Fighting for Graduate Student Rights

Tell us about yourself.

I am currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Biochemistry at the University of Oregon.  My research involves localized and controlled drug delivery for bone regeneration.

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

I think it is a privilege to be able to pursue expertise in a specific field, and it is necessary to give back to the community that helped foster that interest. Through the accessible STEM Outreach initiatives provided to me in grade school, I was encouraged to pursue my interest in science and scientific inquiry.  Additionally, I feel a sense of responsibility to recognize inequity in the community and help replace it with initiatives that champion equity and communicate accessible resources. The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation on campus upholds these responsibilities for the graduate student community.

A headshot of Malvika Singhal
Malvika Singhal

What did you do?

As a general member, I have been involved with the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation graduate student union on campus, which aims to defend the rights of graduate employees and push for safer and equitable working conditions. This past year we had the opportunity to negotiate for a fairer contract that included an increase in graduate stipends to meet the burden of increased interest rates, among other things.

What happened then?

The university and the union agreed on a contract with historic precedent compared to previous deals made with the university, which in the past have not compensated graduate employees to make up for inflation and overall increased cost of living. The new contract would provide salary increases across the board for all grad employees over three years. Additionally, it guarantees continued health insurance support and tuition and fee benefits.

What did you get out of this experience?

It feels good to be part of a community that cares about the experiences of its constituents and works towards improving their quality of life. The ability to observe the power of student voices for creating positive change has motivated me to further get involved in local policy outside the university grounds and pursue ways of engaging with the nexus of science communication and local policy in my community.

Advocating for Salmon Fishing Regulations

Tell us about yourself.

What is important about “who I am” changes with the audience. For some, it may be important to say that I have a PhD in Environmental Chemistry; for others, that I have been an Alaska resident for about 30 years, or that I was in the commercial fishing industry for several years, or that I work for a Tribe, or that I live without being connected to power and water. Each of these opens and closes doors, and changes someone’s impression of me.

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

I am entering my third year as a member of my borough’s Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC).  We advise the Borough Assembly on issues that affect fish and wildlife.  I felt uncomfortable applying initially as I no longer hunt, trap, or fish, but I ended up fitting in because everybody on the Commission cares about habitat. 

What I really enjoy about being on the Commission is we come from all kinds of backgrounds.  A member of the Green Party can sit next to someone with an NRA ball cap, a retired regulator can sit next to someone new, and we all work together for the benefit of fish and wildlife. 

Kendra Zamzow is a member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission

What did you do?

Recently a court order forced a national regulatory body – the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to develop a plan to manage salmon fishing in federal waters within Cook Inlet, previously managed by the state of Alaska.  The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), which makes recommendations to NMFS on managing federal fisheries, met in Seattle in February so that both of their committees (Scientific and Advisory) and the full Council could take up the Cook Inlet issue.  

The FWC was very concerned about what the NPFMC would advise, because all the salmon that come to our borough come through the federal zone in Cook Inlet.  Since 2011 State regulators have restricted fishing for two weeks in the summer so salmon could move north to the borough’s streams. The NMFS was proposing to double fishing time in the zone during those two weeks, which would impact “personal use” (dipnetting), a small commercial fishery, sportfishing, as well as whales and the ecosystem. They were also proposing very high “allowable catch” limits for each salmon species.

Two of us in the FWC flew to Seattle to testify. I testified in front of the Science Committee, and the other commissioner testified in front of the Advisory Panel and the full Council.  Our ask was simple: don’t double the fishing time in late July.  Too late we learned that these bodies were only meeting to determine how much of each salmon species they would recommend as a “catch limit”.  I had actually worked through a lot of the relevant data, and I scrambled to testify that the Council should reduce the catch limit, providing my analysis.  I testified as a citizen, not a commissioner, because I had not had time to get approval from the rest of the commission.

What happened then?

The Council actually did agree with my recommendation, and put it in as part of the motion to be voted on that the catch limits would be much lower and much more in line with recent harvest years than the original NMFS and Science Council recommendations.  This was the only motion they considered on the entire Cook Inlet salmon fishery issue, and on February 11th the vote failed 5 to 6.  

Now it goes back to NMFS with the original high catch and doubled fishing time recommendations.  The NPFMC has a meeting in April, and there is a court-ordered May 1 deadline for a plan to be published in the Federal Register.  I am still not clear on whether the NPFMC needs to make the decision or if it is now up to the Department of Commerce, which NMFS is under. 

What did you get out of this experience?

I thought I had learned the importance of “know your Ask”, but we weren’t familiar with this process, and we should have done more homework when approaching an entirely new part of government.  I’m not sure that we would have been more effective, but I do think it is important to make sure you are asking for something the body can actually act on.  There are always staff at these bodies that can help with the process, and sometimes the best option is to pick up the phone and call them.  I am also learning more about how different regulatory bodies intersect; the multi-agency NPFMC, the federal NMFS, the state Board of Fisheries and the borough.  

Despite this the learning curve  hasn’t scared me off from local Government and the FWC has appointed me to be their representative on another advisory body (on water bodies, not fish).  I’m re-learning that the only downside to being useful is you might be too useful – it can be hard to keep up a 40-hour per week job alongside everything else.

Promoting Civic Engagement through Clean Air

Cindy Hua is a board member of Downwinders at Risk, a community-organizing nonprofit that works to improve air quality in Dallas, Texas. When Hua first joined Downwinders in 2018, she found a group of progressively like-minded people who were passionate about environmental justice. She now chairs the Particulate Matter Education Committee while pursuing her PhD at Southern Methodist University. ESAL interviewed Hua about Downwinders’ accomplishments and her own journey into local activism. 

LZ: What is Downwinders at Risk?

Hua: Downwinders is a grassroots environmental justice nonprofit in Dallas, where we work to empower residents through community science and civic engagement. We are a small but passionate group that believes cleaner air is an avenue toward better democracy. We teach people how to engage in civic processes. It's not just going to the polls. It’s navigating the city's website to find meetings and to have your voice heard at City Hall, a lot of nitty gritty stuff. Even for a person with a college degree, that level of digging requires a lot of motivation. 

LZ: What is your background?

