NE CASC Appoints Three Graduate Assistants to Advance DEI Goals

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Acting on our commitment to help dismantle environmental racism and pursue a more just society, NE CASC recently appointed three graduate assistants who will lead projects designed to advance the Center’s diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. The graduate assistants were selected from a competitive pool of approximately 25 applicants who responded to a campus-wide call for proposals at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass), host institution for NE CASC.

Doctoral candidates in STEM disciplines at UMass, the graduate assistants will undertake a wide range of initiatives that will help facilitate greater engagement between NE CASC and Tribal entities, promote a deeper understanding of environmental racism among NE CASC researchers and staff, develop stronger connections between NE CASC and underrepresented students, and investigate the extent to which minority populations in Massachusetts are disproportionately impacted by climate change. While working on their projects, the students will be mentored by NE CASC personnel or UMass faculty.

“This is an exciting initiative, one that provides an example for other Science Centers to emulate," said Toni Lyn Morelli, NE CASC-USGS Research Ecologist and Chair of the Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee in the UMass Department of Environmental Conservation. "There is so much to be done in the area of DEI because members of the scientific community have only recently begun to consciously and systematically pursue equity, inclusion, and justice as goals of central importance within our respective fields. This newly launched program is a great way for NE CASC to begin prioritizing the work of creating meaningful, positive change within our community while educating Center personnel as well as STEM researchers across UMass."

Equally important, Morelli addedi, is that NE CASC has identified three outstanding students to complete their projects. “The selection committee was thrilled by the quality of the applicant pool and the terrific proposals submitted by the students who were chosen for the assistantships,” she said. “For this reason, we worked to find additional funding that allowed us to expand the number of assistantships available for the DEI initiative from one to three. This increase reflects our high opinion of our new graduate assistants. Although they are in the early stages of their academic careers, these students have demonstrated the potential to have a transformative effect on NE CASC. I am enthusiastically looking forward to working with each of them.”

Please read about the NE CASC DEI graduate assistants and their projects below:

Name: Asha Ajmani
Department: Environmental Health Sciences
Project: Engaging Tribal Youth to Promote Climate Adaptation
Project Timetable: Fall 2020-Spring 2021
Mentor: Michelle Staudinger, NE CASC Science Coordinator
Project Description: Building on her previous experience working with the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Asha Ajmani will focus her NE CASC project on helping remedy the pervasive inaccessibility of environmental education and services for Tribal Nations. Frequently preventing Tribal entities from building the capacity necessary for creating sustainable solutions to climate change-related challenges, this inaccessibility intensifies the impact of climate change on Tribal communities. Responding to this problem, Ajmani will develop a series of online panel discussions connecting regional Tribal youth considering careers in climate adaptation science and related fields with NE CASC researchers. These discussions will be used both to deploy NE CASC expertise to inform Tribal participants about climate change impacts relevant to Tribes and to help develop adaptation strategies that effectively address these issues (which will likely include problems related to fisheries, forestry management, invasive species, and sea level rise). Additionally, this project will also foster the development of a mentorship program in which NE CASC personnel will engage with Tribal youth to explore how universities can better support the cultural needs of Indigenous people in their transition to campus life. This component of the project is designed to encourage the scientific aspirations of Tribe members and augment culturally sensitive university-level educational experiences that support diversity and inclusion.  

Name: Meghna Marjadi
Department: Organismic and Evolutionary Biology
Project: Enhancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the NE CASC Community
Project Timetable: Fall 2020-Spring 2021 
Mentors: Toni Lyn Morelli, NE CASC Research Ecologist, and Michelle Staudinger, NE CASC Science Coordinator
Project Description: A doctoral candidate investigating fish migration patterns and how they may be impacted by climate change, Meghna Marjadi has participated in many diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at UMass. During her term as a NE CASC graduate assistant, Marjadi will collaborate with Center personnel to develop new educational programming focusing on racial and environmental justice issues, expand the reach of existing UMass campus DEI initiatives to the NE CASC community, and create pathways for underrepresented undergraduates to participate in Center activities. A key component of this project will involve developing a webinar series featuring environmental activists and scholars of color to examine the relationship between and intersection of racial and environmental justice. Marjadi will also work with experts inside the UMass community to develop a seminar—directed at NE CASC faculty and staff—that enumerates best practices for attracting and retaining students from underrepresented backgrounds. Ultimately, the seminar will facilitate the creation of a strategy for implementing these best practices at NE CASC. It is hoped that this effort will yield a sustainable model for enhancing diversity within the Center specifically and the climate adaptation field more broadly.

Name: Cielo Sharkus
Department: Civil and Environmental Engineering
Project: Engineering Justice: Social and Hazard Resilience in a Changing Climate
Project Timetable: Spring 2021
Mentor: Christian D. Guzman, UMass Assistant Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering
Project Description: Recent studies have shown that extreme flooding events, which are becoming increasingly frequent in an era of climate change, can induce the transport of contaminated sediment into surrounding water bodies. Preliminary research conducted by Cielo Sharkus has revealed that low-income minorities in Massachusetts are significantly more likely than other populations to live in flood hazard areas located near brownfield sites. Using this information as a foundation for her NE CASC project, Sharkus will investigate the extent to which these communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change. By analyzing 100 and 500-year flooding data, Sharkus will estimate the movement of brownfield contamination in the soil to understand its impact on the health of those living closest to brownfield sites. This project will also establish a platform for impacted communities to engage with engineering, scientific, and social scientific expertise to increase awareness of environmental hazards, plan for effective emergency responses, and develop hazard mitigation efforts.