¿Güera, qué vas a llevar?

There’s a word in Mexican Spanish, güera, which is frequently used to address light skinned women like myself. I literally hear it everywhere—at the market, ¿Güera, qué vas a llevar?; at the corner taco stand, ¿Qué más güerita?; when I pay my bills at the convenience store, ¿Güera, todo bien?—all of which more or less translate to “What do you need, white girl?” It isn’t meant to be offensive in anyway, it’s more an observation than anything… as in, I am white, and taking advantage of the services of these merchants, and they want to help me with everything I need. However, it does point out my otherness in this country, in a way that sometimes makes me feel like I don’t necessarily belong in Mexico. But, this is my home and where I choose to be local right now, and generally speaking, being a güera here only means that I am subjected to random lines of questioning all the time (taxi drivers, doctors, etc.: “where did you learn to speak Spanish so well?”), rather than being in a state of constant fear because of the color of my skin. If anything, having the opportunity to be called a güera is another sign of my privilege: the privilege I had to have grown up in the Bay Area, which with it came access to an excellent education and economic mobility; the privilege to be mobile enough to move to another country and to learn what it is like to be kind of different; the privilege to work with themes I value (food security, environmental sustainability), rather than doing a job I have to because I need to pay the bills…

This privilege feels especially relevant right now for so, so many reasons. Most of my interactions with the U.S. at this point come through facebook and the complete archive of This American Life, and so I find it hard to gauge sometimes how people actually feel about the upcoming election, the excessive police violence, the state of the economy and availability of jobs, etc. I especially find it hard to understand whether people find it comical, like “Yes, this weird shit is happening in our country, but luckily we are smart, capable people and we will use our skillset to affect change in whatever way we can.” or, if people are legitimately at the point where this meme (in which I was tagged on facebook today) is something to take seriously:

I moved to Mexico for a number of reasons, tacos being one of them of course, but I often wonder about what it means to be a güera in Mexico, trying to help smallholder farmers. One of my primary motivations for working in developing country agriculture has always been the fact that farmers in the developing world inherently do not have access to the same resources (scientific capacity in particular) that we might in the U.S. I could insert a great deal about international development theory here, and the once prevalent idea that developing country agriculture needed to employ the technological approaches used in the U.S. and elsewhere rather than locally adapted practices. But, at the risk of going on a long tangent, instead I want to emphasize that much work in agricultural development has shifted to a more participatory approach. That is, simply, in order to appropriately address issues related to pest management, fertility, soil conservation, etc. on smallholder farms in whatever country (in developing or developed countries), we as scientists need to work with farmers to insure that whatever practices we are recommending are socially and environmentally relevant to the area, and in large part are selected and adapted from practices already used at some level locally. In other words, we as scientists have just as much to learn from farmers as they theoretically have to learn from us.

Back to the point: as an expat güera in Mexico working in participatory agricultural development, lately, I think my motivations have shifted from me attempting to help smallholder farmers, to me gaining perspective that I can later apply in the U.S. Being different here, having the opportunity to acknowledge my privilege, learning humility, patience, and acceptance… the attributes that I am developing while in Mexico will go a long way to help me affect change in some way in the U.S. later. This is not to say that everyone needs to move abroad to figure out how to be of service in their own communities, the point is that if we want the U.S. to be a place where everyone has the opportunity to live a happy and healthy life, we need to do something. Like, the joke is that all educated people will move abroad if Trump is elected, but if anything, I think it should motivate us to stay home, dig in deeper, and apply whatever skills we have to make our communities better.



Sometimes I love my job, but sometimes it frustrates me. Not just because science is fucking hard, but because every scientist is subject to a series of outside pressures; pressure to be the best, pressure to do it all, pressure to forget that you like doing anything other than your research… While many of these pressures are easy to ignore, in favor of a more healthy work life balance, sometimes the dialogue around young scientists needing to work all the time is just impractical and based on models which don’t exist anymore. I’ve been bothered by this idea, that we should all make grand sacrifices for the sake of doing good work, regardless of what it means for our personal lives, for awhile. At some point, me not taking the time to take care of myself means I can’t take care of others and do the work that I’m trained to do, and especially not well. And thus, having the people or resources (i.e., time) necessary to take care of myself is imperative for me to be a good scientist.