I have a meandering background. I was a biology major in undergrad and was on the pre-med track for a long time, but it wasn’t in my heart. I took a few environmental science courses, and after graduating, I taught for a few years at our local science museum in Dallas. That’s where I saw the interconnectedness of different STEM fields. 

I went back to school for my master's in sustainability and urban development, which was inherently interdisciplinary. At that point I was already volunteering for Downwinders at Risk. I did my thesis on how teaching children to build low-cost air monitors for their school impacted their sense of empowerment. I’m really interested in science education and how it connects to learning about your own backyard. Now, I’m doing my PhD, and I keep digging deeper and deeper!

LZ: How did you first get involved in the organization?  

Hua: Interesting story. During my master's studies, my advisor picked up the Dallas Morning News and was like, “Hey, have you heard about this group?” She showed me an article about Shingle Mountain and how Downwinders was trying to expand awareness around this environmental hazard. Shingle Mountain was an illegal dump that was essentially created overnight in 2018 by a roofing recycling company. Shingles were dumped next to a black residential neighborhood, Floral Farms. I went to a few Downwinders workshops about air quality and it took off from there. I was immediately roped in.

Headshot of Cindy Hua
Cindy Hua

LZ: What happened to Shingle Mountain?

Hua: We advocated for the removal of Shingle Mountain for three years. Nothing happened until 2020 when the city of Dallas received negative national attention about what they had perpetuated by inaction. Alongside neighborhood leaders, we finally got rid of Shingle Mountain and now there’s going to be a park there.

LZ: What is your role in Downwinders?

Hua: Some days I buy the snacks, and other days I go out and install air monitors. My role varies drastically, but officially I chair the Particulate Matter Education Committee. I’m in charge of Purple Air monitors that we purchase and deploy in local neighborhoods. Then we maintain and change them out every two years.

I host outreach sessions to talk about air quality and how the EPA measures it. I also provide information on Shared Air DFW, our regional air monitoring network that works in partnership with Dallas County and University of Texas, Dallas to deploy sophisticated EPA-grade particulate matter monitors. We help residents learn about the quality of air they're breathing using live data on a map.

LZ: How does Downwinders operate as an organization? 

Hua: At its heart, Downwinders is a community organizing group. We rely heavily on the relationships we build with residents, who come to us when they have nowhere else to turn. Our organizers work with residents to figure out a game plan and to make sure the city hears their concerns and wishes. Every neighborhood has a different vision.

Downwinders is almost like a startup. I attend community groups to talk with residents, but I also help with media and graphics when needed. We’ve figured out the ins-and-outs of an effective framework for social change. We’ve built and gotten things done. Structurally what makes that happen is trust in relationships. Trust is more important than committees or project groups.

LZ: How can those with STEM backgrounds help the cause?

Hua: Working professionals with STEM backgrounds can look for a community organizing or environmental justice (EJ) group near them, because there's bound to be at least one. EJ groups should also reach out to STEM professionals who might not know about this kind of work. I strongly believe there needs to be more focus in academic institutions and industries to partner with neighborhood-led groups. I think it's a two-way street. 

LZ: Where do you see Downwinders going in the future?

Hua: Every state in the US has a history of redlining and industrial adjacency to minority neighborhoods. Downwinders has developed a framework that could work to undo racist zoning at the local level. It’s hard but not impossible to do in places without existing organizing resources, because we’ve been able to prove it out in Dallas. If Downwinders can build a more equitable city here, then it is possible elsewhere. I have a lot of hope that what we are doing is implementable for any place and any city.

Oregon Environmental Council: Strengthening Environmental Strategies with Volunteer Scientists

Over the past year, the Oregon State Legislature has enacted several key sustainability-focused bills, establishing a significant role as an environmental advocacy and climate resiliency leader. The 2023 legislative session saw the signing of 28 environmental bills into law, including the Climate Resilience Package. This package will support local job creation as well as improve energy efficiency, increase access to renewable energy sources, and protect the state’s natural resources through healthier crops, improved water quality, and increased drought and wildfire resistance.

The passage of all this legislation was helped in no small part by the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC), a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that advances solutions to Oregon’s environmental challenges. Jacqui Treiger is campaign manager for climate and transportation at OEC, working to further initiatives that reduce climate pollution, increase community resilience, and build a transportation system that works for everyone.

AP: Could you elaborate on the initiatives and activities that the Oregon Environmental Council has been engaged in across Oregon recently?

Treiger: Since our founding in 1968, OEC has been a part of passing landmark environmental legislation in Oregon. From securing the status of Oregon's beaches as public goods to spearheading the Bottle Bill and pioneering bottle recycling in the state, the OEC relentlessly advocates for impactful and enduring solutions. These initiatives target the root causes of Oregon's environmental issues, yielding tangible benefits for public health and overall quality of life. Our goals are a stable climate that safeguards our communities and economy; clean and plentiful water that supports local residents and wildlife; and healthy neighborhoods free of air pollution. This past legislative session, OEC worked to pass a number of bills that will protect youth from toxic chemicals, phase out “forever chemicals,” protect frontline workers from climate-fueled extreme weather, and set Oregon up to leverage federal funding for water, climate, and transportation infrastructure. OEC not only works to pass legislation, but we follow through and ensure the implementation and agency rulemaking is strong.    

AP:  With the evolving landscape of environmental policy, is there a growing demand for experts in STEM within your organization?

Treiger:  Absolutely, expertise in STEM fields is a distinctive niche in our work. Individuals with a background in these areas bring invaluable authority and insight, especially when it comes to engaging with legislators and key decision-makers. Their knowledge not only enriches our campaign strategies but also enhances our credibility and effectiveness when we present complex scientific data and advocate for policy changes. 

AP: What kind of work do volunteers with STEM backgrounds engage in?

Treiger: At OEC, we pride ourselves in identifying and advancing science-based policy solutions to Oregon’s pressing environmental challenges. Individuals with STEM backgrounds have an important role to play in lending their expertise to inform the development of policy. For instance, when OEC and partners were working to develop protections for frontline workers from wildfire smoke and extreme heat, we worked closely with health and science experts to understand the health impacts of these climate hazards and how best to mitigate them. We also rely on scientific consensus to identify goals for state greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Volunteers with STEM backgrounds have a powerful voice and perspective to contribute to the policymaking process in Oregon. Many of our volunteers possess this expertise, which has been a significant asset to our cause.

