Institute of the Environment 2017

Carson Scholars: Promise for an Environmentally Vibrant and Just Future

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which alerted the world to the dangers of chemical pesticides and inspired the modern environmental movement, was published 53 years ago, on Sept. 27, 1962. To honor Carson’s writings and enduring legacy, the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment, Biosphere 2, and Renewable Energy Network created the Carson Scholars Program.

The program supports graduate student research and trains scholars to effectively communicate their work to the public. The students, together with their faculty mentors, form a growing network of researchers who push the bounds of knowledge and understanding of our natural environment.

The program is also funded by private donations and, this year, four students—Gloria Jimenez, Tommy Jones, America Lutz Ley, and Niki vonHedemann—were appointed Carson-Haury Scholars through the generosity of the Agnese Nelms Haury estate. Their work is designed to improve our understanding of climate forces critical to the Southwest, bring renewable energy to Native American communities, help rural communities in Mexico adapt to climate challenges, and determine if Guatemala's forestry incentive programs benefit forests and rural populations alike.

Gloria Jimenez

Department of Geosciences

It takes more than a nasty moray eel bite to deter Gloria Jimenez. She was placing a data recorder for her research in the Galápagos Islands when a toothy eel severed a tendon in her right thumb, but her team still surfaced with a core sample from a 300-year-old coral.

Looking into the past, the six-and-a-half foot specimen will help Jimenez better understand how a climate phenomenon known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) will respond to climate change. Coral grows in layers with different concentrations of heavy or light stable isotopes, depending on the water temperature when the layers formed. Like a dendrochronologist who reads tree rings, Jimenez can analyze the layers to determine how water temperature, and thus ENSO, has changed over the past centuries.

She hopes that learning more about ENSO dynamics will help researchers predict what’s going to happen in the future—important information for the Southwest, where rainfall can be influenced by ENSO patterns.

Back on dry land, Jimenez wrote a narrative piece on her research that she hopes to publish as an op-ed.

“It turned into something much bigger than I expected: It's a meditation on why I am a scientist, and particularly a climate scientist, despite the difficulties inherent in that,” she said. “It's by no means a typical op-ed—another way in which being a Carson-Haury scholar is expanding my horizons and pushing me to do new and interesting things.”

Since becoming a Carson-Haury scholar, Jimenez has won several awards, including an Environmental Professionals of Arizona Scholarship and a UA Galileo Circle Scholarship. She also was selected to participate in the Expert Witness Training Academy at the William Mitchell College of Law, where climate scientists are trained to present their work in legal settings.

Tommy Jones

School of Natural Resources and the Environment

Tommy Jones’ vision for Native American communities is bright, lit by solar and wind energy. His research addresses the gap between need and potential for renewable energy in Indian Country, home to vast natural resources that can be both sustainable and renewable. His aim, he says, is to help Native Americans develop technology for renewables and improve understanding between them and non-Native American communities on environmental topics.

As a 2014 summer intern with Sandia National Laboratories, he found that lack of financing and funding, tribal government institutional capacity, and power purchase agreements, among other factors, are obstacles to development on tribal lands, while federal programs and initiatives are important to success.

“My goal with the Carson-Haury Scholars Program is to take the valuable information I am gathering and ensure that all Native Nations that want to develop renewable energy will know how to meet their needs,” Jones said. “I’ll also be able to continue to communicate my research to a broad audience, especially to audiences outside of Native Nations to promote greater awareness and legislation that facilitates renewable energy development on tribal lands.”

In September 2014, he wrote a guest blog for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs website, detailing his research at Sandia. In November, he presented his research in person to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. That same month he was selected as a U.S. delegate to present his work at the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, the world’s largest global forum on protected areas. His experience Down Under, he said, was due in part to the funding and training he received as a Carson-Haury Scholarship recipient.

“The support that I get from this group is unparalleled. They’ve pushed me in so many different directions that are positive for my work,” Jones said.

The first Native American student to receive a Carson Scholarship, he also co-founded Native Opportunities, a website designed to help Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students discover opportunities for higher education and professional development.

