UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

Understanding Local Impacts to Inform Wildlife Conservation

Photo: mopictures/Flickr

It’s 16:30 in rural Myanmar and my field crew, who had spent the day surveying for elephant dung, are racing our caravan of motorbikes back to the field camp before dusk descends. As the day fades tempering the oppressive heat, elephants emerge from the shade of the forest to begin foraging, sometimes in the sugarcane and rice paddies that are increasingly spreading across the country. Running into one of these giants as they too use the network of dirt roads to travel through the landscape can be fatal, necessitating a strict policy of returning to camp before dark for the safety of the team. While my field season lasts a short three months, this is one of many concessions residents are forced to make or risk their lives encountering an elephant as night falls.

A large chunk of elephant skin

It is unsurprising that most of the remaining endangered charismatic mega fauna are in some of the poorest areas on earth. It is in these areas where wildlands still exist, and the lack of economic development has prevented the boom of industry and infrastructure that could spell the end for remaining mega herbivores and carnivores. It is also in these areas where the people tasked with the burden of living with the species disproportionately bear the brunt of human-wildlife conflict. Though local community members indicate they value elephants for religious and cultural reasons, as well as the important role they play in the ecosystem, increasing human-elephant conflict may lead to a greater acceptance of elephant poaching as a way to prevent crop-raiding and reduce human injury and death from run-ins with their giant neighbors.

I began using satellite-GPS collars to monitor elephant movements 2015 with the hope of using this data to inform conservation policy and develop ways to mitigate human-elephant conflict. Instead, these collars turned into beacons that allowed us to locate the carcasses of the elephants after they had been killed by poachers. Further groundwork revealed an astounding rate of elephant poaching occurring throughout Myanmar. And what’s more, poachers aren’t just killing elephants for their ivory- elephant skin, genitals, and other parts are increasingly being sought after for export into neighboring countries such as China.

To Chinese markets

Grey, dry, and wrinkled. Cut into palm-sized pieces, hard as a rock, yet lighter than expected. You would be forgiven to mistake it for any of the countless kinds of roots and herbs also laying on the table – if it weren’t for the thick black hairs sprouting out. This is what elephant skin looks like in a Chinese market. A few inconspicuous chunks nestled among dried seahorses, pangolin scales, muntjac antlers, and gibbon skulls. Typically, elephant skin is turned into a powder by mixing with talcum and applied externally to treat muscle soreness, ulcers, and open wounds. Of course, this is all very illegal. Elephant poaching and trafficking are prohibited and China’s recent decision to shut down its ivory trade was a milestone for the conservation community. But old habits are pervasive, and traditions die hard.

Tiger bone

Traditional Chinese medicine has an extremely long history dating back thousands of years and its practitioners number among the millions, many of whom are old, live in the rural countryside and have relied on these sorts of medicines all their life. Never heard of aspirin, but a regular shot of snake wine to improve constitution is common knowledge. Chinese demand for exotic animal ingredients is a primary driver of illegal poaching, not just in China, but in other countries including bordering Myanmar. Exacerbated by the rise of the Chinese middle class, this demand has created a biodiversity crisis in Southeast Asia and is a direct threat to many protected and endangered species around the world. Fortunately, growing domestic environmental concerns and calls to protect natural resources have resulted in greater focus on these issues in recent years with China’s new wildlife protection law taking effect in 2017.

Steeped alcohol with various species of animals

One popular form of traditional Chinese medicine involves steeping plant and animal material in high-proof alcohol for days to years. Steeping is thought to extract the medicinal properties into the liquor and often endangered animal parts are used including bear gall bladders and tiger bone. These ingredients can be degraded or removed prior to sale, which makes monitoring difficult. In collaboration with the Wildlife Forensics Center of the Yunnan Endangered Species Commission and the South China DNA Barcoding Institute at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, I am currently working to

develop a genetic method to identify which animals are being used directly from the liquor itself.

Conservation is local first

Cultural attitudes, long-standing traditions, and the economic realities of life in rural developing nations contribute to the realities of human-wildlife conflict and the illegal wildlife trade. Conservation is inherently a multi-faceted, human issue that involves many kinds of stakeholders. Conservation policy doesn’t work when foreign scientists simply come in and tell the locals what they can and cannot do. In order to reduce conflict and achieve coexistence, scientists need to engage with local communities and include their input in wildlife management strategies. Scientists can gather the data needed to answer specific questions and develop methods to solve specific problems, but we need buy in from local communities to implement effective mitigation and anti-poaching programs. Successful conservation programs require sensitivity to local cultures and working with communities to fully understand the challenges they face when saving a species: whether it’s the danger wildlife pose while they are alive or the value they hold when they are dead. As conservation scientists, we need to be open to addressing the needs of people to ultimately protect the wildlife under our care.


Dr. Christie Sampson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Clemson University, working in collaboration with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to address issues of human-wildlife coexistence and poaching. More information about her work in Myanmar can be seen at: arcg.is/0HjnLS. You can follow her on twitter at @WildEcology.

Charles C.Y. Xu is a Ph.D. student in the Redpath Museum & Department of Biology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He is interested in using genetics to discover, study, and protect biodiversity. For more information visit his website or follow him on twitter at @CharlesCongXu or on instagram at @DRYBAR.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.


Photo: Charles C.Y. Xu Photo: Charles C.Y. Xu Photo: Charles C.Y. Xu

Hope and a 250-mile Bike Ride Through Colorado with a Mother-Daughter Duo

Melissa and Natalie Valentin are a mother-daughter duo devoted to sports and biking for the planet. But, with wildfires raging across the West and a president actively reversing our country’s progress on climate change, they have been finding it very hard to be hopeful about the future of the planet lately. Rather than give in to climate despair, they joined Climate Ride Colorado in order to meet other inspiring riders and to become a part of the Climate Ride community. They were looking to reinvigorate their optimism and activism by raising money for charities working on climate (one antidote to a lack of spending on our government’s part) and surrounding themselves by similarly committed activists. The week of mother-daughter time was supposed to be icing on that cake.

Activism runs in the family for the Valentins.

Both mother and daughter have made climate change a focus in their lives. Natalie has attended a number of community-organized conferences on the intersections between gentrification and environmental issues, and how we can make sure cities include ALL neighborhoods in sustainability initiatives. She has also worked in a variety of environmental fields – energy efficiency, environmental stewardship, environmental education, and sustainable food systems. Natalie studied Environmental Policy, and channeled her drive into organizing city-wide beach cleans in Chile, leading groups of volunteers on trail building projects in the San Juans, and selling energy efficiency solutions to building owners. Then she heard a few colleagues rave about their experiences with Climate Ride, so she decided to give it a go and convinced her mom to join her!

Melissa has made science her career and like many scientists in the US, she has been scrambling to replace climate change research funding that has been stalled or eliminated. She researches the effects of climate change on watersheds in cold regions and consults with businesses to help them understand how their operations are impacted by weather and climate change. This lack of funding interrupts critical ongoing research and careers. The administration’s budget plan for 2019 includes cuts to funding for environmental projects and research that is 70% below the average spending of the previous administration according to the New York Times. While some hope that Congress will mitigate these cuts as they did for 2018, overall, spending for environmental research and especially climate change is decreasing rapidly despite the growing impact of climate change.

Melissa is acutely aware of how climate change is having a dramatic impact on Western US forests and watersheds.

Because of her scientific background and career, she has been tracking the effects of climate change. According to Melissa, starting around 2002, warmer winters enabled bark beetles in the Rocky Mountains to overwinter, and longer summers enabled them to double their reproduction rate. This, combined with forest stress caused by a multi-year drought, led to an unprecedented bark beetle outbreak that decimated Rocky Mountain forests. The West is experiencing larger and more frequent wildfires, associated with drier and hotter summers. As of four days before the start of Climate Ride Colorado, much of the route was under an air quality advisory due to wildfires. Fortunately, due to a weather change, much of the smoke cleared out, but smoke-free summers and falls have become less common across the West.

Additionally, the timing of streamflow that originates in the snow-dominated headwaters of Colorado is changing, with more winter rain and earlier snowmelt. Ski resorts in Colorado are diversifying to include warm-season recreational activities due to the shorter ski season. The effect of climate change in Alaska (the focus of Melissa’s research) is even more profound because temperature rise there is four times greater than the global average, causing a dramatic loss of glacier ice and permafrost. Meltwater from Alaska’s glaciers are important contributors to sea level rise, and salmon may be impacted as glacial meltwater changes the timing and quantity of streamflow. As permafrost thaws, infrastructure becomes unstable, soil dries out, hydrologic pathways change, and previously stored carbon is released to the atmosphere. That’s why Melissa decided to get back on her bike after a long break and raise money to combat climate change. She rode to support the Union of Concerned Scientists because, as she put it “they stand up for integrity in science, policy, and democracy.”

Natalie has put a lot of energy into working against the outsized impact of climate change on our most vulnerable communities. She knows resiliency planning is critical to ensure that everyone in our communities, not just those with the most money or political sway, will have access to healthy food, water, and pollution-free neighborhoods. According to the UN, “Families living in poverty systematically occupy the least desirable land to damage from climate hazards, such as mudslides, periods of abnormally hot water, water contamination and flooding. Climate change has the potential to worsen their situation and thereby worsen pre-existent inequalities. ” That’s why Natalie chose to ride on behalf of Denver Food Rescue. DFR’s bike-powered volunteers rescue fresh produce from grocery stores and community gardens and deliver it to No Cost Grocery Programs in 20 underserved neighborhoods. They pull this off with only 3 full-time staff thanks to their resourcefulness and an army of dedicated volunteers. Their Board of Directors is comprised of residents of their partner communities, which ensures that food justice and health equity stay central to their mission, alongside the environmental impact of reducing food waste.

