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Path Builder: NE CASC Fellow Cielo Sharkus Joins CASC Network's Climate and Environmental Justice Initiative

Thursday, August 31, 2023

NE CASC Fellow Cielo Sharkus recalls the exact moment that she first knew she wanted to become a scientist. Growing up in a low-income household, Sharkus attended a Massachusetts vocational high school with the expectation that she would learn a trade rather than pursue a college degree that seemed financially out of reach. Her perspective changed, however, during a sophomore year biotechnology course: “On the first day of that class, my teacher presented me with a white lab coat that had the name ‘Dr. Sharkus’ emblazoned on it,” she said. “From that point forward, everything changed. I saw a new path laid out before me and it just felt right. My teacher inspired me to explore a career in science–and ultimately changed my life for the better." 

Although Sharkus has ascended to impressive heights in her academic career, this moment has remained central to her personal and professional identity. Now a doctoral candidate at UMass Amherst and the recipient of multiple academic awards–including a prestigious Switzer Fellowship–Sharkus has brought her career full circle by aiming to have the same positive impact on others as her teacher had on her. Recently appointed the new Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility, and Justice Coordinator for the national Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC) Network, Sharkus sees the position as an opportunity to fulfill what she defines as her personal mission: creating pathways for students from historically underrepresented groups to develop academic careers in STEM disciplines. 

In her new role, Sharkus has joined the CASC Network’s recently established climate and environmental justice team, which is led by Alessandra Jerolleman, a faculty member at Jacksonville State University. Working under Jerolleman’s direction, Sharkus will carry out a wide range of duties, including coordinating the network’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) working group, developing partnerships between the CASC Network and environmental justice organizations, and researching and implementing strategies for enhancing organizational diversity and inclusion. Sharkus will also support the USGS effort to ensure compliance with President Biden’s Justice40 guidelines, which stipulate that underrepresented communities must receive 40% of the benefits from federal climate and environmental programs. 

“Having been an NE CASC DEIJ Fellow, I am now excited to join the CASC Network in a new capacity,” Sharkus said. “This position will provide a great opportunity for me to become more familiar with the work taking place at the regional CASCs while also learning how DEIJ initiatives are developed and advanced within a federal agency setting.”  More importantly, Sharkus adds, “It will also allow me to act as a peer mentor for others like me. I want to be a person in the CASC Network that fellows can rely upon for guidance, support, and encouragement to help propel them to successful careers as research scientists.”

Sharkus’ peer mentorship work will begin in October when she leads a group of fellows from regional CASCs to the 9th Annual HBCU Climate Change Conference, a week-long event that will bring together thousands of HBCU faculty and students, climate researchers, climate professionals, community activists and citizens impacted by climate change.  “When I attended this conference last year, I found it incredibly inspiring and informative,” she said. “It really brought home for me what it means to be an environmental justice scholar. There are so many opportunities for attendees to see great presentations, meet leaders in the field, and expand their professional networks.” Despite the many benefits of attending professional meetings like the HBCU Conference, Sharkus knows that their sheer size and scope can be intimidating.  “One of my goals for this trip is to make sure that no one gets lost in the immensity of the conference, “ she said. “It’s important that every one of our fellows feels that their presence is valued and that they are in turn gaining something of value from the conference. To help meet these objectives, I am planning daily group meetings at the beginning and end of each day. In the past, I have found that conducting warm up and debriefing activities where group members eat meals together, outline personal goals for each day, discuss approaches to achieving these goals, and review how the day went helps fellows to stay grounded and focused on their professional development.” 

In becoming part of the CASC network, Sharkus will draw upon the foundation she has established as a community builder and socially engaged researcher. At UMass Amherst, Sharkus has served as an adviser for the campus chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, initiated peer writing and support  groups, and led a reading group for NE CASC fellows. These activities complement her environmental justice research, which uses hydrodynamic modeling, groundwater modeling, and spatial analysis to examine how socially marginalized communities in the Western Massachusetts town of Holyoke may be impacted by a combination of climate change and environmental toxicity. 

All of these efforts, says NE Research Ecologist Toni Lyn Morelli, make Sharkus an ideal fit for her position in the CASC Network. “It is incredibly exciting to have Cielo work in the CASC Network as the new Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility, and Justice Coordinator,” said Morelli, a member of the CASC Network’s DEIJ Working Group. “Since joining NE CASC a few years ago in our initial cohort of DEIJ Fellows, Cielo has distinguished herself both as a remarkably talented researcher working in the areas of environmental and climate justice and as an effective advocate for the enhancement of diversity and inclusion across NE CASC, UMass Amherst, and beyond.  I couldn’t imagine a person who is better suited to make a significant impact in her new position, and I look forward to seeing Cielo continue to build on her already impressive achievements as a researcher, organizer, and leader. The CASC Network is lucky to have her!"