How One Marine Scientist is Educating Others, and Herself

Gloucester Point, VA (May 14, 2018) – A scene from the campus of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). (Photo credit: Aileen Devlin/Virginia Sea Grant, shared under a Creative Commons license)

 

Malina is a disease ecologist now finishing her second year as a master’s student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Before VIMS she worked for California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and the UC Davis One Health Institute at Bodega Marine Laboratory, investigating withering syndrome in the critically imperiled white abalone. Her current research is on infectious hematopoietic necrosis virus (IHNV), a pathogen that causes mortalities in salmonids, including commercially farmed species.

I met Malina when we were both taking a summer course at Friday Harbor Laboratories as new graduate students. Since then, Malina and I have kept in touch and have spoken twice, once about her research and her motivations for supporting sustainable food systems (covered in our first installment) and a second time recently for an update on her graduate work.

It was wonderful to connect with Malina again and to see how much progress she’s made, both personally and in her research since I talked to her last year. At the core of Malina’s science communication efforts is a passion for helping others in society deepen their scientific knowledge so they can make more informed decisions. Below, she talks about her efforts to bridge the science communication gap by supporting high school curriculum development, as well as changes that she has experienced in marine sciences and academia in general since the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Malina’s words have been edited for length and clarity and are presented below as a single, continuous narrative.


Our science education in public schools is really lacking, and it’s not the fault of teachers. I think it’s a broader failing of the system. We need a design overhaul so that we’re getting the education that we need to make smart decisions as a society.

That includes disease ecology and thinking about all the different parts of our ecosystems as humans, regardless of whether you want to be a scientist or are even interested in science. You need to have a basic understanding of how your body works and how it interacts with the environment around us.

That’s an issue we’ve seen with this pandemic. Last year, we saw how it could be difficult for people to understand how their actions of staying home might affect their neighbor, their grandma, or anyone. I think we saw the best and the worst come out in people. We saw these amazing videos of people breaking down the concept of herd immunity, or how the virus presents differently in some people, or how to think about public hygiene. However, I am still deeply worried that my fellow community members don’t understand these basic concepts that keep everyone safe.

I think the general populace doesn’t have a very good understanding of how diseases work, and that matters. It doesn’t matter if they like to eat fish or if they like the particular species that I study. But it does matter when they’re making decisions about where their food comes from, and understanding how to make healthcare decisions, or how to vote on decisions that will affect more than just them.

Working in a temperature-controlled wet laboratory during a pandemic means bundling up and wearing a mask inside the lab. Malina is wearing a Friday Harbor Laboratories sweater that is buried under two additional jackets. In the background are the rows of fish tanks she checks on daily. (Photo credit: Malina Loeher)

 

We have a really cool program at VIMS led by our education and outreach teams called VA SEA (Virginia Scientists and Educators Alliance), where we develop lesson plans for high school and middle school based on grad students’ research. This last year, my lab mate and I both participated, and I wrote a high school lesson plan based on my research to get high school kids thinking about disease ecology and bacterial and viral pathogens. They get a dummy data set to work with, and the point is to find out how much you can learn about population biology and diseases just with a numerical data set. It gives them a lot of graphing experience, but hopefully they’ll also get to thinking about holistic health in a population.

That was an indirect way I could communicate my research to the public, and it was something that I could offer as a student and make freely available to high school teachers. I have a lot of friends who are teachers and I also keep in touch with some of my own primary school teachers, and it just seems like they’ve gotten such a rough deal—for so long, but especially during the pandemic.

Obviously writing one lesson plan isn’t going to solve this issue, but it’s a little thing that I can do as part of my own outreach goals. It makes science a little bit more digestible and hopefully gets kids thinking about disease ecology earlier than someone like me, who didn’t have any exposure to this discipline until late in their undergrad program. I’ve also been able to learn about teaching methods and lesson plan design. While I personally am not interested in pursuing education, I think the science of education is really interesting and I want to support my colleagues who are pursuing education, so that was something I worked on this year.

Speaking of education, I’ve been doing a lot of learning myself lately as a part of URGE [Unlearning Racism in Geoscience]—have you heard of them? They have a lot of really great resources online, but basically it’s a nationwide network of scientists and science-adjacent folks, primarily in geosciences, that has been organized by a team led by Vashan Wright, a postdoctoral scholar at Wood’s Hole.

