Tobay SantaMaria is a Chicanx person from South Tuscon, Arizona; and family is from Ìmuris, Sonora Mexico. They did their undergrad in Biology at Kenyon College in Gambier, OH, and currently working on a PhD in Plant Biology and Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour at Michigan State University under Lars Brudvig. They love biology and ecology, and their ulitmate goal is to be an Applied Ecosystems scientist at a small liberal arts college or minority-serving institution. Their specialists are ecosystems science, plant ecophysiology, carbon and water cycling, and social justice witchery.
Below is a full transcript of the episode. If you want to get in touch with Itati, you can via:
Hello, and welcome to the What on Earth Podcast. I’m your host Jazmin.
And I’m your host Nuzhat. In this podcast we celebrate Earth, environmental and planetary scientists from diverse backgrounds, and get to know what they’re up to.
And we also speak to scientists from different disciplines about how we can decolonise science and make it more inclusive for everyone.
So for today’s episode, we’re going to continue celebrating LGBTQ plus month. We have a restoration ecologist today. It’s Itati SantaMaria. Hey!
Hi. So I’m Itati SantaMaria. My pronouns are they/them, and I’m a restoration ecologist in training at Michigan State University.
Well, welcome. Hello. So to get started, how did you get to where you are now, so what was your route from school to PhD?
Um, so I had kind of like a long, circuitous route, kind of high school to my PhD, this is also my second time in a PhD program. So growing up, I- I kind of live like split between South Tucson, which is where my family lives, my grandparents. And I, and we would go to this ranch that my grandparents had in northern Mexico in ímuris. And so we kind of like split our time between these two places, right? So I felt very Mexican and I also felt very American. So growing up on a ranch, it’s very evident that you kind of depend on the ecosystem around you, because you can’t really grow cattle if there’s nothing for them to eat, and no water for them to drink. And, you know, no shade for them to be protected from the desert sun by. And so when I was 13, there was like this huge drought and it was devastating. And most of us lost most of our cattle. I distinctly remember, like, going on a trail ride and just seeing like, cows just really trying to eat anything. I saw cows eating plastic bags, it was not great. Like people were just letting their cattle go, because it’s like, well, I can’t take care of you. I can’t afford any food for you to eat. There’s nothing, there’s nothing here, it was so dry. And so we managed to like save some of our horses, right? And I remember being so sad that, you know, we brought my horse down from the property and he was so hungry, because there was so little food that he started eating the dog food that we had accidentally left out for the hound dogs on the ranch. He started eating that like in earnest because he was so hungry and he’s like a baby horse at this point. And so I just felt so bad that like, basically, my poor child was starving and it’s like, there’s nothing I can do, right? I was just like, how do I like that was like my big like, wake up moment, like, what do I do as I’m becoming an adult, to make sure that like, this doesn’t happen, because not only did we lose like a huge financial base, but it’s also like a huge part of our identity, like constructed around this, like, “We’re from the ranch, we grew up on the ranch, we go to the ranch”, you know, we depend on this ecosystem to do this thing that like our parents and family have been doing for generations. And so like in high school, I was like, well, I’m only kind of good at biology and I’m only kind of good at like, the environmental parts of biology, maybe I’ll go to college for that. And- but the big kicker there is like I’m poor right? My family doesn’t have this like huge financial base for like me to go to college. So I had to kind of like gamble a little bit and see what happens to me because like, in terms of paying for college, I was on my own. I got really, really lucky. And I got full ride to this, like small liberal arts college in Ohio called Kenyon College and it was really interesting, because that was like the first place I was exposed to ecology itself. Because like in high school, they’re like, yeah, environmental science ‘winky face’. But here, it was, like, no, like, there’s an actual science that talks about these interactions between, you know, organisms in their environment, and also people and how we interact with the environment itself, right? And so I got really interested in ecology then. And so when I finished there, I was like, okay, how do I, how do I turn this into a career like I have a bachelor’s in biology, but what do I do after that? Because I didn’t feel like I was ready for like a job in any sort of field. I was just like, I’m baby and so I started looking for grad programs. And so the first time that I did that, I ended up at Texas A&M in their, like, their, basically their version of like a range land science department. But it was called Ecosystem Science in Management. And so I was like, this sounds like exactly what I want to do. But sometimes even though something’s like an intellectual fit for you, it’s not a fit in other ways. Which was really shocking to me, because like, if you’re in Texas, and it’s not comfortable for like a Mexican American from like, the same general area, like the desert southwest, and I’m like, oh, that’s not great. So I tried it for a year and was like, I don’t really feel like I’m supported as like a person and if I’m not supported as a person, there’s like, no way like, I can sustain myself for four more years, just on the like, I really like my ideas, kind of a part of it, right? So what I then did was I transferred, I jumped ship and I came to Michigan State University with my current advisor, Lars Brevig. And he really helped me kind of synthesize what I was thinking about in terms of not just what I want out of like, my career, but also what I want to learn. And so now I would say like, yeah, I’m a restoration ecologist who’s really, really concerned about how impacts we have on landscapes. So how we choose to manage landscapes affects how they provide ecosystem services.
Can you talk to us about what your PhD is about?
