A Dreamer’s Tale: Soil Microbes, Climate Change, and Being an Undocumented Scientist

Published Dec 11, 2018

PhD candidate Evelyn Valdez-Ward talks about her family’s story, her research on soil and climate, and her experience mentoring younger students.

In this episode
  • Evelyn shares how she got interested in science
  • Colleen asks Evelyn what it's like being an undocumented immigrant and a scientist
  • Evelyn explains why DACA was necessary for her to do scientific research
  • Evelyn discusses her commitment to mentoring students and other undocumented immigrants
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-1:23)
Intro (1:23-3:47)
Interview Part 1 (3:47-10:57)
Break (10:57-12:12)
Interview Part 2 (12:12-24:20)
Sidelining Science Throw (24:20-24:39)
Sidelining Science (24:39-28:05)
Outro (28:05-29:03)

Related content
Full transcript

Welcome to the Got Science? podcast. I’m your host Colleen MacDonald. I’ve professed my love of healthy soil in previous podcasts and I’m building the soil in my garden with cover crops as you’re listening to this podcast. I’ve very excited about today’s guest Evelyn Valdez-Ward, who is one of our Science Defenders of the year. We’ll have more on that later. I caught up with her on a recent trip to LA. Evelyn studies soil microbes all in service of curbing climate change. But, in addition to her work fighting climate change, Evelyn also has to fight to be allowed to study in the United States. We’ll hear both of stories. And stick around after the interview. Shreya Durvasula brings us another example of sidelining science.

Colleen: Evelyn, welcome to the "Got Science?" podcast. Thanks for joining me.

Evelyn: Thanks for having me.

Colleen: So, to get started, how did you get interested in ecology, and agriculture, and climate change?

Evelyn: So I come from Houston, Texas and my dad works outside all the time. So for him, luxury on the weekends to take us out wasn't to take us to a park or somewhere outside. It was to take us somewhere that had AC, so that was a nice restaurant that he could afford. So I never really was exposed to the natural world. Plus it's not really a cultural thing in Houston to get outside.

But when I did my first research experience in California, in Bakersfield to be exact, my undergrad advisor not only introduced me to the world of plants inside the lab, but he would take me to different places like Yosemite or we saw the sequoias. And that's when I started to fall in love with the natural world and thought, "Wow, this is really pretty." And then learning more about research, I was like, "Man, I could really make a difference to help protect nature and help protect spaces like these parks."

Colleen: Tell me a little bit about the work that you're doing now as a graduate student.

Evelyn: So currently I'm looking at how the effects of climate change affect the interactions between plants and their soil microbes.

Colleen: what is a soil microbe?

Evelyn: So, soil microbes are bacteria or fungi in the soil and they're really small, you can't see it, but if you were to take like a tablespoon of soil, there's more soil microbes in that little tablespoon of soil than there are people on earth. And that's a really hard concept for me to sometimes grasp. Like, "Oh my God, this is amazing. There's a ton of diversity, there's a lot of abundance in our soils." And for the longest time, it was just this giant black box because we didn't have the technology to see what was actually inside of the soils and now we do. And so now I'm interested in, okay, what's inside of the soils? What is climate change doing to the diversity and abundance of these, bacteria and fungi within the soil?

Colleen: So can you see the microbes through a regular microscope?

Evelyn: Yes, some of them, yes.

Colleen: What are you looking at? What's the connection with climate change?

Evelyn: Yeah. So where do I start? So soil microbes are essentially our allies in the fight against climate change. I don't know if you've heard, but a lot of carbon is sequestered inside of the soil, and that can only happen if your soil and your fungi and bacteria in the soil are really nice and happy, but the more we destroy our natural ecosystems and destroying our soils, the less it's able to do its job in that fight. But also with soil microbes, whether it be bacteria or fungi, they can help, there are fungi that fix nitrogen for plants and then certain bacteria help promote plant growth. And again, with us destroying our natural soils, then plants aren't able to do what we need them to do, which is to just grow in order for them to be a source of food for us, biofuels, or just plant source materials for medicine or anything else we might need in the future.

Colleen: When you say we're destroying our soils, what's the cause of the destruction of the soil?