We are often up against well-funded companies that don’t always want to change how they do business. Whether it's addressing tailpipe pollution from car exhaust or toxic chemicals used in consumer products, using your STEM expertise can lend credence to the need for policy action. And your voice can be decisive in persuading legislators to act.  

Volunteers pose while holding up signs that describe their goals.
Volunteers pose while holding signs that describe their goals.

AP: What are the benefits of civic engagement?

Treiger: Elected officials are in office to serve their communities and want your input along the way. They’re there to represent us, so it's our job to make sure they know what we find important and that they prioritize it. Whether you are sending emails, making phone calls, submitting written testimony, verbally testifying at a hearing, or participating in a lobby day and meeting with your legislators and their staff, hearing from you makes a big impact!

This past legislative session, Senate Republicans led the longest walkout in state history, effectively stalling legislative action on hundreds of bills. When the walkout ended, there was very little time remaining before the constitutional end of session. We worked to make sure that OEC members and constituents across the state were kept informed about legislative developments and key opportunities for climate action. Thanks to a consistent drumbeat of support from Oregonians across the state, lawmakers committed to prioritizing climate action and voted to pass the Climate Resilience Package in the final remaining days of session. This sweeping climate package could enable Oregon to leverage more than $1 billion in federal funding in climate and clean energy to create and sustain local jobs in construction, energy, and agriculture, expand access to renewable energy sources, and support the state’s natural resource economies. It could not have happened without robust, sustained civic engagement, especially through the six-week walkout, from volunteers calling, emailing, submitting comments and attending lobby days in support of climate action.

These opportunities occur during the legislative sessions, but also at the local level, with your city and county officials. After a bill is signed into law, there is often a next step called “rulemaking,” where government agencies fill in the details to determine how the law will actually work. Throughout the rulemaking there are opportunities for the public to weigh in. These don’t get as much attention, so your voice can have a big impact. Rulemakings are where environmental laws are either given the strength they need to protect our future, or completely gutted. That’s why it is vital that community members pay attention, show up, and make your voice heard.

AP: How did you get involved with OEC?

Treiger: I studied environmental science and public health in college, and while I love science, I found I really enjoyed translating what I knew to people less engaged in the “wonkiness” of it all. I really enjoy connecting with people. I found that civic engagement helped to combat my climate anxiety and that taking action and being part of a broader community is really empowering.

AP: What are you doing now with the organization?

Treiger: For the 2023 legislative session, OEC and a number of partner organizations created a coalition to work on efficient and resilient buildings. Buildings are the second largest source of climate pollution in Oregon and our first line of defense against climate harm. The Building Resilience Coalition came together to advance a package of bills that provide incentives and tools for Oregon to rapidly reduce the use of fossil fuels in new and existing buildings while ensuring that buildings are affordable and healthy for all Oregonians. I co-managed the broader coalition of over 50 organizations working to support this legislation, which passed as part of the Climate Resilience Package. Now we are focused on the implementation of these bills and looking at what are the next steps in continuing to create a resilient, efficient, and electric building sector.

I also work on transportation policy. Transportation is the largest climate pollution-emitting sector in Oregon. Both the 2024 and 2025 legislative sessions are gearing up to have a large focus on transportation. Every few years there is a transportation package, the last one was passed in 2017, and 2025 is expected to see the next one. OEC is working with many organizations and agencies in the hopes of creating the greenest transportation package in the nation that cuts climate pollution by reducing the miles people drive in their cars and electrifying the rest.

AP: What are the future priorities for OEC, and for Oregon in general?

Treiger: On top of gearing up for the upcoming legislative sessions, we are focused on strong implementation of the policy progress we have been proud to help deliver. This includes climate emissions reductions and resiliency, creation of jobs in the clean energy economy, and ensuring workers are protected as the climate changes and we face more extreme weather and wildfires. We are eager to work with Governor Kotek’s administration and legislators to build on the progress we’ve made and accelerate emission reductions with the best available science. Working at the same time to protect people from climate impacts and co-pollutants associated with greenhouse gas emissions. We are continuing to find new tools and ways to engage with communities and to grow our partnerships across the state including with folks in STEM. Oregon’s science community is at the forefront of research and analysis when it comes to environmental challenges Oregon faces today. Every day there are new studies and articles published that help demonstrate the need for urgent and lasting policy solutions. 

OEC is also focused on assessing water quality and quantity - ensuring communities and natural resource economies have sustainable water supplies moving forward. As well as advocating for legislation that protects public health and the strong implementation of these laws, such as the Toxic Free Kids Act and the Toxic Free Cosmetics Act, which are aimed at eliminating harmful toxins from these products. To learn more, you can sign up for OEC’s email list or check out our website- 

Since the Toxic Free Kids Modernization Act was first passed in 2016, more than 4,000 reports showed the presence of arsenic, lead, formaldehyde and other toxins in children’s products. According to the OEC, “Engaging in genuine negotiations, building strong relationships, and being credible advocates for science-based protections led to…environmental wins.”

Data Dive on Eviction Data

In Maryland in 2018, 69.6 evictions were filed for every 100 renter households. Right next door in Delaware, the number was only 15.9 evictions. Why? 

West Virginia, with a median household income of only $44,000, had only 4.9 evictions for every 100 households. New Jersey, with a household income nearly twice West Virginia’s, (2018: $81,740), had an eviction rate nearly three times higher.

What gives, you might ask? How can a major household crisis like eviction be so different for two neighboring states? Or so much higher in a state whose residents have a higher median income? 

Questions like these once lurked in the shadows of national public awareness. That only began to change a few years ago when the Eviction Lab at Princeton University pioneered a nationwide database of evictions to throw a bright light on the social problem of housing insecurity. Over the years, the Lab has searched court filings covering every county in the United State to build a collection of over 100 million court eviction records between 2000 and 2018.  

Recently, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) joined with the Eviction Lab in a panel discussion exploring this gap and helping our audiences understand the power of data, especially in the areas of housing insecurity, equity, and social justice.

