Urban Ecology and Making the NSF More Inclusive with Cesar Estien

For this episode of K9 Conservationists, Kayla speaks with Cesar Estien about urban ecology. 

Science Highlight: None this week 

Links Mentioned in the Episode: 

None 

Where to find Cesar: Website | Twitter

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Transcript (AI-Generated)

Kayla Fratt 0:10
Hello, and welcome to the K9Conservationists podcast where we’re positively obsessed with conservation detection dogs. Join us every week to discuss detection, training, canine welfare, conservation, biology and everything in between. I’m Kayla Fratt, one of the cofounders of K9Conservationists, where we train dogs to detect data for land managers, researchers, agencies, and NGOs.

Today I’m here talking to Cesar Estien all about environmental justice and inclusivity in the field of ecology, and particularly, we’ll be talking a little bit about academia. So Cesar is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and a Chancellor Fellow at University of California, Berkeley, in the Schell Lab, where his doctoral research focuses on understanding how environmental injustice and the landscape heterogeneity it creates within and between cities underpins wildlife behavior, health and biodiversity. Cesar serves as the co-chair of the environmental justice section of the Ecological Society of America and writes about urban ecology at Life in the City: Evolving in an Urbanizing World. And he’s involved in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology language project, which is a collective working to revise harmful terminology in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. So sorry, welcome to the podcast. I’m so excited to have you here.

Cesar Estien 1:25
Yes, thank you so much for having me. I’m super stoked to talk all things, cities, and ecology and academia. And all the fun and and things that happen there.

Kayla Fratt 1:35
Yeah, yeah. I mean, we’ve got, we’ve got so much ground to cover. And I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun to kind of weave it all together. So why don’t we kind of, you know, we’ll do the classic thing. Let’s start out with your background. How did you did you fall in love with ecology? Or did you fall into ecology? You know, how did how did we end up here?

Cesar Estien 1:49
Yeah, super great question. And something I feel like I always try to recall as I write a bunch of statements. Yeah, I think I fell into ecology. And I think a lot of it led to a lot of reflection of like, yeah, have I always loved the environment? And when did it become super special? And I think, going into undergrad, I was actually an engineering major. And I was really interested in like civil engineering and roads and sustainability and better infrastructure. And then I took a math class, and it was not for me, it was super hard. And so I was at this intersection of “Where do I go?” and I remembered a lot about an environmental science class I took in high school, where I learned a lot about climate change, and heard that term for the first time, and learned a lot about how humans are impacting the Earth, whether it’s for better or for worse. And I became really interested in following that lens, and was really, really unclear where that would go. And so I just switched to biology.

Yeah, and eventually landed in this lab, where I met my first mentor, Jessica Cusick, who’s now a professor at Utah Valley State. And I was really interested in just like learning about animals. And so I watched some videos of birds leaving the nest, which is so cool to me at the time. And so it was really cool. And that’s kind of how I fell into ecology. I felt really, really in love with it when I got to work with North American red squirrels in the middle of Canada in the Yukon Territory. And it was there like holding my first squirrel, just like going through the boreal forest. It was it was really life changing. And that’s where I was like, I want to do this for a very long time as long as I can. And yeah, that’s kind of how I fell into it.

Kayla Fratt 3:32
Oh, that’s so neat. And wow. I mean, being in the Yukon is such a such a privilege that so many, so few people really get to get to experience. Okay, so how did you how did you hear about the the NSF GRFP? What is that? And how did you go about actually winning this grant?

Cesar Estien 3:50
Yeah, I think during my gap year process, so after I graduated and finished my little undergrad project, I attended a conference virtually, where I met one of my mentors, and she told me about the GRFP, when I was interested in grad school was something I should highly consider. And so I was trying to figure out, “what do I want to write about?” And I wanted to extend a bit of the work I did for my undergrad, which is looking at microplastics, and sea urchins and reproduction and how plastic can interact with those gametes in the water. And so I want to think more about cities, right? I think plastic is highly synonymous with cities and humans and a really big byproduct of our waste.

And so yeah, that’s when I heard about GRFP, I reached out to mentors and started writing my project. And that’s when I met my advisor now, Chris Schell, and I met with him and I told him I was just really interested in cities and how different cities are, or how different you know, the space within one city can be and I want to really think about how does that stress out an animal, and so that landed me on this this project that I’m going to start sometime next year, hopefully, thinking about cities, socio-economics, and environmental health burdens, and how all those differences within a city can stress an animal out or potentially make them unhealthy.

And I think that idea was, I mean, I love that idea, it was really nice that reviewers also loved the idea, and thought it was this novel thing for urban ecology to think about. I think urban ecology is still a new field. And so it’s learning a lot about the kind of questions to ask and what to think about, especially on the social side of things. Yeah, and so that led me to win it, which was super exciting. I remember, waking up to a bunch of messages from like, a lot of my Twitter mutuals that we’re just like, Cesar, and Cesar, and wake up, wake up, like you’re on the list. You have the GRFP, getting emails from mentors, which is exciting. And yeah, so that’s, that’s, that’s how that came to be.

Kayla Fratt 5:49
Yeah, yeah. And then for anyone who’s not familiar, so this NSF GRFP is three years of funding over the course of five years. So you kind of have five years to complete it. But you can take, you’ll have to take at least two years where you don’t actually get funding.