Evelyn: There's a lot. So, one good example is you can destroy the diversity inside of the soil when you plant...For example, there's a lot of agricultural fields or farmlands that plant just one type of plant and that can create just one type of, you know, microbial community. And if a disease where to hit it, that's it. Like your soil is essentially done. Or just you know, a lot of people destroying natural ecosystems in order to build more buildings or put concrete where there should be soil and then that causes later, like, effects for everything else.

Colleen: Can you describe exactly how the research unfolds, what are you actually doing?

Evelyn: Yeah. So this is the funnest part is going into the field, and I don't get to do it as often. But I try to wait until right after a rain event here in California, which is a little unpredictable now that we have, you know, worse drought, but right after a rain event, since I know that those drought plots have been covered up, I'll go out and collect soils from the plots that have received rain and then plots that have not received rain, which would be the drought soils, and then I grow plants in them.

So when I go out onto the field, we usually have to wear face masks because a lot of me and my undergrads, you're digging up a lot of soil and that could be dangerous for, your respiratory system. So my field site is really pretty. It's only 10 minutes driving here from campus and it's up in the hills. So you have to drive at 10 miles an hour really, really slow up the hill up until you get to the very top, which is where Loma Ridge is.

And so you look out and there's all these other hills, you can see Irvine really clearly on a pretty day. But that's where the field site is. And so we'll go out and we'll collect soils from plots that have received rain and then from the plots that have been droughted. And usually, this takes a long time because sometimes the grasses get really, really tall, especially after a rain event. Or if you're collecting from the shrubland, these shrubs are massive, like there are way taller than you are, so you have to army crawl through these plots and then dig soil up. And then one time we forgot a shovel. So we had to make do with like a pencil and a spoon and we collected soils.

But then after we collect the soils, we then bring them back to our greenhouse here on campus. And then we fill up pots with sterile soil and then a little bit of the soil that was collected from the field. And this is to introduce the soil microbes that you're getting from either the dry plots or the rain plots. And then you grow a plant in these soils and then you see over time, like under high and low watering. So essentially, you're mimicking, , drought conditions for the plant to see how is the plant gonna respond under drought with these drought-adapted microbes versus if it did not have these drought-adapted microbes?

Colleen: So what results have you seen so far?

Evelyn: Okay, it's been a little mixed because...Well, every plant recruits their microbes differently. And the way that each plant interacts with the soil is very unique. So for some plants species, I've seen that, yes, having the drought-adapted microbes have helped it survive drought if I were to subject it under drought. For some plants, it had no effect where it seemed like the plant didn't even care what soil microbes were there, which was surprising. And then for one of my plants in the shrub plots that I looked at, it seemed that having the drought-adapted microbes reversed it and it actually did not survive drought and it died a lot quicker than if like those microbes weren't present.

Colleen: So what does that make you think?

Evelyn: It's kinda confusing, but it also shows you how unique each plant is in the way that interacts with its soils, but also, I'm only looking at one plant at a time. And it would be important to see how a community of different kinds of plants would respond because much like, in our day to day lives, having a diverse community is gonna help an entire survive drought longer than if you had like just one type of plant. So I'm interested moving forward, what would it look like if I were to put all these different kinds of plants together and then what would the effects of that be?

Colleen: I think the answer is you need more research.

Evelyn: Yes. Luckily, I still have three more years.


Colleen: You have an interesting backstory. So I wonder if you wanna tell us a little bit about getting into college and your story there?

Evelyn: Yes. So my parents brought me into the U.S. when I was only six months old. And it was because in their hometowns they both had to drop out at the equivalent of middle school that it would be here, in order to help provide for their family. But for them, education has always been the most important thing and they just didn't see me as having a good future in their hometown in Mexico. So they decided that we were gonna move. And we ended up in Houston, Texas. And in Houston, Texas, it meant that the first words I ever heard in English were, "Speak English, this is America." And I was in pre-K, I had no idea I wasn't speaking English.

You know, eventually, I learned the language and I knew that education was important to my parents. And you know, I was always the one who was doing homework for a long time and honor courses and National Honor Society, extracurricular activities, because I knew college was the next step for me. And so, when it came time to apply to college and I brought my college applications to my mom, the first question it asked...and this was when it was still like a printed application. The first question it asked was your social security number, and that's when she started crying. And she told me that I was undocumented, and I had no idea.

