Making Earth Science Approachable to Communicate Its Importance
When Erika Podest was 10 years old, she found a sand dollar on the beach. "It was a work of art!" she remembers. It was one of her earliest encounters with what she describes as "the beauty and perfection of nature." Growing up in the tropical country of Panama, Podest found herself at home in nature and decided she wanted to better understand and protect it.
Podest, a scientist with the Water and Carbon Cycles Group in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Earth Science Division, uses satellite data to study the effects of climate change on Earth's ecosystems.
Since she was a young girl, Podest has felt a personal connection with nature. She remembers how much she enjoyed hands-on projects and school field trips, all of which helped her appreciate the value of conserving the environment. This inspired her to create a student environmental group called J.E.A.N. (Jóvenes Entusiastas Amantes de la Naturaleza or Young Enthusiastic Nature Lovers).
This sense of familiarity, she says, should be an important part of communicating with the public about Earth, its environment and climate change. Podest believes that several factors can make it difficult for the public to understand climate change. First, people may have a hard time seeing "how it will directly affect them and that actions at the individual level can make a difference." Second, a lot of information on climate change is not based on correct science. Third, because climate change has to do with changes taking place on a global scale, people can get frustrated, and they can "lose perspective of where they fit in the solution."
The good news is that Podest believes these problems can be solved. Using local examples to talk about climate change is a first step. She thinks this allows people to find something familiar they can relate to, instead of feeling overwhelmed.
Learning more about Earth processes can help too. Podest says that once people understand that "processes on Earth are interconnected" so that what happens on one part of the globe can cause changes in other places, they will see that every little bit counts. Anyone "can make a difference at the individual level regardless of where they live," she says. If everyone does his or her part, there can be an important difference in the future of the planet: "The more positive changes we bring about right now, the better off we'll be."
Solving these problems creates new opportunities for future earth scientists. Podest thinks that now everyone, including girls and minorities, has more chances to enter a scientific field. This, she says, is not just because of better communication about existing opportunities but also because science itself, and earth science in particular, is even more relevant today than ever before.
Earth science, says Podest, "helps [us] understand our Earth, how it's changing and how life may adapt to it." With the effects of climate change all around us, she thinks that earth science will directly impact our future.
So it goes back to wanting to learn more, understand better and become involved. Podest says that "to be successful at something, you have to believe in what you are doing, love what you are doing and know what you are doing." So to those students who are interested in learning more about Earth and the environment, she urges them to pursue their dreams. "The opportunities are out there; it's just a matter of tapping into them," she says.
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Laura Delgado López/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies