Living at the Intersection of Climate Science and Action

by Lauren Gifford
PhD, CSTPR Research Affiliate (and friend of Jane’s)

Jane Zelikova has always enjoyed spending time outside and getting her hands dirty, which is one of the reasons she fell in love with ecology. An ecosystem scientist whose work connects climate change science and policy, Jane grew up in Ukraine and immigrated to the United States when she was 12. She earned a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from CU Boulder, and has worked across the western US and abroad, examining the effects of global change in natural and managed systems. She is Senior Scientist at Carbon180, a non-profit organization that brings together scientists, policymakers, and businesses to fundamentally rethink carbon. Jane also co-founded 500 Women Scientists and Hey Girl Productions. She lives in Boulder.

Ahead of her CSTPR Seminar on November 6, I sat down with Jane to ask her a few questions about her role as a scientist/activist.

1) What is the quick version of how you came to bridge the worlds of science, communication and activism?

Science and communication are two sides of the same coin. I am interested in science because I am a curious person, and I want to understand how the world works. But my own understanding is not meaningful (at least to me) unless it’s shared in a way that is accessible, both to other scientists and to folks outside of science. Activism is the next logical step in my mind – knowledge can be a powerful tool, used to help or harm. It’s important to me that the work we do as scientists is used for good, which means both communicating it in accessible ways and sometimes advocating for action.

Activism is in my DNA – I grew up in the Soviet Union, fed a steady diet of communist ideals at school, and a healthy dose of criticism of communism at home. I’ve always had a strong sense of right and wrong (often missing the moral grey area and struggling with the concept of compromise). I was an outspoken kid, adolescent, and adult. Activism is the next step; it’s saying out loud what feels off.

2) What does science activism look like? You are one of the founders of 500 Women Scientists– is that a type of science activism?

Science activism can come in many forms. For me, it can mean calling out inequities and amplifying the voices of under-represented groups. Following the 2016 presidential election, fellow CU alum Kelly Ramirez and I founded 500 Women Scientists, a global grassroots effort to make science more open, inclusive, and accessible.

Activism is very personal, and it doesn’t start or end with public marches or signing petitions. I think it’s a daily commitment to helping make our corner of the world a better place. It can mean recognizing all the ways science falls short and actively working to right those wrongs. For example, all-male panels, awards going to mostly white men, journalists consulting only white men – it’s all so pervasive that calling it out just isn’t enough. So we launched the Request a Woman Scientist platform to make it easy to find women experts to invite as a keynote or consult for a story. We also see that the majority of the efforts to make science more inclusive come from the folks who are most marginalized, often women of color. So, we are launching a fellowship for women of color to recognize and support those efforts. With a successful last round of fundraising this fall, we can support our first cohort of fellows starting in January 2020.

3) Do you believe scientists have an obligation to activism, or advocacy?

I don’t believe every scientist has an obligation to be an activist. But I do believe science touches the lives of every person on this planet, and scientists have the knowledge and positions of privilege to speak out in service of society, especially on topics where we have expertise. Many of us have experienced first-hand the structural inequities and biases in science, and we are in the best positions to advocate for and work towards justice and equality in science (and beyond). Many of us also work on issues that are deeply personal and reach beyond the ivory tower – climate change, public health, biodiversity loss – these issues affect us, and the people and places we love. We should feel empowered to advocate on behalf of our neighbors, our communities, our treasured places, ourselves.

4) What advice do you have for undergrads or graduate students on how they might think about sharing science outside of a university setting?

That’s where science should be shared – outside of the academic chatter, outside the university setting, out in the world where your science can serve the public. My advice is to share not just the facts, but also the joy and curiosity and adventure that working in science can bring. Most people are curious about the world and wonder how things work. That’s all science! The thing that sets scientists apart from everyone else are the methods we use to “wonder.” But we don’t own that space and we don’t have all the answers, so don’t be afraid to ask, to think outside the box, and to be yourself in science! And we can work together to make science more accessible and inclusive.

5) You often work on science documentaries, and you were featured in the short film The End of Snow. Do you think media like film, television, podcasts, etc. are a good way to share the “wonder” you mentioned?

YES! I am a mass consumer of media – I binge TV shows, podcasts, and “trashy” novels. Successful communication is all about making an emotional connection, tapping into some greater wisdom, and harnessing the power of curiosity – and mediums like television and podcasts successfully tap into those themes. To our own detriment, we have excised emotion and wonder from science, opting for sterile delivery of facts as if that removes our human biases (it doesn’t). I think bringing art and science together can free us from those sterile constraints and make science not only more interesting for the general public, but richer and more fulfilling for us!

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