Colleen: Wow. Do you remember what went through your head?

Evelyn: Yeah. It didn't really sink in because they had protected me from my status. So I didn't really know what it meant to be, undocumented until I started asking for letters of recs and that's when I realized, like all of a sudden, you know, I became the illegal on campus. And a lot of my teachers told me, "Oh, there's no point in you going to college. You can't do anything as an illegal". Or, "You'll never contribute to this nation, you should just drop out." And, as someone who valued school as much...I know I probably sound like a nerd here, but as someone who really valued school and their teachers to hear that was really devastating. And so that's what led me to the University of Houston-Downtown where at the time I applied with my tax identification number. And so I got into the University of Houston-Downtown, and part of that meant that I was also eligible for the small scholarship called Scholars Academy there. And a big push for them was for us to do research.

However, during my first semester there, right before I started college was when DACA was announced, which is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. So this is in 2012, and Obama introduced this program, but you know, I was really scared because it was a long application, first of all, and you have to prove that you were in the country every single day since you entered to the point where that announcement was made, which meant that we went to a lot of different schools just to collect a bunch of random school records to prove your stay. And then, you know, apart from getting the application materials together, it's not just information about you, but it also asked like, "Who did you come to this country with?" So I felt like I was giving up, my parents information as well.

Colleen: Right, right. Wow, that's a heavy load for a young college student. Wow. So tell us a little bit about what DACA is.

Evelyn: So Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals means that the administration gives you temporary relief from deportation. And this is only two years at a time. And not to mention the application each time, every two years, well, right now is $495. The purpose of it is to protect eligible immigrant youth who came to the U.S. when they were children and it'll protect you from deportation. It also gives you the opportunity to apply to a work permit. And so, because of that work permit, was the whole reason I was even able to do research because, in the sciences, a lot of science is funded by the NSF, which means that these are federal grants. And you know, as someone who's undocumented you don't have access to that. And a lot of research opportunities are then funded by that.

And so because I had the work permit, I was able to get hired as a lab technician. I had a lot of random, job titles just to do research, but I can't even imagine, you know, in order to make science successful then we also need to have research opportunities for people who don't fall under DACA because there are a ton of people who aren't eligible for DACA. And you know, it makes it very hard for them to navigate through these scientific spaces as well.

Colleen: I know you've been fairly outspoken. I saw a short speech that you did at the March for Science recently. Is that something you're gonna continue to do to be an outspoken advocate?

Evelyn: Yeah. So on September 5th, now a year ago, DACA was rescinded, mainly because this was an executive order by President Obama, and we knew that when Trump came into office that, you know, it was just a waiting game. When is he gonna do away with DACA? And he did it, last year on September 5th. And after the rescinding of DACA, I noticed that the sciences weren't talking about it. And to me, this was like, you know, science has been my community. It's where I found academic refuge where, as a scientist, no one really cared about your identity, it was more about what research are you doing and how important is it? And so, for them to not even recognize, that DACA had ended or for them not to say anything or make a statement, it really upset me.

And so, that's when I wrote out to "Science" magazine. And I was like, "Can we talk about why DACA is a science issue?" And then they allowed me to write an op-ed about how DACA allowed me to have scientific opportunities. And so ever since then I decided, I think the sciences need to know, that within our community we have undocumented folks, whether they be DACA or undocumented and they deserve to be protected and people need to speak up for them just as much as they're speaking up for other, members of our community. Although now I realize it's a lot harder said than done since I feel like most of us are, being threatened. But my main point is you know, with a lot of administrative policies, it affects the quality of our science, and we deserve to be in a safe academic community where we can prosper as scientists.

Colleen: In an interview, you, said, "Science is strengthened when its ranks include diverse practitioners." How have you observed that in your own life?

Evelyn: Well, for one, in my research, with diverse plant communities, you see they're much more resilient to the effects of climate change. And in that sense, within my department right now I'm in a very diverse space and it tends to be very collaborative. And to me, that helps me become a better scientist. Unfortunately, there have been research opportunities that have been a part of us as an undergraduate where it's not as diverse. And usually, I'm the only minority and you know, my voice tended to be shut down. And so it was really hard for me to exchange ideas with other scientists because I didn't feel like I was an equal to them.