Without change, these cycles of dryer summers, more fire, and invasive species will continue to become more severe. That reality alongside a diminished effort on the part of our government institutions is enough to drive most of us towards despair. But motivation and hope weren’t the only obstacles that Melissa and Natalie faced in taking on this 250-mile ride with 20,000 feet of vertical gain up and down the rocky mountains.

These intrepid bikers also overcame physical and mental blocks to get ready for Climate Ride Colorado.

In May, Natalie tore a tendon in her wrist while rock climbing. Her doctors said the injury would take 4-5 months to heal completely and prevented her from riding for a number of weeks. For a while, she was constrained to stationary bikes where she could rest on her forearms instead of gripping the handlebars while training. With the help of a burly wrist brace and an awesome occupational therapist, she got back on her bike at the end of June, giving her just about a month of on-the-road training for the ride. She’s developed a goofy tan line from her brace, but she feels it’s worth it.

Melissa also saw the ride as a way to overcome a fear of biking that followed a serious bike crash in 2013. Before she started training for Climate Ride Colorado, just the thought of biking downhill made her re-experience the crash and brought her to tears. But her drive to raise awareness and money for climate research pushed her past her fear. She knows how crucial that work is, and felt it was more important than her fear of biking. After easing back into riding, she is happy to report that she is totally at ease on her bike again.

Building a community around the fight for our climate keeps us rolling even when the climb looks too steep.

Both mother and daughter told us that community was something they hoped to find on Climate Ride before they left. They were hoping to meet “other people who are willing to work hard and volunteer their time to raise money for environmental research.” Being connected to a wider community advocating for climate research and support of environmental non-profits helps lift the tide of hope when things are looking bleak. Everyone here at Climate Ride knows the power in this community every time we go out on one of our events, but we’re always hopeful that riders have the same experience.

Originally posted on Climate Ride, September 14, 2018. 

Melissa McShea Valentin currently works at 2100 and researches how climate change may impact natural resources and organizations.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Forensics, Justice, and the Case for Science-Based Decision Making

Photo: Lonpicman/Wikimedia Commons

Forensic science—and the language forensic scientists use to talk about their findings–has real-world impacts, sometimes life-or-death impacts, for real people. If the criminal justice system is going to really serve the cause of justice, it needs to be informed by the best available science. Unfortunately, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) is ignoring scientific best practices, reversing progress toward improving forensic science in the U.S.

At the end of July 2018, the DOJ announced the release of eight new Uniform Language for Testimony and Reporting documents (ULTRs) at the annual meeting of the International Association for Identification. An ULTR is a document meant to ensure that all forensic practitioners from the same discipline in DOJ forensic science laboratories use the same language in reporting the results of their analyses to police, lawyers, judges, and juries. While an ULTR is only binding on DOJ laboratories, state and local laboratories often follow DOJ’s lead.

The Deputy Attorney General said at the meeting that these documents “meet the highest scientific and ethical standards.” But do they?
All nine of the ULTRs use what is sometimes described as a “categorical” reporting framework. This framework sorts all reports into a small number of categories. For example, the categorical framework for firearms evidence is:

  1. Source identification (i.e., identified)
  2. Source exclusion (i.e., excluded)
  3. Inconclusive

Categorical reporting has long been widely criticized because the artificial boundaries between the categories render the system prone to perverse cliff effects. A better way would be what might be called “continuous” reporting, in which the weight of the evidence is reported as it is, rather than by reference to its place in a relatively crude three-category framework.

Another criticism of categorical reporting is that it implies certainty, as for example in the firearm example above in which the analyst would tell the jury “that two toolmarks originated from the same source.” Science doesn’t deal in certainties, and these ULTRs violate basic probabilistic reasoning. They are neither logical, nor scientific. That very point was made in the public comments on the draft ULTRs by several commentators and in a recent report on latent print analysis by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AASS).

A discouraging omen

In April 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions shut down the National Commission on Forensic Science, a roughly 30-member advisory panel of scientists, forensic and non-forensic, and legal and law enforcement professionals. The Commission had been launched in 2013 after a 2009 report by the National Research Council, the official science advisor to the US Congress, found “serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system” and called “for major reforms.” With the closing of the Commission, the DOJ turned its forensic reform effort over to the Forensic Science Working Group, the current publisher of the ULTRs.

Given that the ULTRs are the first official documents produced by the Forensic Science Working Group as part of its “plans to advance forensic science,” these documents are a discouraging sign for a future in which forensic reform is driven by the DOJ. Since the ULTRs were supposed to “serve as a model for demonstrating” the DOJ’s “commitment to strengthening forensic science, now and in the future,” their flaws don’t portend well.

Not making sense

After stating that the forensic experts should report that they know the source of a forensic trace, the ULTRs go on to make a number of statements that sound more uncertain. It might seem like the ULTRs are trying to tone down their claims of certainty, but the result is that the ULTRs try to support reports of certainty with statements of uncertainty. That doesn’t make any sense.

It also seems like the ULTRs are suggesting that small probabilities can be rounded down to zero for the “consumer” of the evidence. But it is unclear why that would be a scientific, or a just, thing to do.

It is helpful that the ULTRs contain lists of statements that should not be said, such as “zero error rate” and “100% certain.” These statements were made for years, including by DOJ forensic analysts, and they have now been largely discredited. However, a lot of the “banned” statements are what I call “false concessions.” It appears that the DOJ is conceding something important, but in fact they are conceding little or nothing because analysts are still permitted to make statements that are logically equivalent to the banned statements.

Scientists, not just forensic scientists, can weigh in to protect the role of evidence

In recent years, some progress has been made toward recognizing the inherently probabilistic nature of all scientific evidence and seeking ways of communicating those probabilities to lay audiences. The ULTRs signal that the DOJ is not yet ready to join that effort. This is unfortunate, given the DOJ’s power and influence.

Scientists don’t need to know anything about forensic science to understand that categorical statements of certainty are not plausible. Any scientist can help by letting the DOJ know that their statements are not scientifically credible and that the opinions of individual scientists and scientific institutions should be taken seriously by the nation’s most important purveyor of justice.

Overstating the certainty of forensic evidence has been implicated in many miscarriages of justice. And it is scientifically wrong. The people who are the ultimate consumers of forensic evidence deserve better.


Simon A. Cole is a Professor at University of California, Irvine’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society. 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

How to Make Professional Conferences More Accessible for Disabled People: Guidance from Actual Disabled Scientists

Photo by Yomex Owo/Unsplash.

Attending professional conferences is a key part of life as a scientist. It’s where we present our research, network, and reconnect with colleagues. But for disabled scientists like me, conferences can be inaccessible and frustrating. I talked to several other scientists with a wide range of disabilities about how conferences could be better, and put their advice together in this short summary (also available in a video, if you prefer that).

You should think of this as an introduction to conference accessibility, at best. There are many disabled consultants you can hire to improve your conference, and I highly recommend you do that! They will be able to help you on a much deeper, professional level, and deserve compensation for their time. I’ve also included links to more in-depth resources at the bottom of this page.

Thank you to my friends who helped with this piece: Dr. Alexandra Schober, Dr. Arielle Silverman, Dr. Caroline Solomon, Dawn Fallik, Susanna Harris, and several anonymous contributors. This is part of my Science + Disability series, which is supported by Two Photon Art.


If there’s one thing to remember about etiquette, it’s this:

Talk to disabled scientists about their research. We want to be seen as scientists, not just as disabled people. Avoid saying things like ‘That’s such a cool sign for molecule,’ or, ‘It must be so hard to find signs for all those science words.’”

— Dr. Caroline Solomon

Remember that being an ally can start by just striking up a conversation. You don’t have to go up to a stranger and say, “Wow, you’re the only scientist I’ve ever seen with a medical alert dog. That must be really tough. Can he go in the lab with you? Wow!” Instead, you can just be friendly, the same way you would with anyone else at the conference. I know that I’m far more likely to ask someone for support if I already have a personal relationship with them.

If you think a disabled person needs help, you should always ask them before stepping in. There’s a good chance that they can manage just fine on their own. You can simply ask, “Would you like some help?” and allow them to indicate their preference.

Tell fellow attendees and organizers about these accessibility suggestions! It is exhausting to always have to speak up and ask for accommodations or point out where the problems are. You can lessen that burden by giving your peers gentle reminders to do a better job with accessibility.

Physical Space

What can I say, we like seating options!

Several people had great recommendations around seating. A few of the ideas:

  • Arrange the chairs with plenty of aisles, so that people can easily exit the row to reduce anxiety and/or panic or to allow people with mobility aids enough room to get by.
  • Make chairs available for all speakers, preferably without arms to better accommodate people of all sizes.

Reserve seats at the front of the room for deaf and hard of hearing audience members, or leave some spaces open for wheelchair users.

In a large conference center, provide clear signage and places to rest when trying to get from one room to another. Some conference centers span multiple city blocks and can be exhausting for anyone to navigate, but this becomes even more of a challenge for physically disabled or chronically ill people.

