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Integrating Science and Social Justice in AmeriCorps and Antarctica

February 16, 2016

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Today’s guest blog is written by AmeriCorps VISTA and NCCC alum Melissa Haeffner, who is now a post-doctoral researcher with the NSF EPSCoR project iUTAH  (Innovative Urban Transitions and Aridregion Hydro-Sustainability) at Utah State University and will soon embark on the biggest all-women-led scientific expedition to Antarctica. (See full bio below).

Whether I was starting an anti-sweatshop committee in college or applying to AmeriCorps, social justice has always driven who I am and what I do. It wasn’t until I served in AmeriCorps though that I realized social justice needs to be at the center of scientific exploration too.

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Melissa in the field and interviewing people in Mexico after service

AmeriCorps VISTA brought me to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where I organized life-skills workshops for AmeriCorps members and saw first-hand one of the country’s most gorgeous environments. I also saw how that environment can be threatened by human impact. While serving, I participated in an interdisciplinary science group working on soil erosion around Lake Tahoe. One of our goals was to develop recommendations to residents about how they could help manage the landscape. The biophysical scientists recommended we initiate an educational campaign about what kind of work residents could do on their property to support the surrounding land. However, as one of few social scientists, I recognized that most community members were renters who were not legally able to implement the recommendations. Also, many of the residents were mostly Spanish-speaking and might not have responded to an English-only campaign.

Working on this interdisciplinary team was a fulcrum point in my career. I recognized the need for social scientists to be involved in environmental research and to help scientists make recommendations that work best for the communities affected by, or involved in, the research. Often, we’re taught that science is, and should be, objective and completely divorced from the scientist’s self. As a social scientist, I know that this view of science is too simplistic. It’s impossible for any person – scientist or not – to be 100% objective. The questions we ask, the hypotheses we choose to test, the methods we use, and even the subjects we select to study are all informed by our upbringing and cultural knowledge of how the world works.

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That’s why when I learned about the upcoming Homeward Bound Antarctica expedition to bring together the largest group of women scientists to work on climate science in the area, I knew social scientists needed to be represented, and I applied to go. I’m proud to share than I am now part of this expedition and will work on a project with 77 other women called “Undisciplined: Leading Climate Solutions by Bridging the Sciences.” We will travel to Antarctica from December 2 to December 21, 2016, and I’m excited for the chance to continue connecting social justice to science.

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Melissa working with an iUtah biogechemist in the field

I encourage other AmeriCorps alums to consider how they too can bring the community building skills we learn in service to scientific fields. How might your lifetime of service look if you chose a career in science?

Here are a few tips for aspiring AmeriCorps alumni scientists and social scientists that I’ve learned in my work so far and plan to apply during my trip.

Seek to Be Inclusive. As soon as you get your first job, consider mentoring others, especially those in underrepresented groups. A recent Northwestern study has shown that people who endure pain (e.g., getting a new job in a tough market) are actually less likely to empathize with those still struggling (e.g., still looking for a job). Break away from convention, and when you reach the top of the mountain, turn around and give the next person a hand (you will probably realize that there were others helping you get up the mountain too).

Study Something Outside of Your Field. If you majored in sociology, go to a local stream restoration workshop. If you studied hydrology, learn about a local indigenous group. Think about how you would study the same topic from your discipline and how that differs from how an expert from another field would approach the same research. What questions would you ask and which research methods would you use? How might those questions and methods change if you consider how another researcher from a related field would approach the same project?

Learn to Build Diverse Teams. Look around the next time you are in a group. How diverse is it? Does everyone have the same educational level? Cultural background? What would have to happen to make this group more diverse? Consider how much more you could enrich your scientific inquiry, if you drew on perspectives from a more diverse group.

Presenting Ghana work at MIT

Presenting her research from Ghana at MIT

For example, many pharmaceutical studies have been conducted on male patients, and therefore, recommended medicinal doses only apply to those with specific metabolisms.* A male researcher might not even notice the gender discrepancy whereas it would be obvious to a female researcher. What else are we missing unless we include diverse researchers with different backgrounds and disciplines in research design?

I truly believe social justice can be a part of scientific research without compromising science’s core values of reliability and validity. If you’d like to talk more with me about this work and my trip, I encourage you to connect with me on LinkedIn.

* Data is drawn from 1) Whitley, H., and Wesley Lindsey. “Sex-based differences in drug activity. “American family physician 80.11 (2009): 1254; and 2) Beierle, Int, B. Meibohm, and H. Derendorf. “Gender differences in pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics.” International journal of clinical pharmacology and therapeutics 37.11 (1999): 529-547.

Author Bio: Melissa Haeffner is a post-doctoral researcher with the NSF EPSCoR project iUTAH (innovative Urban Transitions and Aridregion Hydro-sustainability) at Utah State University. She served as an AmeriCorps VISTA in 2002-2003 and in AmeriCorps NCCC in 2003. Melissa completed her doctorate in Human-Environment Interactions at Colorado State University, a Master of Science in Urban Studies and Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Bachelor of Arts/Master of Arts in Sociology from DePaul University. Her work focuses on bridging the social and natural sciences to advance scholarship in water management and climate-related hazards.

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