Did you know that half of the photosynthesis that happens in the world occurs in oceans and lakes? You'd think it happens on land where there are trees and plants, but no! There are zillions of microscopic plants called phytoplankton that consume carbon dioxide and sunlight to get their own energy—and these microscopic beings are crucial to our earth's capacity to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Catalina Albury, a grad student at Dalhousie University, knows all about phytoplankton and is studying the way it responds to temperature changes. It's critical work as the world's temperature is rising quickly.
She's also working alongside two friends and fellow scientists to introduce young BIPOC in Nova Scotia to the world of ecology, biology and science.
Diversity of Nature is a project working to provide BIPOC-focused ecological field expeditions for secondary students led by Albury, Suchinta Arif (who is working towards her PhD in Marine Science, looking at coral reefs) and Melanie Massey (who teaches high school biology and is working on her PhD about how changing temperatures will affect fishes).
In early June, in the wake of acts of violence against racialized people in the US and Canada, the three scientists and friends started brainstorming what they could do within their own communities as ecologists to tackle racism in Canada. The work, says Arif, is "broad-reaching and you can kind of take any element within society and work towards making it more anti-racist."
Since then, they've partnered with many organizations in the province, secured funding, are preparing some grant applications and have launched an online fundraiser to get the rest of the money they'll need to take 15 students on these field expeditions for the next three years, starting in summer 2021.
The students will have the opportunity to stay at the Harrison Lewis Coastal Discovery Centre on the South Shore by Port Joli. Over the course of four days, they'll overturn rocks and check out minnow traps in pants, learn about the flora of Nova Scotia, working with a botanist learning to ID various plants and learn about scientific illustration (Massey's speciality), explore ornithology (the study of birds) learning about bird identification through sight and sound, and cap it off at the gorgeous Thomas Raddall Provincial Park, tying together and trying out all their new skills before heading back home.
This immersive approach to introducing youth to ecology is intentional. "The best way to get them motivated about sustainable living and to get them to critically think about how to work with their environment is to first get them outdoors and get them excited about their environment," says Arif.
By choosing to provide the program to BIPOC students, they're working to counteract the underrepresentation of BIPOC in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
"Growing up as a racialized person, I had a bit of a strange relationship with the outdoors and with nature, just due to some of the biases that we experience as BIPOC people," says Albury. "For a lot of racialized people, the outdoors just wasn't accessible, due to time constraints or financial barriers and a lot of other things."
The program's promise of being free for students also hopes to address that inequality, ensuring that any student can attend, knowing that many of the opportunities to learn about the outdoors—like the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island BC which was incredibly formative in Arif's journey towards marine science—come with a challenging price tag.
Formative in Albury's journey towards ocean science was time spent exploring the intertidal region (the part of the beach that is exposed when the tides go out). Alongside her sister, laden with a bucket and curiosity she searched for crabs and critters on the shore as a kid. But even beaches, which are technically free for all, aren't accessible to people in Halifax who don't have access to a car.
Using their expertise as scientists and passion for learning and teaching the trio is also offering in-school sessions for high school students throughout the upcoming school year—slated as a launching pad for passion and to introduce students to their summer program. They want to work with teachers to set up sessions best suited for students and right now are offering nature illustration, a very practical "how to apply to university" session, courses on coding and more.
"Our goal is really to provide students with the opportunity to explore science in a way that empowers them, as well as give them the chance to see themselves represented in successful scientists," says Albury.
After all, "removing those barriers and beginning to recognize that they exist is really important for reminding ourselves that humans are also part of nature and that this is our home and we have a responsibility to keep it."