Sociologist Peter Hepburn, associate director  of  the  Eviction Lab at Princeton University and assistant professor at Rutgers University, discussed the obstacles faced by the Lab’s founder, Matthew Desmond, when he set out to study the scope of housing insecurity nationwide. “The federal government collects little or no data about eviction,” he said. “And states vary widely in what data they make available, if any. It's very hard to answer those questions without that sort of data being made available.” To remedy this, Desmond and the lab spent years compiling a national eviction database of more than 100 million court eviction records from almost every part of the country. This huge task allowed them to generate interactive maps showing local eviction filing rates, how many households were affected, and how much eviction varies between different states. They found that evictions tended to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods, even certain buildings, with strong racial and gender disparities.

When the pandemic hit, Lab researchers used web scraping tools to find contemporary eviction data from courts in select jurisdictions around the country, letting them compare COVID-driven evictions to historical data about pre-pandemic evictions. Over time, they built a website with pandemic-related eviction data on ten states and 34 cities, a total of almost 3 million cases, which allowed them to track the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated housing policies in real time. Using this resource, they were able to illustrate the impact of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agency moratorium on evictions, which successfully drove eviction rates down throughout the country. Since the moratorium has lifted these rates have steadily risen, and in some cities have gone well above historical averages.    

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow with the Center for Community Progress, used data to help him write multiple books about urban growth, decline and housing, especially in smaller American cities that struggle with deindustrialization. He sees eviction as a failure within a total housing ecosystem that includes the rental housing stock, tenants, property owners, and the multiple policies  that interact with them and can intervene in the system. 

 Mallach highlighted that there are some amazing data sets that are available to better understand this system, including published data on population demographics and mortgage lending, as well as public records data on real estate transactions, vacant property, and foreclosures. He also noted that rental registration requirements are becoming increasingly  common in most states, which enables the creation of databases on landlords and rental properties. This information makes it possible to ask specific and focused questions: who owns particular properties? What are the characteristics and conditions of each unit? What rents are being charged?  Most importantly, analyzing this data helps to inform what policies will be most effective at preventing evictions and other housing ecosystem failures.  “I want to stress the purpose of gathering all of this data is not so much to create a database for research,” Mallach noted, “but to create the basis for effective interventions in the rental system.”

KC Tenants, a citywide tenant union in Kansas City, faced some of the same data gathering challenges as the Princeton Eviction Lab but on a tighter budget. The third panelist,  Jaz Hayes, used his self-taught  programming skills to find ways to build up an eviction data set with 1.2 million records. Hayes grew up in poverty himself in Kansas City; his mother faced eviction herself when she was pregnant with him. Working as a volunteer for KC Tenants, he recognized data gaps and acquired the skills to begin filling them, allowing the organization to further galvanize and organize tenants and support their policy demands with local data. “We started by a one-off request from one county spanning about 20 years and it included about 200,000 records,”  he said. “Since then, we have expanded that data set to the entire state of Missouri, over the entire period that is digitally available.”

By geocoding addresses in the eviction records, Hayes can map out where evictions are happening and determine which properties have the highest rates of eviction. Today, KC Tenants has a database of 1.2 records going back 30 years.

That data helped point out  a decades-old pattern of legally-enforced segregation in Kansas City. KC Tenants’ database shows how the minority population concentrated east of Troost Avenue correlates with concentrations of both poverty and eviction filings. Mapping eviction filings as a percent of renter occupied housing units shows this effect no matter the time period. “If you're from Kansas City, this is completely unsurprising,” Hayes said. “But it's validating to have the data to reinforce that knowledge.”

The data gathered by KC Tenants also found only about three percent of tenants have a lawyer when facing eviction proceedings. “This creates a huge imbalance in the power relationship between a landlord and tenant when they go to court,” Hayes said. KC Tenants used this knowledge to help the city reach out to tenants to explain how the Kansas City government guarantees the right to an attorney in eviction cases. “Our city has a complicated political geography, where our city limits span across four different counties and only one of those counties has agreed to share their court filings with the city government,” Hayes said. “The other three have not.” KC Tenants stepped in to fill that gap, sharing their current eviction data with the city so they could inform tenants of their right to a lawyer. “There are countless ways that we could use this data. We haven't even really scratched the surface on it,” Hayes said.

All three panelists agreed the importance of data for policymaking and pursuing social justice doesn’t mean they’re easy to use. But it is still an exciting time for anyone who wants to use data for advocacy. Anyone who wants to advocate for a cause can start with what’s already there. “How do you understand systems?” Alan Mallach said. “You don't understand them by just looking at them or trying to wing it. You understand it by grabbing all the data you can and analyzing it so you can get a comprehensive picture of the system. You start with the insight from basically kind of a gut understanding what's going on and then you use data to build your real understanding of how the system is working.” 

With all that potential, the panelists agreed on the importance of knowing where data came from and how they were created. “These are messy records,” Peter Hepburn said. “Learn how those data were actually collected. Things that look self-evident at face value may be a lot more complicated when you really dig into the creation of that data. It's important to understand where data come from before you start using them. There are a lot of ways to misstep.”

It's also important to understand that social statistics begin their life as events, things someone actually lived through. Jaz Hayes found his own childhood experience with housing insecurity helped him put a human face on the bare bones of the numbers. “A lot of public policy doesn't so much come from data as it comes from lived experience,” he said. “We have a massive base of poor and working class tenants. We know that we know the problems we face and we've got some sense of an idea of how to address them. Where data is useful is convincing the people who are not personally experiencing it. A lot of our members know personally that going through eviction court is really difficult. It's a complicated legal system. You're scared and alone and like it doesn't take data to know that. The place where data comes in is where we can take a step back outside of our own lived experience and look at it systematically and say you're not alone.” 

It's become clear that new data on evictions, while not solving all problems, have succeeded in casting eviction in a new light in a relatively short time. Evicted, by the Eviction Lab’s founder Matthew Desmond, became a bestseller and won multiple prizes. All three panelists agreed that data about eviction can play multiple roles in shaping urban policy and achieving social justice. Many aspects of eviction, including the questions about its size, scope, and unequal impact that began this report began to emerge as policy questions only after the data compiled by groups like the Eviction Lab and KC Tenants allowed them to emerge as something that could be measured.

