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.

Community Engineering Corps: Partnering to address infrastructure inequity

Community Engineering Corps provides pro-bono engineering and technical assistance in partnership with communities in need of support for their local infrastructure improvement projects. ESAL spoke with Natalie Celmo, senior project engineer, and Ellie Carley, senior program coordinator, to learn how they support underserved groups.

RM: What inspired the creation of your organization?

Carley: Community Engineering Corps was established in 2014 as a collective impact partnership with Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the American Water Works Association (AWWA) as the founding partners. We had a lot of volunteers and staff that wanted to support underserved communities with infrastructure issues across the US. We developed the Community Engineering Corps program to provide a framework to properly and safely execute infrastructure projects that needed engineering expertise. We wanted to provide a vetting process and insurance policies to guide volunteers through projects.

Celmo: We also recognized that underserved communities are left behind when it comes to infrastructure development in the US, even when there are infrastructure bills or other funding available. We saw the opportunity to leverage our network of volunteers and to advance community-driven infrastructure solutions.

Natalie Celmo.

Natalie Celmo.

RM: Can you guide me through the process of how a project works?

Celmo: Generally, our framework mimics what you would expect from a consulting firm. A community comes to us with their need and we work with them to identify the scope of the issue. In some cases, the volunteers are finding projects in their communities to bring to Community Engineering Corps. In other cases, communities find us through an online search or word-of-mouth and apply directly. If the community qualifies during our vetting process as underserved and their issues align with the services we are able to provide, then we find a volunteer team to move the project forward. We make sure that the right volunteers are partnered with the right communities.

All of our volunteer teams are required to have a licensed professional engineer with expertise that falls within the discipline of the project. The volunteer team works with the community on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis to scope the project and develop solutions.

Carley: Our process includes staff contacts for both the volunteer teams and the community partners to help represent them. This creates a good balance between volunteer capacity to work directly with communities while also having staff assistance to keep projects on track.

RM: How do you ensure that each community has a voice in the process?

Carley: The majority of our projects are submitted by community partners who know exactly what's going on in their community. When we connect volunteer teams with community partners, we always prepare our volunteers to acknowledge that while they might be the engineering experts, the community partner has been dealing with this problem for a long time. The volunteers are prepared to listen, to learn necessary information, and to produce deliverables that move the project forward. Basically, the communities are the most important stakeholders.

Celmo: I would emphasize the listening and learning piece: when we train our teams, we focus strongly on soft skills, especially listening and learning. The unique thing about our projects is that our volunteers want to be in the community and recognize this as a partnership, not a business transaction. To make sure the community members' voices are heard, the design phase is an iterative process of working through ideas with the community.

Christa Robbins, volunteer with Community Engineering Corps and Engineers Without Borders USA, gathers preliminary information for a community project in Houston, Texas.

Christa Robbins, volunteer with Community Engineering Corps and Engineers Without Borders USA, gathers preliminary information for a community project in Houston, Texas.

Are there success stories that you'd like to share?

Celmo: Our success comes in many forms, but I can provide an example that shows the niche we fill in the engineering world. There was an underserved community in rural Pennsylvania that had already been awarded a community development block grant. The community needed to mill and repave their main street that was deteriorating due to erosion issues. The grant would fund construction, but this was a small, rural community that didn't have the money for an engineering report. We were able to partner them with an ASCE team and a design team that provided an engineering report and environmental study, enabling the community to use the construction money that they might have lost without access to engineering expertise.

Carley: I have another example in the early project stages, but we're really excited about this partnership. St. Louis is doing a greenway infrastructure rebuild that connects eight boroughs in the area, providing the city with a massive greenway space. A community partner identified streets in primarily Black neighborhoods that have a ton of open, vacant lots next to the greenway. She took the opportunity to talk to the city about her idea to put water catchment systems on these lots. She worked really hard with the community and the city and even found a grant that would help with construction, but needed designs for each water catchment system for over a dozen lots. We were able to find an amazing team in the St. Louis area ready to work on designs that will uniquely enhance these vacant lots with the intent to eventually open them up as art spaces or interactive areas for the community. Check out this video to learn more about the project!

Ellie Carley

Ellie Carley.

RM: How has being a part of Community Engineering Corps impacted the volunteer engineers?

Celmo: We could talk about this for a long time! EWB-USA has a dual mission: first, serving communities and helping communities advance their infrastructure needs, and second, developing the future generation of engineers. Working to address infrastructure inequities in your own communities opens your eyes to the possibilities that you have as an engineer to impact the world around you. Many volunteers have said that this work enhances their leadership and soft skills. Our professional volunteers are able to work on projects in a different but related discipline from their day-to-day work, gathering new experience without making a big career shift.