Yes, so my PhD in general, I’m interested in hidden effects of management that we don’t necessarily see because of the current ways that we think about and the metrics that we use to measure restoration success. So like, my big fear of fears, is that okay, we’re trying to restore landscapes back to this like, pristine reference, right? Maybe we’re not like trying to force the ecosystem entirely there. We’re just like, re-adding the ingredients. So like, that’s the difference between like restoration and rewilding is like rewilding, as it’s written, just put all the ingredients into this landscape and hope for the best, in like a scientific way, obviously. And then restoration is like, what are specific actions that we can take to ameliorate this landscape and to make it look more like the way it used to look at some point in the past, right? So restoration is all about, like removing invasives, receding natives, like doing a lot of active things to like, keep pushing the ecosystem back towards this pristine endpoint. And I’m like, that’s all well and good, but I’m worried about like, the current context of that landscape or environment or biome. So like, let’s say that we’re restoring my field site. So my field site was a historic- was historically a savanna, right? But let’s say we push it back to a savanna. Right now, let’s say, let’s say a restoration is really successful. And it turns back into a savanna, the climate that that savanna used to exist in and also the soil context has changed through time, right? Because the land has been used parts of it have been used for agriculture, parts of it has been used in other ways. Things like that. So if the climatic context and some other important environmental context, aren’t there anymore, will the biomes still function the same? Like will we still get the same ecosystem services, we still get the same things that we need out of that system? Or will it behave differently? Because now the climate is so much different right now? The way we use the landscape is still also different. So what I’m looking at at my field site, which is McCready Reserve out in Jackson, is- I’m looking at how a really popular management tool that we use, which is the reintroduction of fire to a landscape that historically had fire, are there hidden costs in terms of carbon cycling, essentially, carbon loss from the ecosystem that we don’t know are happening, because we’re looking at kind of big picture metrics and not necessarily like smaller process oriented metrics. So we’re not looking at, per se, how the relationships between different consumers and producers in a food web change. We’re not looking at the interaction between you know, soil decomposers and above ground plant productivity. We’re not looking at how you know the decomposer web or the below ground foodweb, the soil food web, changes as we manage the landscape because what we’re looking at a lot of times is like, well, what does the biodiversity on the top look like? Do we have all the native plants that we really want to have here? You know, like, what’s the productivity like, during summer? We’re looking at things like that like biodiversity ecosystem functioning, those kind of metrics rather than like the smaller process oriented thing that might be telling us something, right? So I’m looking at whether or not the reintroduction of fire to this landscape changes the way that plants and their decomposers interact with one another. But also the way that those two groups are decomposers and plant and the native plants there. How they’re affected by this invasive earthworms. So earthworms are invasive to Michigan, right? And so there’s also this invasive earthworm that’s common colonised McCready. And so I’m trying to look at, well, how does this earthworm affect the relationship between plants and their native decomposers because earthworms are basically ecosystem engineers as well. So they can induce a lot of changes into a landscape, but also is the way that earthworms affect that relationship changed by the presence or absence of fire, right? So I have plots that MacCready that have been been burned, and I have plots that have never been burned. And I’m trying to look at the difference in those kind of like, tri-trophic relationship, that three-way relationship between the two. And I’m also trying to see if that- if those changes in those relationships because of fire, if those manifests in different ways, in terms of changes to decomposition. So does it change the decomposition rate? Does it change kind of which nutrients are added back into the soil and stuff like that? Does it induce like a net carbon loss from to the landscape rather than a net carbon sequestration, right? Like that’s my big thing is like, how do we keep as much carbon as possible in the dirt because we obviously are not doing a great job of minimizing the emission of it so far. That’s my thesis. [Nuzhat] That sounds really cool! [Itati] It sounds like a conspiracy but that’s what it is.
That was a really cool and detailed answer. [Jazmin] Yeah. It’s amazing. [Nuzhat] So I wanted to ask, your your field site is MacCready in Jackson?
Yeah MacCready reserve in Jackson, Michigan.
Can you describe what MacCready is like?
It’s perfect. No, I’m just kidding. I love my field site, even if like the swamp perennially consumes me every time I go to sample earthworms. So MacCready reserve is kind of like this big protected landscape out in Jackson. It is open for public use. So there’s tons of people walking the trails, so it is managed, but I wouldn’t say it’s like manicured managed. So it’s kind of like the mini version of like a national park if you want to think of that way. So it’s kind of a mix of oak-savanna. So there’s lots of oaks but there’s also some maple. There’s lots of beautiful forbs in the summer that gives flowers. My favorite is Deptford Pink, which is this really tiny itty bitty flower, but there are beautiful pink colour, they almost kind of like fluoresce in the sun, they’re really easy to spot. But there’s also patches of wetland so there’s like a whole lake at MacCready. It’s pretty shallow, I don’t recommend swimming in it. But then there’s also kind of this lily pad, quasi-pond, quasi-swamp, and then there’s like, you know, fen and more grassy knoll. And then obviously, the far edges of MacCready are more tree dominated, especially the places that haven’t been burned. So the places where it haven’t been burned, it looks a lot more like an oak-pine forest, and then the places that have been burned, or my advisor has another restoration treatment going on down there that is they’ve cut down trees and burned that looks a lot more like an oak-savanna where there’s like, a scattered mosaic of trees and lots of grasses and forbs. Yeah.
You made us want to go there on like a walk.
You could, it’s open to the public.
So why did you decide to study this field site for your PhD?
My advisor has like an abundance of field sites. Because he’s so cool, but I wanted to look at MacCready because it seemed like the most sensical place to study the kind of question that I wanted to ask because I really want to get like, what’s the mechanism? What’s the process by which we’re losing more carbon or changing decomposition in some way? Is it that the plants are changing? Is it that who’s doing decomposition is changing? Is it that these earthworms are messing things up? Or is it that you know, fire mediates these trophic interactions in some way that changes decomposition that makes it more likely that you know, more carbon is going to be consumed and exuded out by either root respiration or soil respiration, or decomposition, that it is going to be stored in the terms of like the literal plant bodies that are there, or like carbon that’s protected in soil aggregates, right? So it seems like the more- most sensible place to test those kind of like small mix, like mechanism based details, rather than some of the other fields sites? Not to say that those fields sites are bad, I just think it would have been harder for me personally, like to do it in some of like the restored prairie, especially since a lot of my other lab members also work in those places. So I feel like it would get a little hectic, I’m the only one at MacCready, and I very much like it that way. And also, it’s nice now because like since it is open to the public, like I get to do like informal scicomm all the time. So like when I’m catching earthworms, like people come up, and they’re like, “oh, what are you doing?” And I’m like, “let me tell you about [sic] carbon cycling”. Or when I was- I set out litterfall traps to catcher tree leaves as they fell to the ground to measure like the rate of input from above ground to the below ground pool. And these people were like, “what are you catching those giant traps?!”, and I was like, “leaves!”, and they were like, “what?!” and then I could do like all this informal scicomm. I also kind of love it now for that, because some of my sites are super public. And so people just see me like hoarding around some leaves, or like carting around like stuff in little jars and it’s like insects, or it’s earthworms. And I’m just like, “hello, these are my children, let’s talk”.
It must be like an amazing experience, and people come up to you, and give you the opportunity to do some scicomm.
Yeah, they’re always so interested. And I really like that, like, no one’s ever like, “ew, what are you doing here? Get away from me”. They’re always like, “oh, what’s this?”
