UC Riverside program aims to boost Latino leadership in environmental research – San Bernardino Sun

As Daniel Gonzalez grew up in the high desert, the idea of making a career out of studying the environment wasn’t on his radar.

After a brief stint at Cal State Fullerton, he headed to community college with no declared major, unsure of what he wanted to do with his life.

Then, a couple years ago, Gonzalez took a biology class at Victor Valley College where he learned about how marine organisms are impacted by changing tides. He told his counselor, Manika Record, he’d finally found something that sparked his interest. She immediately recommended him for a summer research program studying environmental science at UC Riverside.

Gonzalez found himself a minority in the program as both a male and a Latino, who spends less of his spare time on outdoorsy or scientific pursuits and more on his burgeoning side hustle as an alternative musical artist. But Gonzalez was hooked on what he was learning in school, so in the fall of 2021 he transferred to UCR full time. And as the Oak Hills resident heads into his senior year this fall, he’s managed to carve out leadership roles both in the university’s soil lab research program and as an emissary of sorts for Latinos in environmental research programs.

Gonzalez is supporting a new project called “Latinxs and the Environment: Partnerships to Pave Pathways to the Professoriate.” UCR, in partnership with UC Berkeley, just landed a $342,000 grant to fund the program. The goal is to promote environmental research opportunities for Latino students while also creating pathways for graduate students to become professors in the field, so that more students like Gonzalez can pursue this increasingly vital work — perhaps without having to follow such a circuitous route, and even if they don’t luck into meeting an intuitive counselor like Record.

Latinos, along with other non-White groups, have historically been underrepresented in environmental research programs. At UCR, for example, Latino students make up 38% of overall enrollment but 32% of enrollment in College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences majors. But those gaps are closing at UCR and across the state, with Latino enrollment in environmental studies programs across the entire UC system on par last fall with overall Latino enrollment.

Any lingering gaps are not because Latinos care any less about environmental issues. In fact, a recent statewide survey from the Public Policy Institute of California found that Latinos were much more likely than any other ethnic or racial group to say they’re “very concerned” about drought, wildfires, heat waves and rising sea levels due to climate change.

Those statistics don’t surprise Yareli Olazabal, a first generation Mexican American who’s also entering her senior year of UCR’s environmental science program. Olazabal noted that Latinos are disproportionately affected by climate change and other environmental problems, such as higher levels of polluted air, soil and water. So she said it tracks that they’d also be more concerned about these issues.

Why, then, haven’t more Latino students been pursuing environmental research to address these problems? Students and professors say it’s about intertwined challenges around awareness, perception and money — all issues the “Latinxs and the Environment” program aims to address.

And if this team has its way, the program won’t stop with UCR and UC Berkeley. The goal is to boost representation of Latinos and other diverse groups in environmental research programs and careers across the country.

Bay Area origins

The new “Latinxs and the Environment” program has its origins in a project launched four years ago at UC Berkeley.

As Federico Castillo was lecturing on the environment at the Bay Area school, he started to notice a lack of Hispanic students in his natural resource economics class. He asked colleagues why these students weren’t enrolling in similar courses, and they told him, “They are not interested” or “We don’t have any Latinx students.”

As a UC Berkeley graduate, Castillo knew that wasn’t the case. And in 2018 he helped launch a “Latinxs and the Environment Initiative” at his school, hoping to change those perceptions and get more Hispanic students involved in environmental research.

A highlight of that initiative is a spring symposium, where Latino students can present their research and network with each other, graduate professors and others in the field. This past spring, UCR participated in that symposium. Gonzalez and Olazabal both discussed their work around soil research, with Gonzalez now focusing on implications for the citrus industry while Olazabal looks at nitrogen cycling.

At UC Berkeley, about 19% of the student population is Latino. At UCR, the Latino student population is nearly 38%, and the school has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Hispanic Serving Institution. So Samantha Ying, a professor of soil biochemistry at UCR, said it only made sense to expand the initiative Castillo had started to the Riverside school. And now that they’ve landed funding, Ying said they decided it was time to drop “initiative” from the title and recognize it as a full-fledged program, with both universities now working together to support each other and grow their network for students.

Leveling the playing field

When it comes to getting gigs in environmental research, Olazabal said there is a bit of a “hidden job market,” where opportunities aren’t posted publicly but simply shared word of mouth to those in the know.

“So many opportunities present themselves just through knowing people and existing in the right place at the right time,” Olazabal, 24, said. “Getting involved and being exposed to different opportunities, it’s crazy how so many doors can open up all at once.”

Olazabal’s parents were raised in rural Mexico. Her mother was the oldest of 11 children and, because she helped care for her siblings, didn’t receive much formal schooling. Olazabal said it was one reason both of her parents emphasized the importance of education. Still, Olazabal said she didn’t grow up talking about climate change over the dinner table of her Fontana home or going to science camp over summer break.

Olazabal did hear about environmental justice a bit in high school. Then she read a news article about how the logistics industry had exploded in the Inland Empire — along with elevated childhood asthma rates and other health conditions affecting local Latino families. Her own research and drive led her to UCR, where she’s built a solid network of colleagues. So she loves the idea that, because of the new program, a support system for future Latino students will be built into the fabric of her university.

Starting this fall, UCR students interested in conducting research can participate in the “Latinxs and the Environment” seminar series. The program, which will run concurrently at UC Berkeley, is designed to help new students connect with mentors, design research projects and apply for internships. Along with students in science fields, Ying said students in humanities, social sciences and engineering programs with an interest in environmental research are encouraged to participate.

Grant funding, which comes from UC’s Hispanic Serving Institutions Doctoral Diversity Initiative, will ensure those internships are paid, since Ying said unpaid internships are another major barrier for Latino students who often have to work while attending school.

In March, Riverside will also host the first-ever UC graduate research conference, bringing Latino students from every UC campus to showcase their research on environmental issues. In addition to promoting their work, Ying said she hopes the platform can help shift perception of what environmental researchers must look like and the types of topics they can tackle.

You don’t have to grow up eating granola and riding in an electric vehicle to be interested in environmental issues, for example. And you don’t need a burning desire to trek into remote forests and jungles to pursue environmental research. At UC Berkeley, Castillo said students “without exception” focus on research topics tied to their personal experiences.

“If they have parents who are agricultural workers, they research pesticides or exposure to heat waves. Or if they have parents who are janitors, they research exposure of dangerous chemicals, etc.,” Castillo said. “These topics are close to their lives, which is why it’s so important that they are part of research, of conversations that impact their own families and communities.”

The team behind this new partnership hopes this is only the beginning, with a goal to expand the program to all UC campuses before taking it to Cal State Universities and into other states.

Gonzalez hopes the push for better representation in environmental programs also encompasses other communities, to include more Black students, for instance, and students of different genders and sexualities.

“This is just one underrepresented demographic. I can’t wait until it opens up even more,” he said.

“But this is a very good stepping stone.”

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