Carley: We ask our volunteers in surveys if the experience was useful and meaningful to their personal and professional lives. Through this survey data, we see that students appreciate getting firsthand knowledge and real world experience in consulting engineering. On a personal level, volunteers get to see what's going on in their own neighborhoods by partnering directly with the community. Volunteers have said through these internal surveys that they had no idea someone was struggling with infrastructure issues right around the corner.

Community Engineering Corps Logo.

Community Engineering Corps Logo.

RM: How could an interested engineer get involved?

Carley: There are so many ways to get involved, so please contact us! You can go join a local EWB-USA chapter and existing project, start your own project team, or find a community partner that needs engineering assistance. Check out EWB-USA’s Volunteer Village to learn more about volunteer opportunities. If you’re in a community that needs engineering support, you can apply for assistance on our website.

RM: How do you envision Community Engineering Corps growing and developing in the future? What are your goals for the organization?

Celmo: In a perfect world, we wouldn't have a job because all communities would have access to the engineering services they need. The end goal is to work ourselves out of a job. But I think our biggest goals are getting the word out about our services, working in more communities, bridging gaps that prevent project implementation, and helping communities access funding.

Carley: We're a collective impact partnership and are always connecting with other groups, such as the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. In the future, we would love to expand our network and make sure that everybody is getting the support they need on their infrastructure projects.

For more information, please see the introductory video on the Community Engineering Corps website.

Biologist Supports Safe Parking Program

Christopher Kan is a biologist by training and a biotech professional working at the intersection of biology, people, and business. He is also an atheist who goes to church. At the Unitarian Universalist Church in Palo Alto, CA, Kan values the denomination’s focus on community service, in which he plays an active role. One major issue he and his fellow church members have been tackling is the homelessness crisis in the Bay Area. Kan recently gained local attention for his leadership in a two-year campaign to create a safe parking program in the church lot. This effort made four spots available for unhoused people to stay in their cars overnight. Kan talked to ESAL about the collaboration needed to navigate the local approval process and how his science communication skills helped bring the project to fruition.

LZ: Before the safe parking program, you already had a lot of volunteer experience. How did you get into community service?

Kan: I was raised with a public service ethos. I organized my first trash pick-up when I was 8. My dad worked with folks in Chinatown, recent immigrants and elderly folks who have less of a safety net, so I had that example early on. I really don’t see myself as seeking out opportunities; it just happens and permeates my life. I’m that person who reports the broken street light. It takes 30 seconds on an app, but then kids can walk home safely from baseball practice, because cars can see them.

LZ: How has your STEM and business background informed your approach to volunteering?

Kan: It goes hand-in-hand with figuring out how to communicate a message. As scientists and engineers, we’re all very data driven. We want tangible results and want to make sure they are efficacious, safe, and morally sound. Frankly, managing a committee inside a company versus a city council - it’s the same thing. For me, it’s how much result I can get per unit time. The organizational piece of moving between these labyrinthian systems comes naturally to me. I’m lucky to be able to use that skill in my nonprofit work.

Kristina Pistone.

Christopher Kan.

LZ: What led your church to create this safe parking program for people experiencing homelessness? How did it come about?

Kan: I didn't come up with the idea. One of my secrets is that I'm great at hearing ideas and making them happen. There was another church member who said there's this parking program the city is trying to start and we have the space. I joined the group and started going through the boring paperwork process, like getting insurance. When everything kicked into high gear, all these volunteers in our church came out of the woodwork. One volunteer’s entire job was scheduling calls with the city council. She's a working mom, so she does not have time, but she made time. We had the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and most of the churches in town involved in the conversation. It was like a circus. We did eventually get approval and community buy-in.

LZ: How does the safe parking program work?

Kan: We provide a safe space for homeless people living in their cars to sleep at night. The program is transitional and the goal is to get them employed and into a permanent housing situation. We partner with a local agency that handles the social work and connects them to other housing programs like Section 8. We’ve already been placing people in housing and had our first person in housing in less than 30 days.

LZ: What were some of the challenges you faced?

Kan: The first challenge was internal. Churches have a lot of committees and there were existing people using the facilities, so potential conflicts could arise there. We ran internal sessions to get members on board with this new program, which we were trying to start during COVID. There were a thousand details, but also a thousand hands pitching in as well. Where will they use the bathroom? Who is going to snake out the wi-fi router to face the lot? All these tiny things had to happen in addition to the city’s process. We had to dig up architectural plans and verify our insurance, and we had to prove that we met fire code. The amazing thing is that our volunteers helped with every single one of these items.