Provide a quiet room where people can go to relax or have some privacy. There should be guidelines that specify that the quiet room is not a place for phone conversations. Quiet rooms are helpful for everyone who needs a break from the busy conference environment, but are also an important space for neurodivergent attendees.

Ask speakers and participants to be scent-free, meaning that (at a minimum) they don’t wear perfume or cologne or use any other scented products. Strong smells can be migraine triggers or distractions for neurodivergent people.


Prepare both digital and printed versions of conference material. Digital materials are more accessible to blind and low vision attendees (for use with screen readers), and printed materials can help people with ADHD or learning disabilities follow along more easily.

Indicate (preferably before the conference starts) whether food and drinks will be present. This helps people with health conditions and/or food allergies plan how much food to bring. Also, make sure you clearly label food with relevant allergens. Food allergies can be life threatening and can be a barrier to full participation if attendees aren’t sure what is in the food.

Presentations and Panels

Always use a microphone, even if you think you don’t need it, you have a loud voice, or it’s a small crowd. You don’t want to put someone who is hard of hearing or deaf in the position of having to publicly request that you use a microphone. Instead, it’s your responsibility to make your program accessible. If you are organizing a conference, make sure to provide the necessary AV equipment in each room and tell all speakers that they must use microphones.

Poster Sessions

Make sure there are volunteer or staff guides available to give directions and/or read posters to blind and low vision attendees. Poster halls are often giant and difficult to navigate, so this is a great example of a disability-related accommodation that would benefit everyone.


Buffets are inaccessible to people who are blind, have low vision, use mobility aids, have arm weakness, can’t stand for long, and many other people. That said, they’re often the fastest and easiest way to feed large groups of people. If a buffet is your only option, have volunteers and/or staff members available to provide assistance.

Create opportunities to socialize without alcohol. People with mental illness may avoid alcohol because of medication interactions, history of trauma, addiction, or a simple preference.

If the reception is being held outside of the convention center/main conference location, tell attendees how far away the event is and whether the venue is accessible. It’s always better to be honest than to hope there’s no problem. For example, if there’s one step to get into the restaurant, just make sure the attendees know that beforehand. Of course, it would be better to choose a fully accessible space for the reception!

Other Resources

There are so many resources available to help you make your events and physical spaces more accessible to disabled people. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Please add a comment below with other resources I should add!


Gabi Serrato Marks is a 4th year PhD candidate in marine geology in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program. Her primary research focuses on ancient climate records. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @gserratomarks

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Photo by Yomex Owo/Unsplash. Photo by Matthias Wagner/Unsplash

Climate Changes Health: The Backstory is the Front Story

Photo: FEMA

12 years. That’s how long scientists say we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially to heed off the global catastrophic effects of climate change.  As such, climate change is arguably the greatest public health threat of our times as it already contributes to increased trauma, morbidity, and mortality from extreme weather events and displacement.

Climate justice is intersectional

Often missing from this conversation is a dialogue on climate justice. The term climate justice draws heavily on the environmental justice (EJ) movement and affirms that climate change is a scientific, political, and human rights issue. It defines climate change as a great multiplier, exacerbating existing health inequities among socially, economically, and politically vulnerable populations. And, per the Bali Principles of Climate Justice, the term also recognizes “the rights of communities dependent on natural resources for their livelihood and cultures to own and manage the same in a sustainable manner and is opposed to the commodification of nature and its resources.” Policies that overlook disproportionate impacts on low-income communities and communities of color—as well as inaction—are perpetuating climate injustice globally.

As Dr. P. Qasimah Boston at the Department of Children and Families in Tallahassee, Florida explains with regards to climate change, “The backstory is the FRONT story.” In other words, the stories of communities experiencing climate injustice cannot be the “backstory,” but must be recognized in mainstream conversations around climate change and health.

Coming together around solutions

In attempts to shift the narrative within public health and make climate justice the front story, over 115 EJ and scientific experts came together for a pre-conference summit at the 2017 American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting— Climate Changes Health: Ensuring Environmental Justice Underlies Public Health’s Climate Change Work.

While many scientists and public health professionals understand climate change’s disproportionate threats to health, this summit was meant to help prepare them to actually address climate justice in their research and practice in partnerships with communities and climate justice leaders already doing the work.

This report was compiled from thematic analysis of rich conversations between leaders in the room and reflects the combined insights of the group. Written for diverse audiences, it shares important recommendations and resources to advance public health’s capacity to address climate justice related to policy, youth involvement, the role of funders, and comprehensive suggestions for the field of public health.

What you can do

Review the recommendations in Climate Changes Health: Ensuring Environmental Justice Underlies Public Health’s Climate Change Work.

We all need to vote for candidates who state their position on climate change. A good starting point is declaring that a warming climate is caused by human activity, is threatening the health and safety of everyone, but that low-income communities, many of which are of color, are facing the heaviest burdens.

Scientists and public health and technical experts – use your position as a researcher, a member of an educational institution, a member of your community, and as a constituent to push forward climate justice by:

  • Working with communities to learn and offer your expertise where appropriate. UCS has a guide and several resources to help you think through how to do this in a meaningful way.
  • Talking to colleagues and people in your institution to bring diverse voices, including those from impacted communities, into the conversations and work around climate change.
  • Engaging with policymakers, offer your expertise, and voice your support for climate justice work that is centered in communities that are most affected.
  • Elevating the issues in the media to make climate justice a focal part of the climate change conversation

 Concerned members of the public – leverage your standing as a voter and concerned community member to work towards climate justice by connecting with a local justice-based community group and engaging with elected officials and the media.

This takes an all hands-on deck approach. It means centering our work in equity and supporting justice organizations and leaders. It means supporting the work of leaders of color. It means showing up and taking action.


As a community-engaged researcher, Natalie Sampson brings interdisciplinary evidence to climate change, land use, and infrastructure planning and policy efforts in Metro Detroit to address environmental health inequities. As an Assistant Professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn, she teaches courses in public health, health promotion, environmental health, and community organizing. Dr. Sampson co-chairs the American Public Health Association (APHA)’s Environmental Justice Committee with Charles Lee.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Photo: FEMO

My Experience with the Science Network Mentor Program: Finding the Path to Advocacy that Works for You

The path to advocacy may involve getting your hands dirty. Photo via Good Free Photos

About 12 years ago, in the basement of a poorly-attended Jewish temple in upstate New York surrounded by stale goldfish crackers and glasses of apple juice, my 15-year-old self was torn between listening to Al Gore’s video-taped message that climate change was the biggest issue of our time and not wanting to be persuaded by anyone about anything, especially not in a semi-religious setting. Since then, I’ve pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in ecology, worked on several studies documenting the effects of climate change on the natural ecosystem, and taught courses on climate change and environmental sciences to challengingly politically diverse classes of students in the Midwest. In retrospect, Al Gore (with backup from sad, skinny polar bears floating on melting ice to melancholy music) did make a serious impression on that 15-year-old.

But in the past 10 years, emissions and temperatures have continued to rise and politicians continue to face a stalemate on climate change, particularly in the United States. So, near the end of my master’s degree program, I was ready to try something else—political advocacy. I saw a posting about the UCS Science Network Mentor Program and thought, what the heck, I should give it a go.

Diving into science advocacy

As I was thinking about my science advocacy interests, I realized I had spent the last three years studying soils and knew that they were a fairly non-controversial way to sequester carbon while increasing sustainability in other areas. My plan was to forge ahead and advocate for soil health in Nebraska. A long move and thesis defense later, I was meeting with an excellent scientist advocate mentor in a café in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, head spinning with ideas for how I was going to be the great pioneering advocate for soil health in the Midwest.

Six months later, I’ve learned a lot, including that advocacy does not always play out as planned. Believe it or not, strategic advocacy is hard! It is something that you have to learn, and it requires time, mental energy, and a willingness to put yourself in a position where people might get angry with you, or worse, you might declare something and become a good student’s worst nightmare—publicly wrong. Furthermore, I was missing three major things that would have made advocacy much, much easier—a clear vision of what I wanted to do (turns out that Corporate America’s obsession with SMART goals isn’t as misguided as many of their other ideas), a local group (not just one person) of other advocates who could help and encourage me, and a network of people who could direct me to the right person of influence.

By some metrics, I failed (my first failure since I got an “E” for effort in handwriting). But the thing is, opportunities to advocate for science-based decision making are always ongoing, the key is finding the path to advocacy that works for you.

I also learned: 1) Don’t take people working on science advocacy and communication for granted. Seriously, what they do is hard! 2) It is helpful to have a well-established network and a clear vision of what you want to do. Attempting to change the political landscape in a region you just moved to with a few spare hours on weekends may be a smidge too ambitious. 3) Trying to do too much isn’t helpful—you are much better off using a call script to call your representative than you are trying to do something massive and being paralyzed with fear and indecision. 4) At this point in my life, spearheading a science advocacy campaign more or less on my own might not be for me. I may try something (more manageable) again in the future once I’ve become more established somewhere (and the resources provided to me by the Science Network Mentor Program have left me positioned to be much more successful next time).

There is always more time to figure out what kind of science outreach and advocacy works for you, and to plug into the communities fighting for our collective future that will sustain you as an advocate for the long-term.


Jessica recently graduated from the University of Toledo with a M.S. in soil ecology. She currently lives in Lincoln, Nebraska where she is taking a sabbatical from academia and working in biotech.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Photo via <a href="https://www.goodfreephotos.com/">Good Free Photos</a>

Supporting Science Policy Advocacy and Outreach through Microgrants

The Science Policy Initiative at Notre Dame.