America Lutz Ley

Arid Lands Resources Sciences

Roughly 90 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, a constellation of small villages appears in the Sonoran Desert. The livelihoods of almost 14,000 people there depend on the San Miguel River Basin for raising livestock and growing crops; to them, land, water, and cattle are intrinsically and historically connected to their way of life. But climatic changes leading to reduced water availability in the last few decades have disrupted that socio-ecological system.

Enter America Lutz Ley, a native of Hermosillo, Sonora, who is identifying social and policy factors that can help the rural communities adapt to climate challenges and educate themselves about climate impacts in the absence of economic and government support.

“For more than a century, these communities have evolved in the midst of aridity and the dynamics of the trans-boundary U.S.-Mexico region. They have provided food for the local and regional markets; they have survived through combinations of traditional and modern techniques,” Lutz Ley said. “However, with increasing temperatures and less water availability, it is still unknown if their knowledge and actions will be enough for adaptation. My work is about looking for capacity and looking for opportunities in the middle of social-environmental adversity.”

With support from the Fulbright-Garcia Robles Program and the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology, Lutz Ley is tackling the river basin’s mountains and valleys, interviewing local small-scale ranchers and farmers, public officials, and other stakeholders to explore their perceptions on social and environmental change and what enhances their adaptive capacity.

“These communities are unique because of their position in the socio-economic and geographic spaces, but we can learn valuable lessons regarding other arid watersheds,” said Lutz Ley, who is majoring in arid lands resource sciences with a minor in global change. “Around 50 percent of the world’s lands are classified as arid, and we know these places will face important challenges as a result of global climate change.”  

Through the Carson-Haury program, she said, she has learned how to translate scientific knowledge and jargon on water adaption into a common language shared with those she is interviewing to help improve decision making at the local level.  “Through the Carson-Haury program you are trained to learn how to engage people through effective communication and how to connect your own academic activities with everyday lives of people,” she said. “I think it’s pretty amazing!”

Her work and accolades made her an apt choice to take part in a talk on climate justice by Mary Robinson, the first woman to be elected president of Ireland, at the UA’s Centennial Hall in March 2015.

Niki vonHedemann

School of Geography and Development

In Guatemala’s Western Highlands, rural farmers are accustomed to growing small crops to provide for their families. Recently, increasing pressure from the logging industry, poor job prospects, and scarce resources for managing land has forced these farmers to either cut back forests on their land and sell the wood, or leave their homes and search for work.

Recognizing that farmers often are caught between managing the country’s resources and providing for their families, Guatemala has implemented programs centered on payment for ecosystem services—the benefits people derive from the environment. These programs attempt to alleviate poverty while protecting the environment by providing incentives to farmers for conservation. However, information is scarce on whether these programs work, both for the forests and for the farmers. Niki vonHedemann wants to change that.

“Many studies on these programs don’t draw strong conclusions about their impact on actually preserving ecosystems or helping the people involved,” she said. “Who does paying for conservation really benefit, and how can we make the good outcomes more prevalent for low-income rural populations?”

VonHedemann was awarded more than $10,000 by the InterAmerican Foundation to seek the answers to these questions in Guatemala from August 2015 to March 2016. A $16,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will allow her to continue that work for the better part of the year. During that time, she plans to conduct studies to determine whether there is an observable difference between participating and non-participating forests’ ability to sequester carbon.

This is critical to Guatemala, she said, because the United Nations is rolling out the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, in which payments will be granted to developing countries that retain and increase forest cover in order to mitigate climate change. “Guatemala’s current programs are a template for its developing REDD+ design, and thus it is important to know if these national incentives are helping increase forests storing carbon,” vonHedemann said.

She also will interview farmers about the incentive programs, work with a local nonprofit that helps communities manage their forests, and disseminate her findings to the rural farmers they affect. Her connections as a Carson-Haury scholar, she said, led her to a Highlands organization that introduced her to state incentive programs and put her in touch with people who work in forestry. “Through this snowballing of contacts, I have been able to talk to people in several different areas about their forestry practices and how payments affect them,” she said.

In addition to presenting this information to Guatemalan non-profits and the rural communities active in forestry, vonHedemann plans to share her findings at next year's Association of American Geographer’s conference.