And it, so and correct me if I’m wrong on any of this. So I was just awarded the GRFP and had a pretty similar experience, right, I woke up and was checking Twitter while I was in the bathroom as one does, and saw other people announcing that they had gotten it and was like, Oh, shit, like, I should check my email. And I had a couple messages from people in WhatsApp, but missed them until after I read the email. So it covers your university funding, or your like your tuition, your fees, all of those sorts of things, and then also gives you a stipend that is quite a bit more generous than kind of your, what I think a lot of us think of as like a typical graduate student stipend. And there’s definitely more than what I was offered at a couple places I had been accepted to before getting it. So it’s kind of a golden ticket sort of thing.

I know, for me, what the GRFP gave me was that I had two different labs that I was looking at. And one of them was willing to take me on. But we had a lot of questions about funding to make sure that I was going to be able to complete everything as a fully funded student. And then the other lab was not really willing to take me on until we had more funding secured. And it allowed me to end up going with that second lab. You know, that was kind of the because I kind of came with that check in hand they were able to take me on. So it’s a it’s a huge deal for graduate studies in particular. So what did going through that process illuminate for you? And yeah, what have you kind of learned about the National Science Foundation and opportunity and you know, all of these sorts of questions swirling around as it relates to Science and Graduate Studies. And who gets kind of let into in the door for this next level of academia at least?

Cesar Estien 7:56
Yeah, I think writing my GRFP was such a fun and hard time. Like I was also working a full tech job. And so I was you know, waking up at 7am, finishing work at 6:30pm. And then like writing my application in the night. And I was really great about it. Yeah, it’s what I think a lot of us forget. Or a lot of people just forget that we do in this field. It’s like we’re working so much sometimes for just like a chance to get something.

And it can be a lot, it can be a huge burden sometimes. And I think that’s part of what goes into some people not even applying right, I think if I was an undergrad when I was applying, I didn’t apply to GRFP at that time. But I was applying for grad school, it’s the same thing. I was working full time or part time, I was taking 15 credit hours, I was doing research on the side. And then like having a social life and so that where do you fit grad school applications into that but yeah, for the NSF GRFP it was really nice to rethink why I fell in love with ecology as you know, you have to write a personal statement on top of a research statement.

And so I got to write about was, I think I wrote it in my NSF GRFP or maybe different personal statement, like rethinking the first time I fell in love with ecology and the first time I was in my grandmother’s garden, and how much time I’ve spent her garden and also the fact that I wanted to follow suit as my mom, you know, she is not the best English speaker and when we first moved to the States, or my mom first moved to the States, and wants to enroll me in elementary school, there’s this huge thing where they heard her accent and thought I needed additional learning help, and like this whole burden and she fought for me to just be in a “normal” class, and just standard English classes.

In my personal statement, I kind of wrote about wanting to carry that torch and like reach people who look like me and come from my background and make sure they have access to the same things that you know everyone’s should have access to. Yeah. And I think at the end of the day, the GRFP is is a really great opportunity. It’s obviously not equitable, like a lot of people apply, and few people get it. And that’s how a lot of things go.

But, you know, I wrote about that and my background, right, I wrote about embracing my Blackness and blessing of being Latin and all these things. And there are some people who do that, and then get really, really nasty comments about how that’s actually not important at all. And we didn’t want to, we don’t want to hear that or like because of that you are hindering yourself to certain opportunities. And I definitely don’t think that’s true at all. And so, yeah, I think I knew that even though my proposal was great, I loved it, I spent a lot of time on it, a lot of it is like a slight lottery where it’s like you, you get lucky reviewers who are actually going to score you in a really respectful way, in a way that you know, doesn’t have a bunch of internalized biases, aka some form of racism or sexism.

You know, there’s a lot of people on Twitter who I’m pretty you’ve that you’ve seen where, you know, they’re like, Oh, you being a woman is actually not that important. And like, the struggles aren’t that big of a deal, or people talking about being first gen and working and, and people knocking on being first gen and their reviews and not really thinking about the fact that a lot of first gen students have to work. And that’s why maybe their grades look a certain way. And then going into the reviews and saying that they’re not competitive, when like that may not be the truth. It may be actually they needed to work 30 hours to pay their rent and didn’t have time to study it. So yeah, I think that’s when I started thinking a lot, a lot about it. And I eventually met my friend Brandon, through a conference to virtual conference and my mentor, Jorge, and we were just chatting about all of this. And then we decided to write a bit about it, as you know.

Kayla Fratt 11:52
Yeah, yeah. And I’m really excited to get into that. And yeah, just echoing a lot of the stuff you’re saying. I mean, I know when, I guess GRFP announcement day 2022 came out, and I was on Twitter and just reading and I don’t know if it was the algorithm pushing the stuff to me, or if 2022 was kind of a particularly nasty decision year. But I just felt like I was seeing like, dozens of really, really discouraging stories of, yeah, mostly reviewer comments coming out that seemed racist, sexist, insensitive. And I pretty much decided not to apply to the GRFP and then got kind of halfway through a Fulbright application, and then looked at the GRFP and was like, you know, I think I think I can kind of modify these things to be each other and decided to go for it.

And I’m really glad it did, because I got it. But it’s, you know, it’s, it’s really discouraging out there. And I know, I’ve also had a lot of conversations with my younger sister, and then a couple of good friends of mine, we grew up in the same pretty poor, pretty extraordinarily rural part of northern Wisconsin and the four of us, so these two friends who went to law school, and then my sister who got a full ride to med school and myself all have had a relative amount of privilege within that community.