The National Science Policy Network (NSPN) unites groups of early career scientists and engineers nationwide who want to elevate the voice of scientific evidence in policy. We champion the value of science and evidence-based decision-making and believe it is critical for scientists and engineers to step outside of the research lab and communicate the importance diverse perspectives in the policy process to the rest of the scientific community, policy makers, and the general public.

NSPN member groups engage in diverse outreach including seminars, workshops, movie nights, discussion groups, public outreach, registration drives, and conferences!  These events reflect hours of dedication, time lost from the lab, and are a primary way for academic communities to put on their other hat – informed citizens.

Despite this, they receive minimal support. Based on a national survey conducted by NSPN in early 2018, over half of these student-led science policy groups operate on meager budgets of less than $1,000 per year. Recognizing that small financial contributions can catalyze significant improvements in group productivity, NSPN recently launched a microgrant initiative to facilitate growth and sustainability of these science policy groups.

The Science Policy Initiative at the University of Virginia

NSPN received over 25 proposals for the first round of microgrant funding, and was able to provide awards to 7 of them. The review committee for this microgrant initiative consisted of several students from the NSPN leadership as well as 3 external reviewers including Kate Stoll (Senior Policy Advisor, MIT Washington Office), Mahlet Mesfin (Deputy Director, Center for Science Diplomacy at AAAS), and Bill Bonvillian (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The review committee was impressed with the quality and creativity of all the proposals and ultimately the following groups were selected to receive funding:

  • Science Policy Initiative at the University of Virginia
  • Forum on Science Ethics and Policy (FOSEP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Penn Science Policy and Diplomacy Group (PSPDG) at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Science Policy and Advocacy at Rutgers University (SPAR)
  • Science Policy Initiative at Notre Dame
  • Emerging Leaders in Science Policy and Advocacy (ELISPA) at the University of Florida
  • Missouri Science and Technology (MOST) Policy Fellows at the University of Missouri

Penn Science Policy and Diplomacy Group (PSPDG) at the University of Pennsylvania

The proposals address key themes of professional development for early career scientists and engineers as well as advocacy opportunities to interact with policy makers and the public. Several groups proposed workshops to offer training in areas such a writing policy memos and op eds, writing skills that are essential in the world of science policy, but not a skill taught to graduate students. They also address gaps in training on science communication to a wide audience, and effective science advocacy. ELISPA at the University of Florida, for example, is planning a memo-writing workshop where students will learn how to write policy memos and practice by writing a memo on an issue relevant to their local community.

The winners selected from this competition will travel to the state capitol to present their ideas to policy makers for the state of Florida. FOSEP at the University of Colorado is tackling science communication by producing a series of podcasts that will encourage scientists and engineers to think critically about the intersection of their work with policy, ethics, justice, and diversity. The Science Policy Initiative at the University of Virginia is interested in advocating for state level science policy fellowships for STEM graduate students and postdocs in order to engage scientists and engineers at all levels of government, not simply the federal government.

We are excited about the potential impact of these proposals, both locally and nationally, and believe that this is an essential step to encouraging more scientists and engineers to take a seat at the policy table. NSPN will launch another round of applications for the microgrant initiative at their annual symposium at the Rockefeller University in November. If you have questions or are interested in sponsoring microgrants for student groups in future application cycles, please contact scipolnetwork@gmail.com.


Michaela Rikard is a Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia. Her research as UVA focuses on cardiovascular disease and improving therapeutic options for wound healing following a myocardial infarction. Michaela is a co-founder and National Co-chair of the National Science Policy Network (NSPN). Launched earlier this year with support from Schmidt Futures, the NSPN is a rapidly growing network of over 60 campus-based student led science policy organizations, representing some of the largest and most prestigious research universities across the United States. She is passionate about changing the paradigm for graduate education and empowering scientists and engineers to be active participants in science policy.

Protecting Our Children from Lead in School Drinking Water: Getting the Law Right!

Signs indicating students should not drink the water.

As I pack my kids’ backpacks in the morning, I go through the mental checklist of what they need. Lunch? Check. Nap roll for my four-year-old? Check. Homework folder for my seven-year-old? Check. Filtered water bottles certified to remove lead from drinking water? Check!

My children attend public school in the nation’s capital. Like many US cities, Washington, DC’s old lead service lines are at risk of leaching into drinking water. At high doses lead can be lethal, but children absorb lead more easily and even low doses can have devastating consequences on their physical and cognitive development. DC recently passed the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017, which lowered the actionable level of lead in school drinking water from the outdated federal standard of 15 parts per billion (ppb) to 5 ppb. The 5 ppb action level is based on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) requirements for bottled water. However, this standard is not based on science and the new law still does not fully protect children from lead exposure in school drinking water.

No records, no data, no problem

Like many, I was aware of the devastating Flint water crisis, but it hit home when I saw the Washington Post headline: “Elevated Lead Levels Found in Water at Three DC Schools.” These schools were in our neighborhood and two of them had recently undergone modernization, something that was about to happen at my children’s school. During modernization our elementary school would move to trailers on a middle school campus where high lead levels were recently detected. The middle school and elementary schools with high lead in drinking water levels were also made up of predominately minority, economically disadvantaged students. These sorts of environmental injustices were not new to DC though and the agencies responsible for overseeing school modernizations were contributing to these inequities.

DC had a lead-in-drinking-water crisis in the early 2000s. Records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed lead levels as high as 7,500 ppb  found in school drinking sources during this period (5,000 ppb classifies drinking water as “hazardous waste”)!  After submitting a FOIA request to determine what our school plumbing and service line materials were made from, I was informed that government agency officials could not fully assess the plumbing and that District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) was not planning to replace it in the building being preserved during modernization.

DC Department of General Services (DGS) safety measures were also concerning. DGS placed do not drink decals above bathroom sinks and refused to test and filter sources used by preschoolers at the temporary location. When I prompted our Parent Teacher Association (PTA) to fund testing, half of the sinks tested above DC’s legal limit of 5 ppb. DCPS again refused to test and filter the sinks after being presented with these results.

Sowing seeds of misinformation

Initial DGS test results from designated drinking water sources in the trailers found the preschool cafeteria sink with levels at 14 ppb. DGS remediated and tested the fixture twice before lead testing results came back at 2 ppb. While they were remediating, DCPS sent out a letter to the school community: “While the levels detected are below the Environmental Protection Agency’s actionable level of 20 ppb, in an effort to exceed these standards, DC Government asserts that no level of lead above 5 ppb is safe for our students’ drinking water sources. As a result, DGS has followed and will continue to follow the District protocol to remediate these elevated levels.”

Sign warning about childhood lead exposure, from the CDC.

What the letter did not say was that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no safe level of lead. What the letter also did not say is that lead from plumbing tends to release variably and concentrations can fluctuate greatly. Children are vulnerable to lifelong, irreversible, physical, cognitive, and behavioral problems from low-dose, chronic lead exposure. The AAP recommends an action level of 1 ppb in schools, but DCPS asserted that levels with 5 ppb of lead or lower were safe.

Tip of the iceberg

Several months later, I learned that the middle school would also undergo modernization; two schools would be located on an active construction site where hazardous materials including lead paint and asbestos were recently abated. They were not planning to do water or air quality testing beyond what was done in a normal school. The team of parents that I led began advocating for commonsense, science-based protective measures and transparency in the process such as ongoing air monitoring during demolition while students were present, hand washing stations in the cafeteria to remove potential contaminants children come into contact with during recess, and parental observation of testing—all of which DCPS denied.

A law is as strong as its weakest regulation

Troubled by disparities among safety standards, I researched the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017. I discovered gaps in DGS’ Water Filtration and Testing Protocol, so I drafted the Lead-Free Drinking Water in DC Public Schools Petition. The petition has been cosponsored by seven DC PTAs and the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization and has been submitted to the Deputy Mayor of Education’s Office (DME). It highlights gaps in current regulations and offers solutions: 1) a clearer definition of a “drinking water source”; 2) more frequent water testing to determine filter effectiveness; 3) better record keeping and abatement of lead service lines and other lead-bearing plumbing; 4) language changed in communications to parents to disclose the AAP’s 1 ppb recommended action level for schools; and 5) point-of-use filters to remove all lead in the water.

 What now?

Current standards are not based on science and lack the capacity to protect our children from lead in school drinking water. While the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017 was an improvement, it is not sufficient to fully protect our children’s health. We are not only asking for revisions to the regulations, but also amendments to the law. We are also advocating for updates to environmental health standards in schools in DC. If our nation’s capital can get this right we will be setting a precedent for the rest of the country, proving it is possible to provide a safe, healthy learning environment for our children.

Join me in protecting our children. Contact Councilmember Mary Cheh, Chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment at mcheh@dccouncil.us to urge her to amend this law and develop stronger environmental health standards in schools. You can also contact Alex Cross, Special Assistant to the DME at alexander.cross@dc.gov in support of the petition.


Hannah Donart recently earned her Master in Public Health with a concentration in Environmental Health Science and Policy from George Washington University. She is currently leading her children’s School Improvement Team Environmental Health Committee in Washington, DC. Her background includes work in climate and energy policy and chemical regulatory policy.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.


