Nik Sawe grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, receiving his BS in Biology at Stanford. Nik's two great loves have always been biology and writing, and in high school he published a fiction novel, Wolf Trails, about the trials of a wolf pack reintroduced into the wild. As an undergrad, he worked in the Sapolsky and Zhao labs as a neuroscience researcher, examining intracellular cell signaling pathways that protected against stroke. This paved the way for a career in medical writing, crafting journal papers on new research for doctors and biotech companies. But Nik wanted to return to ecology, and eventually struck upon a potential crossroads between neuroscience and environmental science in the budding field of neuroeconomics.

Through functional MRI, neuroeconomics analyzes the financial decision-making process at the level of discrete brain structures, allowing insights into the way we think about and route information. Nik's research adapts neuroeconomics techniques to assess decision-making in environmental questions.

Mobilizing successful conservation efforts to preserve both local and global resources and ecosystems requires a new way of thinking. Our brains' innate wiring favors short-term rewards over long-term planning, familial and individual concerns over global ones, and hinders our ability to perceive gradual change in our environment. These tendencies confound our ability to evaluate trade-offs between our own personal convenience and the sustainable future of the Earth. Obtaining a clear picture of how we evaluate long-term environmental risks on a neural level is an important step in characterizing how and why we make unsustainable environmental decisions, and can help inform new approaches in environmental economics, policymaking, and education.

At the heart of Nik's research is environmental risk perception and its impact on philanthropy and behavioral changes, and upstream of that, how framing effects, education, and semantics impact our environmental risk perception. This will hopefully yield a clearer view of how media & language influences perception, and ultimately, proactive environmental behavior.

Academic Appointments

  • Lecturer, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources

Current Research and Scholarly Interests

Through functional MRI, neuroeconomics analyzes the financial decision-making process at the level of discrete brain structures, allowing insights into the way we think about and route information. Nik's research adapts neuroeconomics techniques to assess decision-making in environmental questions.

All Publications

  • Neural valuation of environmental resources. NeuroImage Sawe, N., Knutson, B. 2015; 122: 87-95


    How do people value environmental resources? To estimate public valuation of natural resources, researchers often conduct surveys that ask people how much they would be willing to pay to preserve or restore threatened natural resources. However, these survey responses often elicit complex affective responses, including negative reactions toward proposed destructive land uses of those resources. To better characterize processes that underlie the valuation of environmental resources, we conducted behavioral and neuroimaging experiments in which subjects chose whether or not to donate money to protect natural park lands (iconic versus non-iconic) from proposed land uses (destructive versus non-destructive). In both studies, land use destructiveness motivated subjects' donations more powerfully than did the iconic qualities of the parks themselves. Consistent with an anticipatory affect account, nucleus accumbens (NAcc) activity increased in response to more iconic parks, while anterior insula activity increased in response to more destructive uses, and the interaction of these considerations altered activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). Further, anterior insula activity predicted increased donations to preserve parks threatened by destructive uses, but MPFC activity predicted reduced donations. Finally, individuals with stronger pro-environmental attitudes showed greater anterior insula activity in response to proposed destructive uses. These results imply that negative responses to destructive land uses may play a prominent role in environmental valuation, potentially overshadowing positive responses to the environmental resources themselves. The findings also suggest that neuroimaging methods might eventually complement traditional survey methods by allowing researchers to disentangle distinct affective responses that influence environmental valuation.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.08.010

    View details for PubMedID 26265156

  • Dual roles of the MAPK/ERK1/2 cell signaling pathway after stroke JOURNAL OF NEUROSCIENCE RESEARCH Sawe, N., Steinberg, G., Zhao, H. 2008; 86 (8): 1659-1669


    Extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1/2 (ERK1/2), one of the best-characterized members of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) family, mediates a range of activity from metabolism, motility, and inflammation to cell death and survival. It is phosphorylated and activated through a three-tiered MEK mode via cell surface receptors stimulated by growth factors or cytokines. The phosphorylated ERK1/2 level is usually increased after cerebral ischemia/reperfusion, but whether an increase in ERK1/2 phosphorylation is protective or detrimental is highly debatable. Much of the support for ERK1/2's role as a neuroprotectant against stroke stems from its apparent involvement in the beneficial effects of growth factors, estrogen, preconditioning, and hypothermia on the ischemic brain. Conversely, evidence supporting the detrimental effects of ERK1/2 activity is derived from its activation promoting inflammation and oxidative stress and its inhibition reducing ischemic damage. The dual potential of ERK1/2 actions in the ischemic brain is likely related to its responses to a diverse array of agonists and cell surface receptors. Plausibly, the ERK1/2 activity generated by cytokines and free radicals or other inflammatory factors after stroke may worsen ischemic damage, whereas the ERK1/2 activity produced by exogenous growth factors, estrogen, and preconditioning favors neuroprotection. Future experiments should be conducted to optimize the protective effect of ERK1/2 while blocking its detrimental actions.

    View details for DOI 10.1002/jnr.21604

    View details for Web of Science ID 000256646400001

    View details for PubMedID 18189318