When you were talking about restoration, one of my questions was like, how do you know what it should be restored to?
That’s like the killer question, right? So I was actually just talking to my advisor, I was like, well, why are we doing it to like some reference community and not just asking, like, how do we restore the ecosystem to get like some set of qualities that we want, like, we really want this ecosystem to sequester carbon, or we really want this ecosystem to produce a lot of firewood for the neighboring community. And he was just like, this is the question! So I think like, that’s the- that’s the question- that’s one of the questions right? It’s like restoration ecology itself is like a pretty young field that started in the mid 80s to mid 90s. So it’s not that it’s like as old as me, I’m going to be 26 basically, so it’s not that old. So we’re still kind of having these questions. So about like, what really should we be doing? But the idea of this type reference landscape is usually through like either historical photos because in some places like at MacCready, we have photos from before and after it was like, converted to this more like semi-agricultural, semi-woodland-y state. Because people planted trees there, the MacCready family planted trees there to harvest them, right? There’s like a sign on one side of the landscape that says, like “cash crop these trees”. So it’s either through, like historical data, like photos, or like descriptions of what the landscape used to look like. Or it’s like, well, what do other like wild lands- wild landscapes that aren’t like used for some production? What do those look like? That’s what we would restore them to. So like, in Bolivia, in, like Cochabamba, there is tons of rolling grassland, right? But there’s also places where like, that grassland is being converted to farmland. So like, the reference landscape is literally like, down the road. And we like are trying to convert it in some way so that it’s like, more amenable to being a grassland again, rather than like something else. But in some places, it’s really hard. Like what would you at this point, say like, New England was before colonisation, right? Like, how many of those historical records did we destroy? So like when we are restoring places in really, really heavily degraded landscapes, like what are we really restoring to like a question that people have to ask themselves when they restore it? So, yeah. There’s also like the question of like, well, what if you have like a no analog landscape? So it can be hard sometimes. And I think some, some people when they’re thinking about land management, they’re trying to move away from this, like, well, what’s the pristine reference? And also the idea of the pristine reference itself is like, kind of coloniser-y, you know? Because it’s like, yeah, because like, the pristine means, like not touched by people, right? But all landscapes were touched by peoples and we know that indigenous peoples were managing the landscape, and restoring it after use like way before colonisers came. Way before like, we settled on these lands, or were brought here to these lands. So it’s like, how problematic is it to have that idea that isn’t informed of a, like a reference landscape that isn’t informed by like, the indigenous peoples who lived on that space, right? So anyway, I hope I answered your question. I talked a lot.
No, of course. But following on from that question that I wanted to ask like how that connects to MacCready? Like, because you talk about kind of investigating the introducing fire? And so is it that fire used to be the norm- [Itati] Yeah [Nuzhat]- in that environment? And then why is it not the norm anymore?
So it was the norm in that environment. And we know that from like, historical record, and it’s not the norm anymore, because of the fact like that land was settled. [Nuzhat] Okay. [Itati] And so some something settlers love to do is they love to exclude fire from landscape. Because like, think about it from like, the human perspective, like, would you want a rolling blaze every two to three years if you’re trying to build a home there, if you’re trying to use the land for production of timber or velde products? Like, it’s- it’s much more of like from the human perspective, like we want to exclude fire because fire imparts disturbance in some way. It imparts change because it’s like a disruptive process. And like grasslands, and savannas and other grassy biomes need that disturbance to stay the way that they are, and they’ve evolved from millennia to be that way. But when it comes to some of the other uses that most settlers wanted to use the land for such as like, making a forest to get wood and timber products, like that needs stability, and that needs the like exclusion of fire.
So does that mean like with your PhD project, you’re proposing introducing fire again?
So my advisors already done that. So his kind of restoration project at MacCready has already been going for 10 years. So I’m kind of coming in after a couple rounds of burning because they do what every two to three years, just depending on what the finances are in, like, what weather conditions are like and stuff like that. So I’m coming in kind of at the back end of a couple of burnings, and we’re gonna try and do a burn this year as well. I’m coming in after and being like, well, if we take like the unburned plots is like the past and the burden plots are the future if we continue to restore this landscape in this way, you know, what do the relationships between plants and their decomposers and like plants to this invasive earthworm and native decomposers to this invasive earthworm? How did those interactions look like right now? And what do they look like right now in terms of carbon cycling? And then how does it look like post-burn? Like directly after does that relationship change? Is it not change, etc? So, yeah, fire has already been there.
Okay, that is, that’s cool. Could you give an insight of what your research is so showing so far?
Okay, so I just started so I don’t have that much yet. I finished my first field season and I still have like all the data to process. But so far, there does seem to be like some difference between who is in the plots. So I would say something that super struck me when I was initially looking through it- looking at my insect samples was like there’s a lot of spiders in these burn plots and there’s not that many in the unburned plot. So I don’t know if like the fire is creating these like places of microrefugia that the spiders really like postburn. Or if it’s something about the way the microclimate changes, because the climate is a lot different between the microclimate, I mean, is a lot different between like the burn plots, the thin and burn plots, and the unburned plots like the unburned plots, I would not wish on my worst enemy when it’s hot, because it is gross. It’s steamy, almost? Like it kind of feels almost like a tropical landscape. But then you’re like, I’m looking at a pine tree, why is it this hot? Why can I not breathe. Whereas in the burn pot and the thinning burn plots, because like the canopy is much more open, there’s not that many trees, there’s lots of like, you know, forbs and grasses, like at your level, it’s a much different, like temperature field. So it feels drier, like you’re getting more sun, but you’re also not like baking in humidity. And also like the insects that are around as much different. So if you go into an unburned plot, during peak summer, you’ll be like, covered in mosquitoes, right? But if you go to a burn plot, it’s not the same. So there’s- there’s something happening, I just need to like, go go through and put it to paper, you know?
That sounds really interesting, though. Okay, so, with everything you covered, one thing that struck me is that you’re studying one particular biome. You kind of alluded to already, but wanted just to know that why did you want to study grasslands compared to other biomes?