Students, Don’t Forget to Vote. You Too, STEM Majors

Photo: Mike Olliver/UCS

When I was 17, I set up an ironing board on the side of Market Street in downtown San Francisco. I wore a brand new shirt with straight-out-of-the box creases, which read: “Ask me to help you register to vote.” Panicked about the possible re-election of George W. Bush (remember him?), I had convinced four friends to spend the day with me trying to register distracted shoppers.

Although we aren’t voting for a president this year, our congressional representatives have enormous power, shaping everything from the Supreme Court to our health care options. State and local representatives also have important impacts on our lives. For example, in Ellicott City, Maryland regional planning decisions affected recent extreme flooding, which had fatal consequences.

Why I’m voting

I am now postdoc at Johns Hopkins University where I study floods and how they are changing. One reason I will vote is because I am worried about the consequences of climate change—both the impacts we are already experiencing in the U.S. as well as worldwide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released a report detailing devastating impacts which are likely to occur within our lifetimes unless we take aggressive action. Already, five tiny islands among the Solomon Islands have disappeared.

As an engineer, I was embarrassed to read recent findings that STEM majors vote less frequently than other majors. Apparently this has something to do with gender differences: men vote less than women and make up a larger fraction of STEM majors. But accounting for these differences doesn’t completely explain the discrepancy. Students majoring in science, engineering and math were found to be less interested in other forms of civic engagement as well.

STEM majors, let’s change this

We have just as much at stake compared to everyone else — maybe even more, given how much funding for science is provided by the federal government. Having tried to “do it all” in college (why not add a minor in comparative politics, extra Swahili class and an honors thesis?), I know how hard it can be to find time to vote amidst relentless problem set and paper deadlines.

Let me suggest some reasons that voting is a worthwhile investment of your time

First, the representatives we elect pass bills which affect our economy and thus your job opportunities after graduation. When I graduated from Stanford in 2010, the implications of the financial crisis were still being felt and it was difficult to find a job.

Second, even if you opt instead for graduate school, as I did (maybe even because of aforementioned challenges in obtaining a desirable job), these representatives impact your lives. Last winter, a proposal to tax tuition benefits as income would have made graduate school unaffordable for many students.

Finally, average student loan debt at graduation now tops $30,000. The people we elect can support or fight proposed cuts to student loan forgiveness programs, which give some graduates the opportunity to reduce the size of their loans.

When I moved across the country, I left my ironing board at home in California. While you won’t find me on the side of the quad with voter registration forms, I strongly encourage you to register to vote.

This election is likely to have a big impact on your life

Have a say in what happens. Vote on November 6th.


This piece was originally published as an op-ed in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter.

Annalise Blum is a postdoctoral fellow in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Milwaukee Area Science Advocates Collaborate to End Lead Exposure

MASA and community members came together for a “science in action” lead resource fair on June 23, 2018 - titled Amani Un|Leaded. Photo: John Saller

Lead exposure, especially from water in older pipes, is a major health problem in Milwaukee. A 2016 Wisconsin state report on childhood lead poisoning indicated that nearly 11% of children tested in Milwaukee showed elevated blood lead levels, which was double the percentage found in Flint, Michigan. Children from low-income families, especially within the African-American community, are disproportionately affected. Earlier this year, a previous employee of the Milwaukee County Health Department, emailed 15 alderman and Mayor Tom Barrett informing them that the department was not testing water in the homes of lead-poisoned children. This launched an investigation which revealed that the Milwaukee County Health Department failed to notify thousands of parents of the high blood lead levels found in their children, resulting in the resignation of the local health commissioner. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently suspended the Milwaukee lead abatement program after an audit revealed many problems.

Amani Un|Leaded workshops informed residents about lead poisoning and prevention.

The Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA) believes it is imperative to address the lead exposure problem, and that doing so requires working collaboratively with Milwaukee community organizations and residents. Thanks to generous support from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Science for Public Good Fund, MASA was able to work with the Children’s Outing Association (COA) Youth & Family Centers, the Hunger Task Force, the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, Amani United, the Dominican Center, the Social Development Commission, the Interfaith Earth Network, and Children’s Hospital to organize and hold a “science in action” lead resource fair on June 23, 2018 – titled Amani Un|Leaded.

Amani Un|Leaded brought together scientists, residents, and community leaders to begin working together to address the lead problem in Milwaukee. The event was held at the COA Goldin Center in the Amani neighborhood, which is an area of Milwaukee with especially high lead exposures. The event covered a wide variety of lead topics and featured workshops entitled: Science of Lead, Lead-safe Homes, Growing Healthy Soils, Nutrition and Lead, Lead in Water, and the Path to 0%. These workshops informed residents on lead chemistry and bodily absorption, policies aimed to reduce lead poisoning, and steps families can take to limit lead exposure. Following the workshops, residents engaged in a strategic discussion with community leaders and organizers regarding lead education and abatement strategies. Topics covered included how public policy can reduce lead poisoning, filter distribution, and cartridge replacement. More than 80 people attended and organizers of the event distributed water filters to remove lead to many residents.

MASA and other community groups are continuing to work towards addressing lead exposure with new initiatives and better public policies.

The event led to a new program – “Unleaded” – which is a water filter distribution, follow-up, and education program designed to reach several communities in Milwaukee. MASA and aforementioned community partners are working to increase efficiency in lead filter distribution, installation, and city-wide lead education. Initiatives in this program include an electronic notification and communication system for lead filters as well as door-to-door canvassing to raise awareness of lead dangers.

Thanks to generous support from organizations like UCS, and many dedicated volunteers, Milwaukee is progressing towards a safer and lead-free community. Learn more about Unleaded, or learn about ways to get involved in your community.


Anna Miller is a science writer and philanthropist who focuses on improving scientific literacy and awareness in the community. She currently works on the leadership team at Milwaukee Area Science Advocates. Dr. Miller hold a Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental Biology from the Medical College of Wisconsin.  

Dave Nelson is a public health consultant.  He worked for many years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Cancer Institute, where he conducted research in cancer prevention, tobacco control, and other health topics. He currently works on the grants team with Milwaukee Area Science Advocates. He holds an M.D. from the Oregon Health Sciences University and an M.P.H. from the University of Michigan.  

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Photo: John Saller Photo: John Saller Photo: John Saller

Automakers Well Positioned to Meet Fuel Economy Standards

I spent my career as an automotive engineer at GM. During my time in the auto industry I played a hands-on role in putting new technologies on the road, and had a front row seat to view how cars and trucks have become more efficient over time. That’s partly due to the hard work of my colleagues who design and manufacture vehicles and their parts—but also due in part to a strong set of federal standards that have helped drive the technology forward.

The efficiency and emissions standards that went into effect in 2012 have been a real success—they’ve saved drivers tens of billions of dollars on fuel and cut hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, that progress is at risk because the executive branch is trying to roll back these standards.

The Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency have proposed flatlining standards in 2020, meaning that cars and trucks wouldn’t need to get cleaner or more efficient. They say automakers can’t meet the challenge of increasing efficiency. They’re wrong—and I know because I’ve spent my career helping to improve their efficiency.

As a mechanical engineer, I designed automatic transmissions and their components.  When I began nearly forty years ago, these were sometimes noisy and rough-shifting—and not particularly fuel-efficient.  But over time, they’ve been transformed into an elegant enabler of vehicle fuel efficiency. These advanced transmissions go hand in hand with improved vehicle aerodynamics, lightweight materials, and fuel economy advancements in the engine and other vehicle components. By combining all these technologies, automakers have achieved vehicle fuel economy undreamt of when I started.

Many features have contributed to the transmission’s transformation, but perhaps the two most important are more speeds and electrification. Due to high mechanical efficiency, transmissions are more efficient than internal combustion engines when it comes to producing the wide range of wheel torque needed in vehicles.  Having a high number of transmission ranges allows the engine to operate at peak efficiency, a key foundation of fuel economy. When I began, most transmissions were 3 or 4 speeds, a far cry from optimum.  After the 70’s oil embargo, fuel economy became more important, leading to the initial CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) regulations. To help meet them, 6-speed transmissions began arriving and included other features such as a torque converter lockup clutch, overdrive, and electronic controls, all contributing to fuel economy gains.

In the late 90’s as fuel prices continued their steady rise and California’s emissions regulations became more stringent, transmission electrification began with the Toyota Prius electric hybrid.  The primary feature of electric hybrids is the addition of motors inside the transmission which connect to various gearing elements.  The motors effectively act to provide more transmission ranges, allowing the engine to run more efficiently, significantly improving fuel economy.  The motors are powered by a battery pack kept charged by the engine and a home charger if a plug-in variety.  In addition, during vehicle braking, the motors become generators, charging the battery as well as improving brake life.  Analogous to mechanical ranges, having more electric speeds improves efficiency by enabling the motors to operate in their efficient zones.  The Prius has just one electric speed, but other manufacturers had designs with more.

When the Prius was introduced, I was at Allison Transmission, then GM’s lead division for transmission electrification.  Allison designs and produces transmissions for all manner of vehicles larger than passenger cars.  Initially, electrification focused on the transit bus market and in 2003 production began on a 2-speed electric hybrid still produced for buses today.  With its success, the architecture was downsized for SUVs and pickup applications. When combined with engine and other vehicle improvements, it provided significant fuel economy gains.  It went into limited production in 2008 just as GM was forced to sell many of their assets including Allison, but unable to escape bankruptcy.