But nonetheless, like, you know, the public school opportunities and other opportunities that we had weren’t necessarily better than our neighbors. And it’s always really interesting thinking through how to leverage that in application processes. And you know, how to talk about certain disadvantages that you had that without feeling like you’re weaponizing it or trying? I don’t know. Yeah, it’s just it’s something that I remember having a conversation with a particularly one of my good friends who was trying to talk about, I think, for law school, you have to write some sort of DEI statement of like, what you are going to bring to the campus. And she was like, I don’t know, I’m a white lady. I’ve got nothing. And I was like, You’re from one of the like, the, our county when we were all in high school had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state. And it’s one of the highest alcoholism rates in the state in Wisconsin, which is saying something.

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And it’s really challenging as an applicant, and then especially with the additional fear that trying to talk about the things that make you a compelling candidate can also be taken the wrong way and weaponized against you. So what tell us about about this paper that did come out of these conversations and these experiences that you had, because I think this is how you and I first connected on Twitter and was the main reason that I wanted to have you on the show.

Cesar Estien 14:48
Yeah, yeah, definitely. That, and so I think one of the things that started this paper was like a conversation of DEI amongst me, my friend Brandon, and also like our mentor, and a friend Jorge, where we have to learn about DEI and like, how the broader impacts section, particularly of the GRFP – so, yeah, for those who don’t know, you, right, you have an intellectual merit section where you’re talking about research and your academic background, and you know, why you’re good enough to do which, which you want to do. Right?

And you have the broader impact section where you’re talking a bit more about your reach into the community? And like, how have you reached groups that maybe aren’t the majority or, you know, worked with, with, with policy people with managers? Right? Have you just like, kind of, worked out of the ivory tower. And but amongst us, we were talking a lot about, you know, you have a lot of white people, particularly getting the GRFP, and writing these, these statements are broader impacts where because of, you know, the current climate we live in, a lot of people are thinking about injustices. And so they’re cramming a bunch of things into their, into their broader impacts, like, “I’m going to work with low income people,” “I’m going to go to this Black community,” I’m gonna go to this, Blind community,” “I’m going to work with, you know, whatever, whatever.”

And then they get funded. And does any of it happen? I’m not sure we’re, we’re sure it’s going to happen. But reviewers are really excited to hear that and so they get get scored highly. And so that’s what this big conversation started around of like, yeah, this DEI – when people are writing these broader impacts section and they’re getting awarded and they’re not doing the work, is this actually helpful or hurting marginalized groups to like, encourage this kind of broader impact construction? I think people can write DEI statements and broader impact statements by thinking a lot about not necessarily always the hardships, but also, yeah, how do you leverage your identity to change this normalness that we exist in academia, right?

Which I think a lot of people are struggling with, with the fact that DEI statements are required. And yeah, maybe they feel like they don’t bring, “bring much to the table.” But I think it’s a lot about Yeah, how do you just change what exists already? Yeah, so anyways, we really start thinking about that. And we’re like, oh, maybe we should write a paper on it, maybe we should have a perspective. And our friend Jorge recommended that we chat with our friend Daniel, who was kind of thinking about this stuff, and also had applied to the GRFP and had not gotten it. And that’s kind of how it came to be, working almost backwards. We started with the broader impact section of the paper, and worked outwards. So thinking about how do we reimagine the broader impact section, particularly, how do we maybe encourage people to definitely reach out and engage with the local community, but also make sure they’re doing that if they want to do that, and that make outreach feel like this thing that needs to happen if you’re not ready to do it?

Or, you know, if you don’t think you’re the best person, how can you support those kinds of things. And so that’s where one of our recommendations became community partnership. And like, making sure you’re also doing things that the community wants to do, I think sometimes our head, we’re like, oh, this would definitely make sense. Like, why would this community not want to do this? But maybe they don’t want to do that. Maybe they’re like, “Yeah, instead of science ed, we actually, you know, want to work on this like gardening project,” or maybe we don’t want to do gardening project. Maybe we just want like someone to help us write lessons or, yeah, things like that. So yeah, that’s it. I’ll stop rambling a little bit.

Kayla Fratt 18:29
No, no, I think that I mean, it’s the I really liked the way that you started it with thinking about the broader impacts, because I know that was something I struggled with, as I was writing that section was, you know, being like, I think I know what I could write here that was going to, that would look really good. But I really want to also write something that I feel like I can complete, and would genuinely be helpful to the community.

And you know, one of the things that I actually liked, because, again, I was doing, I saw, I propose the same project for the Fulbright and the GRFP, which was to return to the team that I had worked with in Kenya, and then just kind of run my own project looking at niche partitioning in the carnivores in this area. But because I had already been to Kenya and already had these on the ground contacts, which obviously, I think that is a thing that like, that’s a valid reason to strengthen, to support an application.

But I was also able to reach out to them and like get in contact with the director of the made by community Conservancy and like, ask him a little bit about like, Here, here’s what I’m thinking about proposing. And then also ask Action for Cheetahs in Kenya, like, Hey, do you guys have translators available who can actually help me with this? Because my Swahili is pretty bad. And my Samburu is much worse. You know, I wouldn’t be very useful for most of that.

