Climate education in a hostile culture: moving forward, doing better, together

Sarah E. Myhre Ph.D. and Marisa J. Borreggine

SEM is a postdoctoral scholar with the Future of Ice Initiative and the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington. MJB is a senior undergraduate student in the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington. Below is an edited conversation.

MJB loading samples into an instrument at UW’s Isotope Lab.

SEM: Marisa, we have worked together for almost a year. We have both grown professionally, we’ve worked on really big, hard projects. Yes, I am a postdoc and I have been mentoring and supervising you. But, we are also collaborators and colleagues. The events of this week (the election of a climate denialist, anti-evidence, anti-women candidate to the highest office in the United States) have called into question my career trajectory and my commitment to my scientific field — and I know this week has been really hard for you, too. We need to talk, and I think we should put these ideas down for other people who are similarly struggling.

MJB: I agree. I also think, at the very opening of this piece, we should acknowledge that even though our struggle is truly valid and painful, there are so many other people in this country right now who are going to be immediately affected by this election. It is more important than ever before for us to use our privilege to protect these people in whatever ways we have at our disposal. That being said, this is scary for everyone. Every single person I know is affected by this, and not in a good way. The only way to describe election day for myself, and on the behalf of other students in my situation, is a rollercoaster of emotion. Peers of mine involved in politics, activism, business, medicine, and other career choices were all feeling pretty much the same — we didn’t think this would happen, we felt the weight of it all at once, and we are all disappointed.

SEM: So how are you now? Where are you landing? Does this change your immediate take on your career choice?

MJB: Today, two days after the election, one sentiment became clear — it’s time to get up, show up, and do the work. I personally feel more dedicated than ever to climate change — I have a personal stake in it like everyone else, but now I have an emotional connection. This is my calling, and the threat of someone taking that away from me made me scared, angry, and determined to protect it. Perhaps it’s the protective bubble of the many years of education my peers and I have yet to go through before we enter the Trump-transformed workforce, but I’m not alone in my determination. People are angry and ready to fight for their passions, especially students in the process of gaining a scientific education.

SEM: One thing that concerns me is the idea of our students turning away from science because it is too damn hard to fight the culture and build the expertise in science necessary to be competitive. I mean, I get it. I am working so hard to make a career for myself — I have considered transitioning away many times. But, I am here to stay, this is definitely my professional home. How do you think we keep talented people, people who are disenfranchised by the dominant culture, in our science classes?

Climate change is the transcendent global problem of our time. -SEM

MJB: That’s a hard question. I’d say that there are some of us, like myself, who just have that fight inside of us. Some of us are surrounded by climate change deniers at school, at parties, and even in our own homes — it puts the fight in you when you must always be ready to defend your career choice in such a philosophical way. Not everyone finds determination this way, though. It can be exhausting, maddening, depressing, and most importantly, disheartening. I try to avoid sitting down and thinking about how many people out there think what I love, what I have chosen to dedicate my life to, isn’t even real. That’s where the disenfranchisement happens, it’s in those scary, sad moments.

SEM: Yeah. Me too. But it fuels the kind of expansive hope and urgency that we need to do better, to demonstrate that climate change isn’t a siloed, political issue. It connects every one of us together. Climate change is the transcendent global problem of our time.

SEM getting it done in UW’s Isolab

MJB: I think that the urgency is always going to be a key component to keeping us motivated. People always ask me why I chose to study oceanography and climate change, and I always say the same thing. I can’t not study climate change — if I have the skills at my disposal to better the world through science, it doesn’t feel right doing anything else. For me, the world in and of itself is enough of a reason to keep going — right now, just google a picture of the Dolomites in Italy. Looking at that photograph, you should wonder why anyone who could protect something so beautiful and so much larger-than-life, wouldn’t do everything they could to. When my professors present the unbiased, overwhelming scientific evidence we have that the climate is changing, and tell us about the consequences of those changes, I feel a huge sense of urgency. I’m scared for the future of humanity and our beautiful planet, and I want to do what I can to protect it. That’s bigger than someone at a family reunion telling me the world is only 3,000 years old. It’s so much bigger than that.