LZ: What were the concerns around the parking program? And what was the key to getting it resolved?

Kan: The community had concerns about safety. We did not communicate adequately at first that we prescreened program participants to make sure they go to a shelter that is best positioned to help them. I think it goes back to science communication in that there was this misconception that homeless people were inherently dangerous and that we were not thoughtful in who was accepted. We said, no, the people in the shelter are just like you and me. They are on social security. They went to college. They have kids in school with yours. We didn't communicate the message effectively the first time, but we eventually got it.

LZ: What advice do you have for people who are trying to navigate their local bureaucracy?

Kan: I wouldn’t feel discouraged. If you’re okay with dipping your toes in, you will figure it out. The nice thing at the local level is that everyone wants good things to happen where they live or work, so they’re going to try to help. It’s not a solo endeavor. I think so many of us work as individual contributors. We feel like an island, but when we really reflect back on our best work, it’s usually the work we did with other people. Volunteering is not an exception.

LZ: What advice do you have for scientists and engineers to get involved locally? How can someone get started?

Kan: I suggest finding something local that bugs you. You can probably find something in your town that you don’t like or could be better. Maybe it's getting kids to school safely. Maybe it's the fact that no one recycles properly. There's a lot of low hanging fruit. One thing we forget with how nationalized our conversation is is that the people who control trash collection and fix the power grid live in our town. They work in city hall. They don't work in Washington, DC. Ninety-nine percent of what affects us on a day-to-day level happens within five miles of our house. As scientists and engineers, it's not a coincidence that we tend to be in the right place. We try to stand for truth in our professions and can do so in our personal lives as well.

Connecting Science and Art for Effective Community Engagement

While art and science are often seen as disparate worlds, they share more in common than one might think. Both mediums are creative and tend to be open-minded, and together, the appeal of art and the rational nature of science can complement the other. These themes were on display at ESAL’s virtual event in 2022, “Connecting Science and Art for Effective Community Engagement.” The discussion featured examples of artistic-scientific collaborations presented by three panelists working at this interface.

Kate Semmens serves as the science director for the Nurture Nature Center, an environmental education center in Easton, PA that applies art and community-based approaches to learning. Semmens shared projects that have come out of the Center such as their CREATE Resilience program, which aims to raise awareness of climate change and develop a hazard mitigation plan by engaging youth and members of the community. One major output was the commissioning of local artists to create a set of 15’-long murals showcasing visions of a resilient future.

Fellow panelist Narges Mahyar is an assistant professor in the Manning College of Information and Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Much of her research is interdisciplinary and lies at the nexus of visual analytics, human computer interaction, and social computing. Mahyar also has a fine arts background, which informs her passion for connecting art and science.

“By training, I’m a computer scientist, but by heart, I’m an artist,” said Mahyar.

Recently, Mahyar helped create a public art installation in East Boston called RisingEMOTIONS by working with artists and local residents who will be most affected by sea-level rise. The installation, located in front of the East Boston branch of the Public Library, is composed of colored ribbons transcribed with community comments. Each ribbon reflects a particular feeling towards the impending climate emergency.

The final panelist was multimedia artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who holds a doctorate in electronic arts. Her work has been shown internationally and held in various public collections. She considers herself a biohacker, who 20 years ago began a journey to dissect art, technology, and politics.

One of Dewey-Hagborg’s more well-known works is Stranger Visions, where she walked the streets of New York, her hometown, and collected artifacts of biological evidence such as discarded gum, cigarette butts, and hair. At a community biology lab, she learned how to extract and analyze the DNA and then used the genetic code to construct 3D printed portraits of these strangers who had unwittingly left traces of themselves. Dewey-Hagborg’s other work continues to explore hefty themes like genetic profiling, privacy, AI, and biopolitics.

All three panelists emphasized the significance of ongoing dialogue between scientists and artists. When they work in tandem, both groups often leave a profound impact on the other. From an artist’s perspective, Dewey-Hagborg explained that disagreement may happen, but can lead to productive results not to be shied away from. She advised that “scientists should invite artists as collaborators, not as a service.”

For Mahyar, art is a form of emotional expression with the ability to communicate science in a way that science alone cannot:

“Art is a universal language that everyone understands.”

