Natural-Born Collaborator

By Johnny Holden
October 31, 2023

Heidi Schmalbach is Program Director for Planet Texas 2050, one of UT Austin’s Grand Challenges that brings together a diverse mix of faculty expertise to find community-based solutions to adapting to our ever changing climate and growing population.

Heidi Schmalbach


Beginning her career in August of 2021 at UT Austin, Schmalbach’s family moved back to Austin in the summer of 2020 after living in New Orleans for eight years where she was executive director of the New Orleans Arts Council. It is no surprise, therefore, that PT2050 has recruited several arts and humanities-based faculty as central collaborators to team up with scientists and engineers in their quest, not to be harbingers of climate doom, but rather facilitators for communities affected by extreme weather events who need help and fresh ideas in order to survive as Texas experiences increased extreme climate events.

We sat down with Schmalbach to discuss her passion for creating workable collaborations between distinct disciplines, her love of the arts, including one of the world’s most thought provoking cartoon series’, Peppa Pig.

Why did you choose to work at UT/OVPR?

I was excited by the program director role because I came from an interdisciplinary doctoral program and know how challenging (but absolutely critical) inter/transdisciplinary collaboration is, particularly in applied research that is attempting to directly address pressing societal issues (climate resilience, in our case). I’m also a two-time UT graduate so it’s been fun for me to come back to my alma mater.

Where did you grow up? Where did you live before this?

I was born in Western Massachusetts and lived in New York and Minneapolis before moving to Texas (San Antonio) in 7th grade. I moved to Austin in 2002 to attend UT. I’ve also lived in West Virginia, Kentucky, and most recently New Orleans. Despite all that has changed over 2+ decades, returning to Austin always feels like coming home and I don’t have any plans to leave again.

What’s your favorite thing about your job?

The interdisciplinary nature of Planet Texas 2050 means that I am regularly exposed to subjects I know very little about, which keeps things interesting and challenging. I really enjoy facilitating collaborations, especially between artists/humanists and scientists of all kinds, as well as fostering relationships with partners outside of UT. I like being on campus—I really appreciate the energy of young people. In spite of the massive collective challenges we face, our campus feels like a hopeful environment and that is something I really value.

What do you like to do for fun?

I have a four-year-old, so most of my time outside of work is spent hanging out with her and my partner. We like to swim, explore the hill country, watch Peppa Pig and Bluey, and visit with friends. If I get some time alone, I like to practice yoga (I’ve also been a yoga teacher since 2012) and pretend I’m an interior designer.