The recording of this event may be accessed on the ESAL YouTube channel.

Bridging the Gap Between Science and Action

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

Kavin Manickaraj wants to bridge the gap between science and political action. He serves as the chief data scientist at Greenlink Analytics in Atlanta, GA, where he earned his undergraduate and masters degrees at the Georgia Institute for Technology. Aside from his work with ATHENIA, a predictive modeling tool for understanding energy systems under different conditions, Manickaraj advises Seckinger High School secondary school in Gwinnett County on its AI-integrated curriculum. In a conversation with ESAL, Manickaraj reflected on how his concern for the well-being of the local community and effects of climate change informs his science and career path.

MS: What inspired you to pursue energy systems?

Manickaraj: It started in high school with a passion for astrophysics and astronomy. This was in my hometown right outside Princeton, NJ, a town whose many renowned astronomers were local celebrities of sorts. My dad is a mechanical engineer by training. He would say that mechanical engineering is similar to physics, but you get to build things. That’s when I started thinking about what I would want to build.

MS: What did you decide?

Manickaraj: At the time, no one in the area had solar panels. In fact, a few neighbors were petitioning against permitting them in the community. Watching my dad steadfastly work to change their minds, and also install panels on our own home, inspired me to learn about clean energy technologies. During my undergraduate studies at Georgia Tech, I briefly researched solar materials, which motivated me to pursue that further in graduate school. 

MS: What did you do during your time in Georgia Tech?

Manickaraj: My focus in graduate school was on creating new, high-efficiency solar cells using low-cost and non-toxic materials. A close friend of mine was studying fusion energy sciences, and we frequently discussed our research projects. Her goal was to solve the energy crisis – I wanted the same thing. But the only reason we knew about each other’s work was through our friendship. We realized a disconnect between related research must be happening campus-wide. And we wanted to do something about it. That’s why we created Georgia Tech’s first Energy Expo, bringing together industry experts, researchers, and students in a two-day event. The event is still going strong today.

Kavin Manickaraj

The gaps in research also forced a conversation about the visible and invisible blocks to clean energy development. I started learning about the gap between science and action. I thought for durable change to actually occur, politics must be involved in some way. I made the hard decision to leave my program, and find a path that would help me be an engineer in the energy policy field.

MS: What do you consider “political action?”

Manickaraj: I like to think of it as a place where politics and government coexist to create a strong foundation for action. Elected officials are responsible for leaning on experts to help build a stable foundation for launching ongoing improvements. 

MS: How have you been able to merge the worlds of political action and energy sustainability?

Manickaraj: I work for a small, nonprofit organization called Greenlink Analytics. The organization was founded by public policy students at Georgia Tech. Together, we created a model called ATHENIA. The tool forecasts how energy systems will operate under cleaner scenarios and estimates the impacts to economic development, health, and climate, amongst other things, based on thousands of historical data points. If we can show how these seemingly disparate sectors interact, impact people’s daily lives, and can address a community’s most pressing concerns, then we’re onto something. That’s how science and political action can go hand in hand.

MS:  Is there a specific example through your work with ATHENIA you've observed some interesting connection within the data?

Manickaraj: Some of the things we look at are the implications of different energy pathways, including the financial costs, health impacts, and carbon emissions, ranging from a business-as-usual scenario to a completely decarbonized grid. This way people know the price of getting the greatest benefit. 

In Atlanta, our modeling with ATHENIA showed that the price of electricity will increase more than 40% over the next few years as the costs of the new nuclear power plant get distributed to residents. We’re examining how many homes will experience significant energy burdens as a result of the rate increase. Many of these homes could be retrofitted to become more energy efficient and, therefore, use less electricity for their basic needs. The new WeatheRISE program is helping to make this possible. Greenlink is one of the partners on this awesome project.

MS: What has been the biggest challenge outside of differing ideologies that you come across? 

Manickaraj: There’s a lot of data out there and it can be hard to parse the signal, or true trend, from the noise. Once I start the process of verifying and investigating the data, it can feel like there is no end point. The problem with getting lost in the data is that I can miss the chance for the information to provide meaningful results within a critical period of time, such as funding cycle, or political cycle.

MS: How do you envision future politicians making decisions? Will they start to use data science more regularly? 

Manickaraj: Imagine a future where policy makers have a science advisor who can quickly digest data, examine the information, and predict trends to help get ahead of problems. Instead of a lagging cycle of issues, the science community identifies the problem, creates a policy solution grounded in the data, and advocates for a specific solution.

MS: How do you suggest other scientists start working towards a more equitable space for their communities and becoming more engaged in local policies?

Manickaraj: The answer is intrinsic to how science is done. Good science follows the scientific method. First, there is an observation, then a hypothesis, and then you collect data and go where it tells you. Translating that method to the community level means talking to people in the community.

For many years, there has been a savior phenomenon where well-educated people, who might have good intentions, think they have the answer for a community they do not represent. It’s critical to work with people who can speak for a community, establish trust, gather accurate data, and then assess the best way forward. This way, the solution is by and for the community and already has the buy-in necessary for getting it passed.

Additional information on Greenlink Analytics is available on their Instagram, LinkedIn, and X pages.

Bringing STEM Experience to the Maryland General Assembly

Julie Palakovich Carr is the only biologist with an advanced degree in the Maryland General Assembly, where she has been a representative since 2019. She talked with ESAL about the high-impact role of an elected official and the advantages that a scientific background affords policy makers.

EL: What led you to science and public service, and what keeps you there? 

Palakovich Carr: Both of my parents were public workers: my mom in education and my dad in the Department of Corrections. They instilled in me the need to give back. When I was younger, I was confident that I would be an MD, but those plans changed when I realized I could pursue a career in research. By the time I finished my master’s, I didn’t see doing science day in and day out as the right fit for me anymore and wanted to explore policy-making.

Julie Palakovich Carr.

The NOAA Knauss Fellowship was the perfect next step. Working on Capitol Hill in a senator’s office solidified the exciting nature of policy work. I then went to work for the American Institute of Biological Sciences for nine years, training scientists to effectively communicate their research with the press and advocating for investments in science. I enjoyed it, but I still wanted to be more involved politically and eventually run for office – and I did just that. I was elected to the City Council in Rockville, Maryland in 2013. Then, after more than five years, made it to the state house. I’m hoping to stay in the legislature for a while, since I enjoy being a state delegate. It’s a very rewarding position, where I can see the impact of my work on people’s lives.

