Engineer Helps Bridge the STEM Educational Divide

By Joel Lesher

Brandie Dessauer is the manager of an engineering team within Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and has accrued a wealth of experience leading and optimizing supply chain operations at Dow Chemical. Dessauer's unique upbringing as a first-generation college graduate has had a lasting impact on her professional career. Her background has prompted her to engage in several volunteering roles to support women and disenfranchised populations, often by providing STEM opportunities or developing programs designed to bridge the educational divide for those populations who may not possess the same connections or opportunities as others in society.

JL: How did your early education influence your career goals? 

Dessauer: During my early high school education, I attended an all-girls Catholic school where certain traditions, which had otherwise fallen into disuse in general society, were still upheld. It was during this time that I was first introduced to STEM through a high school chemistry class, which piqued my fascination and ignited a newfound love for science. Determined to explore this interest further and ascertain how college could launch a career in STEM, I sought advice from my school counselor. Unfortunately, she discouraged me from pursuing this path and instead urged me to follow a more conventional route for women, one that lay outside the realm of STEM, a profession typically dominated by men.

Brandie Dessauer
Brandie Dessauer

JL: What have you done to bridge the gender gap in STEM?

Dessauer: Having cognizance of the obstacles faced by those who do not conform to the stereotypical portrayal of a STEM leader, I aspired to spearhead support for these populations by advocating for early STEM inclusion. With the assistance of my spouse, we initiated a pioneering program called "Girls Who Code" at my child's school, which offers coding experience and opportunities to young girls, frequently as early as first grade. This affords them an early foothold in a field that is frequently male-dominated and ultimately narrows the coding gender gap. As the program's efficacy becomes evident and its significance recognized, it will be expanded to multiple schools within the community.

Dessauer at a 2019 Society of Women Engineers Capitol Hill Days event
Dessauer at a 2019 Society of Women Engineers Capitol Hill Days event

JL: Within your professional career, how have you worked to support women in STEM? 

Dessauer: While employed at Dow Chemical, I participated in the Society for Women Engineers, whose aim was to promote systemic change for women in STEM and their professional careers. We advocated on behalf of women and provided a plethora of resources to women and K-12 girls with the intention of affording them access to connections and experiences that they may have missed out on due to gender. One of my favorite opportunities was Congressional Days, during which we traveled to Capitol Hill and related accounts to government officials of the difficulties and lack of support that women experience while in STEM roles. We also had the privilege of providing educational resources to local K-12 students by introducing early STEM concepts and avenues for professional advancement and college success.

In my capacity as a member of the Society for Women Engineers, I was responsible for selecting accomplished women for awards at STEM conferences across the country. I relished this role, and often asked the chosen women to write an abstract, whether technical or related to community involvement, to be read at the ceremony and included in publications. The achievements of these women were inspiring and served as an exemplar of what women can accomplish despite a dearth of traditional blockades. Not only does this boost the confidence of young women seeking to enter the STEM profession, but we were able to assist awardees in finding professional support and making connections to further their careers.

JL: What are you doing now to help your local community? 

Dessauer: I served as the president of the 501(c)(3) parent organization of our school. After my appointment, I raised funds to provide more auxiliary programs to our female student body, resulting in an increase in funding of over 600% from the previous year. With this financial support, we were able to implement the aforementioned "Girls Who Code" program, as well as state-of-the-art equipment, arts education, and a gardening program. Additionally, we are in the process of establishing a new foundation to provide funding for more educational programs, including STEM, at our local public school.

Acting Locally on Abortion

An ESAL guide by Rebecca Mandt

For almost 50 years, the decision on Roe v. Wade protected abortion rights at the federal level. Now, with that critical ruling overturned, abortion access across the country hinges on state and local legal decisions. The debate around abortion is informed by science, medicine, and public health, as well as ethics. Many people with STEM backgrounds feel compelled to get involved. While advocacy at the federal level continues to play a role, this issue also highlights how important it is to engage locally. One way to do this is to have critical conversations with your friends, family, and other members of your community. Additionally, many parts of state and local government directly impact policy around abortion and other reproductive health issues. We hope that the information in this post can serve as a guide for anyone looking to engage in this important policy discussion.

State legislatures

Elected representatives create legislation that becomes state law. This includes laws that restrict or expand abortion access. Other types of legislation can also impact abortion services. For example, some states have passed laws that protect people who cross state lines to seek abortions. State laws also dictate how abortion laws are enforced, and how investigations are conducted. Legislation can also indirectly impact access to abortion and other reproductive health services, for example by creating or expanding training for health professionals, approving changes to the budget for related public health services, or regulating what public or private insurance plans can cover. 

How can you engage with your state legislature?

State and local legal system

There are multiple parts of state and local legal systems which influence how laws are enforced. 

State Attorneys General 

The attorney general is the top legal officer of a state. Attorneys general provide counsel to state legislatures and agencies and represent the public interest of the state in legal proceedings. They often have significant say over the state’s approach to law enforcement, and may have influence over the extent to which an abortion ban is enforced. They could also choose to either challenge or defend the legality of abortion laws in court. Attorney generals across multiple states may form coalitions, as happened recently around the issue of abortion rights protections. 