Colleen: So I know you're very committed to mentoring students and particularly undocumented students. Tell me a little bit about that and what advice or encouragement you would give to other students with DACA status.

Evelyn: So currently, in my lab, I have the advantage of working at UCI where we have a very diverse undergraduate student population. So the students that end up coming into my lab, we're a very diverse team. And it's always really interesting because, when they first come in, I tell them, "Okay, your first, few months here are gonna be a volunteer on a bunch of different projects, but know that at the end I'm gonna ask you, 'What questions do you have and how would you like to answer them?'" And the only requirement is that it has to be plant-soil microbe related."

And I always become so surprised at the things that they bring back to me because I'm like, "Oh, I've never thought of that."

One student came back to me and told me, you know, "What would happen if plants got hit with a heat wave? What happens to them after that?" And I was like, oh, I think, you know, certain people have looked at that, but not a lot. And in the context of plants and soil microbes, people certainly have looked at it. And then another student talked about plant defense. Like plants try to defend themselves against a lot of insects that will eat on to the plants. And so she said, "Well, do the microbes affect the way that plants defend themselves against herbivores and insects?" And I was like, "I never thought of that."

And I would have never experienced that if I didn't have this diverse lab group because they all have their different experiences and they all experience, you know, their life on campus in different ways. And I feel like it makes them see these questions in a different scope. And so every time they come back to me, I'm always really surprised at what they bring. And part of them working in my lab is I'm not just gonna make them do grunt work because I don't like that. You know, I'll make them do their own project, I guide them through the scientific process, and then we talk about like, "How do you write good personal statements?" or, "How do you apply to grad school?" or, "How do you, you know, make a good poster?"

And then, I'm also a DREAMer scholar and resident here on campus with the DREAM Resource Center. And through that, we have developed a lot of professional development for the undergrads here on campus because at UCI we have the largest undocumented student population and also the most diverse. And so with that, and with the diversity, it also means like they all have different career paths. And so, through the DREAMers Scholars and Residence program and the professional development that we did, we did a lot of like, "Okay, well how do you make yourself competitive? How do you make yourself stand out? How do you make a good cover letter? How do you reach out to professors or people you wanna work with?"

So there's a lot of professional development. But then in terms of advice, I'm also very upfront about the experiences that I have gone through. Not to say that they'll go through the same experiences, but just, as a minority woman in the sciences, I'm always very upfront with them and share with them how difficult it's been for me, but also with the hopes that, they're aware that they might face some difficulties. Because I don't wanna just push them into a system and not have them be aware of what they might experience.

Colleen: So, Evelyn, what does the future look like for you? I assume you've been filling out these applications every two years, but what do you think the future looks like?

Evelyn: Well, I recently got married.

Colleen: Congratulations.

Evelyn: Which explains the Valdez-Ward because I used to be Valdez-Rangel. And yeah. So I was lucky to get a name change and then it goes well with my twitter handle, @wardofplants.

Colleen: I saw that. That is really good, ward of plants. I like it.

Evelyn: Yes. But you know, now I'm in this whole other, you know, the immigration system is very complicated. And you know, while I am married and he is an American citizen, I could apply to become a permanent resident, but the application alone is now $2,000, which on a grad students salary, and he's currently a lab specialist on campus, you know, we can barely afford to live here in California. So, we've been slowly saving up, but that's just the application fees. That doesn't even cover the attorney fees or you also have to do a civil surgeon appointment where you basically have to prove that you're not gonna bring in the black plague into the country. And they make all these, you know, questions about what countries have you been in? And that, you know, appointment itself here in California costs almost $300.

So, now I'm in this whole other layer where it's much more expensive, much more complicated, and the application is really difficult. And on top of, you know, having to worry about grad school, I'm also worrying about this, you know. But it does give me a little bit more of protection for me to be able to speak out for, you know, my undocumented community. And I recognize that I have this privilege and it also makes me really sad because not everybody has, you know, this privilege or this way out. And I'm trying to use it to my advantage as best as I can.

Colleen: Well, Evelyn, thanks for taking time to talk to me. I wish you the best of luck. I think the work you're doing is amazing and the way that you're mentoring students is really incredible and I wish you the best of luck.

Evelyn: Thank you.

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Sidelining Science: Shreya Durvasula
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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