Well, I think that there’s a couple different reasons, right? And I really take inspiration from Joe Feldman’s paper towards an old growth concept for savannas, grasslands and woodlands. Because I think it’s pretty valid to say that like grasslands and grassy biomes do not get the same like popular press coverage as forests to do and I think a lot of that has to do with like, you know, the white gaze that media kind of caters to, but that’s because like, all these settlers came from Europe were like, “yeah, we have hella forests in Europe, the only thing we have”. That’s a joke, but you know, I don’t want to get too spicy. But, but forests, like are hailed as really charismatic, right? And everyone’s like, save the forest, plant a tree, you know? But no one’s like, save the grassland, plant some grass. Like all of those things are very like novel, like the whole, don’t mow your lawn, like let it grow free, you’ll attract pollinators, like that’s pretty new. So I think, kind of savannas, grasslands and other grassy biomes have been historically under appreciated and underserved. But I also think a lot of people don’t realize just how vital they are to people like they cover, you know, up to 41% of like, the lands terrestrial surface. Would you think that, like, if you just went through your normal life as like a not savanna or grassland person, like, you would never think that. You would think that the earth is mostly forests, but that’s not true. And the other thing is that they have an important role to play in the global carbon sink and in climatic cycles. And so if we’re altering this much of the land surface, I think there was like some BBC factoid that came out the other day that was like, humans have manipulated in some way over 90% of the Earth’s surface, right? So if we’re manipulating, you know, this series of biomes, that covers so much of the terrestrial land surface, like, shouldn’t we know more about it? Shouldn’t we know more about like, the consequences of restoring it versus not restoring it versus managing it for what it will turn into as the climate changes? You know, what priority should we have for restoration and management? You know, shouldn’t we know that about 41% on the land surface? Versus like, yeah, let’s pull a Thomas Crowther and plant trees everywhere, you know? So that’s kind of- that’s kind of why I wanted to focus on grasslands and savannas. So that’s kind of my thing on that. And the other thing, too, is I think, like growing up on a ranch, it’s really obvious to me like why grasslands are important. But I also want to like extend that to people who don’t really know like, you know, where does my vegetables come from? Where does my meat come from? Like, it’s not coming from a forest, that’s coming from a place that used to be a grassy biome or used to be a savanna or used to be a shrubland, it’s coming from that, right? And I think savannas are pretty unique because they give us an opportunity to use the landscape in lots of different ways. The like, yeah, you can put in a strip of savanna or a strip of prairie in your agricultural zone, and you’re getting like the best of both worlds. And if you put in a savanna strip, you can also like selectively log and still get timber and other like wood products, you can get veiled products out of the savanna, savannas. And grasslands too are known for carrying lots of really rare species or endemic species that can be used for medicine and other purposes. So it’s like, I feel like that’s way more often than just like, “Hello, I have a forest here trees and deer”. That’s very degrading towards forests, but that’s kind of also like how I’m beginning to feel like as I get deeper and deeper in my field. Not that I don’t think forests are important. I think forests are important, but I think they’re important in the places that they should be, and should not be introduced in places that they don’t need to be.
I think you bring a really important point up about, and this is an extension of the eurocentricity of academia, right? Because in academia, you don’t really have a representative of research on different areas, and the same applies to ecology. And, like you said, that there’s a lot of more focus and famila- can’t say the word. There’s a lot of focus and being familiar with forests. And so there’s a surplus of research into forests compared to say, grasslands. And like you said, grasslands make up 41%. So it’s striking that there’s not as much research going into them and there’s an under appreciation of grasslands. I kind of wanted to pick your brain a bit more, because you said that grasslands play, like a big role in climate if you could talk about like, what roles it plays?
Yeah, so there’s like one paper I’m always thinking of when I say that, and it’s, uh, oh, my God, what is it called? It’s oh, “grasslands, and savannas control the variation in the global carbon sink”. So savannas and grasslands are very, I don’t want to say sensitive, but they’re very attuned to weather patterns and kind of like climatic cycles of wet and dry. So when it’s really wet, they’re really productive, they do a lot of carbon drawdown. And then when it’s drier, they you know, dry up and they release a lot of carbon back into the atmosphere is like plants overheat and die and stuff like that. But I think what’s kind of like interesting in there is like, naturally, we know that this happens, right? But we can control, you know, what that looks like, at a local level, right? So when it comes to like a dry period, we can control like, what we use those grasses for that they’re like, dying like we could decide to cut them before that happens and turn it into food for cattle, we can decide to do something else. So I’m thinking of like that paper in terms of like, the applied context on the ground, because the paper is like at the global scale, what do they do the carbon sink, they drive a lot of the variability of it. At the local scale, like what can we do when we know that that’s what will happen, right? So that’s what that’s what I’m thinking about. But also savannas, grasslands, and like other kind of grassy biome species, they actually do store carbon in a lot of different ways. So it’s not just like the body above ground, I think that’s what people think about and I think that’s why a lot of people are sympathetic to trees, because like, you can see the physical biomass of the tree, right? It’s the tree. But when it comes to grasses and forbs, a lot of that biomass is actually stored underground. So they have specialised bulbs, thye have specialised tissue, they have like roots and tubers that are basically just full of sugars and sugars are made of carbon, and they’re full of other like compounds too. And so something that helps them kind of re-sprout really quickly after a disturbance event like fire or grazing is these underground nodules or organ, these specialised organs that have stored carbon. And so something I think it was William Bond who said this, he’s like a famous fire and grassland person, but he was like grasslands and savannah are basically an underground forest and we just can’t see it. And there’s also that famous picture that goes around Twitter every once in a while of a man standing next to a like excavation of a prairie grass, where like the roots are taller than he is within the grass that you see is like a hand tall, you know, so yeah. So that’s the other thing when it comes to like carbon sequencers like, yeah, they can do it too. They just have these underground super specialised organs rather than like a body above ground.
I’m getting an image of like an iceberg, where you just see the tip of the impact that grassland has, but there’s a lot of action going on, like underneath.
Yeah I think that’s a great image, or metaphor, visual metaphor for it.
We’re going to segway to some of the big questions that we have. So me and Jaz, are UK based. So we’re always interested in getting the context of different countries. So we’re kind of interested from like, a Mexican American perspective, what does decolonising science and specifically ecology look like to you?
