Evelyn Valdez-Ward is a third year PhD student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine. As a Ford Fellow, her work focuses on the effects of climate change on the interactions between plants and their soil microbes. Ultimately, with her research, she aims to become a strong and effective advocate for strategies to mitigate climate change, and continue her professional development for a career in science policy. In addition to her research, she mobilizes STEM fields to protect Dreamers, like herself. She was published in Science for her article “I’m an undocumented scientist fighting for my dream", and was an invited speaker at the 2018 March for Science rally in Washington, D.C. where she strongly advocated for Dreamers in STEM. Follow her at @wardofplants.
Julia Worcester (JW): What led you to want to become a scientist, and specifically to study eco-physiology?
Evelyn Valdez-Ward (EVW): School was everything when I was growing up. When I thought about a typical career in science, I thought I should become a doctor, so when I started college I wanted to do premed. At the end of my freshman year, my advisor asked if I wanted to do research with him studying water transport in plants. I looked at him and wondered why would anyone ever study that? It wasn't anything I had ever heard of. But he told me that all expenses would be paid and I would get to go to California, so I accepted. We studied how drought was affecting native chaparral shrubs in California and I fell in love with it. I realized plants can tell you so much about what's going on with the environment and climate change. It seems incredible that plants can tell you a story just by looking at how they react to drought through their water system. That's what first intrigued me. I realized you don't necessarily have to be a doctor to save lives; for me it's in studying plants, looking at how ecosystems are responding to climate change, and finding solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change on our ecosystems.
JW: Were you interested in science as a child?
EVW: Yes, I was always the kid asking questions. I constantly asked "Why? Why?" It annoyed my mom, but I always had to know why things were the way they were. Why was that tree growing that way, and why does that bug do this when I touch it?
JW: How does your identity and work as a DACA recipient and activist on immigrant issues interplay with your experiences as an early career scientist? How does the work inform each other?
EVW: Being undocumented in STEM is incredibly difficult. Most of the sciences are federally funded, most commonly through the National Science Foundation (NSF). I didn't even know I was undocumented until I was applying to college. The first question I was asked on applications was, "What is your social security number?" That's when my mom told me I was undocumented and started to cry. Also, when I started asking for letters of recommendation, a lot of my teachers said, "You shouldn't go to college. As an illegal you're not going to make any valuable contributions to this nation." That was heartbreaking.
The summer before my freshman year, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was implemented. It took me some time to apply because there were many rumors. People said that if you turned over the information—about not just you but your family—you all became vulnerable. The government could track you with this information, and if the program ended (which could happen at any time), they could come after you. But we were assured several times by the government that that wasn't going to happen. But look where we are now—the program ended and people were afraid of information being handed over.
I applied and received DACA, and because of this I was able to work with my undergraduate advisor. It has been difficult to continue to do research with him and I am so grateful to him because he went out of his way to have me do research with him. He has an NSF grant and other federal grants, but I couldn't touch any of that money.
I am incredibly privileged to have DACA, partly because it allows me to travel. If you are undocumented in Texas you cannot get a license. With DACA, I have the ability to drive to school, to California with my advisor, and do research at the Tyson Research Center at Washington University St. Louis. I recognize this is a privilege because I meet students who do not even have that and are unsure of how to continue in the sciences.
When I was applying to graduate programs (I wrote about this in my article forScience), I was constantly told that institutions do not accept undocumented students. I realized that the University of California system was the only place accepting undocumented students, and I am now at the University of California Irvine (UCI), and was lucky enough to be awarded the Ford Foundation Fellowship. It is difficult to find research grants to fund my research, even though my current research is fairly inexpensive. I work under my advisor and use materials I can borrow. The microbial work is the most expensive—sequencing the DNA, getting nutrient analysis—my samples are literally sitting in a freezer. I am working on a manuscript right now and thinking, When am I going to get funding to be able to sequence this DNA to push this publication out?
To supplement my income I work as a teaching assistant, but that's only possible because I have DACA and a work permit. Without DACA, my fellowship and funding disappear. There is also political uncertainty in Texas with undocumented populations, exemplified by Hurricane Harvey. While my family and other members of our community were trying to evacuate, people were afraid to leave their homes because they could get deported.
The day Trump was elected, I strategized with my mom about what to do if something happened to my parents, or me, or my siblings. These are not conversations other graduate students have to have. One time, my little brother in 8th grade called me one morning before school. I cried afterward because he just asked, "Are you okay? Is everything okay?" He should not have to worry about whether or not I'm alright or whether or not I'm still in the country. He should worry about being a kid.
JW: I’m curious to learn more about the mentoring program you mentioned, as well as what advice you give to other scientists and young people who are afraid they might not be taken as seriously as other scientists if they talk about aspects of their life beyond their research?
EVW: UCI has a program called the Dreamer Scholars in Residence. Undocumented graduate students lead workshops for undergraduates on professional development topics and offer one-on-ones. I've met many students who are interested in applying to graduate school, or in getting involved with scientific research. Luckily, at UCI you can easily do research with or without DACA because of programs that do not require citizenship. Students ask me whether I was upfront about my status in my applications, and I feel like you have to be. I tell them they have to identify their allies. It is difficult to know who you can trust, but you need people to advocate for you. I am lucky to have my advisor, Travis Huxman, because whenever something happens because of my status, he is the first to fight for me.
JW: Many early career scientists, and scientists in general, have concerns about their work, research, and advocacy, and what they are allowed to say because of issues of bias. But immigration issues are an added layer that makes it so much more personal and raises the stakes in incredible ways.
EVW: It's exhausting to do research full-out as well as advocacy. But if I don't fight this fight, who will? My life is at stake every day. And my work is climate change-related, so whenever I can, I also do science advocacy. I am under attack on all sides – as a woman, as a minority, as undocumented, because of my research.
JW: Your story was included in a filibuster by Nancy Pelosi. How did it feel to have that happen and have your story be included in such a high-profile defense of DACA?
EVW: [laughing] I didn't even know it was going to happen! I only saw it because I tuned in when she was getting close to the 8 hour mark. When I realized she was talking about me, I started crying. I was listening to other Dreamers' stories and felt so inspired, and could not believe I was included in their company.
Senator Durbin's office also emailed to ask whether they could share my story on their website, and I answered the questions they sent me. One night, my uncle sent me a video and asked whether I had seen Senator Durbin on the Senate floor pull out my headshot on a giant piece of cardboard paper and read my story. I was touched and motivated to continue fighting because after rescinding DACA, it felt like we became numbers of our economic contributions. But by sharing my story I put a face to those numbers, and I hope that humanized the issue.
JW: Is there anything else you would like to share?
EVW: When DACA was rescinded, I realized that STEM fields were not talking about these issues, which was upsetting because I myself am undocumented and do science. Undocumented students are in our scientific communities and deserve to be protected. We deserve for scientists to fight for us.
There are many influential people in my life who I am grateful for—my mentors. One person can make such a difference, like my undergraduate advisor Michael Tobin. I am where I am now because he continued to have faith in me. He taught me everything there is to know about being a scientist.
My department chair, Kathleen Treseder, is the one who taught us that even if there is just one voice speaking up, it eventually encourages another voice to speak up, and then another one. You create change because individually you are very small, but people advocating together is powerful. That is my form of self care—finding other people who care about these similar issues. I am lucky to be in a department where political engagement is valued. We are advocating for our science and for our existence.
Interviewer Julia Worcester is a Science Network Outreach Intern with the Union of Concerned Scientists