EL: What does your background in science bring to your position that would have been otherwise difficult to obtain?

Palakovich Carr: One of the superpowers to being a trained scientist is having an analytical mind. This is a useful and transferable skill to lawmaking, since we are frequently dealing with topics outside of our areas of expertise. I find it helpful to be able to dig into peer-reviewed literature and primary data when trying to evaluate if a particular policy will have the desired impact. There have been times when I find evidence of other policymakers having tried to enact certain policies that are of interest to Maryland, and so we can look at the outcomes in other states to help us make a more informed decision. For instance, when an extension to a particular state tax credit was proposed, I dived into state data to figure out how the money was being allocated across the state. From this analysis, I realized that the existing credit wasn’t doing what it was intended to do, which was to help low income communities. When I shared my findings with my colleagues, some  were surprised at my ability to undertake such an analysis independently, despite relying solely on publicly available information. 

EL: What are some things people might not know about being an elected official?

Palakovich Carr: Thankfully, the Maryland General Assembly is not as divisive as Congress. Yes, there are partisan politics, but lots of bills pass unanimously or with bipartisan support. It’s a collegial atmosphere, and members of opposite parties have friendly, courteous, and professional relationships. 

We work on an annual cycle and are in session January through April. The early summer and fall  is when we do most of our research to vet potential bills and to figure out how to tackle problems through legislation. I love exploring options and digging into reports to figure out what might be a viable bill. I keep a running spreadsheet of potential bill ideas – we typically consider  about 50 ideas each year, and we will introduce 15-20 of those as bills. I tend to sponsor more bills than other Delegates, who usually introduce 5-10 bills. 

One thing that still surprises me about being in state office versus local office is that I hear from fewer residents. Despite representing more constituents, I get fewer emails in the House than I did on the city council. That said, people should never hesitate to reach out. We are here to help!

EL: Please tell us about one of your proudest achievements in your current role. 

Delegate Julie Palakovich Carr in the Maryland State House. Credit: Julie Palakovich Carr.

Palakovich Carr: One of my proudest achievements is creating the Maryland Child Tax Credit to help very low-income families in my state.

There is robust evidence that targeted financial support to low-income families is a very effective way to lift children out of poverty and to improve their short-term and long-term outcomes in terms of health, education, and economic stability. That’s why several states have created state-level child tax credits. (People might be families with these types of credits due to the federal expansion of the federal tax credit during the pandemic.) So four years ago, I started working to establish a Maryland Child Tax Credit. I had been working with external groups to figure out how to make it affordable for the state while maximizing the impact for low-income families with kids. But the cost was a huge barrier. To be honest, the first year I introduced the bill, I felt so let down when the bill hearing ended, because I knew the bill wouldn’t move forward, since it would have cost tens of millions of dollars. 

The following year, I put the bill back in and it ended up being a vehicle for another policy to extend aid to immigrants that were left out of other pandemic relief efforts. Although the child tax credit was significantly narrowed, we did manage to get the credit established in 2021. But my goal was always to help more families. When thinking about how to expand the credit, I reached out to the incoming Maryland governor’s team and talked to them. Governor Wes Moore has set a goal of ending childhood poverty in Maryland and the incoming administration saw this as an opportunity to act. We passed a bill this session that was requested by Governor Moore that helps an additional 40,000 families, each of whom receive a $500 credit per child each year to help with expenses like diapers, child care, and other necessities. 

EL: What advice do you have for scientists interested in running for public office? 

Palakovich Carr: To be successful on the political path, you have to want it enough to put in the time and effort. It consumes a lot of your life, especially when there’s an election. Running for and serving in office can also be disruptive to your personal life. People faced with that prospect have to be certain they want it enough.

If you’re not sure, ask yourself this question: Which would I regret more, running and not winning, or not running at all? I’ve run for public office four times now and won all four elections. If you might be interested, think seriously about whether it makes sense for you. For a lot of people who run, it’s their first time, and a lot of people who don’t win the first time go on to run a second time.

There are also less political paths, such as working for elected officials or in government or for an advocacy organization. I’d say that these are good options for anyone who has a passion for science but not for day to day lab activities or fieldwork. There are a range of science policy positions, some more or less political, such as working for non-profits or acting as an policy advisor. In Maryland, Johns Hopkins University offers the Bloomberg Fellows Program through their Master’s in Public Health program, in which students can work in places like the General Assembly.

In many places, there are local advisory groups that are part of local government and focus on a specific issue like watershed sustainability, public health, or environmental restoration. These groups are frequently starved for volunteers. The time commitment can be as little as one meeting per month - just a handful of hours of service, but it’s a great way to speak up for issues that are important to you!

You can find additional information on Julie Palakovich Carr on X, Facebook, and Instagram.

When the Cat is Missing Its Tail: Bringing Together Privacy Researchers to Solve Synthetic Data

Christine Task is a senior research scientist at Knexus Research Corporation and is the contracted technical lead of the Collaborative Research Cycle (CRC) hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Privacy Engineering Program. She spoke with ESAL about mobilizing the privacy research community to solve pressing problems facing the federal government.

EL: Before you started working on privacy and security research, you were a mathematician. What sparked your interest in this type of applied research and its application to public policy?

Task: Being in Washington, DC has gotten me rapidly connected to problems that impact policy. I have always been interested in proofs and theoretical problems that are fun, aesthetic, and challenging, and I wanted to focus on a subset of those problems that have an impact on real people’s lives. When I moved to DC, I went to an amazing talk series at the National Science Foundation, hosted by the Secure and Trusted Cyberspace group. The talk series featured speakers with a focus on solving problems like voting machine fraud, infrastructure security, and biases in data. I would sit in the audience in this little dark room and ask a lot of questions, and later started to attend other seminars on privacy and security. While working at Knexus, we began collaborating with the federal government. They presented us with a set of challenges, deemed “impossible problems,” among which was differentially private synthetic data  and others that we are currently tackling.