Yeah, so what does decolonisation look to me as a Mexican American? So I think, for a lot of Mexican Americans, like that kind of question is really hard, because, like part of the whole Chicanx small movement in like, the late 60s and 70s was like, how do we define ourselves in a way that- are is our own? And it’s not through like the lens of like the white gaze, right? So like throughout, like the different ways of the Chicano movement, like from Cesar Chavez to this day, like, how are we describing ourselves as like community, right? How do we set our priorities as a community that is not in our identity, really, in a way that’s not like moderated by the white gaze? So the movie that informs my life about this is, it’s actually a musical called Zoot Suit that talks about like this kind of struggle between like, the way you know that you were colonised and the way you know that you don’t want to be colonised. But you don’t really know a way to decolonise because, like, I don’t know if you know, this, but like the US has, like, a system for like cataloguing and interacting with and like, documenting, like, native peoples. Like they have the reservation system, they have all of that. Mexico didn’t really have that. Because Mexico, especially in northern Mexico, like they were like, super on the like, exterminate everything you know? So like, yeah, I could say, I know my ancestors were Yaki, but I don’t live as a Yaki woman. So if I want to decolonise, like, what does that really mean, for me when all I really have is like, my great grandparents and my grandparents, and we don’t know anything about anyone after that? Because like, we didn’t, one, most of them didn’t know how to read or write, and like two, like, no one bothered to, like, pass down that information, because we were too busy trying to survive in like a violent state, right? And so for me, I kind of have to think about decolonisation in like a very different way. [Be]cause like, what am I gonna be colonised to? Like, I don’t know, right? And so, when I think about decolonisation, I think I try to think about it the most in terms of like, ‘land back’, right? Like ceding land back to the indigenous peoples that it belonged to. Because at the end of the day, like, we have to be honest with ourselves, like, we tried settler policies, and now the world is either inflames every summer or as you can see, in Texas, it is frozen solid, and people are dying, because the electrical grid cannot handle the demand for power, even though Texas is the energy capital of the world. So like, obviously, indigenous peoples were taking care of the earth and taking care of their landscapes for eons before settlers came, right? So I think we figured the Earth has told us that settler policies, especially around you know, landscape management, restoration, like they don’t work. They don’t, they don’t work. Like it’s just not happening. And so if I want to decolonise then it’s like, yeah, wherever I live, has to be like, things under a land back policy, like I have to listen to and abide by like, what the tribes that live there want. I have to listen to the needs of those people. I have to like, include them and give them you know, the sovereignty that they are owed over what happens, right? And so, for me, that’s what decolonisation really like means is like, if I’m going to choose to live in a place as a settler and do science somewhere as a settler, because I am despite the fact that I’m Mexican American, like, I’m not indigenous to these lands. I am not indigenous to Michigan. So what did Michigan indigenous peoples want to happen to this landscape that is theirs? What do they want me as a settler to do? And so that’s how I think about decolonisation is like, hey, if I’m a settler woman, how do I honor you know, the indigenous peoples that are here and what they want?
So how do you find out like, what they want? So how do you integrate them into your research? There needs into the- into your research?
That’s like the other killer question, right? So back when I wrote for British Ecological Society, when I wrote for The Niche, I had an interview with Katherine Crocker, about that very thing, where she points out that like, scientists talk a lot about decolonising science, but then they’re like, but we don’t know how so shrug emoji. And I think a lot of it has to do actually, with making those connections. So I think Land Grant Universities like to talk a lot of smack because they’re like, “we’re land grant universities, we serve the people that live on the land”. And I’m like, “okay, what’s your Native American enrollment?” And they’re like, “what? Those people? Not the ones we took the land from the white kids who come from LA to here for no reason. Those are the people we serve”. So I think it has to do with like making a really active effort to reach out to indigenous communities and like, part of it is also understanding like, sometimes they’re just going to say no, like, they owe settlers absolutely nothing when it comes to like wanting to, you know, be involved in anything that we do and that’s like, totally fair, all things considered. So, one of the goals are like my thesis and I talked about this a lot in my Ford Foundation fellowship application and in my NSF GRFP was like, one of the things that I really wanted to do was not just incorporate like the local Jackson community into like what I’m doing at MacCready through like nature tours and stuff like that, but also like, have program- like develop a program specifically focus on indigenous students in sciences, like being part of my research process being part of like, what we’re doing at MacCready. Obviously, I didn’t get funding for either of those things. But I really want it to be like, especially here at MSU, where they’re like, specifically for First Nations or indigenous peoples, where there’s like, experiences for undergraduates or experiences specifically tailored like to indigenous perspectives and means. So that’s what I really want. So I would say like, if I were ever able to like win funding, to like, have an undergrad of my own, like, I would specifically want to recruit from the indigenous peoples that are here and give them like an experience, not just that could benefit them if they want to move on in higher ed. But also that like helps inform what I’m doing at MacCready, and help inform like, management choices back down the line. So it’s all about m- it’s all about making those connections and like assuring involvement, assuring your own accountability, like providing incentive, for like them to help because they’re helping you they don’t need you. They’re helping you. So it’s about like, me creating that. I’m trying, I promise.
I mean, it’s great to share these ideas, because you you kind of hit the nail on the head where a lot of people like “oh, what do we do? How do we decolonise?” We’re scientists, we do science, when there’s a lot of like, you know, decolonising is a lot about the process that you do it. And also like thinking about the privilege of like you being- I’m not you specifically as a scientist, having the privilege to be able to study lands that belong to someone else, you know, they have access to it through violence, historical violence, right? So I think specifically, like when I was doing my PhD, I was thinking about how Bristol University has access to study- oh so my PhD was looking at inclusions in diamonds but I had access to diamonds from countries that were colonised by the UK. So it was thinking about how, like, British people had access- British researchers, researchers at British institutions had access to study these resources. But people from that land just didn’t have the same access to study them if they wanted to.
Yeah, I think my lab is doing like a big push to go like, at least like me, and the grad students, are like trying to do a big push to go like, away from like the basics of a land acknowledgement, like in this year of our day at 2021. If you’re not doing a land acknowledgement, I don’t trust you. If you’re in the US, or Canada, and you don’t do a land acknowledgement, I don’t trust you. If you’re in like, any of the coloniser countries, and you don’t do a land acknowledgement of like the way you were able to do any of your research with the accumulated wealth that you got from somewhere as a nation, like, I don’t trust you. Because like, it’s obvious, like none of this would be happening if colonisation had not happened. So how are you not going to acknowledge that like the fruits of your labor are begotten through violence or through treaties that weren’t honored or something like that? So I think everyone needs to be doing at least- at least the land acknowledgement, every time they give a presentation on their research, or anytime they talk about their research in some setting. And then I think everyone should start moving beyond that and like actively including indigenous peoples in ways that are like specific and unique to them. Like I don’t, I don’t think just saying like, oh, minorities, especially BIPOC are encouraged to apply ‘winky face’, like that’s not enough. Like, it needs to be tailored like for them, because historically we’ve taken the most from them.