Recently I have attend a number of events which have further exacerbated the “you shall not sleep if you expect to accomplish anything, or be the next great scientist” myth, which I don’t feel necessary to call out right now, but I do want to point out that many of the great scientists whom these events were referencing often had wives or the economic freedoms necessary to not have to take care of themselves1. I happen to like a clean house, and clean clothes, and personal hygiene, and to eat well, and to do yoga to keep myself happy and healthy, but I don’t have a wife/husband/housekeeper to take care of my cooking, cleaning, chores, errands, etc. That was true in the U.S., but it’s especially true in Mexico, where I’m not even certain how to do things like open a bank account or get a driver’s license. Luckily, my work takes care of some of these things, but if it weren’t for the fantastic individual that I am so very fortunate to call a friend, the future queen of the world, I would be completely lost. She jokes that she’s my housewife as I’m adapting to Mexico, but as a single individual who works excessively, there is no way I would be able to set up a house on my own, let alone do things like buy plants or art, things that make that house feel like a home. So, while I think it is important to acknowledge the work of great scientists, and recognize their achievements, I’m so often frustrated by the lack of acknowledgement of the people who make the work of the great scientists possible: the partners, the field crew, the lab supervisors, the officemates and friends, THE OTHER SCIENTISTS… We’re all in this together, and while it’s great to have aspirations to be the next great scientist, aspiring to be a good human—to recognize when people help you do your work well, or to help your friends accomplish their goals to be a great scientist—is equally as important, if not more so.

I thought about adding pictures of all the people who have made my science possible by doing things as big as helping me collect samples, or less big (but not insignificant), like helping me pack to come to Mexico, but that would be a giant photo album. Instead, here are some pictures of Mexico, a place I truly love and am so inspired to help with my science, provided I can find the balance I need in achieving my personal and professional goals simultaneously.

1Let’s be real, in most cases, it was wives. Which is super frustrating to hear an old man tell me, as a young scientist, that I shouldn’t be resting and we need more women in science on one hand, but not acknowledging that I’m still expected to take care of the unpaid labor at home. But this is a totally different blog post.

Post highlight: Nerds Without Borders!

I went to a conference last week, the World Food Prize, which had a strong theme regarding #WomeninSTEM, and encouraging young students to enter agricultural development. However, I really struggle with that dialogue sometimes, as typically the people discussing those topics are older, very successful, and only talk about the highlights of their careers. As such, they have a tendency to be out of touch with the availability of jobs, especially for early- to mid-level career scientists. I’ve been probably more focused on this than I should be lately, likely because I need a job (most people of my age hit the Great Recession at a very terrible point in our early careers, so our experience doesn’t reflect our skill set, and we don’t have the luxury of not working because of our own student loan situations and lack of savings as a result of that recession). So, in my career search and other random perusing of the internet, I came across the following set of posts, Nerds Without Borders. I’ve only read two far, but I think the blog author does a great job of highlighting the varied opportunities within international development, and too, that it is not a straight forward career-track. I highly recommend reading the series for some excellent tips in the career search!

Source: Nerds without borders!

Money isn’t everything when it comes to conservation

Lately, there has been a great deal of coverage on pollinator health in the media, and the need for conservation of bees in particular. Obviously, as a conservationist and an interdisciplinary agricultural professional, I am strongly in support of conserving any species, especially those with huge economic impacts in agriculture, like the pollinators. However, I can’t help but be slightly frustrated by the emphasis placed on specific pollinators, like the bees and the monarchs. Every Friday, we have our Departmental seminar, which is preceded by a coffee hour in which several of us get together and frequently discuss whatever is happening in the entomological world. This past week, several of us were once again surprised that were having another pollinator seminar, keeping in mind that our Department does so much more than pollinators. Obviously, the attention that pollinator decline is receiving is beneficial for the entire field of entomology, but with that said, so many services beyond pollination provided by arthropods have a significant dollar value, including the decomposition of organic matter, and contributions to recreation and commercial fisheries and pest control. Our professional society, the Entomological Society of America, has an entire journal dedicated to economic entomology, and the recent attention entomophagy is receiving in the United States also puts an interesting spin on the dollar value of insects as a different type of agricultural business, as well.