But it’s just it’s so challenging to try to think through how to actually propose things that aren’t just kind of furthering narratives of community science or colonialism when they’re asking you for these things. And one of the things again, actually so circling back to the Fulbright that I did, like the Fulbright requires that you have a letter of support from who you say you’re going to be working with. So they actually have, you actually have to make that connection and get someone to write something saying, Yes, this is going to be useful to us. And that may be kind of specific to international stuff or stuff where you, you know, you’re going into other communities, which was the entire point of the Fulbright. And it’s not a given with the GRFP, but I really liked that they require that and yeah, yeah.

So what else kind of came up as you were going through the GRFP, and other recommendations that you had for how to, to improve this process? Because the other thing I noticed every year, when I look at the GRFP announcement, it’s just like, how many hills there are on that list?

Cesar Estien 20:47
Yeah, exactly. I’m like, I’m trying to remember everything we went through in that. But like, Yeah, I think one thing, the first thing we thought about, again, were these biases that lie within it, right? Like, why did these biases exist? And how do we potentially dampen those amount of biases?

And I think the easy answer is different reviewers, diverse reviewers, reviewers that don’t come from the same background. So not all academics, and we need different career types, right. We need professional scientists, maybe they’re already wrapped in there, but we need a bigger portion of them. I think we also have about reviewers from different institution types, right? Not just R1s or R2s, but HBCU reviewers, other minority serving institutions. That was a really big one. And what that again came with, like this reviewer bias.

And so one thing we recommended, and I don’t know how this would work, and how much more work this would yield. But this idea of like, we love peer review, that’s like the gold stamp of research, like what would it mean for these reviews to be peer reviewed by one person, at least mostly, just to catch biases, right? So maybe not rescoring the entire application. But, making sure that those reviews are read so that things that are really harmful, are redacted. Because, you know, regardless of if you get the GRP, it hurts, sure. But one thing that is very damaging is to read something about your identity and what someone thinks about it and a negative lights coming from a field that you’re trying to persist in and break into.

And so I think that was one thing we really wanted to curb was people receiving these harmful reviews. Yeah, and we kind of chat about the community partnership. And I love that you brought up the Fulbright I also applied for a Fulbright, did not get it. But one of the things that I did appreciate about it is that that letter of support where it’s like, in mind, for me, it was like, Oh, I’m going to work with the museum, I’m going to use a bunch of stuff from them. But like, yeah, it could all just be words, and so like reaching out to that person to be like, Hey, this is what I’m thinking about, like, does this even make sense? Like, are you willing to support that? And then getting that in writing is, I think really important. So we recommend it like, yeah, if you’re going to collaborate with these community organizations, like having an extra letter of support be required, or like, maybe not once you’re applying, but like if you get admitted, because sometimes you know, you change institutions, right? You write your GRFP for one location, and then you don’t go there, which is totally fair things change.

And so giving that awardee a year or two to like, figure out what is my new plan of action for community engagement, establishing that, and then getting that letter of support that saying, okay, hey, this person did talk to us, right? Like, Kayla did talk to us, she’s going to do this. And we’re really excited to like, weave our goals with her goals and produce this new thing. Right. I think that would really change it. And, yeah, again, I’m like, I don’t know how much work this would actually entail. But I think, I think at the same time we use that phrase of yeah, maybe it’s a lot of work, to stop a lot of DEI efforts, a lot of justice efforts. And I think it’s super important.

Kayla Fratt 24:09
And like, it’s the National Science Foundation, like we’re not talking about some like a local, like volunteer run national history museum or something. Where, you know, it’s still kind of an excuse. But you know, I think excuses often come from like valid concerns. I’m just, now I’m just trying to come up with like, how we’re going to write the second version of this paper, but one of the other things that you mentioned was specific funding support for these broader impacts. And that was something that I also, I love that idea because – so my original idea for Kenya, my Fulbright, which are the the GRFP that I wrote for Kenya, which I’m a perfect example of this. I’m neither doing that project nor going to the school that I had originally proposed.

But what I was planning on doing was using all of the location and habitat use data that we collected on these carnivores, to hopefully try to figure out areas that we could share with the local herders as far as where to construct their bomas to reduce depredation. And that was something that they seemed interested in and interested in knowing more about, they have all this historical knowledge, but because of some droughts and other like pretty rapid changes in the, in the, the area, you know, historical and ancestral knowledge is not as useful as it should be right now.

But like, I don’t know, where the money for these educational materials in multiple tribal languages was going to come from. And I had every intention of trying to figure that out, and hopefully figuring out how to do it on the cheap. But maybe you could have something where once you get those layers of support that then unlocks that, that additional funding. And then, you know, I think you’ve almost certainly mentioned this, but talking about what people actually need. And I think, again, this comes back to the struggle when you know, you’re writing a grant, which is a competition.

And I think sometimes the ideas that look most interesting on paper for broader impacts might not necessarily be the thing that the community needs the most. And like Action for Cheetahs, in Kenya, the organization that we worked with in Kenya is a really good example of this, you know, they’re really interested in preserving cheetahs. However, that means a huge part of what they do is they do rabies vaccination campaigns, and sterilization clinics for village dogs. And like, I think if you know very little about the, you know, the situation on the ground there, that doesn’t make sense. And you’re like, why, if I’m trying to save cheetahs, why am I donating money for a Parvo clinic? But those, you know, One Health approaches and overall, it like it’s, yeah.