Bradford Pear Bounty: Swapping stinky nuisances for native beauty

North Carolina Bradford Pear Bounty is a collaborative effort between the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Extension, and the state’s Forest Service, Urban Forest Council, and Wildlife Federation to remove the ‘Bradford’ pear, an invasive and nuisance species in the South. ESAL spoke with Kelly Oten, an assistant professor at NCSU, about the program goals and the inaugural event in Greensboro.

RM: What is your area of forestry research?

Oten: My background is in forest entomology, which was my pathway into forest health, a much broader field. Now I work with insects, diseases, and invasive plants that may impact trees and forests.

When you discuss forest settings, people often think of hiking and camping and natural areas. We do try to preserve, protect, and conserve those areas from invasive species and other threats but there is another side of forestry that the general public may not think about, which is the agricultural side of growing trees as a crop. We build houses and furniture out of wood, we get paper and toilet paper from trees — there are so many forest products out there, and trees are a sustainable resource. Protecting our trees is vital not just to maintaining green space, but to how we live our lives. I deal with things that might impact the health of the trees, because we want to keep them healthy and productive to serve all those functions we need in our lives.

Kelly Oten.

Kelly Oten.

RM: Given the ubiquity of forestry products, it sounds like it would be important to educate and mobilize local communities to protect forests from invasive plants. Can you tell me about the inaugural Bradford Pear Bounty Program in April 2022?

Oten: The goal of the Bradford Pear Bounty is to remove the non-native ‘Bradford’ pear and other ornamental varieties of this tree from yards and landscapes and replace them with native trees that won't harm our natural environments. However, our bigger goal is for this to be an outreach project, so that people become aware of the risks of planting these trees and choose other species.

A few other states have been doing similar programs for several years now. The South Carolina program gained publicity to the point where people in North Carolina were reaching out and asking if we were going to do this in NC. Being involved in the field of forestry for a while, I had a few connections to float the idea of bringing this to NC. Turns out, they were already thinking it themselves! We got a team together, all of us having talked about our equal hatred for the ‘Bradford’ pear before and were excited to plan the program. All of us brought different skills, experience, and connections to the table.

At the April event, NC residents could provide photos showing they had cut down ‘Bradford’ pear trees on their property and get up to five free native trees as one-to-one replacements. We had more than 15 native trees people could choose from. Many people chose the smaller flowering trees, such as dogwoods and redbuds. One of the natives that I really like is the serviceberry, which is not only a pretty tree with white flowers in the spring, but is also valuable to wildlife.

RM: Why was there a focus on the ‘Bradford’ pear and its effect on the environment?

Oten: I think some people were confused as to why we are anti-‘Bradford’ pear. These are trees that smell bad and break easily, capable of injuring people and damaging property, which are bad characteristics for a landscape tree. But the real reason we are concerned is because of the ‘Bradford’ pear’s invasion into natural areas.

If you drive around in the spring when these trees are in bloom, you can see where the wild offspring of the ‘Bradford’ pear is taking over. Because it is one of the earliest bloomers, the ‘Bradford’ pear flowers before our native trees, which allows them to outcompete and shade out native plants. In agricultural and livestock fields, land managers have to combat the wild varieties that produce up to four inch-long thorns capable of puncturing tractor tires. You can’t use traditional heavy equipment to deal with the thorny trees, and you can get injured using saws.

The wild varieties can also grow in really dense thickets, so not only are they removing native species that support caterpillar and bird species, but the dense thorny thickets also means wildlife can't move through or use the forest in the same way.

Bradford Pear Bounty Logo

Bradford Pear Bounty Logo.

RM: Can you tell me about the reception of the event from the local community, and if there were any surprises?

Oten: We had an overwhelming response! We had no idea so many people hated this tree. We gave away several hundred trees, but we also reached tens of thousands of people. I think the biggest surprise was just how big this got — I don't know how many people have to be reached for something to be considered “going viral,” but we felt viral!

There were a few people who love this tree, though. They have this beautiful tree in their front yard and they don't understand why we would want to get rid of it. While the tree in their yard might not have done anything wrong, you can’t control where the seeds are going, which is part of our educational outreach.

RM: Do you have plans for similar events or programs based on the success of the event?

Oten: For our first event, it was open to anyone in North Carolina willing to drive to pick up the tree. This event was in Greensboro, but we had people from the Outer Banks registering to participate, which is approximately four hours away! Our goal is to go to different areas in the state in coming years. We are already planning our next event in the Town of Matthews, just outside of Charlotte. Then, we're hoping to bring it to the eastern and western parts of the state so we can reach more people.

RM: his program was focused on asking people to cut down ‘Bradford’ pears on their own property. Are there future plans to address pear trees that have spread in the broader environment?

Oten: Right now we're in the early stages of awareness in North Carolina, but what may happen in the next several years will be interesting. In South Carolina, these efforts gained a lot of popularity and now the sale and planting of all varieties of this tree, Pyrus calleryana, in their state was banned. Will we pass legislation in NC doing the same thing? We have a long way to go to actually remove ‘Bradford’ pears, other ornamental varieties of the species, and their offspring from the environment completely, but we have to start somewhere.

Climate Scientist Tackles Global Aerosols and Sunnyvale Sustainability

Kristina Pistone is a research scientist with the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute (BAERI) at NASA Ames Research Center. She studies the Earth’s radiative balance with respect to Arctic sea ice loss and atmospheric smoke particles (aerosols). Pistone got her bachelor’s in physics and Spanish literature from U.C. San Diego, and her master’s and Ph.D. in oceanography from U.C. San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Pistone has served on the Sustainability Commission for her city of Sunnyvale, CA, since 2021. ESAL interviewed her about her current role with BAERI and what motivated her to get involved locally via the commission.

DR: Tell me about your current role with BAERI.

Pistone: As a research scientist, I work largely with NASA data looking at anthropogenic effects on Earth’s albedo. I’ve done work in the Arctic predicting global radiative heating as Arctic sea ice retreats and exposes the darker, absorptive surface beneath. My current work is focused on the effect of aerosols on clouds and climate. Aerosols act as cloud seeds, so the aerosols we humans add to the system can change the properties of clouds. But we start all our papers with “Aerosols are the biggest uncertainty in our understanding of the climate system” because these effects are so complicated.

DR: What makes for the uncertainty?

Pistone: There’re lots of variables with a complex relationship. Smoke particles are gray and absorb sunlight directly, whereas sulfate particles reflect sunlight back to space. Some people talk about fixing climate change by just putting a bunch of aerosols high up in the atmosphere; the natural experiment version of that is a big volcanic eruption. But, to me, that’s just solving Problem A while potentially creating Problem B. I don’t think we know enough about atmospheric chemistry to accurately predict what happens when we pump tons of extra aerosols into the atmosphere for an extended period of time. We’re in Silicon Valley, where there’s a tendency to want to engineer ourselves out of climate change, but, like a fad diet, the seemingly easy, flashy answer isn’t necessarily the best one.

Kristina Pistone.

Kristina Pistone.

DR: Did you know you wanted to help address climate change from the get-go, entering college?

Pistone: Nope. In college I majored in physics “with specialization in astrophysics,” but in the process I took a class on the physical climate system. And it’s just physics applied to the Earth – a certain amount of energy coming in and a certain amount going out – physics applied to a concrete system. But then it’s more complicated to work out how the energy moves between different components of the system (air, ocean, ice, land, plants, and so on). In college I also spent a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I ended up double majoring in Spanish literature, which was fun because I was using two different parts of my brain, for science versus literature, although they’re both analytical in different ways. In literature, what is written is intimately related to the societal-cultural context of the time and place, like whether there was a dictator in power. So, in both cases, you must understand the context to interpret the meaning.

DR: How did you bring your science to the local level?

Pistone: During a Fulbright Fellowship in Santiago, Chile, I looked at air quality trends in the Santiago Basin. Everything gets stuck there, especially in winter when there’s a low inversion (just like in Los Angeles). When the sky looks hazy, sometimes it’s just low clouds, but sometimes the air is full of aerosols, which block sunlight and cause poor air quality. In Santiago, we analyzed the government air quality data and one of the things we found was that more data quality control was required to make the data fully serviceable. It was a very clear example of how the people collecting data (data techs employed at the air quality monitoring stations) were disconnected from the people who were doing the analysis. So this kind of thing leads to difficulties in the translation of data to results, and results to policy or public understanding.

DR: How did your work evolve from that point?

Pistone: My professional work has diverged a bit from specifically focusing on air quality, but it’s certainly related to what I’m doing now. I think that work combined with my other research makes me well-positioned to make some connections that maybe aren’t usually made. What I like to do is figure out how things that seem distinct are related at a system level. And that’s what climate change work is about, because it fundamentally connects so many different systems. For example, my graduate student research focused on aerosols over the Indian Ocean, using data from unmanned aerial vehicles. And for my postdoc, which led to my current position, I did a similar analysis but from a much bigger plane as part of the five-year ORACLES study that evaluated the effects of smoke aerosol particles off the coast of southern Africa. It so happens that there is a similar system, with a uniform deck of clouds influenced by aerosols, off the coast of Chile. So, the systems can be better understood through their similar characteristics.