EL: What is the Collaborative Research Cycle and what issues is it trying to solve?

​​Task: Essentially, the CRC was founded because of the need to strengthen our formal understanding of human data. It was conceived after holding two “classic” prize challenges in differential privacy and synthetic data. To understand these subjects, imagine human data living in a high-dimensional space, and what we are trying to do is to create new data that looks like the old data, but is actually different data. By using these “synthetic people,” we can preserve the “shape” of the data without introducing privacy problems for real individuals.

The first two challenges came about because the Census Bureau had some pain points with evaluating how similar synthetic data was to real data, and we decided it would be a good idea to outsource and open up the hardest problems, the most ambitious stuff that is out there, to the research community. When we started the first challenge, half of the competitors weren’t sure that what we were asking them to do was even possible. Everyone was up for trying it, but we were prepared for no one to do well and that we’d just all learn together what the limitations were. But participants actually were successful!

Christine Task (image from LinkedIn).

When we did exit interviews with the teams, we learned that the teams had actually been doing massive trial-and-error; essentially, each team had been doing many experiments, but they weren’t taking the time to go back and figure out why what they did worked or didn’t work, and therefore couldn’t derive a formal understanding. Introducing research cycles aims to incentivize people to actually go back and work together to gain deeper understanding of the solutions, and be able to iterate on them as a larger team.

EL: How do you expect the outcome of the CRC will bring about improved public policies?

Task: I like using the metaphor of a train to explain this. The train was invented before we understood thermodynamics. People knew about wheels, steam, and fires, and they’d make trains. If you worked around a lot of trains, you could guess how they’d behave, but you didn’t have the math to say why they worked or when they would malfunction. We think it’s important to understand the mathematical rules underlying developments of civic interest. Once you have the math to understand what is going on, you can apply it to even more things and enable society to make huge advances. Otherwise, we are stuck with over-simplifications of data, such as pretending that everyone is on a normal curve, when we already know that’s not the case. These oversimplifications in such a model would compound until we erase the representation of diverse groups from the data, which would cause all sorts of problems. We are trying to have the “thermodynamics” moment of human data.

EL: What do you think are the key aspects of the CRC that allow it to succeed?

Task: The privacy research community is really eager to see their work have real-world impact. In general, any time the research comes down to computers and math, which include a lot of physical sciences, you can design a sort of “research accelerator” - everything you’re not good at, someone else can do that for you. And as hosts, we put a lot of thought into the design of the challenges, making them be welcoming and accessible, because when you are trying to get people to engage in something they’re not being paid to do, it means their experiences should be as effortless and friendly as possible.  

EL: What skills do you think are important for someone to develop if they’re interested in a role similar to yours?

Task: Any technical lead needs to be good at understanding how people work. Getting standards for tech means coordinating outreach to lots of stakeholder groups in a technical area. 

When I was growing up in Dayton, OH, I participated in a seminar every Thursday night where we got to meet different researchers working at the cutting-edge of their fields. I was fortunate to have the privilege of exposure to many different ways in which people contribute productively. I learned that the main thing to do is listen and understand that two groups can have totally different sets of values, and both of their voices are important. 

And finally, it’s important to keep in mind that some people naturally have a focus that is wider or more narrow. To make sure that everyone can contribute to a project, a technical lead needs to know how to effectively construct work packages for people who focus on different scales. 

EL: Besides participating in the CRC, what are other opportunities for people to get involved in data privacy issues?

Task: There’s no good reason that your grade school education prepares you for calculus but not for data science; it’s just a different way of thinking about things and a different set of problems that need to be solved. Algorithms using human data have an increasing amount of impact on human life. We should be teaching them in grade school so that people have an awareness of their environment and can be informed consumers of algorithms, advocating for changes when necessary.

We are also working on preparing coursework on this subject. For now, there are tools online. You can download PDFs and see for yourself how algorithms developed during the CRC are performing on modeling. These materials are extremely accessible for people of any background. If you have ever looked at a scatter plot, you can help out. One of my friends who was an English major observed that the representation of the original data looked like a cat, but that the simulated data was missing its “tail.” This observation actually helped us realize that our model had failed to reproduce part of that data and would need to be improved. 

Professor connecting science to legislation and students and research to civic engagement

Michael Hendricks is an advocate for civic engagement who particularly emphasizes integrating STEM into the legislative process. He helped orchestrate the foundation of the MOST Policy Initiative, designed to infuse scientific research and evidence-based approaches into the bills passed by the Missouri Congress.

Hendricks' expertise extends into the world of academia, where he serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University. In this role, he has led groundbreaking research and educational advancements. Beyond research, he is dedicated to teaching, mentoring, and engaging in continuing education classes. These efforts reflect his passion for fostering personal and intellectual growth within the community.

JL: Could you describe the teaching schedule for a political science professor like yourself?

Hendricks: In this role, one engages in instructing a diverse range of subjects. There are foundational classes introducing students to the political concepts in various regions, such as Latin American and Central American Politics. These courses lay the groundwork for a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and expose undergraduate students to these regions' politics, economics, and cultures.

But then, the schedule takes an exciting turn, offering more specialized classes tailored to students' interests. Here's where my experience with MOST Policy Initiative truly comes into play. I get to delve into subjects like civic and community engagement in one of my favorite courses, a graduate seminar on community development – a course where real-world applications and academic theories meet.

Perhaps the highlight of my undergraduate teaching experience is a course I designed during my graduate studies. This class revolves around drug trafficking and international security, exploring its far-reaching influences. I had the opportunity to sculpt every aspect of this course, from the readings and assignments to the minor details of curriculum development. The engagement it garners from students always makes this class a rewarding experience, combining serious scholarly exploration with lively discussion and exploration. It's a unique fusion of my academic journey and the present teaching experience that makes this part of my schedule particularly gratifying.

Michael Hendricks is an assistant professor at Illinois State University.

JL: In addition to your teaching responsibilities, I understand you're also deeply involved in research. Could you tell us more about the subjects you explore and the tangible outcomes of your work?

Hendricks: My research primarily concentrates on resource extraction in Latin America, a subject that is both multifaceted and impactful. I'm particularly interested in the extraction process's effect on the public and how people perceive the threats or opportunities associated with mining.

