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Broadening the Climate Adaptation Science Pipeline: NE CASC Completes Second Year of CAST Program

Wednesday, October 25, 2023
CAST Students and Mentors

Disproportionately low participation in the environmental sciences by people from historically underrepresented groups poses a significant challenge for the advancement of climate adaptation across the United States. According to a recent study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, people of color compose only 10% of the national environmental workforce, yet they account for approximately 40% of the U.S. population. To help address this inequity, the National Climate Adaptation Science Center (NCASC) has collaborated with the country’s nine regional climate adaptation science centers to create the Climate Adaptation Scientists of Tomorrow Program (CAST). A nationwide education and outreach initiative, CAST recruits undergraduate students of color to participate in summer research experiences that are guided by scientists within the nine-member Climate Adaptation Science Center Network. Providing its participants with early-career research experience in climate adaptation science, the program aims to achieve two goals: to encourage students from underrepresented groups to pursue careers in climate adaptation and to help diversify the environmental science workforce. 

NCASC initiated the CAST program in 2021 through a network-wide competition that awarded funds to a select group of centers seeking to establish CAST research experiences on university campuses affiliated with the CASC network. Following the competition, four universities, including NE CASC’s host institution, UMass Amherst, were chosen to pilot CAST initiatives. Led by NE CASC Codirector Bethany Bradley and Research Ecologist Toni Lyn Morelli, the UMass version of the CAST program immerses students in cutting-edge research, incorporates them into on-campus and professional communities, and provides them with mentorship from graduate students and faculty members. “Bethany and I have adopted a holistic approach in creating the CAST program,” Morelli said. “Our goal was to develop a research opportunity that engages students intellectually while also providing them with a sense of social belonging and a clear understanding of how they can progress professionally within the field of climate adaptation science. It is our hope that this kind of multilayered experience will have a decisive impact on them as they choose their career paths.” 

Summer 2023 marked the second year for the UMass CAST initiative, and this year’s student cohort was composed of four participants, including two undergraduates who returned to the program after taking part in it last summer. Returning students included Fatima Quiroz, a wildlife conservation ecology major at New Mexico State University,  and Suvi Birch, an environmental science major at the University of Arizona. First-time participants were Zoe Fu-Chen, a marine biology undergraduate at UCLA, and Antarius Jackson, who recently graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University . 

Although CAST students participated in a wide array of research projects–including the assessment of intertidal biodiversity in Boston Harbor, developing strategies to limit the spread of invasive species by nurseries, monitoring  wildlife habitats in the White Mountains, and analyzing climate refugia sites –they came away from the program with a uniformly positive impression of it.  “The past couple of months have been busy and hectic, but they were also incredibly fun and informative,” said Fu-Chen, who completed field work in Boston, lab work at Smith College, and data analysis at UMass. “I’ve never had an opportunity like this before. It’s been such an amazing window into how research in general–and marine research specifically–is conducted. I am so thankful I had the chance to be part of the CAST program and learn as much as I have”. Amplifying Fu-Chen’s comments, Fatima Quroz added that working with Morelli and her graduate students on a wildlife identification study played an important role in helping her shape her professional goals. “Being a member of Toni Lyn’s research group and entering that community was a great experience,” she said. “Not only did I learn a lot about research, but my passion for it increased as my knowledge expanded. Prior to the CAST program, I really didn’t understand what a career in climate adaptation could look like. Now, I not only understand it, but I also want to obtain a job in climate adaptation research.”

In addition to enhancing student interest in climate adaptation, CAST has also positioned its participants to succeed as early-career professionals by helping them expand their range of key skills and accomplishments. Quiroz, for instance, recently presented findings from her NE CASC project at the Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting while Birch is coauthoring a paper that will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. “Attending ESA was a fantastic learning experience,” Quiroz said. “I’m only an undergrad, but I can now say that I’ve presented my own work at a major conference. Doing that has helped prove to me that I belong in climate adaptation science, that I can make meaningful contributions to the field.” Like Quiroz, Birch also found that her CAST experience increased her self-confidence. “Last summer I was intimidated by R software, which is widely used for data analysis,” she said. “But this summer, I jumped right into it and learned a lot more about R coding. I’m proud of how I have been able to acquire this really valuable skill that is also relevant to my research interests.” 

While CAST students credit CAST mentors with building a supportive environment to facilitate their success, Morelli says that their accomplishments reflect the considerable talents of the students who have participated in the program. “We’ve been incredibly fortunate to recruit an outstanding group of students to UMass for our summer research opportunity,” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience to see them grow intellectually and professionally during the course of the program. They worked hard and accomplished a lot, but they’ve also only begun to realize their potential. I’m thrilled that we have been able to attract them to the field of climate adaptation science and can’t wait to see what the future holds for them. I know that they’re going to do great things.”