Everyone has a moment they can think back to that demonstrates how the climate has changed in our lifetimes. Even if you don’t believe in climate change, you would have to be blind to let the climate anomalies in our country alone go unnoticed. -MJB

SEM: Yes, exactly. This isn’t about conflicting with the world views of people — it’s about moving together to truly value and protect our own personal goldilocks zone. Our blue marble spinning free, dizzy with eternity. (Yes, that is part of a Grateful Dead quote, now I’m really showing my true colors.) So, the other big piece of this for me is the normalization of apathy. I want my students to really understand how important these big-big problems are to their lives, their family’s lives. At the same time, I worry about my students not having the emotional skills to navigate the kind of existential and moral dilemmas that climate science comes with. I mean, I am pained every damn day by the existential and moral dilemma — and I think that I’ve been transparent with you about how I bring my whole person, heart and mind, to my profession. Has this helped? How could we do this better — to widen that inclusive tent and make this field a safe, sane place?

MJB: I think at this point in the progression of climate change, we should minimize how much we’re worrying about young scientist’s emotional capabilities in dealing with climate change consequences. We’re young adults, we’ve grown up in a world where we have experienced the consequences of climate change firsthand. Everyone has a moment they can think back to that demonstrates how the climate has changed in our lifetimes. Even if you don’t believe in climate change, you would have to be blind to let the climate anomalies in our country alone go unnoticed. I do understand what you’re saying, because sometimes when an issue is so big, so sad, and so scary, like perhaps the Syrian refugee crisis, your gut reaction is to not think about it. It isn’t happening to you, or it isn’t happening right now in front of you, so why should you cause yourself emotional strife? But again, I think we’ve kind of crossed a line where that option is becoming more scarce.

SEM: Touché, dude. Well put.

The Dolomite Mountains of Italy. In case you forgot how beautiful our world is. photo: http://www.lagazzettaitaliana.com/region-of-italy/7773-discovering-the-dolomites

MJB: With droughts in California and Washington, increased wildfire frequency, and climate migrations happening, you can’t say it isn’t happening right now, and you can’t say it isn’t happening to you. As young scientists and students, we’re face to face with the reality of climate change, and it’s becoming harder to ignore. For me, seeing the human side of the science, and knowing that climate change isn’t just about figures and data floating around in space being generated by faceless government organizations, helped. I came to understand that climate change research is also about being unsure, and being scared, and crying when the Great Barrier Reef is declared dead, and mourning for things you’d never thought you’d mourn. And, it’s about people. It’s about coming together under a shared cause, no matter how unsure we are, and doing what we can. Continue being emotional about it, continue getting angry, getting sad, and even being happy when we make small gains in policy or cutting emissions. When students see that climate scientists are just like them, and are just as scared as them, we can come to terms with our own emotions, stop ignoring the big scary monster right in front of our face, and contribute to the work to make the big scary monster just a little smaller and a little less scary.

SEM: The other piece that I keep sitting with is how do I lift up and amplify the voices of women, people of color, and immigrants — essentially people being actively targeted and marginalized — in our field? I am so happy to work with a young, talented woman like you, and to help steward your career in all the ways that I can. What has worked for you in this last year, to demonstrate that you have a home in academia? What kind of mentoring activities would help to recruit and retain students that might otherwise be disenfranchised?

