1. A Scientist’s Role in Social Justice Movements

    June 25, 2019

    By Stephanie Hung.

    From the EFP orientation, I was under the impression that my placement site would give me an assignment related to diversity, equity, and inclusion or environmental justice. When I arrived at PSE Healthy Energy, I was tasked with identifying the chemicals in oil and gas wastewater and evaluating the efficacy of existing wastewater treatment technologies to treat those chemicals. I was thrown into a heavily quantitative research project that involved analyzing lists of hundreds of chemicals and reading about multiple advanced and complex technologies. Where was the “justice” component? I had spent the past two years in a lab conducting experiments, analyzing results, developing methods, and writing papers. I was ready to get out there and help people. I wanted to work with community members and leaders. I wanted to share my knowledge and expertise with stakeholders and organizers. I wanted to make an impact. Not to mention, I did not want to spend a month and a half doing the one mundane task that every researcher dreads: data cleaning. I can claim, with confidence, that no one on earth is excited about cleaning up data—going through every single data point in meticulous detail to capture anomalies and ensure that the most minuscule and innocuous mistakes are corrected. There were many dull days at the office, starring at multiple Excel spreadsheets, fighting to keep my eyes open (especially after lunch) while combing through thousands of rows of data. It was tedious, it was boring, it was laborious, but it was necessary. Scientific research has a reputation of being exciting, innovative, and cutting-edge. That is what draws curious minds into the natural sciences. However, the reality is that it is not always glorious and at times could make you question whether that hard-earned graduate degree was worthwhile. Despite all of that, I was driven to continue data gathering and cleaning because it was essential for telling a story. Without going through multiple datasets scrupulously, there would be no workable compilation of data to run analyses on, and without analyses, there would be no conclusions, no story, and thus no progress. Then I realized, without a story, there would be nothing to fight for, there would be no justice

    For my project, I put together a screening methodology to assess the hazard of chemicals commonly used during oil and gas development. The data showed me that a slew of chemicals being used are toxic to humans. Preliminary findings also revealed that many potent chemicals, including carcinogens, may not be efficiently removed by currently employed wastewater treatment technologies and may even be retained in the water that is used for crop irrigation downstream. Turns out, the results from my project actually raised environmental justice and public health concerns. For example, migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, work the agricultural fields of the Central Valley—where crop irrigation with minimally-treated oilfield wastewater is taking place. In addition, many cities and towns across the Central Valley already experience socioeconomic hardship and have one of the state’s lowest environmental justice scores. Having concrete data is a crucial starting point for future assessment of human health, environmental, and social justice implications. Through this fellowship, I have seen how scientists have the potential to bring compelling and rigorous research to the science and policy interface. Science often has a siloed approach, but it is time to break away from that mentality.  Science has an important place in social justice and I hope to continue bridging those two worlds.