Nik Sawe is a PhD candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford. His work adapts neuroeconomics – the study of financial decision-making in the brain – to environmental applications, from consumer responses to eco-labeling, to environmental philanthropy and valuation of natural resources.

The use of neuroimaging allows clearer characterization of individual differences in how people make environmental decisions by assessing how they route and process information via fMRI. Current work for the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center focuses on differential responses of consumers to eco-behavioral nudges such as the Energy Star label, along with PhD candidate Anshuman Sahoo and Professor Brian Knutson. This builds on his earlier work into the emotional neural systems which influence pro-environmental actions and willingness-to-pay to protect threatened natural resources and park lands.

Nik became invested in environmental issues as a child with a brittle bone disability: mostly bedridden in youth, getting into the wilderness was a rare occasion and a sign of good health. In high school, he wrote and published an environmental fiction novel for young adults, Wolf Trails, about a wolf pack reintroduced to the wild. During his B.S. in Biology at Stanford, Nik focused on neuroscience, researching cell signaling pathways which could mitigate damage from strokes under Robert Sapolsky and Heng Zhao. This was followed by several years of work in the biotech and medical device industries. One night in 2009, reading neuroeconomics papers for fun, Nik wondered whether the relatively nascent field had been applied to environmental topics. This led to Nik’s pursuit of environmental neuroeconomics in his doctoral research at E-IPER. In 2012 Nik was selected as a PhD Research Fellow by the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society for his work on the neural underpinnings of environmental philanthropy. He teaches a self-designed course on Environmental Risk Perception and Decision-Making to fellow graduate students at Stanford.

Nik continues to write creatively, from short stories to plays to student films, and composes music. In 2012, he created a technique to turn neural data into music notation, allowing a visual cortex to play a string quartet at a CCRMA concert.