Soon after, I began work on a 4-speed hybrid being developed for even better fuel economy than the 2-speed version to help meet the 2012 revised CAFE standards.  It was intended to complement a new series of 8 speed conventional transmissions concurrently being designed for rear wheel drive vehicles which started production in 2013. But vehicle fuel economy improvements kept coming, everything from vehicle electrification like the Volt to continued conventional powertrain improvements, including a joint venture with Ford on a series of 9-speed front wheel drive and 10-speed rear wheel drive transmissions.  The standards could now be met without the 4-speed hybrid and it was eliminated, one indication the regulations can be met without an abundance of higher initial cost electrification. Further indications came from a detailed analysis by the regulating agencies who concluded the same thing–manufacturers across the industry can meet the standards even with low electric and hybrid penetration.

Since the revised standards, fuel economy innovations have blossomed with a range of offerings on every type of vehicle.  Electric components have become affordable for many and the continued development of fuel cells adds yet another dimension.  Continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) which mimic electric hybrids without adding motors are available in some vehicles.  Dual clutch transmissions (DCTs) which combine the higher efficiencies of manual transmissions with the drivability of automatics are also gaining acceptance. Continued improvements to conventional drivetrains keep them viable as well.

The fact is automakers can continue to improve, and they’re putting technology to work to meet today’s federal standards. Vehicle sales have set records and the auto industry is employing workers in record numbers, in part due to these higher fuel economy features.  Automakers are well positioned to meet standards and consumers can take full advantage of the lower fuel costs and reduced emissions that result. We’re moving forward—and it would be a mistake to slam on the brakes now.


Greg Kempf recently retired as a mechanical engineer from General Motors after 37 years.  His career was mainly spent designing automatic and electric-hybrid transmissions for which he holds 15 patents.  He’s now an aspiring writer, working on his first novel about climate change. 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Fighting for a Diverse and Equitable STEM Workforce in Colorado

Women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory pose for a photo in mission control in honor of Women in Science Day. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the state of Colorado, there are just over two million women, making up 53% of the enrolled undergraduate population and 50% of the workforce. However, women account for only 33% of those graduating with degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and hold only 26% of STEM jobs in the state. Colorado is not unique – this disparity in STEM education and employment is a nation-wide trend. This disparity begins early, with difference in male and female student interest in STEM showing up as early as middle school, by some estimates, and female students being more likely to self-describe themselves as “bad at math” as early as second grade. These differences in encouragement and interest have broad-reaching, profound, and lifelong implications for women’s economic security, career advancement, and workforce readiness compared to their male counterparts.

It is up to each and every one of us to change this reality. My name is Marian Hamilton, and I hold a PhD in Biological Anthropology and am an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Colorado (UNCO). As a participant in the Union of Concerned Scientist’s (UCS) Science Network Mentor Program, I had the pleasure of learning the basics of advocacy and community organizing from some of the nation’s most passionate, creative, and qualified scientists over the past 10 months. Armed with these tools, I am forming a Women in STEM group for interested undergraduate students at UNCO with three major objectives: first, to build a community that encourages, supports, and empowers women, particularly from minority or underrepresented groups, to choose majors and careers in STEM fields; second, to facilitate mentor partnerships at the K-12, college, and professional level; and third, to advocate for policies that will improve STEM education across Colorado and the nation, such as universal pre-K. Today, I want to share with you some of the key lessons I’ll be taking with me into this project:

Lesson 1: It starts early

Girls begin losing interest in STEM – or being told that they are “not good at” STEM fields – tragically early. For example, male high school students are more likely to enroll in engineering and computer science classes than their female classmates, and more likely to enroll in AP computer science classes, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. The gap between white and non-white students in such high school classes is even starker: black and Latinx students were significantly less likely to enroll in advanced science courses than their white classmates.

To change the societal biases that drive such disparities, we must start young, with universal access to pre-K programs that include a STEM component. Ballot measures like Initiative 93 in Colorado, on the ballot in November, would support all-day Kindergarten; withdrawn measures such as Initiative 98 would have provided full day pre-K to Colorado citizens and need to be revisited in upcoming election cycles. This Women in STEM group will support and advocate for such measures to appear on future ballots because fully funding early childhood education helps all students achieve in future STEM classes. Beyond this, such measures also help to close the achievement gap between wealthy and non-wealthy students, such that one’s readiness for the K-12 classroom – and the STEM classes therein – is not dependent on that child’s zip code.

Lesson 2: It takes a village

Changing a system is not something that happens in a vacuum. In fact, research suggests that one of the most effective ways to keep girls in STEM is through mentorship, such as bringing in current college students as mentors to K-12 classrooms. We will implement such a program through the Women in Science group, partnering with public schools across northern Colorado.

As part of the Science Network Mentor Program, we learned about the importance of ‘democratizing’ science, and employing our skill sets as scientists to be tools for the community to employ, rather than trying to engineer solutions from the outside. For us, this means not assuming that this gap in STEM enrollment originates from the same place for all schools, or even all individuals. We need to begin conversations with teachers, with students, and with families about what opportunities they crave, what barriers they face, and what skills and tools would be the most useful. Furthermore, this work is necessarily intersectional; building gender diversity in STEM is only one of the facets by which we must work to diversify our STEM workforce. The Women in STEM group will collaborate closely with other cultural centers across campus, ensuring that we are diverse across all identities.

Lesson 3: We are all in this together

Study after study demonstrates that one of the most effective, efficient, and powerful ways to change perspectives and encourage diversity in STEM is through mentorship. Women in engineering paired with a female mentor, for example, experienced more of a sense of belonging, motivation, and confidence in their work, as well as greater aspiration to remain in the field. Through this Women in STEM club at UNCO, we will work to tie mentors and mentees together through all levels of education, putting college students with high school and middle school students and bringing in professionals in STEM fields to mentor the college students in turn.

Beyond this, we must work to change the entire ecosystem within which women in STEM fields work. For example, we will strongly advocate for family-friendly policies at the state and local level, including paid family leave. At the local level, we will lobby for the maintenance and expansion of university policies such as sabbaticals which facilitate continued engagement with STEM research, particularly for women and minority faculty who historically take on disproportionate service and teaching loads during typical semesters. Through this three-pronged approach of building community, facilitating mentorship, and advocating for education- and research-friendly policies at all levels of government, it is my truest hope and expectation that we can make the STEM workforce in Colorado a reflection of the powerful diversity of people that call this state home.


Marian Hamilton holds a PhD in Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of New Mexico. She is a former middle school science teacher and currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado, where she researches human evolution and paleoenvironments. Dr. Hamilton is wild about women in STEM, educational equity, wildlife and habitat conservation, and her dog, Gedi. 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Puerto Rico: Maria’s Laboratory for Scientific Collaboration

CienciaPR’s education specialist, Elvin Estrada, trains educators at the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico on how to use the Foldscope, a low-cost paper microscope, as part of CienciaPR’s Science in Service of Puerto Rico initiative. Each of the 500 students participating in the project will receive the instrument free of charge to observe the biological diversity in a terrestrial ecosystem that was impacted by Hurricane Maria. Photo courtesy of Mónica Feliú-Mójer.

Reposted with permission by STEM + Culture Chronicle, a publication of SACNAS – Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, Ubaldo Córdova-Figueroa’s primary concern was for the safety of his students and research assistants. With communications shut down, it took over a month for the professor of chemical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez to contact them all. “Having no access to my students or my research-lab members was very painful because I didn’t know what was going on with them. I just wanted to know that they were fine,” he says. Everyone was okay but became anxious when research was interrupted for months. Córdova-Figueroa had to reassure them that it was okay, to relax, and wait for things to return to normal. It was, after all, a catastrophe.

Córdova-Figueroa says many scientists are concerned about their future in research at the university, which was facing a fiscal cliff before the hurricane. “They are afraid that they may not get the support they need to recover,” he says. But consensus is building that devastation from last year’s hurricanes could change the way science is approached in Puerto Rico. The post-hurricane conditions provide a unique environment to study. There is also an opportunity to develop local, non-scientific and scientific collaborations as well as attract outside collaborators to work together across disciplines. The results could impact resiliency and innovation both locally and globally.

Local collaborations

“When you lose energy as we did after Maria, not only does your grid go down but with it goes your health system, your communication, your transportation system, your food distribution system, your education system,” says Associate Professor of Social Sciences at the Mayagüez campus, Cecilio Ortíz-García, “But none of those realms, in non-emergency times, talk to each other or understand each other. It’s time to establish a platform for cross-communication.”

The University only has a few pictures of the classrooms because most places were difficult to get through and some were forbidden because of fungus contamination.

Ortíz-García is on the steering committee of the National Institute of Island Energy and Sustainability (INESI) at the University of Puerto Rico. INESI promotes interdisciplinary collaboration on energy and sustainability problems and has a network of 70 resources across the university’s 11 precincts. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, it has been able to help establish collaboration at local, community, and municipal levels as well as with some of the stakeholders, says Professor of Social Sciences at the Mayagüez campus, Marla Pérez-Lugo, who is also on the steering committee.

The absence of strong federal and central government involvement following Hurricane Maria has prompted organized innovation and resilience on local levels that was never expected Ortíz-García says. The mayor of San Sebastian pulled together volunteers who were certified electricians, ex power-utilities employees, retired employees, and others like private construction contractors that had heavy equipment. “They put those guys together and started electrifying neighborhoods on their own,” said Professor Ortíz-García.

