Gunilla Öberg

Professor, IRES


Dr. Gunilla Öberg is inspired by her deep knowledge in chlorine biogeochemistry, environment and sustainability, and her experience as a leader of complex interdisciplinary research and education. Questions that drive her work include: What kind of scientific knowledge is needed, used and trusted? How does the scientific knowledge used impact perceived solutions and the distribution of risks and benefits? Research of late focuses on sustainable sewage management and involves land-application of biosolids/sewage sludge, contaminants of emerging concern and sustainable sanitation solutions for informal urban settlements.

Dr. Öberg also pursues innovations in undergraduate science education focusing on how to learn/teach science literacy beyond content knowledge, including: recognizing the limits of science; internalizing ideas about bias, uncertainty and ignorance; and reflecting on the risks involved in making type 1 and type 2 errors (AIR; the argument about inductive risk).  Her pedagogy initiatives include directing UBC’s “First Year Seminar in Science” and developing “Sustainability for the Community and the World”, a 4th year capstone course in UBC’s emerging sustainability concentrations.


Egesta Lab:
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Science for policy

My projects in this field focus on the production and use of scientific knowledge for environmental decision making. What kind of knowledge is needed, used and trusted? How does this impact perceived solutions? How might we facilitate for scientists, decision makers and the public to ‘unpack’ assumptions, values and preferences that are embedded in such knowledge? I have led projects on acidification, critical loads, and climate change. My most recent projects deal with sustainable management of sewage in growing urban areas.

Why sustainable sewage management? The short answer is that diarrhoea is (still) the #1 child killer in the world. In 2012 about 1.5 million people died in diarrhoeal diseases, about half of them being five years old or younger. This is staggering when one contemplates that about half a million people died in warfare that year.

Providing sanitation services is not only a challenge for the developing world. Aging infrastructure needs to be replaced most everywhere. Rapidly growing mega-cities need to provide services for new areas that are popping up in a haphazard manner. Provision of sanitation services requires that trade-offs are made that inevitably involve unequal distribution of risks and benefits. Even so, it is handled as if it were purely a question of science and technology. Furthermore, it is an area where uptake of innovations is extremely slow and where most resort to the linear end-of-pipe solution developed at the end of the 19th century: Potable water is used to flush toilets via pipelines to a central facility. This model is too expensive, inflexible and time-consuming to meet the needs of today’s rapidly growing urban areas. Still, as much as 90% of research and development is dedicated to further develop the end-of-pipe solution even though it is evident that this solution will never be implemented for the 90% of the world’s population that are lacking basic sanitation services. We need to find solutions that are sustainable.

Science literacy in higher education

I also conduct research on curricula design to support science literacy beyond content knowledge. Effective assessment of science is more important than ever. Yet few have training in these essential skills. The focus on facts in science education leads the public to have unreasonable expectations of what science can deliver. There is thus an urgent need to strengthen undergraduate science students’ understanding of what science is, how it is done, it’s strengths and limitations, not least because it enhances their ability to assess the reliability and validity of claims made in media and elsewhere.

My projects in this field focus on scaffolding to support student learning. This includes the use of historic and contemporary case-studies; peer-review as a tool for formative assessment; rubrics to support formative and summative assessment; and automated formative feedback on written output utilizing natural language processing (NLP). These projects include questions related to how one might make better use of knowledge gained in science studies, which requires bridging the gap between perceptions held by practicing scientists and science studies scholars.

My earlier research in this field asked “how does one conduct rigorous interdisciplinary research and education?”

Chlorine biogeochemistry in soil.

These studies integrate knowledge from a number of disciplines such as biogeochemistry, soil science, analytical environmental chemistry, microbiology, enzymology and hydrology.