But, I suppose part of the reason I am frustrated by the pollinator conservation language lately, is in part due to the “these things have economic value” language that so many discussions start with, these days. Obviously, this is an effective way to appeal to various policymakers, etc., but it is also hard to put a dollar value on the loss of enjoyment that some of these animals might bring. Every year, Penn State puts on a large farm show (Ag Progress Days), and this year our Department set up several tents where people can enter and hold monarchs and other butterflies. It was surprising to me the number of times that older gentlemen, often wearing camouflage or John Deere hats, commented that they don’t see nearly the same number of butterflies now as they did when they were children. These are the same gentlemen who would ask me about cover crops or conservation tillage while they were in the tents with their grandchildren, and the very same men to whom I imagine the “pollinator decline will cost you money” lingo is probably geared. This, to me, is another indication that farmers often have a better sense of what is happening around them than we—the scientists—do, and that the media, scientists, policymakers, etc., do not give people the benefit of the doubt when we start dictating what people should care about based on economic value. Much like my own grandfather, I imagine these gentlemen definitely care about the economics associated with their agricultural businesses, but likely want their grandchildren to be able to experience simple pleasures like chasing butterflies through the forest as well.

Clearly, I am happy to use whatever language is necessary in order to affect change related to conservation of arthropods (and other resources), be it discussing the economic value of biodiversity, or otherwise. But, while using that language, I think it is important to remember that so many wonderful species exist on this planet, and that it is worthwhile to acknowledge that people do care about these creatures for reasons other than what their loss will cost us economically. I will end this blog, then, with a few pictures of some of random favorites I have come across over the years.

Playing with monarchs at APD. #monarchs #apd #gif #pennstate #greatinsectfair #butterflies

A post shared by Ariel (@airs.adventures) on

Do what makes you uncomfortable.

You know, the #distractinglysexy thing is obnoxious, and super lame and all this other business that we already know. There are people who will judge women in every career, be it science or otherwise, and it is frustrating. But, this is not new, and it will probably continue for some time. We know this is a problem, people are working to overcome it, etc. etc. I don’t want to take away from the fact that women are marginalized in many careers, but, can we shift the dialogue for a minute? Maybe because I feel fairly fortunate to be in the position that I am in, and because writing a dissertation is kind of a selfish act in a way so it is not hard for me to feel empathy for others right now, but I feel like sometimes these “women don’t belong in science” memes are overplayed. WE KNOW some people don’t think we belong in science. But we are still here, and we are kicking ass at it! If we just keep doing that, then I really don’t think it is necessary to have an internet rally every single time an old white guy says something offensive about women. Because, really, can we talk for a second about the many other people who are facing very severe issues on a regular basis?

Based on my own experiences, people find it extremely frustrating when I try and change the dialogue when something “significant” happens. I realize I am likely co-opting something that is fairly important to mainly people for my own purposes. But I don’t feel like this article regarding Mexican labor rights for produce sold in the U.S. received nearly the traction in my various social media feeds (filled with very, very educated people) as #distractinglysexy, for example. Yes, significant events happen and these are well publicized (e.g., people were amazing at rallying around Nepal after the 2015 earthquake), but I feel like we are so reactionary as a society, as opposed to taking sustained, adequate action at solving real-world problems. I read an abstract recently that stated that agriculture students felt they could learn more about international agriculture by going on vacation or watching specific ag related television programs rather than by engaging with international exchange students (Wingenbach et al. 2003). This feels relevant in that engaging with international exchange students is likely the “more difficult” option for many students attempting to learn about international agriculture, and therefore likely to be the option pursued the least (e.g., due to cultural differences, or not knowing exchange students and having to put in effort to seek them out, etc.). This feels relevant to the #distractinglysexy hashtag because if we are making sustained effort at changing societal viewpoints of women in science, we should do it by engaging regularly with others who are different from us, rather than just posting to our friends on social media. For example, who is the person in your academic department (if that’s the case) who might be different from you, with whom you could engage and learn something new? Be it someone who doesn’t think women, or others, belong in science, or otherwise? We have so much to learn by interacting with people and topics that we aren’t comfortable with, and to me, I think that would have a far more lasting and wide-reaching effect than engaging with our social media feeds via hashtags1. I’m happy to discuss with anyone who feels otherwise, but at the very least, let’s talk about ways we can change the institutional factors affecting whatever issues are important to us, rather than simply complaining about these factors!