And then you know, you’ve been getting to other communities where you know, you try and my boyfriend here in El Salvador and I have had arguments where, you know, every time we see a wild animal, he says, Oh, that’s good in soup. And we go back and forth. Like, hey, maybe every time we see an iguana, we don’t need to think about it as a cheeseburger. But if we were trying to have those conversations on more of a community scale, like you would need to also then understand like, where the community is coming from, and like how deforestation and farming and like poverty, and all these other things come into it. And again, then you’re also coming back to the question of like, now we’re just, we’re just talking about like, one little PhD student, and how much they can actually do, especially again, if the NSF isn’t offering support. So yeah, what else? What else do I have to say about this? Are we starting to go in circles?

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Cesar Estien 27:55
No, I think that’s a really good point. And yeah, I echo everything you just said, I think, yeah, when I was writing my GRFP, I wrote a lot for an area that I don’t live in now. And I, I won’t live there and won’t be able to do the work I propose. And so I had to think about how to shift that. And yeah, and when I had the idea of what to ship, it was like, Oh, my God, I need, like, $5,000 at least. So where am I gonna get this money. And fortunately, I got that money. And I had to work with some community people to help me get that money. But even now, it’s still like, it’s a bit of a stretch. So you know, we emailed school boards were like, it is something you guys would be interested in in the area? Is this something that like, would actually work for this area? And they were like, Yes, that’d be great. We think that’d be great. We can’t offer you funding, but like curious and where you can maybe get funding.

And so now with my my partner down in Carmel Valley, Dr. Hunter, we’ve been thinking about, yeah, how each year, where are we gonna move money from? Where’s that money coming from? How are we going to get it? Because it is a challenge funding. It’s a hard reality for a lot of these things. And again, like you pointed out, I’m just a PhD student. And that’s one thing my advisor was, was very supportive. He He loved the idea that I had, but emphasize that, like he would really prefer if I didn’t do it alone, alone, because it’d be a lot to do. People have whole jobs doing this kind of stuff.

Kayla Fratt 29:16
Right? Yeah, yeah. And I know, you know, as we’re pivoting, I’m either going to most likely end up in Alaska, or in Central America, and if we end up in Central America, we’re having conversations of, you know, at least I speak the language there, which helps massively in comparison to Kenya, and potentially in comparison to a lot of other folks who would like to do work in in Central America. But from the scat dog perspective, you know, there we would like to be offering more education on that side of things.

So, you know, we’re already starting to think about like, Okay, how do we, how are we going to go about finding and hiring field techs. I like letting people shadow and trying to broaden this scat dog method in Central America. And then again, this then just keeps going back to these questions of like baseline and community support. Because, and a lot of in my experience internationally, there are times where it’s, it’s not necessarily hard to find people who are excited about the conservation dog side of things.

But then kind of going back to, okay, where do we find dogs that are good at this sort of work? Where do we find people who have the dog handling experience, and, you know, you can find these, you can find people who are really interested in it, but some, like the baseline level of knowledge of dog care, or availability of good veterinary services or whatever is really different from what you would expect in most parts of the US.

And, you know, I think we’re going to be able to pull off what we’re hoping to do as far as getting local engagement on the dog side of things. But a huge part of that also just comes down to the fact that like, I speak the language and I live down here. Which, you know, is also you know, if you’re wanting to work in an area, and you actually genuinely are committed to broader impacts, speaking of the language and having some experience there’s probably something that would be a really reasonable first step. Not that it’s easy. It’s not simple I mean, again, like if I had gotten the Kenyan project like I was gonna Duolingo it up with, with Swahili as best as I could, but there’s no, there’s no Duolingo for Samburu, which is the tribal language that’s predominant in that area, and it’s just gonna have to hope that I pick it up.

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So tell us about urban ecology and environmental justice. And I’m just gonna throw those two terms at you and let you talk now that I think you’re I think you’re prepared for that.

Cesar Estien 32:13
Yeah. So yeah, I just had a meeting with my friend, Caleb. And we were talking a lot about urban ecology, because he’s interesting. Yeah, thinking about urban ecology from different lens, because I think, depending on who you ask urban ecology may mean different things to different people, right? Like when you call it you, to me, as an ecologist, maybe I’m thinking about a lot of environmental attributes of cities, and how they interact with wildlife as well as the social side. Whereas, you know, someone who studies more people and relations may think of urban ecology as knowledge production in space and time. And look, where is that? Who lives where?

Yeah, urban ecology is, to me a really fascinating space. And I’m really lucky that this is a type of research that excites me, because yes, cities are becoming this really interesting space where people and wildlife are really becoming intertwined on so many levels. And we have this really interesting opportunity to learn so much more about how our animals actively responding to everything, humans throughout them, everything that cities that are after them, and how cities are changing, and wildlife are changing in response to them and humans are changing in response to wildlife. So it’s it’s really interesting cycle that’s all together and reason why I tried to integrate and center environmental justice in that and in my research is because cities are also highly inequitable, right, I think, a quintessential factor of cities, share our buildings, but also like inequity, right? Cities look different for a very specific reason. You know, parts of cities look different for that reason.

And a lot of it is the history of cities, right, things like segregation, things like disinvestment, things like zoning laws. So that’s also I think cities are interesting is always a weird way weird word to use for this kind of stuff. But they’re, you know, this nice intersection. Another way to say, for thinking about how does environmental justice interact with urban space? And how does all that interact with wildlife? Right? How do these laws that are actively or have, you know, in the past, oppressed people change the landscape that wildlife experience and that people experience? And how does that change the relationship between people and wildlife? Right, why is it that some people in cities have experience with you know, “bad wildlife,” why did they always see “pests;” I use quotes because pest is this term that I think is, you know, it’s not the best. Yeah, and why do certain people would have experiences with good wildlife? Why are they you know, and why they have leisure to do that. I think it all goes back to how cities were built and developed and all these things.

