Skip to main content

Helping Shape the Future of Climate Adaptation Science: NE CASC and the Climate Adaptation Scientists of Tomorrow Program

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Fatima Quiroz is a sophomore wildlife conservation ecology major at New Mexico State University, where she is also pursuing a minor in natural resources economics and policy. This summer, Quiroz traveled 2300 miles away from her university to spend ten weeks in New Hampshire on Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeastern U.S. Unlike the thousands of tourists who visited the White Mountains during the peak travel months of June and July, though, Quiroz wasn’t on vacation. Rather, she explored the mountain while studying endemic butterfly species as part of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and NE CASC “Climate Adaptation Scientists of Tomorrow” (CAST) program. Designed for undergraduate students from historically underrepresented groups, this federally funded initiative seeks to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in climate adaptation science through a two-summer, paid research program. 

Organized by the National Climate Adaptation Science Center (NCASC), the CAST initiative began in 2021 with a grant competition that invited principal investigators from all CASC consortium institutions to propose research experiences focused on increasing knowledge of and interest in climate adaptation science among CAST students. After evaluating proposals from a nationwide applicant pool, NCASC selected four institutions to serve as CAST program hosts: Auburn University with the Southeast CASC, University of Colorado with the North Central CASC, Louisiana State University with the South Central CASC, and UMass Amherst with the Northeast CASC. Following the designation of host institutions, NCASC also organized the application and selection process for students seeking to join the CAST program. 

Host institutions, in turn, have assumed responsibility for designing and implementing their individual versions of the CAST program. Led by two UMass faculty members, NE CASC University Codirector Bethany Bradley and NE CASC Research Ecologist Toni Lyn Morelli, the NE CASC program has multiple components that immerse students in NE CASC research projects, provides them with mentorship from faculty and graduate students, and incorporates them into faculty lab groups.  “Our goal in creating the NE CASC CAST program was to engage students intellectually, professionally, and socially,” said Morelli. “By implementing this kind of multifaceted research program, we hope to provide a transformative experience for our students—one that will encourage them to define their professional aspirations in terms of climate adaptation science.” 

The program welcomed two students in its inaugural summer and will expand to include four students in the summer of 2023. So far, it has been successful in realizing the objectives  that Morelli and Bradley envisioned.  Though she had previously participated in fieldwork at New Mexico State University, Quiroz says that her CAST research was wholly unique.  “It was a really amazing experience,” said Quiroz, who performed both fieldwork and lab work dedicated to learning more about the life cycle of two Mount Washington-specific butterfly species of conservation concern. “I absolutely loved being part of NE CASC. The White Mountains were jaw-droppingly beautiful, and working with insects was really interesting. On top of being able to do field work on Mt. Washington, I also received laboratory training that helped make me feel more like a true scientist. I haven’t stopped talking about how great my CAST experiences have been so far since coming back. I think my friends are over it.”  

Suvi Birch, a junior environmental science major at the University of Arizona and the second participant in the CAST program this summer, echoes Quiroz’s perspective. Birch spent the summer working in Bradley’s Lab on the UMass Amherst campus where she helped advance the lab’s goal of combatting the dual threat of invasive species and climate change. For her project, Birch developed a list of ornamental invasive plants available for sale in the region by surveying approximately 1,000 nurseries across the Northeast. Next summer, she will build on this work by helping construct a list of innocuous, visually appealing, and climate-adaptive alternatives to discourage the purchase of harmful invasive species. “The main benefit I’ve gotten so far from the CAST program is a stronger belief that I can succeed in the field of climate adaptation science,” Birch said. “Participating in invasive species research helped me better understand how large scientific projects begin and evolve while also giving me a better sense of what qualities are needed to do this kind of work effectively. As a result, I feel like I significantly advanced down the path toward becoming a climate adaptation scientist.”

Though the summer has ended, Bradley and Morelli have invited Quiroz and Birch to continue participating in their lab groups throughout the academic year. “We want to ensure that Suvi and Fatima think of the CAST program as a two-year rather than a two summer experience,” said Bradley. “By maintaining contact with them throughout the academic year, we’ll be able to strengthen their connection to their NE CASC projects and the NE CASC community more broadly. They have been so wonderful to work with and we’re excited to see them grow as climate adaptation scientists.” 

Equally exciting, Bradley observes, is the significant growth that NE CASC diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) initiatives have recently demonstrated. “NE CASC has increased its commitment to helping bring about a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just climate adaptation science community,” she said. A major part of this effort has been the development of a DEIJ Fellows Program for graduate students that has funded work to assess the NE CASC working climate, enhance connections with Tribal Nations, increase awareness of climate adaptation science as a career possibility among students at a historically black college, and investigate the extent to which minority communities in Eastern Massachusetts are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change impacts. “The CAST program  is the newest addition to a larger ongoing effort to help shape the future of climate adaptation science.,” Bradley said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but I think these initiatives show that NE CASC is making important progress.”  

This story was written by NE CASC Communications Contractor Carly Sherman.