Explorer at Work: Vivian Giang

Explorer at Work: Vivian Giang

National Geographic Explorer and PhD student Vivian Giang studies geothermal energy development on Indigenous lands. Her work focuses on fostering collaborative partnerships with Indigenous communities and establishing free, prior, informed, and continuous consent to ensure that Indigenous voices and knowledge are integral to conversations as the push grows towards renewable, geothermal energy.


3 - 12+


Geology, Earth Science, Engineering, Anthropology

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Early Inspiration

From 1979 through 1980, an estimated 60,000 refugees arrived in Canada from southeast Asian countries. National Geographic Explorer Vivian Giang’s parents were among them.

“My parents are refugees from Vietnam,” Giang said. “They came to Canada through the [refugee] crisis. They were allowed to make a new life and a second home to escape from persecution. One of the things they’ve always taught me is: Give back, the way strangers gave to us to make our lives better.”

“It wasn’t until I was of university age that I started learning more about Canada’s colonial history. One of things that I realized is that the only way my parents were able to make a new home was because of historic treaties that were established with Indigenous communities, which allow newcomers coming to Canada to have a second chance at building their lives.”

“I thought, When I’m able to, I would try to do some work that would hopefully give back and contribute to Indigenous communities and Indigenous rights.”

Explorer Work

The opportunity to do so has come through Giang’s work studying geothermal energy development on Indigenous lands. Geothermal energy, referring to heat generated within the Earth, is a renewable energy resource accessible throughout the world, and is a promising alternative to fossil fuels. According to a 2021 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, Global Geothermal Alliance, and the Inter-American Development Bank, geothermal energy has the potential to supply about 8 percent of total global electricity needs and serve about 17 percent of the global population. Access to geothermal energy is not evenly distributed globally, but many countries (located mostly in Africa, Central/South America and the Pacific) could rely on geothermal resources for all of their electricity needs.

In pursuit of an interdisciplinary PhD in anthropology and engineering through the University of Alberta, Giang’s research focuses on fostering collaborative partnerships with Indigenous communities to ensure that Indigenous voices and knowledge are integral to conversations about the development of geothermal energy projects. The goal is to ensure projects are developed responsibly and sustainably while respecting Indigenous rights.

“Some of the most viable places for geothermal are on Indigenous lands,” Giang said. “To ensure we’re honoring the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, how can we approach this in a good way and include Indigenous people right away?”

“I’m specifically looking at risk communications. How do we understand the risks of geothermal energy and how do we communicate [risk] to different groups?”

Despite the potential for these energy projects to occur on Indigenous lands, land-based knowledge held by Indigenous peoples has often been absent from development plans. Giang credits experiential learning experiences alongside Indigenous leaders in Hawai’i, Aotearoa–New Zealand, and Canada, as transformative experiences that guided her own education. One such experience came while Giang was volunteering in a loʻi kalo (wetland taro patch) at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Just as she was about to cut off the top of the taro, she was instructed to stop, advised to not touch the exposed insides of the taro; if she did, her hands would itch from the calcium oxalate in the taro. From that experience, she learned there was a term for learning by doing, called maka hana ka ‘ike, in ‘Ōlelo Hawaiian. She subsequently learned of the term anarobda, in the Stoney language in Alberta, which conveys the message that it is time to listen and pay attention because important information will be shared.

“Doing land-based learning, listening to stories, I was starting to learn about how Indigenous ways of doing risk communications and understanding risk are different from western ways.”

Most Exciting Part of The Work

“Sometimes in the journey towards [reconciliation], the people who should be included are left out,” Giang said. “The most exciting part is doing the research collaboratively because [Indigenous peoples] have been so often researched on, not with.”

“The most exciting aspect of this project is that Indigenous knowledge and people are at the forefront of this research. They’re the ones driving it through our collaborations. Hopefully it will encourage governments to look at their policies and be more inclusive and equitable.”

“Research is a journey of kinship and making relationships,” said Sherry Letendre from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, one of the communities Giang is collaborating with. “Geothermal is not just water. It's alive: it has a spirit, it keeps us alive—all of us. When you're working with Indigenous people, it's important to make relationships and be a good relative. It takes time.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the United Nations in 2007 and ultimately ratified in Canada in 2021, includes the principle that Indigenous peoples provide “free, prior, informed consent” for natural resource projects.

Giang’s work strives to advance that consent process one step further.

“In a better world, communities would have continuous consent, not one-time consent,” she said. “How can we ensure communities are continually involved in decisions that affect them? We think continuous consent is one tool that can help.”

Most Challenging Part of the Work

“One of the largest challenges is when the research is looked at as a silver bullet for everything and that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone," Giang said. "Every community is unique. Every development is unique to the community and unique in terms of the impact to the community. It’s this idea that sometimes when you see one success, that it can be automatically adopted in another community. That can be difficult because the circumstances may not be the same. A lot of this work takes time. It takes curiosity, an open mind, and patience when thinking of appropriate solutions that respect Indigenous rights. And it takes a lot of trust. I am incredibly grateful for the kindness of my host communities and for the stories and knowledge people were willing to share with me.”

What Being A National Geographic Explorer Means To You

“When I was growing up, we had a neighbor who gave us boxes of his old National Geographic magazines," said Giang. "At the time, we didn’t read English. We could only look at the photos. I remember the big, bold, yellow border of the magazine, looking at the photos, seeing things I’d never seen outside of my neighborhood. I was always struck by: Wow, there’s so much out there that I don’t know about. That was actually one of the first inspirations for me to start traveling. It inspired me to go out and explore and see different things.”

Advice for Students

“One of the major things I learned through my National Geographic and Fulbright experiences: You have to approach things as a brand new learner," Giang said. "It took a lot of patience on the communities’ side, learning with me. It was about not giving up. It was about having that Explorer Mindset. There are multiple ways to get there.

“One of the things to remember is that we’re not alone. In this journey, there are a lot of people who will help you and who you will help as well. Remember that relationships are key to everything in life.”

Get Involved

Ka Papa Loʻi O Kānewai hosts a number of community events, visits and volunteer opportunities.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

May 10, 2024

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