Yeah, I just wanted to add that the land acknowledgement. So it’s funny you mentioned Katherine, because actually, when I came across this whole idea of land acknowledgement, it was actually from Katherine and interact with her on Twitter. And I noticed that it wasn’t being done in volcanology, particularly this country, like it’s not done at all. So I was like, I’m actually doing research on a Caribbean island that did have indigenous peoples on it and so I was like, Is there some way I can at least acknowledge them? And obviously, Katherine basically helped me- introduced me to the whole idea of land acknowledgement. So that was in my thesis and I do that I do give that now every time I do give a talk about my research, I’m trying to normalise that because in volcanology spaces, it’s still not being done really. So I’m gonna keep doing it, and hopefully, someone catches on.
Yeah I like that.
Yeah, someone’s got to be the first you know? So yeah, it is important- that we important- and I try to also take that one step further and try and create a methodology that included them in some ways. So actually, for my methodology, I did interviews and made sure their voices were heard in their experiences, of the volcano and volcanic eruptions, there is still an indigenous population on the Caribbean island, St. Vincent and Grenadines, so had the opportunity to you know, directly includ them in it, so I made a conscious effort to target them to be like that this is about your experiences and this is how it’s going to work in the thesis and whatnot. And eventually when I do have the resources to I am actually going to make sure I donate a copy to my thesis to the- they got like a heritage foundation over there so they make sure I’ll give them like a free copy of the thesis, because like that this is research done on you know your history as well as the rest of the island’ history. So there are many different ways to approach it but you need to take that first step and it is it is frustrating that it’s not done UK considering the UK had a very big role around the world in terms of occupation and colonisation. There’s like how can we just like I mean, there’s a big- there’s a big, kind of like push to not acknowledge the colonial histories in even how building like- where-how money came from buildings or particular people that benefited from like slavery and stuff like that. And it’s just it’s really frustrating as you know, someone who’s descended from slaves. And it’s just like, why? Like, sure, it’s bad, but that’s on you guys, you made it bad, so we need to know it.
Yeah, I don’t remember, if this was like a Now This video or something else. But someone was asking this group of Irish teenagers like, oh, why do you think that the British are so allergic to acknowledging colonisation and acknowledging like, the way Britain became a superpower? And he just straight up said, like, “because you don’t want to deal with what your ancestors did, because you’re too ashamed of it. Even though we all know what you did. And you know what you did”. Obviously, he does deliver it with a lot more pizzazz than that, like that was the gist of like, because you just don’t want to deal with what your ancestors did. And I think the fear of like accountability and the fear of like, getting it wrong in your accountability, I think that’s a big fear for a lot of like, scientists who want to be allies, but don’t know how, but like, at some point, growth requires discomfort, progress requires discomfort. And so you’re right, like you- somebody has to be the first and I think for a lot of these settlers scientists, like you’re gonna have to be the first to experience discomfort and own up to what your ancestors did, before we can see like a real trend towards decolonisation and like, equity and inclusion.
That’s the irony is that this kind of sweeping colonialism and its consequences under the rug, is the same movement, which tries to champion free speech says the irony to say, like, “oh, we have the right to be able to criticize and be bigoted, and to, like, have these offensive views”.
Because it’s really about the free speech that makes white people comfortable.
It’s a one way street for them. But talking about the territorial acknowledgments. Jazmin was the first British person that I know that did it, because she did it, I did one for my PhD. That was like, the first time I came across that. I think like, not only did Britain had, like a big part in col- colonialising, but like, a lot of the research that earth scientists are able to do is because of colonialism. And so like a lot of the ability to just go to many countries, the majority of the countries that like British researchers do field work on has been touched by colonialism. So there’s really no excuse to not do a form of terror- like acknowledgment. Even if, for example, even if they did, maybe it’s not like a territory acknowledgement. But for example, even if they did earth science research within the UK, a lot of the money that the university gain from did or was also rooted in colonisation.
I mean, the UK isn’t just Britain, like it colonised three other nations ones like we are now the United Kingdom. There’s that John Oliver clip where he’s like, yeah, the United Kingdom country composed of four variously willing members, like they’re variously willing, because the other three were colonised, and Northern Ireland is just like, I’m not involved in this dispute.
Oh, no, we need to also hold Scotland accountable too because that was they also played a big part in colonialism.
And Wales, no actually you know what all of them did all the nations did.
All of them are like they’re revolving degrees of [screams]
Are you okay?
Oh yeah, I just really enjoy this discussion.
But will your listeners enjoy this discussion?
They don’t have a choice. Of course, they have a choice, they have the choice to like not listen to it.
They suck if they don’t listen to it.
Yeah, they suck. Totally on them. And we’re not going to take that out, we’re going to keep that in to this episode. You suck guys, if you didn’t listen. Hear me now. Okay, moving on. You identify as non binary with your pronouns, they/them. So we wanted to know what challenges or maybe positive examples of being non binary in the sciences?