DR: So, you’ve worked on aerosols from the local level, in the Santiago Basin, to a more global level, in the Indian Ocean. Does the work you do now for BAERI have local implications?

Pistone: Yes, although because I’m a soft money researcher, my research depends somewhat on what grants are available and what gets funded. If left to my own devices, I’d like to do more local-level, applications-driven research. I’ve always been interested in sustainability; I was the weird kid at college who brought my Nalgene to the dining hall to get smoothies instead of the disposable plastic cups. At some point I realized I could save hundreds of single-use cups, but without systemic change, what’s the point? We can’t really “fact” our way out of much of the stuff we’re facing. My brother just graduated from law school and there was just one speaker who mentioned anything alluding to climate change. Yet, climate ties into everything. It doesn’t mean there aren’t other critical issues we have to deal with like racial justice, but we must do it all at once, and intersectionally, because none of these issues are happening in siloes (as scientists we might say it is not a linear system). And my weird combination of backgrounds has allowed me to take a step back and see how these disparate pieces fit together. So, short answer, right now I work on sustainability on the side.

DR: Tell me more.

Pistone: In 2021, I applied to be on my city’s Sustainability Commission and got the spot. Like many people in, and leading up to, 2020, I had been feeling that the world was a dumpster fire and the pandemic gave me a lot of time to think about what I could do that would meaningfully address climate change. I read a book All We Can Save consisting of the writings of 60 female climate movement activists, scientists, writers, and poets. It, plus the wonderful reading circle I had for discussions (shoutout to them), helped me to get past being paralyzed by inaction because these problems are so global and huge. But there are ways to direct our energies into something with meaningful local impact. We shouldn’t just do science in a vacuum because then what’s the point? We need to take what we know scientifically and hopefully translate it into actions by people who have the power to make change.

DR: What is your role on the Sustainability Commission?

Pistone: We’re advising the city on various sustainability initiatives, and that’s been an interesting learning experience. They welcomed my Ph.D. background, but one thing I struggle with a lot is the contrast between the optimal actions that would get us to where we need to be, versus the implementable actions given the often very flawed systems we have. We can’t just throw everything out and start over again.

As part of the progressive Bay Area, Sunnyvale already has a Climate Action Playbook (CAP) that explains the overall goals and moves needed to achieve them, like switching all cars to electric, getting rid of gas household appliances, and reducing food waste. It’s a 30-year plan but right now we are trying to envision the most important actions over the next five years that will get us to the long-term goals. But this has to be within the bounds of the finite resources and powers that the city has. For example, it would be great for multiple reasons if all school buses were electric, but that’s something the district controls, not the city. But there are also different avenues to pursue actions on certain issues – there’s the CAP, but there are also study issues, speaker events, and other opportunities staff might know about from the state or federal level. I’m finding sometimes you have to try multiple strategies to see which gains the most traction for a particular issue.

DR: Have you submitted any study issues?

Pistone: Yes, I submitted one about leaf blowers, which are terrible for air quality, soil quality, noise pollution, and operator health. Basically an ecological nightmare to just inefficiently move leaves around. California is banning the sale of gas-powered leaf blowers in a couple of years, which is great, but I proposed that we need to look at things more holistically. The gas-powered ban partially solves the issue of emissions, but in other ways the electric leaf blowers aren’t much better. They’re not exactly quiet, and they’re still blowing away topsoil which is why everyone complains about how useless the soil is around here.

We saw, as an example, when the City of Palo Alto banned gas-powered blowers, people just got electric ones and powered them with diesel generators. This is a common theme in many environmental issues: an outright ban will not get us to where we need to be. So in this case, I proposed we study what landscaping practices are more sustainable (mulching leaves over blowing and removing, as one example) and how and whether we could incentivize landscapers and property owners to move towards that model. I think the questions should be how we can make the best environmental choice the default option for everyone. With more climate-suitable, sustainable landscapes, we wouldn’t need leaf blowers, and would achieve other co-benefits.

DR: What would you say to other scientists trying to effect sustainability?