State Court System

The state court system is responsible for hearing cases, including interpreting the constitutionality of state laws. Similar to the federal system, the state supreme court is usually the highest court. State supreme courts will have important roles in determining whether the state constitution protects abortion rights, and in deciding whether laws that impact abortion access are legal. 

District Attorney

The district attorney is the chief prosecutor who represents the state in criminal proceedings for a particular district or county. Depending on the geographic area of jurisdiction, these officials may also go by the title of state’s attorney, prosecuting attorney, or county attorney. These officials are responsible for investigating and prosecuting individuals who break state laws, including abortion laws. They have leeway in deciding which cases will be prosecuted.

How can you engage with your local legal system?


Police play a role in enforcing abortion restrictions, including investigating allegations of activity that violates state abortion legislation, as well as filing charges and making arrests.

How can you engage with your local police force?

State and local public health departments

Public health departments at the state and local level may be involved in various aspects of abortion access or abortion regulation. These can include collecting and analyzing data on abortion procedures, facilitating linkages to abortion services, or to abortion alternatives, and creating training programs for healthcare providers. These departments are also involved in developing policies around issues such as abortion care, abortion referrals, and abortion data access, creating content for state-mandated counseling requirements, enforcing state regulations on abortion facility requirements, and running sex education/family planning programs.

How can you engage with your state or local public health departments

State medical boards

State medical boards are responsible for issuing licenses to practice medicine, investigating complaints against physicians, and disciplining doctors who violate the law. As such, in some states they may be involved in enforcing anti-abortion legislation. State medical boards can also issue rules around related medical practices such as telemedicine. 

How can you engage with your state medical board?

Universities, Businesses, Think Tanks, Non-Profits

While not part of the government, universities, businesses and business associations, think tanks, non-profits, and other local organizations can play a role in influencing state and local policy. Such groups often act in an advisory capacity, and may even have their own lobbying or advocacy groups. These organizations are also employers and can set policies around issues like insurance coverage. Some businesses are even offering support for out-of-state travel and other resources to expand abortion access. 

How can you engage with local organizations?

Part 3: Economic Dependence and Extractive Industries

By Rebecca Mandt

This summer, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL), the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), and the Geological Society of America (GSA) co-hosted a three-part panel series titled “Power & Indigeneity,” which explored  climate change and the renewable energy transition in the context of Indigenous communities in the United States. Each panel touched on different aspects of this complex topic, while drawing on common themes: sovereignty, historical context, and traditional knowledge. The series highlighted the importance of elevating Indigenous perspectives in the national discussion on climate change.

Part 3: “Economic Dependence and Extractive Industries” 

This summer, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL), the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), and the Geological Society of America (GSA) co-hosted a three-part panel series titled “Power & Indigeneity,” which explored  climate change and the renewable energy transition in the context of Indigenous communities in the United States. Each panel touched on different aspects of this complex topic, while drawing on common themes: sovereignty, historical context, and traditional knowledge. The series highlighted the importance of elevating Indigenous perspectives in the national discussion on climate change.

The event featured two panelists who are both at the forefront of empowering Indigenous communities to take advantage of clean energy development opportunities. The moderator was Nikki Cooley, a citizen of the Diné Nation, interim assistant director of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) and co-manager of ITEP’s Tribes & Climate Change Program.

Both Navajo Power and the TSAF use a bottom-up, community-led approach. Tallmadge explained how Navajo Power is moving away from the top-down, often exploitative model of traditional energy companies. “We work in partnership with households first and foremost to ensure that they receive revenue, jobs, and community benefits from the projects, rather than just the tribal government, and we let communities decide whether, where, and on what terms projects are built.” Clairmont noted that at the TSAF, they see tribes as the leaders in renewable energy projects. “Tribes come to us, and then we develop plans and designs in the process of building that relationship,” she explained. The projects that TSAF supports often involve household members as part of the installation process, so that tribal members see themselves as owners of the system.

Both panelists outlined the tremendous opportunities of renewable energy development for tribal communities, with Tallmadge pointing to a 2018 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory indicating that Native tribes could provide 6.7% of U.S. renewable energy capacity, yet 86% of Indigenous lands with energy or mineral resources remain undeveloped. Renewable energy projects have the potential to benefit the entire country, including Indigenous communities, which as Clairmont noted, are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change. “In order for them to become energy resilient, and energy sovereign, tribes are looking to solar and other forms of renewable energy,” she explained. Both speakers also highlighted renewable energy as an engine for economic development. “Tribes should be key to the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and be able to transform the challenge of the climate crisis into wealth- building opportunities,” Tallmadge said. 

Part 1 and Part 2 of the Power & Indigeneity series emphasized sovereignty as an important concept in environmental decision making. In this discussion, panelists discussed how sovereignty presents both opportunities and challenges to renewable energy development. Tallmadge explained that because tribal land is held in trust by the federal government, Indigenous nations can’t use their land as collateral for financing, and all decisions related to land use must be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Working within tribal lands requires navigating a complex mosaic of federal, state, tribal, and private jurisdictions with varying regulations. These and other barriers make it difficult for tribes to access the financing needed for renewable energy projects. In her presentation, Tallmadge discussed possible solutions to some of these regulatory barriers that are being explored at the federal, state, and local level. Sovereignty also provides unique benefits. As Clairmont noted, tribes can use their sovereign authorities, including taxation, land-use planning, zoning regulation, and licensing to ensure that energy programs that they implement fit the needs of their communities. She also highlighted the importance of traditional knowledge, another theme that was explored in the previous panel discussions. She described how Indigenous peoples have been innovative and resilient in the face of environmental change for hundreds of years. This knowledge and innovation can be leveraged in designing renewable energy projects. “Our Tribal partners acknowledge and accept traditional ecological knowledge as a valuable tool in developing their own unique solutions,” said Clairmont. 