In the wake of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, one of our faculty organized an URGE group where we could talk about race and justice and related topics, and we meet on alternating weeks. I wasn’t part of leading that initiative, but I’ve been excited to engage in these discussions. Every session, we read a couple articles and watched interviews with experts in their scientific fields, including social scientists who discussed how racism and racist policies have shaped current research practices and value systems in academia.

I think that URGE has put together a well-rounded curriculum to start conversations about how to increase diversity in the geosciences and in STEM fields in general. Their website is really helpful if you’re a teacher or an administrator who is interested in advancing JEDI [justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion] at your institution. How do we support not just students, but staff and faculty as well?  We’ve also spent a lot of time talking about how once you hire minority faculty, you need to make sure that they want to stay here. How much does the culture really need to shift? Spoiler: it does a lot.

Gloucester Point, VA (March 12, 2021) – Day-old lobsters, as seen under a microscope at the Seawater Research Lab at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). These individuals are part of a study to see how lobster eggs and larvae respond to ocean acidification and warmer waters. (Photo credit: Aileen Devlin/Virginia Sea Grant, shared under a Creative Commons license)

 

Last year a couple of friends and I had put together a book club of sorts to be able to engage in JEDI topics and reeducate ourselves, even when we might not have felt comfortable going to protests and being close to thousands of people while COVID-19 was spreading. Book groups are great because we’re academics and so this plays to our strengths, but you’ve got to do something with it. There’s no activism inherent to book clubs.

For that reason, I appreciate the work of URGE because it’s helping to get some of that activism going, but in an organized way where people who haven’t been activists before have a little bit of structure. Maybe you just don’t know where to start and how to identify the practices at your institution that need to change, because no blanket policy is going to work for every program or department. This has all been really helpful to me, and at least at VIMS, I feel like our administration has been very receptive to having these conversations.

For instance, I don’t really understand where all of our funding comes from. I don’t really have to know that as a student, but it makes it harder to figure out who you want to talk to if you want to advance JEDI, so in my URGE group it’s been really nice to have faculty, staff, and undergrads all sharing information. Being able to ask faculty, especially those who I wouldn’t usually interact with, about how they advance their goals, has been especially interesting to me. Many institutional obstacles have been easy to discuss, but previously it had often been difficult to find formal, public information about them on our school websites.

Those are the things that I think will be easiest to correct or improve: if there’s a resource that already exists, but it’s not easily accessible on the program’s website, you can usually make that change quickly. The next steps will be a lot harder.

We have a diversity committee at VIMS similar to SMEA’s new JEDI committee. I love that they exist because they’re the first forum that anyone from the school can go to with concerns or ideas, and questions on how to make change happen. They are all volunteers, nobody is being paid. Our student body submitted a formal letter to our administration last year asking for change at all levels of the institution, and they are taking it really seriously.

I didn’t contribute to this letter directly, I just added my signature in support. The students who actually did the work of doing the research and backing up all their statements and creating a concise, professional document were really impressive. They did such a great job, and I think it helped our administration take it extremely seriously. And now, because we are a really small campus, it seems like every faculty member or staff member is working on addressing some piece of that student letter. I hope in the next year, we have a follow-up town hall of sorts so that all students know what sort of work is being done.

VIMS is super vocal about how we’re a tight-knit community, and there is indeed a great community here. However, I feel that there’s also a lot of room for improvement, especially because we live and work in such a historically rich place, and a lot of that history, in my opinion, slants in a distinctly negative direction.

VIMS sits right next to Civil War battle grounds. The battlefields of Yorktown are almost within view of our campus. People come from all over the country to experience the history of American Revolution. Jamestown is less than an hour away. There are still plantations here, which really creeped me out. There are also local Tribes in the area. Virginia just opened its first state park dedicated to learning and preserving Indigenous American history, and it’s just up the road. Partly because of its location, and because of William and Mary’s claim to being one of the first universities in the United States, this school has “colonizer” written all over it—I think we need to do a better job of explicitly acknowledging our privileges and the historical context of our institution.

As a mixed-race person, I’m very aware of VIMS’ racial diversity, especially since we’re a small campus. There are limits to how much improvement you can expect in a short period of time, but I’m hopeful that things will look different and better. I’ve been noticing more land acknowledgements in recent student and faculty presentations, for example, and I plan to include similar statements in my future contributions. There are a lot of great people here currently working on shifting the needle, like in the Dive-In Committee, the Lemon Project, and multiple departmental and institutional committees dedicated to JEDI. I believe that the cultural climate here will feel more inclusive very soon. We’re already on that path.