Erika Marín-Spiotta, a professor in the Department of Geography known internationally for her research on soils and the carbon cycle, has been recognized for her efforts to improve equity, diversity and inclusion in the geosciences by the American Geophysical Union (AGU). In December, Marín-Spiotta received the AGU’s Ambassador Award, bestowed to five individuals this year in recognition of each one’s outstanding contributions to society and the Earth and space community. AGU is an organization of 60,000+ scientists dedicated to advancing discovery and creating solutions that are “ethical, unbiased and respectful of communities and their values.”
“Beginning early in her career, Professor Marín-Spiotta has worked—with considerable success—to get the AGU to enact meaningful policies against sexual harassment, bullying, and discrimination, and to take meaningful steps to make the geosciences more diverse,” says Joseph Mason, chair of the Geography department.
The geosciences are one of the least diverse disciplines in the U.S., despite the field’s relevance to livelihoods and local and global economics. As lead Principal Investigator of the National Science Foundation-supported ADVANCEGeo Partnership, Marín-Spiotta has studied the hostile climates within current institutions and called for “a reexamination of current institutional structures, processes, and practices for a transformational and equitable scientific enterprise.” Along with colleagues from across the country, she advocates for a reeducation about the historical political structures of academic institutions, in order to start conversations about real change.
“Most students of color studying geoscience go through their entire education not encountering a teacher or faculty of color,” she says. “This is not exclusive to the geosciences, by any means, but there is a stereotype about geoscientists as Indiana Jones-like, rugged, cisgender white men. That creates a culture that is exclusionary of people who do not fit that mold.”
Marín-Spiotta says that the field’s reputation for remote fieldwork, as well as inaccurate expectations that all geoscientists must endure harsh conditions in the field, could cause concern for people of color, who are at increased risk of racist encounters and violence. A history of exploitation of natural resources, which continues to displace Indigenous and local communities from their land, also casts geosciences in a negative light for many people from underrepresented groups.
In addition to the Ambassador Award, the AGU also recognized Marín-Spiotta and other members of a team (led by Dr. Hendratta Ali, an associate professor of geosciences at Fort Hays State University), which drafted “Call for a Robust Anti-Racism Plan for the Geosciences,” a national call for change within the discipline. The team received a Presidential Citation from the AGU this year. Among its recommendations are the drafting and public posting of anti-racism statements, a commitment to understanding the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), in terms of how racism and discrimination have impacted their ability to succeed, and written policies and procedures to identify bias.
“We need actions at all levels of education. We need to diversify leadership at all levels of organizations, and we need to think about how our policies and cultural expectations about teaching, research and industry performance are based on a limited set of experiences and stereotypes,” Marín-Spiotta says.
Marín-Spiotta is currently the faculty coordinator for the Letters & Science Community of Graduate Research Scholars, also known as Advanced Opportunity Fellows, along with two colleagues from the L&S Center for Academic Excellence: DeVon Wilson (director of CAE) and José Madera (Assistant Dean). The goal is to build community and provide mentoring as this new cohort of BIPOC graduate students navigates their first year on campus.
“It’s a privilege for us that these students have decided to come here,” Marín-Spiotta says. “At UW-Madison, we are studying our planet’s past, present and future, understanding how our environment shapes human decisions, and addressing some of the most pressing environmental problems today. It is essential that people of color be included in our work on these issues. We want them to feel welcomed, included and engaged.”