The panel discussion also followed up from Part 2, which explored the impact of extractive industries on Indigenous land and the possibility that these impacts could be worsened with increased demand for renewable energy. Clairmont and Tallmadge both acknowledged this as well. Clairmont noted that TSAF is looking at ways to recycle solar panels and invest in other technologies, such as battery storage, to help alleviate the demand for critical minerals. Ultimately, efforts to center tribal communities in renewable energy development will be critical. As Tallmadge stated in her closing remarks, “I do think that if we are not intentional about our interventions, policies, and efforts to develop new initiatives, the exploitation of the fossil fuel industry will continue into clean energy. We need to be really intentional about how we form solutions and businesses to put our nations first and foremost in the line to this transition.”

Part 2: Land Use, Critical Mineral Mining, and the Fossil Fuel Transition

By Rebecca Mandt

This summer, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL), the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), and the Geological Society of America (GSA) co-hosted a three-part panel series titled “Power & Indigeneity,” which explored  climate change and the renewable energy transition in the context of Indigenous communities in the United States. Each panel touched on different aspects of this complex topic, while drawing on common themes: sovereignty, historical context, and traditional knowledge. The series highlighted the importance of elevating Indigenous perspectives in the national discussion on climate change.

Part 2:  “Land Use, Critical Mineral Mining, and the Fossil Fuel Transition”

This panel featured four scientists with experience around metals or mining. The panel was moderated by Kendra Zamzow, a member of ESAL’s steering committee, and environmental program manager for Chickaloon Native Village  (Nay dini’ aa na’ Kayax). 

Throughout history, mining has occurred on or near Indigenous lands, with serious and ongoing consequences for the environment and public health. Now, the push toward clean energy is increasing the demand for critical minerals, particularly lithium. The discussion focused on the question: “How can we transition away from fossil fuels in a way that does not make this problem worse?”

Batteries increasingly rely on lithium. Miller outlined the types of lithium deposits, the processes that mining companies use to source lithium, and the environmental impacts of these different processes. Batteries and wind technology rely on rare earth elements, and Stoy described how rare earths and other metals needed in green technologies may be extracted from waste products, such as coal ash or sludge from abandoned mine drainages.

Nuclear power may also be needed to transition away from fossil fuels. Tommy Rock discussed the impacts of past uranium mining on Indigenous communities. There are 524 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo Nation, and over 15,000 abandoned mines across 14 Western states, many on or near tribal lands. For Rock, the issue is personal. His grandfather, a World War II veteran and former uranium miner, died of cancer due to his exposure. Danger still exists even after the mines have closed. “There’s a lack of potable water on Navajo Nation … so people go to these isolated, unregulated waters,” Rock explained. “There’s other places off the reservation that still have abandoned uranium mines that are still open and some of the ore is out in the open as well, so it’s still an ongoing issue.”

As panelists explored the issues posed by critical mineral mining, as well as possible solutions, the same key themes developed in Part 1 of the series were woven throughout the discussion: sovereignty, historical context, and ties to the land.

Sovereignty can be part of the solution to ensure that mining companies adhere to responsible environmental practices. Suter explained that tribal nations can create their own environmental standards on tribal lands that go above and beyond those set by the federal government. The problem comes when mines are not on tribal lands but in the surrounding areas. Here, there needs to be early consultation with tribal communities so that negative outcomes, such as environmental damage or destruction of sacred burial sites, can be mitigated.

Historical context was also discussed. Both Rock and Suter noted the need to clean up past mining activities. “I really advocate that the federal government needs to get their act together and provide some funding associated directly with reclamation of hard rock mines,” Suter said. Stoy’s research raises the possibility that new technologies could be developed to clean abandoned mining sites while simultaneously recovering valuable minerals from the waste. “We need rare earth elements to power our green energy transition. And we have this second problem of these big messes […] that are hazardous to local communities. I’m really intrigued by the idea of tying these problems together so we can clean up these sites with a goal of recovering rare-earths and other valuable minerals […] feeding two birds with one scone.”

Indigenous communities have intense and complex ties to the environment as part of their way of life which, Suter noted, also means that Indigenous peoples are more exposed to environmental hazards than the general population, which she said is something that risk assessments of mining often don’t take into account. She also emphasized the value of Indigenous knowledge of the relationships of plants, animals, landscapes, and natural phenomena. “Mining companies need to honor this traditional ecological knowledge,” Suter noted. “The inclusion of Indigenous science and traditional knowledge can help develop sustainable land management practices.” As an Indigenous geoscientist, Rock also spoke to the importance of engaging Indigenous peoples, highlighting that he hoped that having dialogue and discussions like this will help to get more communities involved.

