Ariana Tsiattalos is an environmental scientist, ecologist, conservationist, and activist. Currently a wetland scientist for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), she earned her M.S. in Conservation and Biodiversity from the University of Exeter, in Cornwall, United Kingdom. Her master’s thesis focused on ecological networks of pest-parasitoid dynamics and the implications of natural vegetation proximity in agriculture as a biological control service of three Tephritidae fruit fly pest species. She holds a B.S. in Ecology and Natural Resource Management from Rutgers University.
Through a career spanning academia and land stewardship to environmental policy and land-use management, Ariana’s incentives to fight for environmental rights and science-based policies proceed from a pragmatic understanding of how to effect lasting, positive change. Until recently, however, she gave little thought to political activism or amplifying her scientific voice. Ariana explains, “My drive to be a strong advocate for science was inspired by a successional development of incentives that compelled me to put science into action.”
Appreciating nature’s intrinsic value
Ariana’s initial impetus for environmental advocacy derived from her appreciation of the intrinsic value of nature and biodiversity. While discussing her undergraduate research project on the intra-specific territoriality and aggression behaviors in Mbuna cichlids (Pseudotropheus sp.), she reflects, “While ecological and evolutionary investigation is important to the infrastructure of academia, I wasn’t equipping myself with the tools necessary to save important ecosystems and habitats.”
While studying nature’s many facets is certainly rewarding in its own right, she lost interest in purely intellectual pursuits that did not lead to positive change. “My transformation from scientist to conservationist was crucial in helping me think critically about the causes of environmental and habitat destruction.” She now reflects, “I didn’t realize that this transition was simply the first step of my discovery and ultimate pursuit of integrated environmental advocacy.”
Community involvement and cultural inclusion as a crucial perspective for public engagement
Soon after earning her undergraduate degree, Ariana’s approach to environmental advocacy evolved to include science education and community engagement. As an intern with New Jersey’s Raritan Headwaters Association, she enjoyed communicating the science of watershed dynamics to the surrounding community and working with volunteers to collect data from streams. “This was the first time I realized my passion for science communication. Teaching residents about their water resources and inspiring them to actively contribute to a more resilient watershed management program motivated me to cultivate awareness and volunteerism.”
It is imperative to consider the cultures of developing countries – that is, to engage intimately and extensively with both the evidence and the community – in order to truly help residents improve their way of life.
Recognizing the difference between community engagement and cultural inclusion was a pivotal development for Ariana. During her master’s program, she studied human-wildlife conservation issues in developing countries, which led to a field course in eastern Africa replete with two weeks of sleeping outdoors under Kenyan skies. Ariana explains, “Although farmers and other residents faced many challenges, such as keeping their livestock safe from carnivores and dealing with threats to wildlife from poachers, they drew strength and initiative from their community’s appreciation for the local ecology.”
Ariana was inspired by local conservation efforts to further educate residents on the many ecosystem services provided by conserving wildlife. “I became fascinated with the branch of conservation that develops strategic methods to protect wildlife through inclusion, empathy, and collaboration with local communities,” Ariana explains. “It is imperative to consider the cultures of developing countries – that is, to engage intimately and extensively with both the evidence and the community – in order to truly help residents improve their way of life.” With this experience, Ariana’s incentive to advocate for conservation grew to involve awareness, understanding, and consideration of the socio-political issues that challenge environmental advocacy.
“While my master’s program and experience in Kenya helped me appreciate a multi-faceted approach to conservation, the idea of broadening my reach through political activism laid dormant in the periphery of my mind just beyond my field of vision.” Luckily, her myopia was temporary.
Policy development and political activism
Humility and reason dictate that the consensus view should be given appropriate respect; I want to teach the need to be cautious of rejecting scientific evidence because it doesn’t agree with one’s socio-political views or unconscious biases.
Ariana’s published thesis research led her to conduct fieldwork for three months in Hoedspruit, South Africa. “My research was confined to understanding a specific ecological relationship and recommending goals for future conservation work, but did not insist upon legislative change to help implement evidence-based initiatives that my data supported.” This didn’t sit well with her. She switched gears and focused on environmental policy.
Today, Ariana enforces evidence-based policy and regulations at NJDEP that protect freshwater wetlands and riverine systems, while promoting sustainable and resilient development in riparian corridors and flood-prone areas.
Ariana experienced the empowering effects of political activism during her work with Wolf-PAC, a non-partisan political action committee dedicated to eliminating the corrupting influence of money in American politics. “The best parts of my job as New Jersey’s State Director and National Co-Organizer for Wolf-PAC are enlightening uninformed citizens that a representative republic truly exists, and teaching them how to best use the democratic process to make a powerful difference.” Ariana and her team accomplish their legislative goals by building relationships with local representatives through research-informed planning and strategic lobbying. While connecting this work with her drive to push for scientific literacy, she explains, “Humility and reason dictate that the consensus view should be given appropriate respect; I want to teach the need to be cautious of rejecting scientific evidence because it doesn’t agree with one’s socio-political views or unconscious biases.”
Bringing it all together: science, education, inclusion, and advocacy
Earlier this year, Ariana joined the People’s Climate March in Washington and lobbied her elected officials to join the Climate Solutions Caucus, support the Republican Climate Resolution, and defend funding for climate change science, renewable energy resources, and preparedness. “I realized that my fundamental motivation to become politically involved in advocating for evidence-based action came from my sense of being a citizen first and a scientist second.” As she considers her future as a scientist and an activist, she describes how she’s continuing to push for change: “I’m currently focused on organizing lobby days with my local officials and holding meetings with local community members to communicate climate impacts in NJ.”
I realized that my fundamental motivation to become politically involved in advocating for evidence-based action came from my sense of being a citizen first and a scientist second.
Ariana joined the UCS Science Network in part because she sees science as the main driver of specific policy decisions. “Facts can’t speak for themselves; I want to bring the full power of consensus –scientific evidence and agreement – to the conversation.” This includes acting as a “science watchdog” to call out pseudo-scientific published claims that can be misused or misconstrued.
Although she understands that joining the fight to improve existing policies and legislation garners more resistance from policy makers than her previous work as a researcher, she reflects, “this is an inevitable consequence of my desire to develop long-lasting pragmatic solutions to our many global environmental challenges.”