RMES 502 Interdisciplinary Case Analysis and Research Design
SCIE 113 First Year Seminar in Science

Featured Publications

Noureddine Elouazizi, Gunilla Oberg, and Gulnur Birol (2018) Learning technology-enabled (meta)-cognitive scaffolding to support learning aspects of written argumentation. PALE 2018

Bajracharya, S., Carenini, G., Chamberlain, B., Chen, K. D., Klein, D., Poole, D., & Oberg, G. 2018. Interactive Visualization for Group Decision-Analysis. International Journal of Information Technology & Decision Making. DOI: 10.1142/S0219622018500384

Mason-Renton, S. A. 2018. On the limitation of evidence-based policy: Regulatory narratives and land application of biosolids/sewage sludge in BC, Canada and Sweden. Environmental Science & Policy, 84, 88-96.

Klein, D. R., & Oberg, G. 2017. Using Existing Municipal Water Data to Support Conservation Efforts. Journal‐American Water Works Association, 109(7), E313-E319.

Gunilla Öberg and Margaret del Carmen Morales 2016. Biosolids are wicked to manage: Land application regulations in Sweden and B.C. Canada. WEF Residuals and Biosolids Conference, April 3-6, 2016, Milwuakee, Wisconsin

Susanne Rostmark, Manuel Colombo, Sven Knutsson, and Gunilla Öberg 2016. Removal and re-use of tar-contaminated sediments by freeze-dredging: a case study of a coking plant in northern Sweden. Water Environment Research 88(9):847-851

Margaret del Carmen Morales*, Leila Harris and Gunilla Öberg. 2014. Citizenshit – The Right to Flush and the UrbanSanitation Imaginary. Environment and Planning A 46: 2816 – 2833

Gunilla Öberg, M. Gabriela Merlinsky, Alicia LaValle, Margaret Morales, and M. Melina Tobias. 2014. The Notion of Sewage as Waste – On Institutional Inertia and Infrastructure Change in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Vancouver, Canada. Ecology and Society 19(2)19

Per Bengtsson, David Bastviken and Gunilla Öberg. 2013. Possible roles of reactive chlorine II: Assessing biotic chlorination as a way for organisms to handle oxygen stress. Environmental Microbiology and Environmental Microbiology 15 (4): 991-1000

Brent C. Chamberlain, Giuseppe Carenini, David Poole, Gunilla Öberg, and Hamed Taheri 2013. A Decision Support System for the Design and Evaluation of Sustainable Wastewater Solutions. IEEE Transactions on Computer Science. Special issue on Computational Sustainability pp. 129-141

Jacqueline A. Belzile and Gunilla Öberg 2012 Where to begin? Grappling with how to use participant interaction in focus group design. Qualitative Research 12 (4): 459-472

Malin Gustavsson, Susanne K. Karlsson, Gunilla Öberg, Per Sandén, Teresia Svensson, Valinia, S., Ives Thiry, David Bastviken, 2012. Organic matter chlorination rates in different boreal soils — the role of soil organic matter content. Environmental Science and Technology 46 (3): 1504–1510.

Margaret Morales and Gunilla Öberg, 2012.The Idea of Sewage as a Resource. An Introductory Study of Knowledge and Decision Making in Liquid Waste Management in Metro Vancouver, BC. Canada. UBC’s Program of Water Governance Report.

Molodovskaya, M., Warland, J., Richards, B.K., Öberg, G. and Steenhuis, T. 2011. Nitrous oxide emission from heterogeneous agricultural landscape: analysis of source contribution by eddy covariance and static chambers. Soil Science Society of America Journal 75: 5: 1829-1838

Öberg, Gunilla, 2011. Interdisicplinary environmental studies – a primer. Blackwell & Wiley.

Öberg, G. 2009. Facilitating interdisciplinary work: using quality assessment to create common ground. Higher Education 57, no. 4, pp. 405-415

Lövbrand, E. and Öberg, G. 2005 Towards reflexive scientization of environmental policy. Environmental Science and Policy. 8(2):195-197

Contact Details

AERL Room 447
2202 Main Mall
The University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4