All four speakers recognized the dangers of climate change, and the importance of clean energy technology to transition from fossil fuels. However, their discussion highlighted several often-overlooked complexities when it comes to mining lithium and other metals needed for this technology. As Suter noted “We all enjoy the benefits of modern technology. However, the benefits and the profits towards these green energy developments should not mean more than the survival of Native Americans or any Indigenous peoples.” The discussion provided important context for Part 3 of the Power & Indigeneity series, which focused on renewable energy and Indigenous economic development.

Part 1: Indigenous Scientists on the Sustainability of Humanity

By Rebecca Mandt

This summer, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL), the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), and the Geological Society of America (GSA) co-hosted a three-part panel series titled “Power & Indigeneity,” which explored  climate change and the renewable energy transition in the context of Indigenous communities in the United States. Each panel touched on different aspects of this complex topic, while drawing on common themes: sovereignty, historical context, and traditional knowledge. The series highlighted the importance of elevating Indigenous perspectives in the national discussion on climate change.

Part 1: “Indigenous Scientists on the Sustainability of Humanity”

This panel featured four earth and environmental scientists coming from diverse backgrounds, careers, and Indigenous nations. The panel was moderated by Mark Little, then president-elect of GSA. 

Three primary themes emerged: the role of tribes as governments making natural resource decisions, the role that removing land and language from tribes has played in creating the communities of today, and the role of Indigenous knowledge in informing sustainability actions.

Native American tribes are legally recognized as distinct, sovereign nations with the right to self-governance, including control over their land and how it’s used. As Stands-Over-Bull emphasized, “sovereignty gives you choice to chart your own destiny.” Sutton explained that increasingly, the federal government will consult with tribes, nation-to-nation, on energy decisions. More autonomy is also being passed to tribes to make deals with energy companies around decisions like mining and oil pipelines. When controversies do arise, it’s because such decisions were made without consultation, Sutton noted. 

The panel believes that governance options of today need to be understood within historical context. As Johnson noted, Indigenous nations have lost 99% of their original land and have faced centuries of colonization, displacement, land theft, and environmental damage by extractive industries. This historical backdrop is critical to understanding the socioeconomic issues that Indigenous communities face today. The panel argued that Indigenous people were also forced to stop using their language and Indigenous names were removed from land features as part of cultural erasure, though there have been recent moves to acknowledge historic Indigenous lands and to restore the power of naming traditional lands. Lefthand-Begay explained the intergenerational impact of such restorative actions in strengthening Indigenous languages, and infusing “a strong pride and healing.” “These names that we use, these names that we know the landscape by, are the way that we connect to the holy peoples and our own peoples. I think that is one of the deeper, important aspects to honoring these names and the power of naming,” she explained.

Cultural healing has allowed Indigenous knowledge to be applied to approaches to environmental sustainability. Lefthand-Begay explained that many Indigenous communities have ways of life that depend on the land, such as fishing and hunting, for physical and cultural nourishment. Because of their relationship with their lands, the panel argues, Indigenous peoples have a depth of environmental knowledge and prioritize environmental sustainability. Sutton defined the concept of “Native science,” which represents the accumulation of knowledge over centuries. Sutton said that such knowledge is as valid as a Western science approach and can provide a unique perspective on issues such as climate change. In discussing her desire to braid her geoscientist expertise with her work on Indigenous inclusion, Johnson also highlighted the resilience that Indigenous people have demonstrated in the face of environmental change. “[My people] have adapted to climate change seasonally as well as inter-annual variability over millennia,” she noted.

Throughout the discussion, the panel highlighted why it is critical for Indigenous communities to be centered in discussions around environmental decision-making, both because they have been and continue to be disproportionately affected by environmental damage and climate change, and because they can offer invaluable knowledge towards sustainable solutions.

The themes that emerged also set the stage for Part 2 of the Power & Indigeneity series, “Land Use, Climate, and Mining for the Fossil Fuel Transition,” and Part 3, “Economic Dependence and Extractive Industries.”

Energy Engineer Helps Reduce Transportation’s Climate Impact

Our “Stories from the Field” series shares the experiences of engineers and scientists who are making a difference in their communities.

By Lina Zhu

Arpit Soni helps decarbonize transportation at Amazon to support their goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. Back in his home country of India, Soni had studied energy engineering and worked in carbon offset markets before immigrating to the United States. He obtained a master’s degree from the climate and society program at Columbia University and then moved west to work at the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a state agency that has been an early adopter and leader in carbon regulations. ESAL interviewed Soni about his career trajectory and his role in laying the groundwork for climate action in California and beyond.

LZ: What is your role at Amazon?

Soni: I am part of Amazon’s Worldwide Sustainable Transportation team. My focus is on supporting decarbonization of our external transportation providers, which ranges from giants like UPS and DHL, to a single driver who picks up a grocery order. We work to align our transportation providers with Amazon’s public commitment to “Shipment Zero by 2030,” to deliver 50% of all packages by 2030 with zero emissions in packaging, transportation, and facilities. Shipment Zero, though, is just the midpoint check for Amazon’s Climate Pledge of reaching net-zero by 2040.

LZ: What does reaching net zero mean?

