Documenting California drought as an undocumented researcher
Evelyn Valdez-Ward is a doctoral student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine where her research focuses on the effects of climate change and drought on plants and soils.
Your research is on water transport in plants and how that might be shifting with climate change. Can you tell us a little more about what you are studying?
By 2050, earth's population is expected to double, which means that agricultural production has to increase by 70% or more. It's going to take a lot more work to figure out how to feed everybody. And we can't do that unless we understand the way that climate change is affecting plant ecosystems. That's why I study the effects of drought on the interactions between plants and their soil microbes -- bacteria and fungi.
The interactions between plants and soil microbes affect the way an ecosystem will respond to climate change. At the same time, climate change is drastically altering plant and soil microbes in ways we haven't seen. I study these changing interactions by taking advantage of a long-term drought experiment in Southern California, where a grassland system has experienced 13 years of experimentally-induced drought! By using this system, we are gaining insight into what California ecosystems might look like in the future.
The more I study this topic, the more I realize plants can tell you so much about what's going on with the environment and climate change. It seems incredible, but plants tell stories just by how they react to drought. That's what first intrigued me about my research -- I realized you don't necessarily have to be a medical doctor to save lives. Studying plants, looking at how ecosystems are responding to climate change, and finding solutions will also save lives.
In the last couple years, you have written and spoken about your experience working as a scientist in the U.S. with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. Can you tell us a little about what being undocumented means for your career, particularly as the program has been rescinded?
When DACA was rescinded on September 5, 2017, I was devastated. When I noticed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields were not taking enough action supporting our undocumented community, I wrote my story in Science. Titled “I'm an undocumented scientist fighting for my dream”, my article shares how DACA allows me to continue my research. My story was so impactful that I was interviewed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Nature to further share my experience as a DACA recipient in STEM.
I later spoke at the March for Science rally in Washington, D.C. to advocate for Dreamers in STEM, was interviewed by Telemundo in spanish, was in the Union of Concerned Scientists Spotlight, and was invited as a storyteller for the Story Collider in LA. I have found refuge in my STEM community as I continue to advocate for our undocumented community, not just those protected by DACA.
Federal and state policies continue to create uncertainty for us as we await court decision after court decision that dictate our fate. For me, my science career is in daily threat of being ended. It is because of DACA that I am able to fund my work and myself, and only through very limited sources. With DACA ending, so will my science. The 11 million undocumented people in our country contribute to our nation in invaluable ways, including STEM. We all deserve to have a voice, and be heard. We deserve permanent action to allow us all to stay in the country we call home. With no permanent action, all of my undocumented communities' contributions to our nation will end.
The practice of science is in many ways evolving quickly right now. For example, discussions of diversity, inclusion, and equity are much more prevalent and many campuses seem to be taking mental health issues more seriously. At the same time, there is always pushback. What are some of the things that you think can help to continue to push scientific institutions to embrace these changes?
Honestly, while yes, many institutions are talking about diversity and inclusion, and mental health, academic institutions must also invest in the resources necessary to retain STEM students from diverse backgrounds. Underrepresented minorities in STEM need unique resources to succeed, and only when academic institutions invest in these resources can STEM communities can finally be more inclusive.
For example, our current reality is that we are living in a post-DACA world. And while many academic institutions say they are supportive of undocumented students, few institutions provide professional development opportunities for students with DACA status, and even fewer for those without DACA status, especially for folks in STEM. This creates additional barriers for undocumented students and prevents them from accessing valuable research opportunities. We need solutions that support all undocumented students in STEM fields so that we can continue to contribute to science and society in a meaningful way.