1. I realize writing a blog about this seems hypocritical, but it still feels worth stating.

#NerdHigh: Another year, another AIARD!

Every year, the Association for International Agriculture and Rural Development (AIARD) holds an annual meeting in Washington, D.C. around this time of year. As a professional society, made up of individuals from all aspects of the international agriculture and development scene, AIARD’s meetings are always wonderful for gaining inspiration, and being reminded of the reasons we as development practitioners are doing the work we do. This year, the meeting focused on innovation in international agriculture and rural development, and speakers discussed all types of innovative approaches for building collaborations, addressing issues in ICT, extension and reaching farmers, achieving immediate food sovereignty by providing surplus U.S. seeds to individuals abroad and employing agroecology, involving graduate students and other future leaders in development, etc. This is the third year I have attended the conference (my first time presenting!), and per usual, I am left with so many thoughts, ideas, and motivation. But, perhaps because of my recent involvement in policy with the Entomological Society of America, this year’s meeting really enforced the idea of how important it is to become involved in the policymaking process.

We all know that U.S. government funding is tight for everything these days, and that funding for much of the agriculture and international work we do fluctuates based on who is in whichever office. There is no need to emphasize that point. But, what is worth emphasizing is how important it is to engage with policymakers, regardless of the relevance to our own specific funding streams. For example, Emmy Simmons of AGree, a food and agricultural policy think tank, mentioned during her talk that no U.S. congressional hearings took place regarding policy related to the production of corn for biofuel. The impact of using agricultural lands for producing biofuel is entirely dependent on specific situations, but seeing as corn is such an important food crop globally, and important to the U.S. economy as well, a hearing related to its use as a biofuel seems warranted. These congressional hearings are incredibly important for informing congresspeople, senators, and others regarding contemporary issues, and often times play an important role in shaping how policy is developed. Too, they often come about due to the amount of coverage an issue is getting in the media, or because policymakers have heard that an issue is important to their constituents. As such, one can see how the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” mantra becomes relevant here. Speaking to your policymakers about food, agriculture, and development issues at least puts these issues on their radar, and may encourage them to seek out more information (through hearings or otherwise), and eventually vote in a way that could help us continue to do the work that we do.

With that said, one of the keynote speakers at the conference, Dr. Gebisa Ejeta mentioned that many working in the field of international agriculture and development have become focused on “careerism rather than altruism.” It is super important to remember that the work we do is based in the notion that all people deserve to live happy and healthy lives, and any engagement we do have with policymakers should be rooted in that idea. Policymakers want to hear from their constituents about the issues that we find significant, but relating these issues to what makes us happy and excited and motivated in life is so much more important than discussing how it keeps us employed (have I told you lately about how instrumental 4-H was in my own development, and how much I love to hear about similar youth programs?!? Let’s keep programs for rural youth on the radar!). So, in thinking about how instrumental it is to engage with the higher ups in the policy realm, I leave you with a few suggestions:

  1. Talk to your congressional representatives and your senators. Send them letters, sign up for their newsletters so you know when they are in town or nearby, schedule a visit if you are in D.C., etc. I’m not advocating for any specific area in this case, I just think we all need to take better advantage of the opportunity to speak to these people on any topic (and, btw, it’s super fun, too).
  2. Engage with other people and policy in other ways. There are so many wonderful outlets for keeping abreast of important issues (e.g. Agree, Politico, Foreign Policy, etc., even Twitter is good for this). And I can’t emphasize enough the importance of using science communication outlets, etc. as tools for advocacy and outreach.
  3. Involve yourself in professional societies, and especially in the outreach, advocacy, and policy related committees and efforts (Within reason. This can be an area you can get sucked in to quite easily, obviously). All three of the professional societies of which I am a member, AIARD, ESA, and the Ecological Society of America, have some sort of policy activities, generally with info on how to get involved on their websites. At the very least, it is worth it to become familiar with the stance of your professional societies on specific issues.

And now I will go forth and resume writing my dissertation so I can continue to do the work that I love, and which I find so incredibly rewarding and important! Also, as a comment re: the title, I won best tweet at the meeting for my excitement about meeting Sonny Ramaswamy and Gebisa Ejeta!

I didn’t take many pictures this year, but here are a few, at least!

Entomological Society of America (ESA) Science Policy Fellows do DC!

Increasingly, funding for science research is fairly tight, and many professional societies and higher education institutions have begun programs to advocate on Capitol Hill for their fields. The Entomological Society of America (ESA) began a Science Policy Fellowship program in 2014, selecting 5 individuals (myself amongst them) to advocate on the Hill, learn about policy, spread the entomology word, etc. We conducted our first DC visit last week, for which I wrote up a blurb for the ESA STEP (Student Transition and Early Professionals) newsletter based on some questions they provided. I figured I would share my answers, here. This is a brief run-down of what we did and the program, but I encourage everyone to get involved (either in ESA or otherwise), by helping to right policy papers, speaking to your representatives, voting, writing letters, and anything else you can think of!!

What kind of role do you see policy playing for ESA, and where do the policy fellows fit in?
This past week, the five fellows had the opportunity to meet with the offices of 30 Senators and Representatives of Congress (individually, we hit about 6-7 each). As most of us are from somewhere else, living somewhere else, we covered a wide geographic area and range of political affiliations, with the intent of discussing ESA as a resource for these offices and promoting our science. Since it is “Appropriations Season,” we timed this visit to emphasize the importance of different agency budgets in funding entomology. One staffer in an office I visited with did not even know what entomology was (that was actually my favorite office!), and so this advocacy seems to be incredibly important in educating people regarding the wide implications of our science. We as a group of fellows have had long discussions regarding how these visits will actually benefit ESA, but as the first class of fellows, the five of us have a lot of freedom in dictating how we will engage with ESA as a group. We suspect that it may take time, but as we build a network of individuals with the background in how to appropriately engage with our policymakers, over time we may notice more discussion about entomology by entomologists in congressional hearings, etc.

What are you learning? What kind of insights have you gained?
I have been surprised by how much I still have to learn about the legislative process. The offices we visited with were incredibly busy, meeting with several other organizations throughout the day with similar advocacy agendas. It seemed like the offices really took into consideration what I had to say, and especially in regards to how it would affect their constituents. This surprised me for some reason, and while it felt effective in terms of advocating for specific funding, it was also super fun to talk to adults about why I think my science matters. I suppose the most basic “lesson learned” so far is that everyone should take the opportunity to engage with their representatives (and they seem to make it easy if you are in DC, with opportunities to visit offices, constituent events, tours they can arrange for you of the Capitol, etc.).

How does the program help your career?
I have always had an interest in outreach and advocacy, and I really enjoy engaging with people in informal settings to discuss my scientific areas of interest. The fellowship is providing excellent opportunities to practice this skill, while increasing my knowledge and capacity in communicating with non-scientists. I am also learning so much about our field and society from four other practicing entomologists, while building camaraderie with the group (shout out to Marianne, Rayda, Jamin, and Anders!). Obviously, it remains to be seen how it will help my career over the long-term, but I find these types of activities very motivating, which is definitely helpful in the short-term.

Resources for the job search.