How do I lift up and amplify the voices of women, people of color, and immigrants — essentially people being actively targeted and marginalized — in our field? -SEM

MJB: I think that the atmosphere of openness, honesty, and collaboration have made me feel right at home in academia. When I can go up to a coworker who I know is doing extremely important research and also ask how their dog is doing, I feel at home. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from this work is that it’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to be unsure. Not everyone knows exactly what they’re doing 100% of the time, and that’s okay. That was a big revelation for me. I think students are scared to get into the research because it can seem intimidating, and they don’t have enough confidence in their ability to learn on the fly. Working in a lab can be daunting, because you are faced with such important work every day, and sometimes you just outright have no idea how to do the work. I’ve also learned that that is okay — you can ask for help, and the scientific community I’ve encountered has always been overwhelmingly helpful and happy to spread the wisdom.

Working in a lab can be daunting, because you are faced with such important work every day, and sometimes you just outright have no idea how to do the work. -MJB

SEM: Well, you are getting to see the underbelly and comradery of science. We have both struggled to put a huge scientific collaboration together this last year — getting comfortable with struggle is a significant skill I practice in this field.

MJB: Science is about collaboration, and not just in our findings we’ve so meticulously put together, but in putting our minds together because not everyone is a physicist, chemist, geologist, biologist, ecologist, and technician all in one. I remember seeing all those signs around campus my freshman year that said “Fail Forward” — it was a series of events on resilience in the face of failure, and that was so new to me. In my years in school, I’ve found that I always learned the most from the projects and tests I do the worst on — you’ve got to come back, think about it, pick yourself up, and move forward.

SEM: Absolutely. Perfectionism is toxic. There is no struggle in perfectionism.

Nothing can beat the excitement of making a discovery, finding that document you’ve been looking for, and seeing the fruits of your research come to life. If there was a way to convey just how rewarding the work is, I think that would also be a great way to recruit and retain students of all types. — MJB

MJB: I think students, marginalized ones especially, would feel much more comfortable putting themselves out there if we cultivate this environment of openness and embracing what you do not know. As far as retaining them, I think about my experience throughout this year. Sometimes the work was brutal and tedious, and I could have quit and gone back to being a barista — but this is just so much more rewarding. Nothing can beat the excitement of making a discovery, finding that document you’ve been looking for, and seeing the fruits of your research come to life. If there was a way to convey just how rewarding the work is, I think that would also be a great way to recruit and retain students of all types. I touch on the points of being unsure and scared to put yourself out there for a reason. From my limited experience of being a marginalized person as a female, I know what it’s like to be in a classroom and knowing the right answer to a question, but feeling unsure and scared to speak up because if you’re wrong, no one will take you seriously, and people will think you’re dumb, and that’s the worst thing you can be. There are so many systems of implicit bias at play in a classroom, that microcosm of the real world. When you’re white, you live in a bubble where the world doesn’t end if you’re wrong, and you’re also kind of taught that you’re always right. It’s a lot easier to speak up in that little bubble. Cultivating an atmosphere where making mistakes, asking a lot of questions, and being wrong is not only okay, but considered learning opportunities, is the best way to encourage disenfranchised students.

There are so many systems of implicit bias at play in a classroom, that microcosm of the real world. When you’re white, you live in a bubble where the world doesn’t end if you’re wrong, and you’re also kind of taught that you’re always right. -MJB
We have so much work to do — to take responsibility for our own biases, implicit and explicit. -SEM

SEM: God, that is so true. My marginalization as a woman has been very real. At some points in my life it has been traumatic — but I do not think it can even be compared to the marginalization and violence experienced by people of color, LGBTQ people, people from “English as a second language” homes. I have always assumed (here is my privilege) that I had a right to a seat at the table in this culture. I am ashamed that I have not worked harder to make space for marginalized people. I feel a deep weight of responsibility. We have so much work to do — to take responsibility for our own biases, implicit and explicit. To take responsibility for the privilege that we can unwittingly wield. To really listen with open hearts and to ensure that Science — and I mean capitol S, Science — is a safe, inclusive home for everyone.

Marisa, thank you so much for having this conversation with me. I am so glad we are doing this together. I hope our conversation can provide some light and leadership through our collective darkness.

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