Soni: Net zero carbon refers to when you are removing as much carbon dioxide as you are emitting into the atmosphere. The difficulty of defining net zero lies in offsetting versus decarbonization. Carbon offsetting is where somebody can still release all their emissions but just pay somebody else to reduce emissions on their behalf in another part of the world. Whereas decarbonization is actually reducing your own emissions. Right now, there are no standard industry guidelines or definition of what net zero would look like and how much a company can rely on offsets.

LZ: Going back to the beginning, how did you get into the energy and climate space in the first place?

Soni: I was born and brought up in India and growing up I was always fascinated  by energy systems. I always wanted to become an engineer and the university I attended had a new program for energy engineering. That was a momentous time in my life when I got introduced to the problem of climate change. Nobody in India was talking about climate back in 2007. Initially I started learning on my own and came across Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. After completing my engineering, I made it my mission to find a job in the clean-tech sector. I turned down job offers to work for fossil fuel companies and landed my first job at a very small startup in India that was working in environmental markets and climate policy, which were unknown concepts for me back then.

At the startup, I had the amazing opportunity to lead a new research desk on the California carbon market. As part of that, I was responsible for understanding regulations and coming up with data analytics and knowledge products for our customers. I learned about climate policy in California sitting at my desk in India. It pushed me to come to the U.S. where I attended a program called “Climate and Society” at Columbia University. My goal was to move west to work on California’s policies, and eventually, I ended up at CARB.

Arpit Soni (credit: Soni)

Arpit Soni (credit: Soni)

LZ: What is CARB’s role in California?

Soni: They came into being in the 1960s when poor air quality was a major problem in California. They have been the leading public agency, not just within the U.S., but internationally as well, putting out the most ambitious and technically advanced policies to combat air quality and climate change. CARB has made California into a poster child for international climate dialogue. When people ask why I chose to work at a regulatory agency, I tell them to think of CARB as the Amazon or Google of the climate policy world. This is the institution working at the cutting edge and nobody else has been able to do as much in the last couple of decades.

LZ: What programs did you work on at CARB?

Soni: When I got to CARB, my job there was to work on the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) program. I already had some background in cap-and-trade, so I thought, how hard can LCFS be? I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was a very different program.

To give some background, the LCFS was designed by CARB to reduce the carbon intensity (CI) of transportation fuel in California. Originally in 2009, the goal was to reduce CI by 10% from 2010 levels by 2020. However, given the sheer success of the program, they extended it to a 20% reduction in CI by 2030. They will very likely make it even more stringent in a couple of years to align with California’s goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2045.

Besides reducing transportation emissions, LCFS has been successful in driving technological development and supporting deployment of zero emission fuels like electricity and hydrogen. Some of these technologies wouldn't have really taken off at the same speed and scale in the absence of this program.

LZ: What did you take away from your experience at CARB?

Soni: One of the biggest takeaways for me working at CARB was the importance of policy in solving large problems, not just climate. I’ve seen how well-informed policy based on scientific principles, data, and proper stakeholder engagement is likely to succeed and serve the people as intended. If you craft your policies smartly, you can achieve more than the intended benefit.

LZ: Why do you think climate policies in California have been successful?

Soni: California and politically liberal states, like New York lately, have the mandate from the public. California always had leaders who were inclined to act on climate, including both democrats and republicans in the state.

CARB has been successful because they have technical people working to develop these complicated policies, which were built on the learnings of prior emission trading programs, so they avoided some past pitfalls. CARB had some difficult phases, but have always garnered industry support which has allowed them to move quickly on several ambitious policies.

LZ: Why is local engagement important to the climate movement?

Soni: If you look at climate change, it is an international issue. However, if you follow the history of climate negotiations at the international level, you will see it has always run into roadblocks because there are so many interests involved. It’s becoming increasingly important to start solving climate change at the local jurisdiction level, because getting 200 countries to say “yes,” while maintaining equity, is really complicated.

I heard somewhere that in a few years every job is going to be a climate job. Every industry you work in will be trying to solve this massive problem in one way or another.

Science Moab: Building knowledge and community through local science

Our “Local STEM” series highlights local government and community initiatives and organizations in areas that relate to STEM.

By Robin Mays

Science Moab is an organization based in Moab, Utah, with a mission to make place-based science accessible to all. Through efforts such as public engagement, student internships, and science communication training for recreation guides, Science Moab connects knowledge holders with community members and visitors to public lands who are hungry for a deeper understanding of the landscape around them. ESAL spoke with Kristina Young, founder and executive director, to learn more about their programs and philosophy.

RM: Can you tell me a little bit about how Science Moab got started?

Young: I moved to Moab in 2011 and became involved in cool research happening in the area, but I saw a need to connect local science with the community. I went to our local radio station, KZMU, and asked if I could interview scientists on air, which I thought would be the best way to get their words out. Our community radio station is amazing and immediately agreed. Science Moab grew from there. We wanted to be a conduit for sharing information with the community because it's so relevant to everyone's lives, it's just not always accessible. We're fortunate to have such a passionate team of scientists and volunteers giving their time and efforts to our work.

Kristina Young

Kristina Young

RM: Science Moab includes a range of programs: a podcast, live events, school programs, and the Science Certified program. What has been your approach in pursuing new opportunities?