Solving real-life problems

Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) is a non-profit organization that promotes science communication, education, and research in Puerto Rico. They received a grant from the National Science Foundation to implement project-based science lessons on disaster-related topics. The middle school education program features lesson activities that are related to what’s happening in Puerto Rico as well as culturally relevant.

The first lessons implemented included how to properly wash hands when clean water is scarce and understanding the effect of the storm on the terrestrial environment.

Educators at the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico learn how to use the Foldscope.

Each child is given a paper microscope and asked to conduct a research project to answer a question they have about how the storms have affected the environment. At the end of June, the students will share their findings with the community.

The project is funded by a RAPID grant, which is awarded for one to two years to respond to emergency or one-off events. The Foundation has awarded about 40 grants associated with Hurricane Maria, according to their website. Most of them are RAPID grants and about 25 percent of them have been awarded to scientists in Puerto Rico.

RAPID grants associated with Hurricane Maria have required INESI to adapt its vision, says Professor Pérez-Lugo. INESI’s basic mission is to look at Puerto Rico from a local perspective to insert local knowledge into the policy process. But the flood of effort coming from outside universities has required them to attempt to identify and coordinate those doing research and relief work in Puerto Rico. INESI initially counted 20 universities conducting research, but other initiatives and projects involving energy and the electric system have been identified since. In some cases, there were three or four teams from the same university working in Puerto Rico that were unaware of the presence of the other teams. “So, these universities found out about their colleagues through us,” said Pérez-Lugo.

The workers and researchers tended to be concentrated in only a couple of municipalities, leaving many areas neglected. INESI coordinated their efforts to avoid fatigue, to avoid saturation in some areas, and to distribute aid in a more just and equal way Pérez-Lugo says.

Updating approaches to disaster

Most classrooms at the University of Puerto Rico were filled with water, some with vegetation, and many with broken equipment.

According to Ortíz-García, INESI was founded prior to the arrival of Hurricane Maria in recognition of the flaws associated with the fragmented organization at the university. Like most universities, it is organized to accomplish the goals of teaching, research, and service, which is an organization best suited to the scientific processes of discovery, knowledge creation, and scientific inquiry. “But these are different times,” says Ortíz-García, “with problems that are not aligned with a fragmented, unidisciplinary approach.”

“But that’s an outdated approach because now we know that energy transitions are embedded in everything that society values, from water to health, to safety and security, and to food. So, multiple organizations will need to be involved to solve the problem and they need a common language to fix something.”

INESI has been working toward taking the University of Puerto Rico to the next level of university organization, with networks of interest and practice within and throughout interconnecting disciplines. “Instead of concentrating on a scientific development in one discipline, scientists need to concentrate on the effective design of solutions to issues that don’t belong to any discipline, like climate change,” says Ortíz-García.

Collaborative convergence platforms such as INESI can foster interdisciplinary dialogue and the generation of solutions for these issues. Now, inspired by the influx of representatives from other universities to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, INESI wants to build a platform of platforms.

RISE Puerto Rico

A group representing an inter-university collaborative convergence platform will meet for a foundational catalyst workshop at the end of June. Twenty-seven people from ten universities have already accepted the invitation and will meet face to face for the first time.

“The platform that we’re looking to build here, we’ve already preliminarily named it RISE Puerto Rico, which stands for Resiliency through Innovations in Sustainable Energy,” Pérez-Lugo says.

Starting these dialogs now will go a long way, Ortíz-García says, in reorganizing academic environments toward finding the solutions necessary to fix these problems. “In addition, it can foster innovation in ways our own organizational structure could never, ever think of because you would have spin-off after spin-off of academic conversations not only with the scientists but also community and other stakeholders’ knowledge that is out there from leading these events themselves,” he says.

Córdova-Figueroa is optimistic about the research opportunities in Puerto Rico.

He would like to see many scientists from around the world take advantage of the myriad research opportunities available. “Come to Puerto Rico,” he says. “You will learn something great here.”

Dr. Kimber Price is a science communications graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter: @LowcountryPearl

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Why We Need to Humanize Chemists, and All Scientists

Silver Microscope Photo: Alexandra Gelle

Manifesto of a passionate chemistry PhD student, tired of having to fight prejudices when introducing herself.

Why humanizing scientists and their research is essential

Science has shaped our society and everyday life, and yet the public and many policymakers neglect, discredit, and underfund research and scientists due to their negative perceptions of the field. Over the last few years, public trust towards scientists has been challenged. According to recent studies by Fiske and Dupree, the public describes scientists as competent, but not as warmly as they describe doctors or nurses. Yet, scientists need to be able to effectively communicate their research and engage with the public and policymakers to ensure that the decisions that impact all of us are based on evidence.

Graphics and tables are not enough to establish a relationship between scientists and society. The public needs emotional connections with scientists and scientists need the public’s trust to be able to disseminate reliable and pertinent research. In addition, although technology now provides wide access, fake and sensational news are more accessible and can damage scientists’ image. This is why restoring the public’s trust towards scientists and science is crucial.

What chemists can do for you

Have you ever wondered what medicine would be like without the molecules that have been carefully designed by chemists? How would engineers conceive of laptops and cellphones without the development of batteries and electrochemistry?

When introducing myself as a PhD student in chemistry, I often see fear, rejection, or incomprehension in people’s eyes. I have always thought chemistry was fascinating, entertaining, and useful. Unfortunately in my experience, some of the public seems to be reluctant and suspicious when speaking about chemistry. Chemists are commonly pictured as environmental destroyers, eager for explosions, who are disconnected from the impacts of their laboratories and experiments. However, reality is quite the opposite.

It would be a lie to say that fire and explosions are not part of every chemist’s life, however, chemists are pursuing a more noble goal: helping people by improving their health and quality of life, and preserving the environment. Chemists’ ultimate objective is to better understand the behavior of molecules and use elements available on Earth to develop high-performance materials, new drugs, and more sustainable processes. One of the most extensively shared examples of chemistry in media outlets is the environmental and health damages caused by the misuse of scientific knowledge, such as chemical bombs.

While the public frustration and confusion is understandable, chemists should not be blamed for their discoveries but instead work diligently for their ethical and just applications. Chemistry, and science generally, are key to our lives and the public often neglects its importance. However the work of scientists is meaningless if not shared.

Why I decided to study chemistry


Chemists study reactions intending to develop new molecules or to enhance the efficiency of chemical processes. My PhD projects focus on the latter, in the field of catalysis. Building new molecules requires breaking and eventually forming bonds between atoms. Therefore, chemical reactions are often energy-intensive and generate large amounts of waste. In catalysis, chemical reactions can be sped up upon the addition of a substance, called a catalyst, which increases the efficiency of a chemical transformation. Moreover, catalysts can often be recycled and reused in other reactions.

My PhD focuses on the use of sunlight as an energy source and silver as a catalyst to promote popular reactions. Such catalysts which can be activated by sunlight are called photocatalysts and fall within the field of Green Chemistry – field aiming to reduce the ecological footprint of chemical industries by developing more environmentally-friendly reaction conditions and reducing chemical waste.

I always appreciate sharing my research and can do that more effectively when scientists and the public respect each other and work to ensure science is used for evidence-based policymaking, for knowledge-sharing, and for justice . Next time you see a chemist, or any other scientist, let’s talk about how we can learn from one another and be stronger together. How about we chat over a cup of caffeine (C8H10N4O2) extracted by dihydrogen monoxide (H2O) or a glass of ethanol (C2H6O)?


Originally from France, Alexandra Gellé moved to Montréal, QC, Canada to start her undergraduate degree in Chemistry in 2013. She is now a PhD student and is passionate about science communication and outreach. Alexandra is also the president of Pint of Science Canada, an international festival promoting science through speaker series in bars.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Illa Maru, http://scientific-illustrations.com

We Need Better Data about What Is Killing American Prisoners. It’s Probably the Heat.

American Climate Prospectus

DC is in the middle of a swampy heat wave right now, with temperatures exceeding 90oF regularly. My peers and I can joke about getting drenched in sweat from the walk from the metro to school because we have an air-conditioned building to look forward to. Any heat-related discomfort is temporary for us. Prisoners in our country don’t have this luxury, and it may be killing more of them than we realize.

If you go to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) website, you can download datasets showing the reasons inmates died over the last few years. As part of my studies, I accessed this data and found a shocking lack of resolution.


Photo credit: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Every death that isn’t due to an inmate killing themselves or another inmate is written off as “natural causes.” Further exploration of the BJS site or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sites yield a little more information about the burden of certain diseases like diabetes and heart disease, but overall there is not much public information or raw data about what is actually killing prisoners in America.

Recent studies into the effects of extreme heat exposure (which we can loosely define as constant exposure to heat exceeding 86 degrees F based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration heat index) suggest there might be a sizable burden of heat-related illnesses. In order to dive deeper on this issue, I started to look at Texas specifically, due in part to the excellent journalism of groups like the Texas Tribune and the Marshall Project. The writers on these teams have been tracking policy changes as well as the risk factors for susceptibility to heat, and bring up some excellent points.

First, there is some evidence that prisons make the incarcerated “age faster,” which is to say they have the health issues commonly associated with populations a decade or more older than them. This includes dampening the nervous system’s ability to regulate heat, which decreases the body’s ability to combat effects of extreme heat exposure. This issue, and the fact that there is an increasing population of prisoners older than 50, means that prisoners may be more susceptible to heat exposure than the general population.