Although I don’t necessarily suggest doing so because of the likelihood that career anxiety may follow, I make somewhat of a hobby of searching for jobs. Since my days as a Peer Advisor for the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis, I’ve enjoyed keeping abreast of the type of opportunities that may be available for my colleagues and I. Recently, several people have asked what type of resources I use, so I figured I might as well gather that list into a place that might be useful (keeping in mind that most jobs aren’t actually listed, and networking is your most valuable tool in the job search). Many of the links below are specific to international development and agriculture, but they may be helpful for people in relevant areas (e.g. malaria work) and may provide ideas of similar outlets for searching. It is also important to note that my bias is apparent here, as I am more likely than not to pursue an academic, public, and nonprofit route over any private entities, and my searches are typically focused on Latin America and the West Coast of the U.S.

I’m happy to take any recommendations if there are other sites you use, too! And, I’ll probably add to this list as I remember more places I check regularly.

General job searches:
Say what you will about the following sites, I do find them incredibly valuable for getting “a feel” for what’s out there.
UC Davis Internship and Career Center (for Davis graduates. I stay on the career listservs through the ICC, and your undergraduate institution may have something similar)

Environmental Job Boards:
Society of Conservation Biology (all professional societies have some job board, but I especially like this one)
EcoJobs (this requires secure login information, which I am happy to provide to my close friends)
John Muir Institute of the Environment
EcoAgriculture Partners
Duke Physiological Ecology Job Board

Specific Organizations
I keep my eye on the following organizations every now and again, although many of them will list their open positions on some of the above sites.

School for Field Studies
Organization for Tropical Studies
Institute of International Education

Conservation International
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
David and Lucille Packard Foundation
Fair Trade USA
World Resources Institute
Pew Charitable Trusts
Pacific Institute
MacArthur Foundation

Ag Innovations Network
Eco Farm’s Sustainable Ag Job List
Various advocacy groups, e.g. Pesticide Action Network and Community Alliance with Family Farms
Various Organic Certifiers, e.g. Oregon Tilth and California Certified Organic Farmers

International Development
World Affairs Council of Northern California
Global Fund for Women
Winrock International
Organization of American States
Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture

Creative connections

I love the website Brain Pickings. This, in particular,  is pretty fantastic in thinking about identity and how we come to create knowledge:

“The idea that in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.”

More here: Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity

Camel spiders for the win!

Since I’m writing and analyzing my data these days, and haven’t spent hardly any time in the field since 2013, I figured it would be a nice time to have a #flashbackfriday to a video I took of a Solifugid eating a waxworm. Solifugids are amazing little animals, something I could have only dreamed of capturing when I conducted my field work in Mexico. I have a fascination with weird creatures, and in spite of the fact that I study a group of animals (the arthropods, of course), there are still so, so many organisms I learn about on a regular basis. Solifugids have not been an extensive part of my formal training since they typically live in dry and arid places (environments completely unlike that here in Pennsylvania). But prior to starting my field work in Mexico, I had been looking at a data set of insect captures from a few years prior, and noticed Solifugids on the list. Of course, just capturing one in my samples would have been a feat in itself for me; I had no idea I would actually capture one on video.

I use live waxworms in my research to “assess the biocontrol potential of the ground-dwelling arthropod predator community” in science speak. This basically means that we, the scientists, want to know how different agricultural practices may increase the abundance of different predators, and as such, the potential of these predators to keep the numbers of insect or other pests low. Not only is it important to conserve these predators in the field for their inherent value as members of our ecosystems, but too, if they are present in high enough numbers, they can help reduce the need for insecticides. While we still have some need to understand the economic value of these predators, their worth goes beyond just the monetary; for example, there is no dollar value for the great joy I got from this video, and the teaching moments it has provided me. I was out in the field at about 2 in the morning when I captured this video, generally making observations of my waxworms to see what type of predators were eating them (mostly ants, and occasionally a soldier beetle larvae).

Solifugids were fairly rare in my plots in Mexico, and they definitely do not come up this far north to Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, this means I won’t be able to explore their role in agricultural pest control in great depth. But, hopefully in the future I will get the chance to study these great creatures, and I would be happy to learn more from anyone who does know more than I!