a minimal impact on the land. She began to think about aspects of sustainability she had never thought of before.

“I loved the idea of permaculture. I liked thinking about how one system supports the next, which is what underlies the whole field of sustainability. When I got to see sea turtles at night and learned about the threats facing them, it all became very real—I saw the impacts on them first hand.”

What’s next

Morgan recently completed her master’s degree and soon after welcomed her first child. After a whirlwind year, she’s still figuring out what she’s doing next. She wants to take a break from academia, but she’s considering applying her expertise and skills to consulting work with non-profits.

She’s also a musician and plays banjo and guitar and sings. She collaborates with her partner and plays in a band called Humbletown (the name being a reference to the humble town of Vermillion, which has been an inspiration to her)

While Morgan has great affection for Vermillion, she also has the heart of a wanderer and has no illusions that she’ll be there forever. She has a pipe-dream of getting a camper and touring the country as a musician. As she says, “life has so many opportunities and options.”

Favorite Native Plant

Purple Prairie Cone Flower (also known as Echinacea)

Favorite Invasive Plant


Favorite Bioenergy Crop

I’m interested in algae (though I don’t really know a lot about it)

Favorite Place in the UMRB


“It’s a special place. There’s lots of counter-culture here as well as artists and musicians. It also has the longest untamed stretch of the Missouri River, which makes up a lot of the identity of Vermillion. It wouldn’t be the same place without the river. The river unites people who wouldn’t come together otherwise. They come here to camp, swim, boat, and kayak because this river is here.”

Favorite Old West Historical Figure

Crazy Horse

Favorite Thing to Eat When You’re Hungry and in a Hurry

Rx Bars. They’ve got good stuff in them and they’re always the first thing that is right there and easy to grab.

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