So, yeah, it’s exciting for me to think more about. Yeah. How do these policies lead down to affect the ecology of cities and the landscape that animals experience? How has it changed their behavior? Has it changed? how healthy they are? Yeah. Why do people view life differently? And? Yeah, I think the same thing with environmental justice, it means different things to different people. You have food justice, so climate justice of energy, justice, and so, so many things are baked into there. And I, I think about it in a very broad environmental sense. And I’ve been trying to think about it more from like, an emotional standpoint. Where, yeah, where are these like, negative emotions with animals distributed? And who gets to have, again, those good experiences with wildlife and with nature?

Yeah, it’s a really interesting thing. And it kind of hard thing to think about sometimes of like, how do you quantify that besides like survey work and ethnographic work? But yeah, that’s kind of where I’m at. And I think it’s really, really fascinating. And, yeah, it’s fun to do this for my PhD to think about inequity and injustice at the core of cities. And a law that is built on, again, like how anti-Black cities are, how we’re built on indigenous land, how these cities are built, and have all this violence, you know, built into the infrastructure, how does that influence wildlife? It’s kind of where I’m going with it. And so I think it’s exciting, exciting stuff.

Kayla Fratt 36:33
I was just gonna say fascinating. And that also feels like, kind of a gross word to use. But yeah, like, hopefully people kind of know what we mean. But I mean, I’m loving this idea of kind of – I don’t think I’d quite thought of this this way, as far as being able to use cities and the policies around them as a much kind of a smaller area in order to look at how policies and human behavior can affect animal behavior. And, you know, wildlife health and outcomes. And I’m sure that all then bleeds over into one health approaches.

I used to work at an organization called conservation Colorado, and they were very focused on a lot of environmental justice questions, but it was mostly around air quality and water quality, and you know, where the buses go. And those are particularly the rail system in Denver. And I don’t think I had ever kind of taken that out to think more about wildlife behavior. I know what I mean, one of the things that I’m hoping, I mean, my my hopeful project for my PhD, one of the things we’re really hoping to do was be able to get enough samples from enough different countries that we might be able to do some looking at how different countries and their park policies and kind of enforcement of poaching and deforestation and those sorts of things may be affecting carnivore behavior.

And that’s something I’ve always been really interested in is kind of how, like a federal government’s approach to management or lack thereof, kind of influenced wildlife behavior. But I love the idea of doing that in a city that sounds easier, permanent wise, and just, but also just really, really relevant. So do you have like a study species that you’re focusing on? What are your methodologies? Where are you working? Like, as much as you know, right now, I know you’re still pretty early and a lot of these these projects?

Cesar Estien 38:34
Yeah, no, all really good questions. Yeah, so I am a lot of in primarily focus on urban carnivores. So we think about coyotes and raccoons and possums and skunks, and autumn, my work individually really focuses on raccoons and coyotes. And for one project quite a bit of the others.

Yeah, for methodologies, I using a lot of different ones, because I think I’m doing a lot of different things that require different approaches. And so, you know, on one chapter, I’m using a lot of mapping. And a lot of those tools along with like, open data and biodiversity and like I naturalist to think about, how has redlining and segregation, something that happened in the 30s, 40s, 50s, how’s that structured, where pollution is in cities?

And we kind of know a bit about that already, right? Like these familiar red line areas that are predominantly Black, predominately, non-white, Hispanic, they have a lot more pollution overall in less amenities. And so we already know that, but my question is, how does that change biodiversity and cities and so that’s one approach.

And for another approach, I’m using camera traps, which you’re probably familiar with, where it’s just cameras, you strapped to a tree and you see what walks in front of it. I’m doing that to think about behavior and use these novel objects to think about how do animals respond to novelty and their environment? And how do things like ephemeral health influence that and for the other chapter, think about trapping and trying to get at health inequities because like you said, right, you gave the example of rails in Denver, and here in Oakland where I work.

So I work in the bay, you know, our lab is pretty big on doing place-based research. So, you know, you work where you live. And so I live in Berkeley, I go to school at Berkeley, and a lot of my work is in the East Bay, from Oakland to Richmond, and also in San Francisco, you know, in Oakland there, they passed this like law in sometime in the late 1900s. I don’t know the exact year, but it changed where diesel trucks could drive, right. So I believe the 880 is where diesel trucks can drive now. And the 580 is where they used to be able to drive and that cuts through a white, an affluent community. And so now we see differences in air pollution, particularly in diesel particulate matter.

But how does that affect the raccoons that live there? Or the coyotes that live there, or the skunks that live there? So that’s one of the things I’m interested in is like, spatially, how isn’t as Wildlife Health printed, particularly different doesn’t mimic human health disparities? Or does it not have wildlife adapted to it and already like, figuring out what’s next to respond to something I’m really, really interested in fascinated by, yeah, trying to weave in all these things that could affect them.

And it gets to the point, as you also know, where it’s like, so many things can affect their health, right? Like it, maybe not just the pollution, but diet and what they’re eating could really mitigate it, who they’re interacting with what other species they’re interacting with. People, if they’re being hand fed, which is something that’s really common as again, you probably know, and it’s particularly common for like the coyotes in San Francisco, for example, where people either like, really, really hate them, or they’re like, Oh, my God, they’re a wild animal in a city that they need help finding food. So I’m going to put out raw meat for them, or I’m going to feed them dog food and things like that. And so that could change their health, you know, in relation to the environment when it comes to stress, for example.