Second, about a third of American prisoners also experience mental health issues, and another sizable chunk experience chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. The medications for these conditions include psychotropics which further dampen the nervous system response to heat, as well as diuretics and anticholinergics, which tamper with bodily functions like sweat and urination. As a result, many prisoners may not even be able to sweat properly, and retain urine to the point of danger for kidney disease and hypertension.

But of course, the most important part of heat-related illness is the heat itself. And in Texas, the state with one of the hottest summers in the United States, this is the major killer. Almost 75% of Texas prisons don’t have air-conditioned residential areas. This is unacceptable now, and is even more concerning when you look at climate projections for the next 80 years.

As you can see, Texas is hot, and it’s only going to get hotter. Prisoners in Texas, and the rest of the country, are already feeling the impacts of heat. Last summer, a particularly disturbing video was shared on Facebook, where prisoners’ screams for help could be heard from outside. They repeated “Help Us, Help Us, It’s Too Hot, We Can’t Breathe.” The viral nature of this video pushed the St. Louis prison to implement better air-conditioning, but that was just a small start to addressing the larger issue.

Anecdotal reports will never be taken seriously by any institutional body, and they cannot inspire political will on the level that is needed to protect prisoner health. This brings me back to data resolution. Researchers need access to more information about prisoner health in order to better understand this issue and make a compelling case for better heat management. For starters, we need more data on the actual temperatures and humidity levels  inside of our prisons. As part of my graduate coursework I wrote a petition which calls for a public data collection schedule which includes urinalysis and blood work data along with temperature data.

You have the ability to send a similar petition the governmental bodies which control what data is collected and made public. You can use this template to petition the Office of Justice Programs, or your state’s correctional body. Finally, as further reading, I encourage you to look at the 2015 report out of Columbia Law School which examines the challenges climate change will pose for correctional institutes in the coming years.

Anyun Chatterjee is finishing his masters in environmental health at George Washington this fall. He is a researcher with the Cleveland based network of psychiatrist and mental health providers known as BRAIN. During his time in DC he started the research group MilkenGroup.com, based on the principles of informational equality and purpose based research.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Op-Eds for Cheeseheads: Training New Scientists as Communicators in Wisconsin Food Systems Policy

“Facts aren’t impartial. They have great implications for people. They threaten people.” A few dozen graduate students and handful of public employees and farmers in the room nod thoughtfully over Margaret’s comment, laughing as she says, “It has never been a rational world!” On a June afternoon at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this group is looking to a panel of experts on science communication and advocacy with big questions: how should new scientists start public communication, and where do they have leverage in food systems policy?

Communication and advocacy in Midwestern agriculture

Cattle grazing near Madison, WI

Wisconsin is a unique place to work in agriculture and food systems, which is what drew many people in the room to work here. The state is home to a huge breadth of agricultural activities across its 68,500 farms, with many examples of progressive, farmer-led research and stewardship and initiatives with cutting edge technology. However, even with agricultural sciences and industry woven into state culture, Wisconsin faces the same communication challenges we see in the news across the nation: tension between a vision of agriculture as a business, a science, and as a public service, conflicts between conservation and production, and differences in urban-rural priorities that leave plenty of new researchers wondering how to connect with the public and legislators over agricultural issues.

We organized a science communication and advocacy workshop with help from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science for Public Good Fund after hearing graduate students in plant sciences wanted to improve their writing, speaking, and tweeting to connect with public policy on food systems. In addition to developing our abilities to frame our research to different audiences and issues, we wanted to learn more about how to advocate and contribute to new policy. Here’s a little of what we learned.

Use language thoughtfully

Eric Hamilton and Kelly Tyrrell brought their experience as science writers at UW-Communications on writing to connect with different audiences. They emphasized the importance of clear, straightforward language, and told the group to always avoid jargon or define it, thinking about buzzwords that carry baggage or might alienate your audience.

Keep it relevant

Workshop participants practice writing a “hook” for the beginning of an op-ed

To make an op-ed or blog post about your work timely, Eric and Kelly suggested using current events related to frame your research or expertise, whether in recent news or through the anniversaries of historical events. Google alerts and organizational newsletters are tools to help researchers stay tuned in to new research or activities on a given topic. Connecting with a new audience on their values and experience is more effective than rebutting their ideas point by point, and finding a topic of connection can frame your story or ideas. Finally, they encouraged us to get out there and use our resources: “the more you write, the more you’ll figure out how to write and what to write about.”

Use language thoughtfully

Eric Hamilton and Kelly Tyrrell brought their experience as science writers at UW-Communications on writing to connect with different audiences. They emphasized the importance of clear, straightforward language, and told the group to always avoid jargon or define it, thinking about buzzwords that carry baggage or might alienate your audience.

Keep it relevant

To make an op-ed or blog post about your work timely, Eric and Kelly suggested using current events related to frame your research or expertise, whether in recent news or through the anniversaries of historical events. Google alerts and organizational newsletters are tools to help researchers stay tuned in to new research or activities on a given topic. Connecting with a new audience on their values and experience is more effective than rebutting their ideas point by point, and finding a topic of connection can frame your story or ideas. Finally, they encouraged us to get out there and use our resources: “the more you write, the more you’ll figure out how to write and what to write about.”

Recommended resources for researchers and new communicators: COMPASS, CaSP, California Council for Science and Technology, TheOpEd Project, Pew Trust, National Academies, The Open Notebook, Medium, The Conversation, Massive Science 

Greta Landis is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her agroecology research is focused on conservation partnerships and decision-making for grazing management on public land. She also works for University of Wisconsin-Extension as a student evaluator.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Photo: G. Landis Photo: T. Campbell

The sociopolitical evolution of a scientist: incorporating advocacy into my graduate school experience

During September of 2016, I was excited to begin my bioengineering master’s program in Boston, home to the world’s largest community of biomedical researchers. But on November 8th, the US political landscape abruptly transformed, and suddenly my research studying how cancer spreads throughout the body felt microscopic. The aftermath of the 2016 election forced me to examine my identity; I saw how the wave of anti-LGBT rhetoric and violence left my community feeling unsafe. Raised by a family of immigrants, I saw my lab mate barred from entering the country after visiting her family in Iran. And as a scientist, I saw how the spread of misinformation caused public distrust in science, permeating our highest levels of government.

I’ve always believed that science could and should have an impact on people’s lives. My interest in science was sparked by my cardiologist, who explained how engineers built the device that allowed her to visualize my heart’s electrical pathways, find my arrhythmia, and fix it. But in this climate, I worried that scientific research would not have the same impact on society – that our knowledge would not be reflected in our policies.

Finding my community: early career scientists making an impact

Amidst the barrage of misinformation and climate change deniers in positions of power, I knew that input from scientists was needed, but wasn’t sure how I could make an impact as a graduate student. I started attending MIT’s Science Policy Initiative (SPI), and discussions to plan SPI’s annual visit to Capitol Hill during STEM on The Hill Day gave me a sense of purpose. We were there for the same reason – to ensure scientists have a role in policy-making.

On the hill, I met with staffers from Senator Coons’ office to advocate against proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health budget and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s SeaGrant program. Fortunately, the senator’s office agreed, and we asked Senator Coons to circulate a dear-colleague letter to gather wide support in opposing these cuts. A small but important endeavor, this ask made the meeting effective and opened the door for future dialogue. Overall, this experience was valuable training in communicating my science to policy-minded people.

Science advocacy on campus

I realized effective advocacy and communication were skills most graduate students were interested in, but didn’t know where to find. I learned of a grant offered by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) to expand community-based science advocacy. I was awarded a Science for Public Good Fund to implement a science advocacy workshop series at Northeastern University.

Planning a three-part workshop by myself was no easy task, and I suffered from a serious case of impostor syndrome – there were moments where I felt unprepared to lead a workshop on advocacy. However, the mentorship provided by the staff at UCS helped me craft an effective event. They connected me with resources and experts in science advocacy, some of whom served as speakers. Importantly, the workshop helped pull together a group of graduate students whose passion for science-backed decision making formed the base of a new advocacy community at Northeastern. I realized it’s never too early to reach out and find a group of graduate students with similar passions to help initiate more formal skill-based programming efforts.

Citizen-scientists: Re-thinking graduate education and the roles of scientists outside the lab

Planning the workshop would not have been possible without leaning on my network of science communicators. Be that as it may, more structured university-driven science advocacy resources are needed at the student level. Likewise, while my experience in science advocacy took place in the context of my university, graduate programs must place more curricular emphasis on communicating the real-world implications of the important science being generated by their graduates.

For now, us graduate students need to reclaim our graduate school experiences to be that source of change. We need to push our universities and fellow scientists to think about how their scientific findings impact society, and more generally how their scientific training is valuable to the policy-making process. Building on existing university support systems to create student groups with funding and meeting space helps establish a local network. University government liaison offices are often willing to support student-driven efforts, and meeting with state representatives can be an easy way to start conversations and build long-lasting relationships with policy-makers.

While we as scientists gather information, as citizens and inhabitants of the world, we have a responsibility to ask “How is my work being used in the world?” STEM graduates are asking this question now, more than ever. To support early career scientists stepping into these roles, we need to support motivated graduate students in building networks, seeking out real-world experiences, and demonstrating to universities the importance of supporting these efforts.

Alex Hruska is a bioengineering PhD student at Brown University, working to develop new biomimetic models to study cancer cell invasion and phenotypic plasticity. He is passionate about amplifying the role of scientists in policy and governance. Find him on Twitter @alex_hruska

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.