One of the major milestones in my research journey is the co-authored book titled “The Roots of Engagement: Understanding Opposition and Support for Resource Extraction.” This book stands as the first comprehensive examination to measure social engagement within organizations and directly link that engagement with attitudes about extraction and development.

Within the book, readers will discover a trove of original insights gathered from public opinion surveys and interviews conducted in three key sites of protracted conflict: Peru, South Africa, and Nicaragua. These case studies allow us to delve into individual-level approaches to attitudes about mining, reflecting the complex interplay between societal values, economic imperatives, and environmental considerations.

But my scholarly pursuit doesn't end with resource extraction. I've also extensively researched peacekeeping effectiveness, examining its real-world impacts on saving lives and protecting civilians. My findings are not merely theoretical or empirical; they have practical implications for international peacekeeping operations. Understanding these dynamics can inform better strategies and more targeted interventions, enhancing the ability of peacekeeping forces to foster stability and protect those most vulnerable.

JL: You've built an impressive body of work over the years, but your true passion lies in teaching. How do you nurture and manifest this passion?

Hendricks: Teaching is more than a profession to me; it's a calling to inspire and empower. I attend Inclusion, Equity, Diversity, and Access workshops and training to make my material more inclusive and accessible, specifically focusing on supporting Latinx students. Recognizing the unique challenges they may face, particularly for first-generation college attendees in a Midwestern school, I work to create an environment where they feel valued and included.

Additionally, I act as an academic mentor, guiding students through the graduate process and collaborating with them on research and other responsibilities. This mentorship goes beyond mere guidance; it's about fostering growth, independence, and confidence. It's this multifaceted engagement with my students, coupled with a commitment to continuous learning and cultural awareness, that keeps my passion for teaching alive and resonant.

JL: How will you continue to support STEM engagement during your teaching career? 

Hendricks: My commitment to STEM engagement extends beyond the classroom and is deeply interwoven with my broader educational philosophy. As an active board member of MOST Policy Initiative, I have a platform to advocate for and support the STEM community. My role with MOST allows me to contribute strategically, ensuring that STEM remains a vital and integrated part of policymaking and education.

For more information on the MOST Policy Initiative, see ESAL’s interview with Rachel Owen.

Connecting Science and Stakeholders in Georgia

Amy Sharma, PhD is the executive director of Science for Georgia, an organization whose mission is to advocate for the responsible use of science in public policy, improve communication between scientists and the public, and increase public engagement with science. She chatted with ESAL about the value of factual scientific support to state legislators and interpersonal relationships between scientists and other community members.

EL: What has been your educational and career path so far, leading your current role?

Sharma: I earned an undergraduate degree in biomedical and electrical engineering from Duke University, and then worked for two years designing chips at IBM. I returned to Duke for a PhD in biomedical engineering, studying nuclear imaging. I completed an American Association for the Advancement of Science Science and Technology Policy Fellowship at the National Science Foundation, then worked as a researcher at Georgia Tech Research Institute in radar and big data. Following that, for a year, I was an assistant professor in medical physics at the University of Western Australia. I returned to Georgia Tech and then was at various startups in data analytics and product development.

I have now been working for Science for Georgia for over four years and I have to be honest, Atlanta is pretty awesome!

EL: What are the issues that Science for Georgia prioritizes, and how does it achieve its mission?

Sharma: Science for Georgia has a three-fold mission: improving communication between scientists and the public, which is where our SciComm Academy comes in; public outreach, which we accomplish with activities like the Atlanta Science Tavern and Science Comedy and other events; and advocating for the responsible use of science in public policy, which is accomplished through white papers, our legislative scorecard, and partnerships.    

Two of our priorities are expanding Medicaid access and combating climate change. The best thing that could be done for the workforce in Georgia is giving people access to health insurance, since this has been shown to be one of the best ways to improve their lives and be a productive member of society.

For climate change, we figure out ways to economically incentivize the changes that we’d like to see people making, like investing in green infrastructure, accounting for the true cost of carbon, and cutting down carbon emissions. Georgia is not a particularly environmentally friendly state, but there are so many talented grassroots organizations that have experience with advocacy and engaging with politicians, and we support those groups by providing scientific expertise. 

Fortunately, there’s a lot of momentum right now in Georgia for attracting green businesses. I hope we can invest in new manufacturing capabilities in a way that sets a great example. It would be a big success to be able to say, “a bunch of electric vehicle factories set up in Georgia, and they were all green and sustainable.”

EL: What are the challenges you face?

Sharma: Working in policy is inherently slow and cumbersome, and sometimes we feel stuck. It can be uncomfortable because, as scientists, we are used to having solutions. People say, “may all your problems be technical.” Well, none of our problems are technical, so that’s a new realm for much of our team. None of us had any specialized training besides being scientists, so we’re just making our way forward together. It is wonderful to have a like-minded community.

EL: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about interacting with non-scientists and policy makers, especially working in a sometimes politically tense environment? 

Sharma: When you ask a lot of people to name a living scientist, they can’t do it. I want the answer to that question to be, “I met this person at the coffee shop the other day, and she’s a scientist.”

In a lot of people’s minds, scientists are trapped in an ivory tower. When we point out that we are your neighbors with whom you have a personal connection, that goes a long way toward building the trust of the public in science and having a profound impact. One of the common reactions that we get from partners when we start on a project is, “This is not what we were expecting” and even sometimes, “We thought you would be old dudes in glasses.” 

It is important to stick to the facts when we take on the role of people providing scientific feedback, and it sometimes takes a bit of time to figure out how to stay objective and be solutions-oriented, not politicized. We work at the state assembly level, so the politicians here actually need to get something done - they need to pass a budget and provide services to people, and they work for us! They value people who are honest brokers of factual information, and they want to be contacted and engaged in discussion.

And, if you care about something, have an elevator pitch about it ready and in the back of your mind for when someone asks you what you care about! 

A last important lesson is to meet your audience where they are. We are in an agriculture-heavy state. People will say that climate change isn’t real but will also tell you how the weather is changing and they can’t grow crops the way they used to. Just use another phrase beside “climate change” if it is preventing progress from being made together. We have resources on advocating for science on our website!