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So, yeah, those are all the things I’m working on, all at once. And so lots of different things going on. But all really exciting. And I hope it all comes together at the end, and I think as biologists and scientists and ecologists, we often go into a system with a story ready to tell, right, like, I hope the story that my work shows is that inequity is bad for everybody. Because we know that in animals that are and people that like inequity itself degrades the environment, overall, it makes the city more unhealthy for everybody. But is that true for wildlife? I don’t know. And even though in a way I like, quote unquote, hope it does for my hypotheses. It also may not. And I think that’s really interesting to see, you know, how are animals combating those harsh environmental pressures that they’re experiencing because of inequity? How are they overcoming it? I think we just don’t know. And so lots of entry level research happening that I’m excited about.

Kayla Fratt 42:59
Yeah, I mean, gosh, one of the things I love about talking to all of the different scientists that I get to talk to you for this, and just, you know, in general in life, is realizing how many questions there are out there that are so interesting, and you almost feel like we should already know the answers to them. I mean, I think like I’ve grown up and spent most of my life in well, and honestly, I guess, a huge chunk of North America, the kind of vast majority of North America is bear country. And I think when I think about urban wildlife, most of what I’m thinking about is like, you know, trash safety, and how to manage that, around bears.

And I think, you know, I love that you’re also focusing on some of these smaller carnivores, because, you know, like raccoons are notorious for that. And I don’t know nearly as much about what that mean for them, what that may mean, for them their health outcomes. And, you know, when I think about the trash management systems that I’ve seen working really well, in Colorado, the ones those tend to be in pretty affluent communities like the you know, Boulder, Colorado seems to have their interactions and bear communications down really, really well. That’s also, you know, one of the most expensive places that I’ve ever tried to live in my life.

Cesar Estien 44:19
Yeah, but what’s also interesting about that is in some cities and maybe reversing again, or like, you know, and I know this is true, so do not hold me to it. But like, yeah, right. In the past, you had this concept of white flight where like a lot of white people in cities when integration was happening, came out to the suburbs and the exurbs and things like that. But then in gentrification now, you have a lot of rich white people moving into the denser part of cities that are being changed as as pushing either those community people who are maybe Black, maybe non-white Hispanics, maybe, you know, whatever they are, they’re going to live where they can afford and maybe it’s flipping again, where like, the exurb areas are becoming these areas where, you know, poor people are living or so on and so forth? I think it varies on the city.

And that’s what’s totally interesting about urban ecology research is like, what’s true for San Francisco is definitely not always true for Oakland. And it’s true for Oakland, maybe very different for Denver, or Boulder. It’s – we, we don’t know. And that’s the that’s the weird thing. Because cities are so different, right? Like, it all depends on the city history, and who lives there, what’s their culture? What’s their politics? All those things change what a city looks like. And so a coyote here is definitely not the same coyote or, or things like that in Denver, so.

Kayla Fratt 45:41
Yeah, right. Yeah, there’s so many questions about like, you know, like public transit, like I’m much more interested in living in the exurbss, if I can, but that kind of requires that I have a good way to get into town, if that’s where my, if that’s where my work is. And you know, then we’re just yeah, there’s that there’s so much to it. So what else do we want to kind of expand upon or circle back to as far as environmental justice or inequity and wildlife, inequity? And people? Do you have any examples that you’d like to share?

Cesar Estien 46:15
Yeah, yeah. Um, yeah, I think. I mean, I, I’m trying to think a bit more about and learn more about slowly but surely is like, yeah, just rethinking environmental justice as something that’s more than just pollution. I think that’s like, the catch all, and usually, the poster child for environmental injustice, right? Like, who is experiencing or air pollution, who has contaminated water?

All those things, which are really, really, really important to think about, but also, other things are important are like, who has access to nature? What does that nature look like? Is it a good quality? Again, for me, it’s like who’s having bad experiences as wildlife? And where’s that in parts of cities? Right? Yeah. New York is probably a good example of like rats. Right? And like, why certain people have higher experience higher densities of rats? Do we consider that an environmental injustice? I think so. But like, all people don’t maybe explicitly think about it. And so like, what does that do for emotional burdens? And like a sense of safety and a sense of place?

Yeah, those are things I’m trying to think about more and like, we’d love you know, if you’re listening, and you think about that kind of stuff. Yeah. Like, please reach out. I’d love to think more about it and cities. Yeah, that’s kind of the only thing maybe I have right now to think about the expand on cutting. It’s really fascinating. Isn’t that’s, like, really new. And to my knowledge isn’t, you know, this concept of effective environmental justice is still relatively new thinking about motion to an effect. And so yeah, again, there’s a lot of theory that’s still not in place. And so I think it’d be really, it’s a really exciting new space to think about, particularly in cities, right, which is just where I work.

Kayla Fratt 48:10
Yeah, yeah. There’s so there’s so much I mean, and I know, I’ve already been thinking through like, gosh, and I bet there’s all sorts of interesting questions about dog ownership. And, you know, you can, I think a lot of times we think about how that looks in parks or wild spaces, as far as you know, on leash off leash, how compliant people are.