So actually, like a challenge came up in a really big way. Today, I was listening to someone give a presentation, and they kept talking about like, oh, the gender disparity and STEM between like, men and women and the pay disparity in STEM between men and women and retention rates between men- it was all just like the two binary genders and then she was like, but we should really pay attention to the fact that gender exists on a spectrum. And I was like, everything you just talked about for the last 45 minutes was about either end of the spectrum do I not exist? Like I guess I’m not valid in some way because like, one I’m not included in this research, right? And then like to, like, I feel like it’s like a hollow point to people like it’s moot at this point. Like you just say, like, oh, yeah, women and minorities. Oh, yeah, women and the gays. And it’s like, like, you realise, that there are like things between that, right? Like, there’s intersections between that like, it’s not just that. So I like I think it’s Jennifer Glass? She says I say White women and people of color. And I’m like, I like that, because that’s really what a lot of people mean when they’re talking about policy to address gender issues. They’re talking about how do we get White women to the parity of men? Whereas like, if you’re a woman of color, sorry. If you’re non binary or gender non-conforming or two spirits, sorry. And so that that came up for me today when they were giving that presentation and something else that came up in that presentation was like, research about like how people learn but it was divided only into like men and women she was like, men are think oriented and women are people oriented. And I was like, one) that just some kind of sexist right off the bat but then like two) like as a non binary person who doesn’t fit into either mold of man or woman who exists like outside of that binary like, what what am I oriented to like? Am I monster oriented? Because apparently I don’t exist or what the deal? And so it’s pretty frustrating because a lot of the time non binary people just get like rolled into like the woman part. Especially a lot of like white non binary people who are like even just like the most vaguely femme coded like if you don’t serve straight up Studio 54 androgyny people are like, woman! Do it! And it’s like, no, like, we’re not, we’re just really not. And so that’s been a kind of a struggle is like kind of feeling invisible most of the time or like feeling like we’re not as valid as like, people who fit into like the I’m a woman, especially like, I’m a white woman box. So that’s been pretty frustrating. Obviously, I’m really sore about it today, because of that presentation. Most of the time, I’m just like, oh, someone constantly misgendered me while they’re talking about me, rad. It’s like stuff like that. That’s like personally hurtful. But there’s also like big structural things that are hurtful. But one good thing is that there is one very small good thing, is there is a scholarship for trans and non binary people in STEM. It’s the Ben Barres fellowship after the famous trans scientist Ben Barres, and it does support you to do whatever you want to do with between two and $5,000, as long as you spend it all, by like, mid summer. And I really like it because it’s not just- well, I really like most, like URM based, so Underrepresented Minority based applications, because it’s not just proving like, are you a good scientist? But it’s like, are you a good scientist, considering the systemic context and societal context in which you live? So like, part of the Ben Barres fellowship was like, you know, how does the- how do you describe like your gen-? Like how do you think about your gender? Like, how does your gender presentation or the way that you identify in terms of your gender? How does that affect like, how you do your science, how you think about doing your science, how has it affected you, you know, professionally, what are you going to do with this money? If you get it and what would it mean to you as like a trans or non binary person to have this support? So that was like a really good thing that happened to me, this spring was like applying to that and being like, yeah, this whole organisation like actually values my presence, like not just as a scientist, but as like a non binary scientist. So that’s like one good thing.
I wanted to talk about the point you are making about how gender minorities are usually ignored, or just like, you know, grouped together with women but not vocalised. So like assumed that they grouped together with women. So there’s this particularly- I think it’s a bad practice of when when people want to- they wanted to highlight the underrepresentation of certain genders in conferences they would use- they would use the participants name to assume what their gender is. So they would say like, oh, there’s a, there is like a lower number of women compared to men. And there’s like, there’s a lot of problematic- there’s a lot of problems with that practice, I think, from like my perspective, because I get misgendered due to my name, because it’s not, you know, it’s not European name- [Itati] not a white name? [Nuzhat] Yeah, exactly. So like, even recently, like, last month, I was trying to contact someone for my sister and like, my sister told me like, oh, they just assumed that you are a guy. And I was like, why would they just assume like it says, Dr. Nuzhat, why would they assume that I was the guy? So I am, what I find frustrating is that when people use a metric, like name to assume someone’s gender, and a friend pointed out, like, you know, gender isn’t something that you observe, you can’t just look at someone and just say what gender they are. It just, I find it really frustrating because they don’t understand the violence behind kind of misgendering someone.
Yeah. It’s really hard to explain to cis people who have felt like more or less comfortable in their gender presentation matching their gender role. It’s really hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced, like a mismatch between that, what it feels like when you like, force that mismatch in person, like in a societal interaction. And so, like, I really hate these studies, and I know someone did it recently, free colleges, like what percentage of a college jobs went to men versus women. But they use like that function in R that sorts people by name into different gender bins. I was like, so what if you don’t have like a white person name? What if your name is neutral? And is used for both genders in like the binary equally? What if you’re non binary? Or like gender non conforming? What if you’re, what if you’re two spirit, like, how does that fall in? And people are just like, [scared noise], because it doesn’t, it doesn’t. They’re just stuffing you in a box. And I get that, like stuffing people into like, the gender box is good for capitalism, but I don’t know how to tell you that strict rules of capitalism are not how people live their lives. You know, like, I don’t exist to maximize the economy. The economy exists to serve me as a non binary person. And so for me, it’s really hard, especially when people like do misgender me a lot in person, because I have long hair, I look femme. Despite the fact I shave off my eyebrows and purposefully draw them in to look more masculine people are still like, “yeah, that’s a girl”. And I’m like, “no moto”. So I think something good that people can do is like normalising the use of like pronouns. And I know, that seems like a very basic and like, whatever, way to do it. But I think it’s like one of the easiest steps that says people can do because like, what is it really asking from them? Like, yeah, just confirm that your pronouns are he/him, and then it makes it a safer space for like everyone to just use their pronouns, like, yeah, my pronouns, are they/them, my pronouns are ze/zir, whatever. Like, there’s no, there’s no real cost to it. So it’s the easiest thing to get, like some majoritarian to do. Whereas there’s actual, like, harm done to people when you just box non binary people in with women. Because like, what if we’re not femme. And just, it’s misgendering. It’s telling you, I don’t believe the societal role that you want to have is worthy of you. So I’m going to give you a different one. Like, that’s my one, please stop.
It’s not just the misgendering part for me. It’s also saying that my presence isn’t important enough for the statistics. Like for example, when they use- when they- if you use assumption, by name, and so on, has a name whose gender they can’t guess, which is an inaccurate process in itself, then it’s saying that actually, I’m not going to be a statistic that they could use. I’m not going to be part of the statistics that indicates how many women are that- that kind of implying that my presence isn’t important enough, because- because I’m not making a contribution to the point that they’re making. On top of that, it could be that, you know, the statistic could be very different if they use an accurate measurement of gender, it could be that actually, you know that there’s a lot of people that they have ignored, and the statistics is higher, or made the statistics even lower, and they have to work harder for representation. And also, just, like just ignoring gender minorities themselves itself is saying that actually your contribution or your representation of you is not important for a conference, it is so violent.
Yeah, something that I found over the years is that a lot of people who study like, well, what is the status quo? Are actually pretty invested in keeping the status quo that way, rather than really interrogating what it is and what needs to change? But you’re totally right.
Yeah, I usually find that the people who kind of defend like bad EDI practices are White women. And it just goes back to like, the statement I’ve made that when you centre White women in EDI, you’re not really making STEM more inclusive. You’re just making it more white supremacist.
I don’t think that’s spicy. I think that’s pretty true. Like, I always dunk on Jen Heemstra. But she legitimately thought as a White woman with her White woman Diversity, Equity and Inclusion thoughts that are from 10 years ago, that if she just gave her students of colour a note that said, oh, yeah, “we’re out after curfew to do research ‘winky face’, don’t arrest me”, that- that would work like that is a thought that only someone who’s never experienced, you know, negative stereotyping and prejudice by- because of their race, could think of like, that’s only something like- a someone comfortable in their race in society could think of, to think that’s okay. And I think people want to defend White women in EDI, because like, it’s, it’s comfortable, right? It’s not really challenging the status quo is just going from a White male face to a White male and female face. It’s not changing the underlying structure really, that makes it so that, you know, historically excluded minorities decided to step off of the path of academia or off of the path of like going into a corporate structure or stuff like that.
I think anytime, like any organisation that like defends bad EDI practices that excludes people, I wouldn’t trust that organisation, I wouldn’t trust that group. So I think people, they kind of prioritise the feelings of the majority being White women or White men, I think like prioritising their- prioritising their feelings over marginalised, even more more marginalised folks is just antithesis to what EDI is supposed to be.
You guys are cool, I want to be you guys when I grow up.
How old are you? Are you older than me?
Yes. No, I just-
We all want to grow up to be each other. I want more like both of you when I’m older and wiser.
No, just just say that. Yeah, you all make very valid points. And yeah, it’s, I mean, get- so I’m currently like the EDI officer for the Volcanic and Magmatic Studies Group, which is a UK wide, basically a special interest group for volcanologists, and I come into this role is quite a new role. But actually, I’ve been taken on quite a lot of responsibility already. I’m like, I’m, I’m ready for it, and I’m up for it. But the majority of that community is White cisgendered. Particularly well, so the balance between well, from what we know from the data we have is mainly men and women. There is actually others of other gender in the- in this group because we do have that data. But it’s like it’s a minority within a minority kind of situation again, because demographics on sexuality are different as well and most of them are heterosexual there are quite a lot of gay and bi in our VMSG community. But then again, the other kind of sexualities are kind of they’re less and I’m one of those for example. So it’s it’s for me like I welcome the challenge but trying to make sure I take an intersectional approach in terms of right, of course, the majority of our community are one particular demographic, but there are still others that may not have the voice. And so I suppose for me, my- my, I would like to think my job, my job is to try and give those minorities in our own community, the voice, or the space to have a voice and kind of give their experiences. So I am will eventually try and arrange kind of like focus groups to be like, okay, got this space now, what is the issues that you have, that I can as the EDI officer could bring to like the rest of committee and and try and address and yeah, it’s just like thinking about all these things. And well, people are complicated. So trying to you know, try and try your best to represent all of them. As you know, it makes science better. So- [Itati] yeah. [Jazmin] Yeah.
You’re so cool. It’s actually so cool.
We are all cool.
Yeah, I guess.
I could call Itati on that anytime, you know. All right. So it’s almost time to wrap up. So for every guest, we like to ask them like a fun question. And for you, we wanted to say like, let’s imagine that you had all the money in the world, and all the resources, and no one can stop you. What would be your ideal conservation project?
My ideal conservation project would be if I had unlimited resources, time, and people power would be to completely restore the Great Plains of the US and Canada, back to their original like, tall grass prairie state, because less than 1%, I think, is the statistic of original prairies actually still exist. And so we’re at a real big threat of losing them and never being able to regain them again. And I also think it’s like one of the only like, real tough forward to sustainability is restoring like these big, continent wide landscapes. Because that’s how the landscape supported people before. Like, it wasn’t through factory farming, it wasn’t through any of that stuff. It was through, utilizing what was on the landscape initially. You know, there’s that tweet, I don’t remember which indigenous one posted it, but she’s like, indigenous people were living with a zero carbon footprint for millennia before settlers came. And it’s like, how do I get back to that? Via like restoration and management, and also land back. So that would be my thing is like, restore all of the Great Plains give it immediately back to indigenous people, and let them kind of like, set the stage for how we all need to start living sustainably if this is going to be a livable planet in the future. That’s my like fun- that’s my fun answer is, you know, land back, please or we’re all gonna die.
We laugh because if we don’t laugh, we will cry.
Before we go, I would like to say like my land acknowledgement. [Jazmin] Of course. [Itati] Sorry!
Don’t apologise! [Jazmin] No apologies!
I just felt like it’d be better to like do it at the end then at the beginning. So I want to acknowledge that both my research site and the institution that I am on are on Socodawa, Peoria and Anishinaabe-Ojibwe occupied lands. And that these lands were ceded to the United States during the Treaty of Saginaw. I would like to thank the indigenous peoples of these nations for allowing me to work and live in this space, as well as providing the foundation for the ecosystems that I am studying.
Nice, great, thank you. [Itati] Thanks! [Jazmin] If people wanted to get into contact with you, and if you want them to get into contact with you, what’s the best way they could get ahold of you?
So you can follow me on Twitter at itatiVCS. You’ll probably know it because I’ll have some ridiculous name. Like I think my name this week is “Guess I’ll just vaporize”, each time my name changes, it’s an inside joke because of something I’ve experienced that week or something that happened in lab meeting. So just look for someone with a ridiculous name when you type itatiVCS. And that’s probably me. The other way is through my official MSC email, which is on my blog, but it’s a santam14[at]msu.edu. So s-a-n-t-a-n-1-4[at]msu.edu. So those are the only those are the only ways to contact me.
That’s great. That’s perfect. Thank you.
Thank you for being our guest today.
And that’s it from us. If you enjoyed this podcast, please like, subscribe, share and leave a review.
If you have any feedback for once it gets in touch with us. You can find us on whatonearthpodcast[at]gmail.com or whatonearthpod on Twitter, or What On Earth Podcast on Instagram.
See you next time!