A Q&A with Kate Semmens, Thriving Earth Exchange Community Science Fellow
Kate Semmens is the Science Director at ASTC member Nurture Nature Center in Easton, Pennsylvania, where she helps advance the organization’s scientific and environmental outreach efforts, especially related to floods, climate change, art and science, community science, and social science research. She holds a PhD in environmental and earth sciences from Lehigh University, a master’s degree in marine policy from the University of Delaware, and a bachelor of science in environmental studies from Ursinus College.
With Semmens’ focus on the nexus of science, policy, and community, it was a natural fit for her to apply to become one of the Thriving Earth Exchange’s Community Science Fellows. She was selected for the December 2019 cohort.
ASTC, in partnership with the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Thriving Earth Exchange, is offering a collaborative opportunity for staff at ASTC-member museums to work with members of their community and local scientists to advance community priorities. The fellowship program is one component of ASTC’s Community Science Initiative. These projects, which will involve partnerships between science centers and community members, will use science to advance community priorities and contribute to a growing movement toward engaged, community-driven science. The deadline for applications is Friday, November 6, 2020.
What does a Thriving Earth Exchange Fellow do?
A Thriving Earth Exchange Fellow is someone who is able to be a connector, to work closely with a community in addressing their priorities, and to inspire and help facilitate the implementation and completion of a project. What a Fellow does really depends on their skills and what is needed by a community. In general, it’s serving as a project manager and trying to help find all of the necessary bits that are needed to complete that project.
What motivated you to apply for this Fellowship?
When I was getting my PhD in earth and environmental sciences at Lehigh, I was really struck by how difficult it was to communicate science to other people. I was doing remote sensing and had tons of data. I was trying to figure out the best way to show that data, to make a story in a way that people could understand. I became very interested in science communication. Then I did a postdoc through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, utilizing remote sensing to help vineyard owners in California understand how their crops were using water. It was this experience of applying my scientific skills to an actual problem that made me think I really needed to be involved in science that was actually serving a purpose. There is a need for big theoretical research, but there’s also a need for science to serve society.
Since then, I’ve had a variety of different projects that have reinforced to me how important it is for science to support local communities. It’s even stronger now that much of society has such distrust in science. That really breaks my heart to see. I want to change that conversation.
ASTC’s Definition of Community Science
Community Science is an emerging practice that builds and grows connections between science and communities. Communities, in this case, are broadly defined as connected or organized groups of people who share a common geography, jurisdiction, set of characteristics, or common interests and goals. The Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) supports members in building capacity for Community Science programs, in which science-engagement practitioners and scientists collaborate with community members to do science that advances local priorities.
Community Science is ideally driven by the community’s own priorities. How does that actually happen, in practice?
Thriving Earth Exchange has a number of steps in which all Fellows are trained. The first is called “scoping.” Some communities have a laser sharp focus on what they need, while other communities are a little less sure. During the scoping process, the Fellow holds meetings, making sure that all of the players that need to be at the table are at the table and getting the group to think about the projects, goals, and strategies they want to coalesce around.
My community, Takoma Park, Maryland, wanted to develop a method to prioritize storm water infrastructure updates with climate change impacts in mind. The director of public works was the natural community leader for that effort, and she knew they wanted to model the storm water infrastructure with different precipitation inputs related to climate change projections.
However, projects aren’t always so straight forward. Some of the other fellows in my cohort have had projects with more of a changing scope. In cases like those, the Fellows are helping communities reimagine what they initially thought they wanted. In one case, just going through the scoping process helped the community to get everything they needed and now the project is done.
What are some of the trickiest issues to address?
With the current social justice issues that are going on, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues have been central to our cohort’s discussions. DEI issues may not be something that communities readily jump to include in their projects. The Fellow’s job is to help them to think outside the box and expand their scope.
In talking with the community I’m working with, we’ve discussed how to involve the broader public. Their initial idea was that they just needed a model first and would involve the public at later stages, which isn’t ideal. It’s difficult to come up with a way to address the larger public earlier in the project, because they are limited in staff and already stressed because of COVID.
What has surprised you about the program?
We have monthly check-ins with our Thriving Earth Exchange cohort and also check-ins with our program manager (a Thriving Earth Exchange staff member). The full group cohort calls have been really helpful for discussing different issues. Our experiences are so different, yet we learn a lot from each other. That was one thing that surprised me because I wasn’t expecting that going in. I thought it was just going to be a training group and then we’d go on about our projects. But the group cohesion has been really strong. There’s been so much support. The constant engagement—both from the Thriving Earth Exchange staff as well as other members of the cohort—has been surprising. For example, we recently had a workshop on addressing DEI issues. It’s been very enlightening and helpful. I’ve gained a support system I wasn’t expecting and also insight into the different needs and perspectives of people. In addition, the training helped me understand how to work with different players in the community, to understand what they want and as a result, how to motivate them to participate.
What’s a challenge?
You do need to find a scientist to take on the project as a volunteer and that can be a barrier. They’re out there and some scientists are starting to see community science as valuable, but most don’t get professionally rewarded for it.
Editor’s note: the ASTC cohort will be assisted in finding scientist matches through the AGU Thriving Earth Exchange and the AMS’ scientist members. Both organizations have databases of scientists who have expressed an interest in community science work.
What would you want a new applicant to know?
Being a Community Science Fellow requires time. You need to be committed to the process and learn and grow from it. You bring a skill set, but you need to be willing to be a student again, be a listener and put the pieces together.
What makes the Thriving Earth Exchange model so successful?
The active staff support and regular check-ins help you stay committed and make you feel that what you’re doing is valuable. The structured approach they’ve developed—in which they train you—is also really helpful, especially for people who aren’t as organized. Understanding the stages of a project and what your role is at each stage were really helpful. They also trained us in managing different personalities and group dynamics. It was fun and lighthearted but has been very useful. It’s really great to know that you’re doing something beneficial. Thriving Earth Exchange is a nice group and I’m really glad I am part of it.