Stanford University
Paula Welander sits and talks with students.

Professor Paula Welander mentors students Alysha Lee and Adrian Juarez. (Photo credit: Linda Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Q&A: What does it mean to be Latinx in the geosciences?

Stanford Earth recently transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative. As part an effort to celebrate and discuss identity, six Stanford Earth members share how their ethnic-cultural backgrounds have informed and impacted their careers.

BY Elenita Makani Nicholas
ClockSeptember 22, 2020

As a child of immigrants, you’re bridging two worlds. At home, you’re speaking Spanish and you have one set of cultural norms, but you also go to school where you have to speak English and adjust to another set of expectations,” says Paula Welander, who joined the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) faculty as a professor of Earth system science in 2012. “My parents are immigrants from Mexico, and they didn’t finish high school. If you talk to any immigrants with kids, they’ll tell you there’s two paths in America: You’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer. The option of an academic career just wasn’t something that they’d been exposed to.”

Who is Latinx?

People of Latin American descent have a broad swath of terms that they might use to refer to themselves. In addition to choosing a country- or region-specific label, some of the more commonly heard terms are Latin American, Latina/o, Hispanic, Chicana/o, Afro-Latina/o, among others. While each of these might be preferred and used by different people, Latinx is increasingly gaining popularity as a gender-neutral, pan-ethnic term.

The Latinx community makes up over 18% of the total U.S. population, with more than 60.6 million individuals tracing their roots to Spain, Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Spanish-speaking nations of the Caribbean, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, Latinx people are the second-largest racial or ethnic group behind white people in the United States.

Latinx numbers in Earth sciences

The way the Census collects demographic data makes for an inexact calculation of who and how many individuals make up the U.S. Latinx population, but of that group, about 22% of individuals aged 25–64 had a two-year degree or higher in 2016. As you go up the academic ladder, the numbers increasingly decline. According to a 2018 National Science Foundation survey of PhD graduates, Latinx students earned 6.4% of geoscience doctorates. We see this trend, as well, at Stanford Earth, where individuals identifying as Hispanic/Latino counted for 18% of undergraduates, 7% of graduate students, and then only 3% of professoriate faculty in 2019-2020.

While there are diversity initiatives aimed at attracting students of underrepresented backgrounds to the geosciences, more work needs to be done on behalf of institutions to support students as they travel up the academic ladder. Latinx students make up one-fifth of U.S. undergraduate students, but less than 5% of the professoriate. It’s been empirically shown that students of color, in this case, those of Latinx and Black backgrounds, already have an interest in STEM fields; however, these students switch majors, drop out of college, or choose not to pursue advanced degrees in the same field that they started in at high rates. There are a host of reasons why white students are more likely to continue down a STEM path, but one reason is that the geosciences have been dominated by those whose parents have advanced degrees.

Being the bridge

Latinx students are more likely to be first-generation college students than any other racial or ethnic group. What this means is these students may have to tackle the academic system without help by preparing for college entry exams alone, working sometimes multiple jobs in addition to maneuvering the financial aid system, and learning what on-campus resources are available to them, amongst the many challenges that come with attending college. They may need to do all of this without seeing examples of others who look like them. It’s no surprise that for students who are first-generation to college, their families may not always be aware what different fields of study are available to their children or that having a career as an academic is even a possibility.

“Normally, your parents are who you go to for advice,” says Welander, who was awarded tenure in 2019. “But in my case, I had to explain my academic and career choices to my parents, and I had to explain my personal life to my teachers and peers. It’s part of being an immigrant family—having to bridge these worlds,” she says. “Learning to communicate between these various parties might have been why I was comfortable making the leap into professorship.”

For students of any background, having mentorship from people they can relate to can help them to navigate their career and life pathways. Organizations like GeoLatinas has helped academics of Latinx backgrounds to find community and mentorship where it has been missing in the academic pipeline.

Stanford Earth recently transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative. As part of DEI’s effort to both celebrate and discuss identity, six Stanford Earth members share how their ethnic and cultural backgrounds have informed and impacted their careers. Paula Welander, professor of Earth system science; David Gonzalez, graduate student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER); Shersingh Joseph Tumber-Dávila, graduate student in Earth system science; E-IPER alumna Nicola Ulibarri, PhD ’15, who is now an assistant professor of urban planning and public policy at the University of California, Irvine; Katerina Gonzales, graduate student in Earth system science; and Sebastian Perez-Lopez, undergraduate student in geological sciences, discuss their hopes for the future of diversity in the geosciences.

What ethnic or racial background do you identify with?

Paula Welander
Paula Welander (Twitter @paulawelander) is a professor of Earth system science who joined the Stanford faculty in 2012. Her current research program is focused on understanding the biosynthesis and physiological function of “molecular fossils” or biomarkers in extant bacteria. (Photo credit: Steve Castillo)

Welander: I am Mexican American.

D. Gonzalez: I have a mixed background, with a Chicano dad from Los Angeles and an Ashkenazi Jewish mom from Kansas City.

Ulibarri: I am half Chicana/Hispanic and half Northern and Eastern European. My dad’s family is New Mexican (Spanish/Basque immigrants who settled in New Mexico in the 1700s and Pueblo Indian) and my mom is half Swedish and half Lithuanian/Ukrainian Jew.

Tumber-Dávila: I primarily identify as Latino/Hispanic. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico to a Puerto Rican mother and an Indian father. As is true for most Puerto Ricans, my Puerto Rican family is a mix of Spanish/European descendants, Afro descendants, and Native/Taíno origins.

K. Gonzales: I am Mexican American, or Chicana.

Perez-Lopez: Hispanic/Latinx; Chilean, specifically.

Share a formative story related to your ethnic or racial identity.

Shersingh Joseph Tumber-Dávila
Shersingh Joseph Tumber-Dávila is a PhD student in Earth system science and a former SURGE student/program assistant who uses a variety of tools to understand the size and shape of plant root systems. He also has created outreach programs for Latinx communities called Pertenecer/YouBelong and Con Ciencia en las Américas, been awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, and co-taught EARTH203/Diversity and Inclusion in the Geosciences.

Tumber-Dávila: My identity as a Boricua—term for a native of Puerto Rico originated from the Taíno name for the Island, Borikén—is inextricably tied to the natural beauty I experienced as a child at my family’s farm in a mountainous region of southeastern Puerto Rico that was a short drive from both the coast and the rainforest. I was 5 years old when Hurricane Georges hit in 1998. Spending days with my family as we prepared our homes, seeing the national guard as they built storm defenses, feeling the same winds that bent palm trees like sheets of paper, as well as witnessing the destruction that followed, showed me the power that nature had.

Welander: My parents emigrated here from Chihuahua, Mexico, in the 1970s, so I identify as 100 percent American because I was born and raised and educated in this country. But growing up as the daughter of immigrants who hadn’t even finished high school and in a very culturally Mexican part of Los Angeles, I also identify as Mexican. My whole life was in Spanish, but my school was in English, so it was like being a part of two different worlds. It wasn’t until I had a research experience in Mexico City where I really came to terms with being 100 percent Mexican, but also 100 percent American. It took going to Mexico to realize that I really felt like I belong in this country, in America.

K. Gonzales: My Latinx identity, or Latinidad, is complicated. As a “white-adjacent” Latinx person, my ancestry is both of the colonized and the colonizer. Every day I have a choice whether I’m going to assimilate with colonialist culture and the predominant mode of power that controls every facet of higher education and research, or whether I’m going to be my authentic self. That’s complicated because not everyone who is of a marginalized identity is automatically working for justice all the time. I’ve probably unconsciously or consciously assimilated in a lot of academic spaces because the climate space, in particular, is so white.

How does your identity intersect with your research, your workplace, your field?

David Gonzalez
David Gonzalez is a PhD student in E-IPER who studies how pollution from extractive industries impacts reproductive health and contributes to racial health disparities. He is also a DARE Fellow, EDGE Fellow, Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow, and a Graduate Scholar-in-Residence at El Centro Chicano y Latino. For the past two years he co-led the course EARTHSYS225/Shades of Green: Redesigning and Rethinking the Environmental Justice Movements.

D. Gonzalez: I grew up in a small town on the California Central Coast that also happens to be near the site of the largest oil spill in California’s history. I remember going to the beach as a kid and seeing Chicano men fishing for their families, something my grandpa used to do too. They were fishing right next to where the spill had happened, and probably had been for years. Statewide, 2 million Californians live near oil wells, and oil wells are disproportionately sited in Latinx communities. Given their proliferation, I was surprised to learn that no one had studied how oil drilling in California impacts health, which is what I’ve dedicated my dissertation to study. Just a couple months ago, my colleagues and I published one of the first epidemiological studies on oil drilling in California.

Welander: I am keenly aware that I have often been the only Latina on my academic journey. I am now the only tenured Latina faculty at Stanford Earth. I come from a very different background than a lot of academic mentors come from, and I think that shows students that you can take different paths, and have different ideas, and different ways of doing things, and that you can still be successful. It gives me the confidence to question things and push boundaries, which is an essential characteristic for scientists.

Ulibarri: Despite going to a poor, rural public school, science became a core part of my educational experience early on because of some of my fantastic Hispanic middle school science teachers. It was critical to have like-minded mentors who reflected other parts of my identity. Who we are is an integral part of the work that we do. Growing up in northern New Mexico, I learned early on that environmental problems were cultural problems—you couldn’t hope to address water scarcity without acknowledging the longstanding ways that the tribes and Hispano communities had used water. Now, my research focuses on the practice and impact of bringing diverse perspectives, be it disciplines or stakeholder groups, into environmental management.

Sebastian Perez-Lopez
Sebastian Perez-Lopez is an undergraduate student majoring in geological sciences.

Perez-Lopez: Chile and my experiences there have had a huge impact in me choosing to study geological sciences. Chile is a long and skinny country bounded by the Andes on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. The Atacama Desert sits on the northern end of the country, and there are huge glaciers and ice fields in Patagonia in the south. Chile sits right on top of a subduction zone, so the entire country is subject to repeated and intense earthquake, volcano, and tsunami events. Some of my sharpest memories were formed by my interaction with Chilean geology—from finding my first piece of quartz while walking through the Atacama with my grandfather looking for a place for him to plant gooseberries to donating all of my savings (a few dollars from the tooth fairy) to relief efforts after an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and tsunami event in 2010.

K. Gonzales: It’s important that Latinos are leaders in climate conversations because we are one of the groups who are already more disproportionately affected by climate change. Climate change has been thought of as something far off, either in the future or geographically. But far off from whom? The climate crisis is here now, even at or near Stanford, and is especially detrimental for Black and Brown low-income communities.

Any thoughts on diversity for today’s upcoming and existing geoscientists?

Nicola Ulibarri
Nicola Ulibarri, E-IPER PhD ’15, studied the role of collaborative decision-making in managing hydropower dams during her PhD research. Now she is an assistant professor of urban planning and public policy at the University of California, Irvine.

Ulibarri: Growing up in New Mexico, there was never a question about whether I could do anything I wanted despite being Hispanic—our governor was Hispanic, doctors and lawyers were Hispanic, and so were the artists and everyone else. Having role models who share your experience/background in college or earlier is critical for drawing diverse students into the geosciences. We cannot hope to build a more inclusive culture in STEM if we don’t admit first that the dominant narratives of who “belongs” as a scientist must shift.

D. Gonzalez: We need to challenge the stereotypes of what a geoscientist is supposed to look like and do. All graduates of Stanford Earth should leave with an understanding of Indigenous epistemologies, the contributions of scholars of color, the histories of environmental racism, and the structural barriers that continue to impede diversity and inclusion in our field. This is fundamental knowledge and the work of generations. We should all aim to leave Stanford better than we found it.

Katerina Gonzales
Katerina Gonzales is a PhD candidate in Earth system science who studies West Coast precipitation extremes; specifically, atmospheric rivers. She was in the 11th DARE cohort and co-founded/co-taught EARTH203/Diversity and Inclusion in the Geosciences in 2018-19.

Tumber-Dávila: As a cisgender straight white-passing Latino, I am often unaware of the positions of privilege I may have until I am confronted by them, which highlights the importance of making spaces in academia to discuss justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, I was confronted with the blatant colorism that is common in Latinx cultures and beyond while doing fieldwork with a relative who has a much darker complexion than I do. A police officer pulled us over and only asked for identification from my relative, who was the passenger. That kind of treatment and worse is all too common in academic spaces. How can we create a workplace or field setting that is inclusive without truly understanding the needs and experiences of those we expect to thrive in that environment?

K. Gonzales: Be who you are, as much as your safety and boundaries allow. We need everyone to bring their authentic selves to work on geoscience issues and climate change issues because these are the issues that are going to define the future of our civilization. I acknowledge that it’s hard to resist assimilating into dominant culture because of the “currency of respectability,” but we can’t separate our brains from our hearts from our bodies. To Latinos and non-Latinos alike, I encourage you to show up for others as authentically as you can, in teaching and mentoring and research and fighting for justice in our communities and beyond.

DEI logo

This story is part of the #StanfordEarthCelebrates series hosted by Stanford Earth Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Media Contacts

Elenita Makani Nicholas

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

elenitanicholas@stanford.edu

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