But you know, you can also think about community vaccination rates for their dogs, and whether or not dogs are living primarily outdoors are primarily in runs, where they may have a higher likelihood of coming into contact with wildlife. And, gosh, I mean, you know, because all things come back to dogs for me, somehow, but no, I love this. I think there’s a lot to think about. And I think one of the other things that I’m really excited about, as far as kind of bringing these concepts to our listeners is, you know, maybe thinking about ways that conservation dogs could be leveraged in this space. And it seems like a really lovely space for kind of early career volunteer sort of conservation dog, folks, because one of the things that a lot of our students and other early career conservation folks run into is that how do you how do you transition into a field where so much of the work requires huge chunks of time away from home? Big amounts of time in the field, like, you know, we get people who message us who are diabetic or have young kids or for whatever reason, you know, maybe don’t want to or can’t be living in a tent and hiking 14 miles a day, but are really interested in this field.

And I think one of the huge advantages of this field is that I’m sure there are still like massive logistics and massive costs, unfortunately, associated with fieldwork. But if people were, you know, able Little to get involved in some sort of community science project with, you know, training their dog to find raccoon scouts. So you can look at stress levels or toxin levels or whatever, you know, and I’m just giving you postdoc ideas that would be so much more accessible for a lot of kind of early career people are people who are interested in helping having their dogs help out in science for a day or two a week but aren’t ready to quit their day jobs and you know, move away from home for months or years at a time.

Cesar Estien 50:29
So yeah, no, definitely. I think that’s a really good point. And yeah, one of the colleagues and friends that I work with, Tali, shout to Tali Caspi, because a lot of coyote stuff in San Francisco. Yeah – one of the ways that she she cuts a lot of coyote scat, like, like hundreds, if not close to 1000 samples. And a lot of the way she did that was because of community scientists. Some of the main dog walkers are they’re just like, Yeah, I’m already walking dogs. Like, if I see something that looks like coyote poop, happy to pick it up for you. And did that. And so I think that’s like, a such a phenomenal way.

And that’s one of the, for me, one of the benefits of urban ecologist, you are often working in someone’s backyard, or you’re working in their neighborhood, and they want to know what’s going on. They’re really curious about their wildlife, like some of the behavioral work we do. Me and a postdoc in our lab. You know, I think people are also excited to see like, Oh, my God, how smart is my animal? Like, are the raccoons in my neighborhood, like, smaller than the other ones and things like that? Are they actually bolder? You’re not.

And so I think it’s this really fascinating way to engage with people in such an intimate way. And they often hold a lot of knowledge that I don’t know anything about, right? Like, I’m not from here. I grew up in Florida. And so I meet with someone that’s in a neighborhood, and they’re like, “Oh, actually, yeah, like, I lived there for 20 years, nd the raccoons always come through that, you know, storm drainage thing, and like, you should put something over there.” And like, there’s so much value in them. And I think, more often than not, a lot of scientists discount those kinds of people and their knowledge and what they can provide, and like, co produce with us.

And I think in urban ecology, there’s this new leaf turning. And maybe it’s been happening for a while. But to me, it’s it feels so new, that people are really starting to value that kind of work. And it’s still something that’s hard because academia, as you know, does not place value on people who aren’t in who don’t have an academic title, or they’re not a scientist, technically, or professionally, you know, whatever that means. I think, obviously, being a scientist is so much more than a degree and research. But yeah, now I’m that, you know, I’m just rambling a little bit. But yeah, yeah, I think it’s really fascinating space for for the kind of work that you described.

Kayla Fratt 52:42
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I really hope we get to see more of it. And I know, I mean, we’ve talked about it some with, you know, invasive or endangered plant work. But I think this is really definitely sparked some ideas for me as far as, yeah, more urban wildlife.

And there’s so many interesting questions out there, and so many scientists who are just also really eager to answer interesting questions. And I think it’s also just such a cool time as far as scat. I mean, the last 20-25 years, close to 30 years even has been such a cool time for fecal DNA, but just looking at some of the stuff that talls lab is doing, which is the lab in Oregon that I’m joining, as far as you know, fecal meta-barcoding. And just being able to like develop your own SNPs to look at some of these questions, so much of the stuff that wasn’t so many questions that weren’t really easily easily or feasibly answered, just, you know, a couple of years ago are really starting to come into the fore. And that’s super exciting. And hopefully it’s going to boost accessibility. I mean, I think we’re going to be seeing some really cool field field tools that allow for reading of various questions in our lifetime as well which you know, that’s just a whole other question of you know, sci fi sounding stuff that’s getting closer and closer every day so well sir. Where can where can people find you online if they’re curious about keeping up with all of the really cool projects you’re involved in? And yeah, just stay stay up to date with you and your your goings-on?

Cesar Estien 54:14
Yeah, you can find me on Twitter at EstienCesar, or my website, which is my first and last name, middle initial, so cesaroestien.com Somewhat updated. I usually keep it pretty up to date, but my Twitter is my primary, my best space to see what’s going on and what I’m working on.

Kayla Fratt 54:41
Yeah, well, excellent. And, again, I hope people at home found this interesting and are feeling as always inspired to get outside and be a canine conservationist in whatever way suits your passions and skill set today. And maybe that means walking to your local Ranger office and asking if anyone is interested in coyotes. And, you know, as always, folks at home, you can sign up for our course join our Patreon and support K9Conservationists by buying mugs and T shirts and bento boxes all at k9conservationists.org. We’ll be back next week.