Bringing Your Interdisciplinary Background and Identity to Science Advocacy

Am I even a STEM major? I have been asking myself this question for the past seven years as an interdisciplinary sustainability student and researcher. Sustainability is sometimes nested in the social sciences and humanities; in order to understand and achieve sustainability we must understand people. This is true for my areas of expertise: sustainable agriculture, food, and environmental justice. It wasn’t until my graduate program, a master of science in community sustainability, that I came to fully embrace my interdisciplinary identity as an asset to break through some of the rigid silos of academia. 

There is something else that doesn’t match my STEM identity, and that is that STEM majors vote at lower rates than any other field of study. Perhaps because of my interdisciplinary identity, this has never applied to me. But also because as an immigrant, I have always tried to assert my belonging in the places I have called home. And the only way I know how to do this is with public service. Serving and encouraging others to serve has always been my favorite kind of mobilization. I served on my student government for four years at the University of Rhode Island, and as a student, I was appointed to my first statewide role as the youngest board member of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council.  

In many of my roles as a food systems scholar and public servant, I noticed my uniqueness in these spaces. I was the only person of color, the only immigrant, the youngest person in the room, and sometimes the only person who had a background in agriculture and environmental science, not just policy. The lack of diversity and of qualified individuals with experience in sustainable agriculture advocacy and policy was apparent. 

In many of my roles as a food systems scholar and public servant, I noticed my uniqueness in these spaces.

As I now pursue my master of science at Michigan State University (MSU), I have also looked for opportunities to support organizations and civic groups that align with my values and mission. Recently, I discovered that there are over 400 commissions and boards that the Michigan Governor has authority to appoint. When I look at this list and meet many of the members of the boards and commissions that I would like to serve one day — like the Michigan Food Policy Council or the Agriculture and Rural Development Commision — I get inspired about my future in public service and the critical role commissioners can have if in advising science-based decision making to promote sustainable agriculture. 

A lot of that respect and excitement was dismantled a few weeks ago when Michigan lost its first chance to have an actual scientist serve on the state’s Natural Resources Commission. The State Senate blocked the appointment of Anna Mitterling, a biology professor at Lansing Community College, former wildlife coordinator with the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, and a Master of Science in Fish and Wildlife. A young woman with a science degree, with competence and leadership experience in her field, she could have been me. At a time when more women are entering science and politics, public discourse that disqualifies and attacks a woman’s competence is a pitiful reminder of how far we have to go until women’s roles in science, public service, and politics are seen as the norm.  

I am still disappointed, but energized that my role as MSU Scicomm Science Policy Chair helps me advocate to change the conditions that allowed this decision. MSU Scicomm Science Policy program aims to teach MSU faculty and students how to engage with policy makers, communicate science to elected officials, and advocate for science-based decision making. In the Fall of 2019, MSU SciComm hosted a Science Policy Luncheon Series to introduce MSU faculty and students to the basics of how scientists can engage in state and federal processes and how science can be used to inform policy. This introductory model of engagement proved successful, as the first educational series delivering this kind of information to multidisciplinary audiences across campus.

As civic engagement by scientists has increased to preserve the integrity of science-based decision making, more opportunities are needed to catalyze scientist’s engagement in policy. In the spring of 2020, the membership of MSU SciComm ‘s science policy program selected multidisciplinary topics for their Science Policy Circles to hear from fellow scientists and policy experts on how to engage in science policy. We hosted a panel with two scientists from MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Dr. Dru Montri and Dr. Robert Richarson, who shared their experiences serving on state and federal commissions. We also hosted Dr. Laura Schmitt Olabisi, a participatory systems modeler, to talk about climate change policy and advocacy. 

As civic engagement by scientists has increased to preserve the integrity of science-based decision making, more opportunities are needed to catalyze scientist’s engagement in policy.

If you want to get involved in climate change policy in Michigan (or any state), Dr. Schmitt Olabisi says there’s a vast range of ways and places to do it. You don’t have to wait for the federal government to take action; you can start closer to home at the state or even the local level. One example would be engaging local municipalities, which have jurisdiction over green space and the way local buildings are designed.

Alas, we had more Policy Circles planned related to natural resources, environmental and clean energy advocacy, as well as an inaugural Legislative Education Day to take students and faculty to meet with elected officials at the Michigan State Capitol. These activities were to lead up to Earth Day as a joint effort with Science Rising and March for Science.

Unfortunately, many of these events now have to be canceled or postponed to the fall to promote social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, we will host a Zoom talk with the Michigan Environmental Council to learn from the leading environmental advocacy organizations in Michigan about how scientists can better support environmental advocacy efforts.

Now, in a new era of digital advocacy, we must continue to find ways to advocate for the kind of society we want to build. Personally, I will continue the social media campaign I started two years ago, #FoodJusticeFriday, a weekly reflection on news about agriculture, food systems, biodiversity, and environmental issues that I encourage others to participate in as well. I have also joined campaigns like #FridaysforFuture and #ScienceRising, which are largely virtually connected anyways, to further challenge myself to communicate science and work at the intersection of policy and science advocacy.

A graphic that says "Take the Science Rising Challenge" with stars coming from the words.

This article is published in partnership with Science Rising, a network of partners and advocates coming together for one purpose: to fight for science, justice, and equity in our democracy leading up to the 2020 election. Take the Science Rising Challenge and join the movement at

Vanessa García Polanco
Vanessa García Polanco

Vanessa García Polanco is a scholar-activist, writer, and speaker on food justice and has served at the local, state, and regional levels to promote democratic civic empowerment, racial equity, and visibility of New Americans in the food system. Vanessa is currently a graduate student in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. Vanessa is a New American; as a woman of color immigrant from the Cibao Valley in the Dominican Republic, she brings her identity and experiences to inform her research and advocacy activities. Read more from her at and @vgpvisions.

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