Maria Gasca, a Xicana Conservation Ecologist from UCLA’s Class of 2019, decolonizes environmentalism and STEM at any chance she gets. In a field where women compromise less than 24 percent of the workforce, Gasca offers a fresh new perspective that promises to transform the diversity and public face of the scientific community.
Gasca strives towards increasing minority representation, or as Gasca prefers, High Potential Students (HPS) because the lack of diversity in environmental science leaves holes in our understanding of health and the science itself. So, without further ado, it is my pleasure to formally introduce a Q&A with a rising strong woman in science.
If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be and why?
Xicana. Identity is something I carry with me always. It’s what grounds me and reminds me of the community that has helped lift me to where I am today, but also the same community that I am going to help lift up soon.
Xingona. I don’t know if I’m allowed to put this, but I am big, Xicana, mujer, first-generation, I dress kinda funky, statistically speaking I’m an outlier, why stay quiet when the world is already staring at me? I have the privilege and the platform to make waves of change that will ripple across the world, and I will use my “obnoxiousness,” my “two cents” where I see fit, discomfort or not.
Empathetic. I don’t know if this has to do with my astrological sign (cancer), but I always carry empathy with me. That’s the reason I chose being a conservation scientist instead of a film editor, I value being a stewardess to the earth rather than my personal pleasures. I rather spare the convenience of a plastic water bottle, to the turtle that would have consumed that same plastic.
In all of our young lives, we all aspire to change the world. What do you aspire to do?
Just that. Last year I realized that I can’t carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change it. My biggest goal is to do everything I can to mitigate climate change. Woah big goal right? But I don’t plan on doing this alone, but rather sharing the knowledge I have learned to communities that have not had access to it. I aspire to decolonize the STEM field and the way we view environmentalism. I aspire to get low-income communities, indigenous communities, communities of color, involved with their ecosystems. I aspire to mentor HPS that wouldn’t otherwise see the potential within themselves.
What kind of research are you currently working on?
I’m currently finishing up two projects, both having to do with the impacts of humans on animals and ecosystems.
My homebased project is looking at two species of lizard in southern California, one that is found in urban and natural areas and one that is not really found in urban areas, and seeing how their bodies change over time as a response to change in habitats, whether it be urbanization, which replaces natural habitat with concrete grasses, or larger systems that affect their habitat like climate change which causes hotter areas, less access to water.
My second project I conducted over the summer, had to do with a very unhealthy overfished coral reef off the coast of Mo’orea, French Polynesia. Because of agriculture and livestock, the reef is covered with unhealthy amounts of algae and dirt. However because of overfishing, there are very few fish to eat the algae, so I looked at how urchins are helping compensate for that lack of herbivorous fish by eating the bad stuff like algae and dirt.
Why is your research important and what are the possible real-world applications?
In order to make a change [happen] in conservation efforts, policies and laws need to be backed up by a lot of data, most of it coming from scientific research. Now more than over, we need to prove obviously known facts to legislatures in the format of science, an unbiased and peer-reviewed report, in order to see those changes within our community.
My research differs from most research because there are lives on the line, whether it be the animals themselves, but also the communities that sustain themselves from these ecosystems through fishing, safety, cultural rituals. With the knowledge gained from my research, we can help support conservation efforts like discouraging hunting for fish and urchins or encouraging communities to restore their backyard to native plants to offer refuge for native animals.
As an undergraduate researcher, what have been some of the challenges you have faced?
I am a student, a daughter, a woman of color. I do not have the privilege of doing my research in a bubble. I need to worry about assignments, how my mom’s doing with her blood pressure, the status of #CLEANDREAMACTNOW, how hazardous waste is being exposed to indigenous communities, overcoming imposter syndrome, and the list goes on. Which leads me to my biggest challenge; making sense that my eight years in school and a degree will give me access to help communities in need.
The rewards of science are pretty abstract, it’s hard to see how research and publications are going to help you and your community when your community is hurting now. It’s difficult to understand how physics and chemistry [are] going to stop oil companies from disrupting ecosystems or mining companies from blasting mountains in Oaxaca. I constantly need to reassure myself that although my efforts are not a drop in the ocean but rather a flap of a butterflies wings that causes the butterfly effect.
Another challenge is to not compare myself [to others]. It’s easy to try to compare myself with my P.I. (principal investigator — head of the lab), grad students, other undergrads and make myself feel immeasurable. But, I always remind myself that they have been working in the field longer than I have and it’s ok for me to not know everything and ask for help.
What excites you most about science?
There’s a lot of work to be done. I learned in college that knowledge is a double edge sword. The more I learn, the more I get scared, overwhelmed, and want to lose hope and drop-out, but also the angrier I get on how science and environmentalism are built the more I want to change it.
I get angry when scientists preach about biodiversity but don’t value diversity enough to see that reflected in their labs their schools.
I get angry when scientists preach about precision of language in research papers, but can’t use precise language when addressing their feminine counterparts.
I get angry when scientists can go out into the field but can’t go out into the community.
However, I can’t remain angry for long, I’ve read enough papers to show that that isn’t healthy, so instead, I channel that anger with drive and excitement, not staying angry at science, but be excited because I’m going to help change it.
What is your assessment of the current state of minority representation in science?
AGH! I just attended my first national science conference and to my surprise, it is still very white and very male. I think this is going to continue until we put resources into mentorships at early levels of people’s careers, particularly at middle school and high school.
There is funding to help high potential students once they enter higher levels of education, but most HPS lack exposure to what the stem field can be. Most POC/HPS exposure to stem fields are doctors, teachers, and engineers, which is what most end up pursuing within STEM because they don’t know what beyond this concrete jungle. By simply exposing them to different fields of science such as ecology, oceanography, [and] animal behavior, [it] will help spark the fire [necessary] to have them continue [down that path].
In addition, representation doesn’t mean much if we aren’t integrated into the system. You can transplant an endangered species into another habitat, but if you don’t take into account its network, its social groups, its preferred resources, the species is not going to last long. That is why increasing the number of HPS isn’t going to fix the problem, it’s a major piece of the puzzle, but implementation and integration will secure the survival ship of HPS in spaces like science and academia.
For our readers interested in science, what is one thing you would want them to take away from this interview?
Anyone can be a scientist. You do not need anyone to validate you to become one. You do not need to wear a lab coat or be a doctor, you can participate in citizen science with your local community, you can help direct environmentalist films, you can lobby to Congress, you can volunteer at protected parks, you can support campaigns, legislation, strikes, call-ins. The future of science is getting involved. No more performing science in a vacuum… unless you’re a physicist.
To stay up to date with this #ProfileInSTEM, feel free to visit Gasca’s academic twitter profile below: