This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Jewel Lipps, a graduate student in ecology and a member of the 500 Women Scientists leadership team. Jewel is currently leading our 500 Women Scientists Vote campaign geared towards getting out the vote leading up to the consequential 2018 midterm elections. In this interview, she shares her thoughts on the intersection of biodiversity and social justice and what keeps her motivated to keep organizing and pushing for change.
When did you first identify as a scientist? What does your research center on today?
When I was a senior in high school, I was encouraged by my teachers to do a project for the Texas Rodeo's Agricultural Science Fair. I'd learned about acid rain in chemistry class and read news articles about acid rain affecting Texas agricultural lands, so I set up an experiment to test how different concentrations of sulfuric acid affect crop seedling growth. As a 17 year old I was very shy and struggled with anxiety, so I was totally shocked when I won the science fair and the college scholarship prize. It was a pivotal moment where I realized that I saw myself the wrong way, and I owed it to myself to dream bigger and see myself as a scientist.
Now I am investigating the role of genetic diversity of foundation plant species for ecosystem functioning and resilience. In this period of rapid global change, we're losing biodiversity at both the species level and genetic level. We need to conserve and restore so many ecosystems that we depend on, but we don't know how to effectively factor in genetic diversity or how much it matters. To determine this, I'm a graduate research fellow working towards my PhD in Dr. Gina Wimp's salt marsh ecology lab at Georgetown University. I'm keeping a blog to describe my PhD experience.
How do you see equity fitting into your work as an ecologist?
I'm concerned with environmental justice and the role that conservation and restoration ecology can play in it. As an ecologist, I study interconnectedness. I document how the decisions of a powerful few seriously impact a community whose voice has been ignored. On one level this could refer to the literally voiceless plant and animal communities that are threatened by human activities. But for me, this means drawing connections back to human communities who’ve been marginalized, and deal disproportionately with the consequences of lost or degraded ecosystems.
The story that will forever influence and inspire me is the environmental justice story "Out of Deepwood." For decades, an illegal landfill operated next to a middle-class African American neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. The neighbors fought for justice and eventually won their case, forcing the City of Dallas to clean up the site. Today the site is the Trinity River Audubon Center, where I did my undergraduate research. I want to be part of ecological restoration stories like this throughout my career.
You're now on the leadership team. How did you first get involved with 500 Women Scientists and what are you hoping to advance in your time on the team?
I came across 500 Women Scientists while reading news articles in 2017, after the Women's March and before the March for Science. I signed up to get involved via the website, which connected me to the local pod in DC and to opportunities to write blogs and help write Take Action Tuesday posts. One of my early actions was to write about why fighting for undocumented students is essential to make STEM inclusive.
As a member of the 500 Women Scientists leadership team, I hope to help secure this new organization's role in the science for justice advocacy space. We regularly speak out on social injustices, like the immigration policy and sexual harassment, but I want to build our capacity to take concrete, collective action on intersectional issues. I see this happening as we create organizational structure to support the advocacy work of local pods and to elevate projects led by women of color.
You've been leading our 500 Women Scientists Votes initiative. Can you talk about what we're doing and why?
500 Women Scientists pods across the United States are engaging candidates on issues at the intersection of science and social justice, and working to improve voter education and increase voter turnout in our communities. For example, the San Diego Pod obtained written responses from their candidates on their science policy questions The Storrs Connecticut Pod combines science outreach with voter registration, working to shape their State into a strong pro-science force. Through our initiative, the knowledge and experience of women scientists in one place is shared with women scientists in other places. Our “Elections Matter” webinar highlighted the experiences of women scientists who ran for office and who lead large-scale civic engagement projects.
We're doing this because the U.S. needs leaders and representatives who value science, yes, but also who are committed to creating an equitable and just society. We learned from the 2016 presidential election that casting our vote is not enough, we need to actively engage in this important civic process. As women scientists, we have powerful perspectives to share when we talk to candidates and educate voters. It's time for women scientists to steer the discussion in our communities on issues like harassment in academia, environmental justice, undocumented students and immigration, as well as science policy in a broad sense. Also, it's no secret that voter turnout in the U.S. is unacceptably low, especially for midterm elections, so we truly need an all-hands-on-deck approach to voter registration and mobilization.
What's the best advice you've received- either as a woman in science or as an organizer?
Choose to work with people who support you, inspire you, and challenge you. In the context of applying to graduate school, I heard so much advice but the best was to choose a good research advisor, one who would be a true mentor. The people you work with usually end up affecting you more than the work itself. I’ve found that this is true in advocacy, too. I believe in the work, but I’m motivated by the people doing the work with me.
Jewel Lipps is a Biology PhD student at Georgetown University, researching ecological resilience in the salt marsh system. She is a member of 500 Women Scientists leadership. Though she was raised as a Texan, she has made herself at home in the Washington, DC area. Read more from Jewel on Twitter (@JewelLipps) or on her blog, jeweltheecologist.weebly.com.