Young: What motivates us is presenting place-based science and matching that to what the community is interested in. All of our initiatives come from suggestions from community members. I wish I could take credit for the ideas but I can't; people in the community saw a need and made it happen. After we started the podcast, someone suggested that we have in-person events for scientists to give talks in community hang-outs, such as our local tavern. That's how our live events started.

The School to Science program got started when one of the local scientists here mentioned his experience being connected with a scientist in a community program when he was a student. There are so many people in our area doing incredible science that it was no-brainer to start a similar program.

We created the Science Certified program because the community recognized that the three and a half million visitors coming through Moab every year don't necessarily have experience recreating in a desert. We need to make sure visitors know how to engage with the landscape appropriately. We work with local guides to develop their science communication skills so that they effectively communicate how deserts work and create buy-in from our visitors.

RM: Could you explain more about the place-based science engagement approach?

Young: I think the reason our programming has been successful is because we are not talking about an abstract concept, we’re talking about people’s backyard. We can point to landscapes and tell people that research is happening along this road, for example, which helps people feel connected to the local environment and invested in understanding the world. There are so many opportunities in place-based science, communication, education, and engagement.

 Outdoor recreation guides learn about desert ecology with the Science Certified program. (photo credit: Sophia Fisher)

Outdoor recreation guides learn about desert ecology with the Science Certified program. (photo credit: Sophia Fisher)

RM: What perspectives do you gain from engaging with Indigenous communities, and how do you elevate their voices in your work?

Young: Because we're a place-based science organization, it makes sense to look to the form of science that has existed in the southwestern region of the United States, including southeast Utah, for millennia. Like western science, Indigenous knowledge was developed through hypothesis testing and observation in an effort to understand the world. Our mission at Science Moab is to make science accessible and help people understand where they live, which is part of what Indigenous knowledge is.

Even though we’re speaking primarily to a western science audience, we have been able to diversify our listenership and engagement because of our work with our neighbors in native communities who care deeply about their homeland. We’ve found that we can cultivate respectful knowledge sharing with Indigenous folks who are likewise interested in western science: it doesn't have to be a dichotomy between knowledge sets or an extractive knowledge sharing process.

Community members fill the local park to learn about dinosaurs which are found in the Moab area. (photo credit: John Caldwell)

Community members fill the local park to learn about dinosaurs which are found in the Moab area. (photo credit: John Caldwell)

We are always striving to incorporate more voices and perspectives of Indigenous knowledge holders in the area. Our approach is to reach out to these communities and ask if they’d like to share their perspective with our audience. As one example, we are excited to be working with Ancient Wayves, a native-led guide company outside of Blanding Utah. Within the Science Certified program, we have a lot of opportunities to talk about these landscapes from a western science lens, but I think it's essential that visitors understand that they are on native land. The Ancient Wayves company can provide modules to instructors and guides offering their perspectives of managing and respecting local landscapes.

RM: What kinds of feedback about your efforts do you get from the community?

Young: As scientists, we do love data and are always collecting data to understand the effectiveness of our programming. What we've found from feedback for the Science Certified program is that guides and the general public are hungry for stories that contextualize scientific information, which can sometimes be challenging for people who don't have specific expertise in that topic to understand.

Our program connecting students to scientist mentors is a newer program, but we've had an overwhelming number of students who signed up, more than we ever expected. The students have gotten to go out and help with all kinds of research, measuring the vibrations of arches in Arches National Park, going on dinosaur digs, and doing fluvial geomorphology, all of which is a memorable experience for these students.

A big part of the feedback we've gotten about the live community events is that people are excited not just to learn about science locally, but also to come together to celebrate the landscape around them. Yes, it's about science education, but we’re also bringing community members together to share an understanding about where they live.

RM: What are your future goals for Science Moab?

Young: The model we’ve used is replicable and relevant to places all over the United States and especially the Western U.S. Ideally, every community would have local science events about the landscape around them. In five to ten years, I'd love to see place-based types of programs expanded all throughout our region, if not more broadly across the U.S.


Developing a Data Pipeline for Virginia

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Xu Han, and I am a Ph.D. student at George Mason University based in Northern Virginia. My research area is in information technology.

What is important to you about engaging with your local government?

As modern information technologies are impacting our society in every aspect, it’s important that local government is aware of the impact and stays on top of the issues that the technologies create in human lives. Given their permeating nature, information technologies have a grassroot growth model, and thus government awareness and efforts need to start at the grassroot level as well. It is up to us, the people, to decide whether the technologies are used for good or not.

What did you do?

I have been doing research about technological unemployment and market democratization, and just decided to work on my thesis proposal earlier this year. Then the professor who taught the proposal writing class informed me of the COVES Fellowship opportunity. I felt this is a great opportunity to reach out to the local government, and advocate my research for the social good, so I applied and got the fellowship! Then I was matched with my host office – the Office of Recovery Services at the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

Xu Han.

What happened?

The science policy fellowship turned out to be very flexible and customizable in my case. My host office was a newly established branch, and was working on the strategic planning for the next few years, so they pulled me into this core project of how to better serve the people of the whole Commonwealth of Virginia! One priority was to build a strong data foundation for decision making, so my science expertise well fit in. They shared with me valuable feedback data from the listening sessions that they conducted with the people in the field, and I built a data processing pipeline for analyzing the data and drawing insights through evidence-based approaches, data traceability, and quantitative and qualitative measurements. The result appeared to be appreciated by the office, and together we presented it again to a larger audience of more than 50 people!