Pistone: There’s a Venn diagram from the How to Save a Planet podcast that I find useful. The center is the nexus between what work needs doing, what you’re good at, and what brings you joy. And that’s different for everybody. I’m less confident talking to huge groups, for example. I like to be the fun aunt of science education, swooping in to share cool science. I’m enjoying working on the Sustainability Commission, including planning this year’s sustainability speaker series. I am particularly interested in exploring how we can adapt to live in this world with the amount of warming that we’re already committed to. We should prepare ourselves for what’s already coming and figure out what it means for all the things we care about, such as our communities’ responses to sea level rise, heat waves, fires, and drought. I think the adaptation question does not get enough consideration, and it’s extremely important that this be done in an equitable way so that the communities already least able to respond to the changing climate and acute disasters aren’t the most impacted (as we’ve seen with Covid and so many other issues).

Also, if I ruled the world, which I won’t because I’m a scientist, not a wizard, I’d want “science” be the fallback major for “I don’t really know what I want to do but I want a degree,” so that more people in non-science jobs would have baseline science literacy. That’s the dream!

Learn more about Pistone’s work in this YouTube video.

ECO City Farms: Promoting Urban Agroecology

ECO City Farms is a non-profit training and learning urban farm in Maryland that aims to sustain the local environment as well as provide healthy food to the surrounding community. Margaret Morgan-Hubbard is the CEO and embraces the tenets of agroecology to enhance food security and access to nutrition to locals of Prince George’s County. ESAL discussed the holistic training practices and positive impact provided by ECO City Farms with Morgan-Hubbard.

MS: What motivated you to get involved in agroecology?

Morgan-Hubbard: I thought of it as a way of supporting people who couldn't necessarily join the mainstream economy but could find resources to support themselves and their families that were environmentally sound. I live in a county that doesn't have a sense of what it wants to be when it grows up. It's a majority minority county. It thinks of itself as a second class citizen. No matter what kind of power you have, if you're in a racist society, you feel like you have no power. So one of the things that I was looking at with other people is how do we help the county have an identity that it can be proud of?

MS: What inspired you to establish ECO City Farms?

Morgan-Hubbard: My basic concept is that healthy food has to be grown next to people and near people who eat it. There were many small working class communities here. I have a theory that a community is defined by the industries within its borders. There were many kinds of small car repair and even illegal car operations, and I was thinking that's not terribly uplifting. Having a huge urban farm with people trained and people eating healthy food and creating compost is very uplifting. So that was the picture I worked toward. Maryland is still a farming state, even though it doesn't produce much human food. It produces all kinds of industrial products and food for animals – not people. So that's another thing that I wanted to change. There's plenty of land in our county. I really wanted to use that land productively for feeding people.

Margaret Morgan-Hubbard.

Margaret Morgan-Hubbard.

MS: What was it like to start?

Morgan-Hubbard: I created my first farm at the University of Maryland. I'm really good at finding people who have money but don't know what to do with it. So I identified organizations that we could work with and help them spend their money. When I started the first farm at the university, it was next to a largely Latino community. We built a community garden for senior citizens. The university eventually lost interest in my project, so I took myself and some of my staff and went to the funders and politicians. They ended up giving me the money so I could launch ECO City in the community. I eventually went to Prince George's Community College, with who I've now been working for 12 years, and they give a commercial urban farming certificate to our students when they complete our training programs.

MS: Tell us more about the training that ECO City Farms provides to community members based on healthy land-use and ecology.

Morgan-Hubbard: For the last 14 years in different ways we've been training people to become urban farmers. We eventually started doing these training programs with Prince George's Community College and those training programs eventually got funded as part of the USDA beginning farmer training program. For the past six years, we've been running beginning farmer trainings with USDA funding. We train about 20 people a year. In addition to that, we have youth programs every summer for six weeks. We have 22 high school youth who come to ECO and learn everything from farming, to cooking, to eating healthy food, and learning about food justice. We also have about 40 apprentices a year who learn at our farm.

We've been what we call a teaching and learning farm. It's really important to me to add “and learning” because education is a reciprocal act. Every time you teach a person, you learn who they are and what they know as well. We try to share and pool our knowledge.

MS: Can you tell us more about the farmers that have been a part of ECO City Farms?

Morgan-Hubbard: We have a very diverse staff in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity. We actually recently hired a man who is a very young and agile 71-year-old. He's in many ways more youthful than many of our staff. He is from Cameroon, and he's been farming since he could stand. His father had a cocoa and coffee farm. Cameroon is now in the midst of a civil war between the French speaking and English speaking Cameroonians, and so much of his family came here. When we hired him this year, it was the first time in his life that he actually became a wage-earner. He now grows both the vegetables and herbs that we traditionally grow, plus a variety of Cameroonian foods, and the Cameroonian immigrants come and buy right at the farm from him.