What did you get out of this experience?

Through the COVES Fellowship, I have systematically learnt how the legislative branches function, and how a bill is made at the state level. It also allowed me to work alongside the people in the government to understand their challenges and make a contribution with my expertise. One thing that surprised me is that people in the Office of Recovery Services are so respectful, collaborative, and empathetic. I truly felt thankful and honored to be placed on such a wonderful team, and that I could offer a little bit of help. I think my fellowship experience has given me great encouragement in interacting with the legislative community, in doing my research, and in choosing my career path. Interestingly, the work that I did impressed the office leadership and they even wanted to extend a consultant position to me and see if the pipeline can be further developed into a more holistic web-based solution.

Researching Mobile Crisis Services in Virginia

Tell us about yourself.

I am a Ph.D. candidate in translational biology, medicine, and health at Virginia Tech. My program teaches graduate students how to conduct bench-to-bedside research. Throughout my training I have learned to implement translational research projects in the community. I study the use of and attitudes toward Narcan, an opioid overdose antidote, among people who use drugs.

What is important to you and engaging with your local government?

Translating research is key to the implementation of evidence-based practices, especially if the goal is to improve citizens’ health. Therefore, it is important to engage your local government in research and translate research evidence to policymakers. If done correctly, policymakers can draft legislation that funds or incentivizes the use of evidence-based practices. For example, the Commonwealth of Virginia approved legislation in 2017 authorizing comprehensive harm reduction programs. These programs (also known as syringe exchange programs) decrease overdose deaths and reduce the spread of infectious diseases among people who use drugs. This legislation helps save lives and improve health.

Frankie Edwards

What did you do?

Throughout my research and community engagement, I realized greater impact was possible in science policy. This motivated me to apply to the Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering & Science (COVES) Fellowship. After I was accepted into the 2022 summer cohort, I was matched with the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) in Virginia, Division of Clinical and Quality Management. 

What happened?

During the COVES fellowship, I learned about DBHDS’ efforts to transform Virginia’s mental health and substance use crisis services. Legislation is directing DBHDS to redesign crisis services and implement evidence-based crisis call centers, mobile crisis teams, and crisis stabilization centers. Several decades of research suggest these services could reduce costly emergency department use, unnecessary jailing, and improve the treatment of mental health and substance use crises. I analyzed DBHDS training data to find mobile crisis service gaps in the Commonwealth, and I created a report for DBHDS that included implementation strategies for mobile crisis services.

What did you get out of this experience?

Through this experience, I learned how science can inform stakeholders and the implementation of legislation with specific goals. It was helpful for me to learn about other opportunities available to scientists who want to make a direct impact with their work. This experience motivated me to apply for more policy fellowships and find other ways to engage community stakeholders and policymakers.

Calling or texting 988 or chatting will connect you to compassionate care and support for mental health-related distress. #988Lifeline

CEELAB: Restoring Florida’s Estuaries Through Collaboration

By Robin Mays

The Coastal and Estuarine Ecology Lab (CEELAB) was founded in 1997 at the University of Central Florida (UCF) with a focus on the ecology of coastal and estuarine ecosystems, conservation biology, and restoration. CEELAB, along with collaborators and partners such as the Marine Discovery Center, the National Park Service, and several Florida organizations - the Coastal Conservation Association, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Environmental Protection, and State Park system - have restored 93 oyster reefs measuring almost four acres. ESAL spoke with UCF Professor Linda Walters, CEELAB founder and lead, to learn more about restoration efforts.

RM: Tell me a little about your area of research.

Walters: Part of my role starting at UCF in the Biology Department was to be the director of a small field lab that the department had access to within Canaveral National Seashore. My main research area is in the Indian River Lagoon, which is an estuary system extending 156 miles along the east coast of central Florida. Because it's a big estuary with many problems, I have been able to work on numerous important issues from invasive species to algal blooms to microplastics to climate change since our start in 1997.

A lot of my work is restoration, in collaboration with the resource management specialists in Canaveral National Seashore. Early on, my collaborators in Canaveral said, “you have to work on oysters, Linda, because they're going away and we don't know why.” The first few years we methodically documented the decline in this oyster population. We found that since the 1940s, 43% of the oyster acreage was lost, which is pretty dramatic. We then focused on the causes of this decline.

It turned out the main cause was recreational boat wakes, largely because it's such a shallow lagoon, only one to two feet in most places. The boat wakes were dislodging oyster clusters from the reefs and washing them out of the intertidal zone. Once that process starts, it doesn’t stop. Our restoration was designed to reverse that trend.

Linda Walters

RM: Can you explain the process of oyster reef restoration, starting with site selection?

Walters: The dead areas in need of restoration were obvious on aerial photographs, and the piles of washed-up, dead, bleached shells can be up to a meter higher than the rest of the intertidal area. After we've identified a site and done preliminary surveys, making sure there aren't any live oysters that would be killed by the restoration process, we level the area back to the correct intertidal height.

Next, we deploy a substrate on which new oysters will “recruit.” We started out using a plastic mesh that had been developed for the aquaculture industry. For a number of years, we had thousands of volunteers help us make the mats, attaching oyster shells to the mats because larval oysters prefer to settle on oyster shells. The mats are laid out and held down with irrigation weights and cable ties, making a quilt-like pattern. In the last three years, as research on microplastics in marine environments has expanded, we transitioned our restoration to be completely plastic-free. We are now leading lots of projects looking at potential biodegradable materials for restoration. Not all the new materials are as volunteer friendly as traditional aquaculture mats, being either harder to make or involving cement or other chemicals.

Following installation, we can get back to natural oyster densities of approximately one thousand live oysters per square meter within two years. We've completed roughly four acres and we monitor regularly, including going back to the first reefs restored in 2007. The good news is that they're still looking as good now as they did when they were first deployed.

RM: You’ve mentioned your volunteers and collaborators: how does the collaborative process with volunteers and other community groups work?

Walters: There're a lot of logistics - I've been told that's my superpower. We’ve had over 64,000 volunteers who've helped in addition to our collaborations with organizations like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Service, Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, non-profits, the county, and the city. The first stage of site leveling requires lots of people with picks and shovels breaking up the area because as the shells pile up, the shells turn into something akin to cement. One of our big partners is the Marine Discovery Center, a coastal nonprofit that works with local seafood restaurants to collect shucked oyster shells through the “Shuck and Share” program, and the collected shells are converted into new reef-building materials. Another critical partner is Florida’s Coastal Conservation Association, who have provided boat support to get volunteers and materials to the reef sites. Overall, we have people who collect the shells, drill the oyster shells, attach shells to the mats, transport materials to the park, deploy materials, and, finally, assist with monitoring. Basically, a city of people have helped with our oyster reefs.

A team works to restore an oyster bed.

RM: What kinds of outcomes from your restoration work have you seen?

Walters: We've restored 93 reefs, and I've been there for every restoration. Whenever I go to a reef, I'm flooded with memories. The first year, we didn't know what we were doing. Now, we are good at anticipating everything that we can control. Weather and “lost” volunteers who don’t read the driving instructions, are now our main unknowns. Some sites we've restored a second time, removing the plastic and replacing it with biodegradable material. A reef will fail if hit by too many boats. We knew going into this restoration project that, even though boats and boat wakes were a huge issue in this estuary, there were not going to be any regulations to limit boating activity. We also knew that oysters are critical to this estuary and many others for the role they play in water filtration and protecting shorelines from storms. We needed to help the estuary by increasing oyster numbers before it was too late.

Restoration projects that last a minimum of five years are considered highly successful by many agencies, and we're at 15 years now in some locations. The average reef lifespan in Canaveral National Seashore seems to be a minimum of 12 years, with some of the older reefs getting rehabbed with non-plastic materials this summer. We have added substrate for roughly 30 million oysters to Mosquito Lagoon.

RM: How do you engage with your community through outreach?

Walters: Let me give you two vignettes. One is about storytelling through oyster yoga. I worked with a former student who was also a yoga instructor to come up with a series of yoga poses that represent marine organisms and processes in our area. We have mangrove pose, manatee pose, marshgrass pose, and of course, oyster pose. Moving through the poses, you can talk about the biology of the organisms and restoration efforts. We've shared the oyster yoga cards we made with thousands of people. What’s really fun is when we run big community restoration events, we always start with oyster yoga. It's been really effective to explain our goals for the day, get everyone warmed up and ready to help. This program, developed with NSF funding, has received lots of positive feedback.

The second vignette is our partnership with K-12 educators who grow mangroves for us with their central Florida classes. We take the teachers out in boats to the national park to collect mangrove propagules and show them how to grow mangroves. This wonderful group of teachers, some of whom have been doing this for 13 years, create a cohort of 1500-2000 students a year getting this experience. We give the educators the needed soil, pots, and kiddie pools for growing propagules in “mini estuaries.” We collect the seedlings each spring and keep them in our campus nursery for about two additional years. We deploy about 2,500 mangroves per year through restoration work and about 2000 annually are from these teachers. This partnership shares the workload, but more importantly provides young folks with the opportunity to actively participate in coastal restoration.

A mangrove plant on the central Florida coastline.

RM: What projects will CEELAB be working on in the future?

Walters: We've never run out of research questions to understand, conserve, and restore Canaveral National Seashore and the Indian River Lagoon. One example of a new project is our work on climate change and how that's impacting oysters. On one hand, the edge of the intertidal is changing with sea level rise. Higher waters are providing animals, such as boring sponge that weakens oyster shells, access to reef edges that they previously did not have. On the tops of these intertidal reefs, mangroves are now commonly found. This increase is a direct result of tropicalization and the reduction in the minimum winter temperatures creates a more tropical climate allowing mangroves to move further north. This poleward expansion of mangroves has been well-documented in salt marsh areas. Now, it is changing our oyster reefs in much the way it has already happened on the west coast of Florida. We're right at a tipping point where it's just starting to happen, and we’re seeing propagules on oyster reefs taking over. We don’t know all the snowballing effects of climate change, so there are a lot of questions to answer.