ECO City Farms Logo

ECO City Farms Logo.

MS: How has ECO City Farms grown since your first farm?

Morgan-Hubbard: We have three farms now. Our original one is on Maryland Park and Planning land. We were able to get a lease agreement for that land. Our second farm is on private land that couldn't be developed. It's on the land of a large 25 acre housing complex, where four large multifamily houses had originally stood. We had to pull brick and all kinds of rubbish out of the soil to farm it. Our first farm is about two acres, the second is 4 acres, and we just started an 11-acre farm for new farmers as an incubator farm. So there'll be 10 new farmers on that land who have graduated from our programs, but don't have personal land that they can use to farm. They will be launching their businesses together on this land.

MS: What does a sustainable food system mean to you?

Morgan-Hubbard: We don't have anything like a sustainable food system. Sustainable means that it can endure. A sustainable food system is one that produces affordable, healthy, toxic-free food, which is locally produced food accessible for everyone. The thing that really bothers me about the notion of organic is that it's become an elitist term for people who can afford it. And the people who can afford it are the least likely to be harmed by toxins. It's low-income people who are barraged by toxins in the air, in the soil, and in everything they consume that really need healthy toxic free organic food. We cannot afford to have food that is not organically grown – our produce is actually hyper- or super-organically grown.

Fresh vegetables produced by ECO City Farms.

Fresh vegetables produced by ECO City Farms.

MS: How does ECO City Farms promote justice and equity in the local community?

Morgan-Hubbard: We collectively have been working to rebuild the Anacostia River area and protect the Chesapeake Bay. When people think of Washington DC, they think of the Potomac River, because the Potomac is allegedly where all the history is. The truth is the Anacostia River was most important and along it is where low income people live. That's where we farm. It is critical to us that each of the port towns we work with has a farm or a community garden or both within the towns. Two of the towns didn’t even have groceries within their town limits. So that was part of the impetus we had. Part of it was saying, you know, folks here deserve locally grown and healthy food. Some of these areas have healthy food traditions that outdate the United States. One local town is home to one of the oldest Mexican communities in this part of the country. Until COVID, every past president of Mexico has been here to visit. I'd say almost every area has an intriguing history that dates back many centuries that has been buried. In digging up the land, we're also trying to connect with its history and help people take pride in where they live, where they came from and their interlocking food traditions. If you know nothing else about where you come from, you usually know what food it has. The last thing to be lost is food traditions.

The other thing that ECO has worked on is nutrition and health, and taught herbalism classes to link people's food traditions and taste buds with healthy versions of some of those foods. Local youth are learning at our farm how to tend land, grow vegetables, and they will learn to prepare and eat those vegetables too. At first, we had hired professional chefs who taught them fancy recipes. Now we teach them food prep skills and give them recipes and they teach themselves to make healthy dishes and share skills with one another. It's both less expensive for us and far more instructive for them. They feel much more empowered.

MS: Where do you see ECO City Farms in the future?

Morgan-Hubbard: The thing is that I never expected that I would be here 13 years later, but ECO has attracted a lot more government money than I ever thought was possible. The federal government, especially right now under President Biden, is in some ways trying to right some of the wrongs that are historic and long term. Many folks, particularly folks of color, have virtually been eliminated from farming. Over the years, their land has been unjustly taken away from them. They've lost land everywhere in the country. Now 80% of our trainees are people of color and largely women. Some of them are doctors and lawyers, but all of them want to know where their food comes from and how to grow it. All of them want more control of their food supply. So we've been trying to make that happen. For example, one group that is starting to work at our incubator farm called themselves “sisters of the soil” and are three accomplished black women who are producing healthy food for themselves and others.

What I see as my mission for the remainder of my life is to make it so that the people who grow and produce food are the people who make money from doing so. Not the big grocery store owners or investors. Not the head of Amazon who now owns Whole Foods, but rather to make it possible for real people to earn a living wage by growing food. That would make a huge change, because one of the things we figured out is that in this country, no one's ever made money simply by growing food for the rest of us. I would love to make my state of Maryland the “good food for all” state.

MS: How can other scientists and engineers contribute to your mission?

Morgan-Hubbard: We have such a limited view of who scientists are. They're academic people who have studied stuff, as opposed to people who have integrated their minds and bodies to make something happen with what we know. I consider our farmers at ECO scientists. We're not very well paid, but we are honored to do this work and excited about it and know a lot about it. I want to figure out how we create more of a cooperative rather than a competitive world. If you train people to compete, they compete. If you train people to cooperate, they cooperate.