nSCI Profile Series: Monica Ramirez-Andreotta—scientist, artist, community-educator
Monica Ramirez-Andreotta is an assistant professor of Health Sciences at Northeastern University. She is a member of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute, and a member of the National Institutes of Environmental Health-funded PROTECT (Puerto Rico Test Site for Exploring Contamination Threats) program’s community engagement and research translation cores. Ramirez-Andreotta holds an MPA in environmental science and policy from Columbia and a PhD in soil, water and environmental science from the University of Arizona. For her dissertation, she led a citizen science project called “Gardenroots” where local residents who lived near a superfund site measured arsenic levels in the edible tissues of the vegetables growing in their gardens. She also holds a BA in photography and has extensive experience in museum education.
Key point #1: You can use art and images to help explain and elaborate upon science.
You studied both ecology and photography as an undergrad, which is not the standard combination. What led you to major in both art and science?
MRA: I have a memory of being like five or six and walking through a mall with my dad. We saw a gallery with art framings, and I said, “I want to be an artist. I want to be an architect. I want to build things.”
And he said, “That’s awesome. That’s great, but it’s hard to make money solely as an artist.” Coming from a first-generation Mexican-American household, he thought, “Whatever you do, you better be prepared to get your own scholarships, work your way through college, and make something of yourself. You need to know that we don’t have money for that, so you better do really good in school.”
I always think back to that whenever people ask me, “Why do you do what you do?” I always go back to that moment. That was the art one. And then for ecology, I remember one time I was at at a science museum in Balboa Park, and I remember seeing an exhibit called “the evolution of man.” I was a little kid, probably about seven, and I was down on the ground, acting like the monkey and then growing up. I asked my dad, “What is this?!” And he said, “Well, let’s talk about evolution….”
Starting at a liberal arts school, I realized that I loved science, but I also realized that I wasn’t 100 percent an artist, and I wasn’t 100 percent a scientist.
So I started using the art to explain and explore the science. One time I had a self-portrait project with close-ups of my eyes and parts of my face, but I overlaid the images on a backdrop of numbers that were constants of the universe, and so in an art critique, that ended up being a vehicle to explain, “Well, what do you mean you don’t know the speed of light? This is the speed of light. Everything is based on these numbers.”
nSCI: What happened after that?
MRA: It took me about five years to finish the two degrees. Now you’re seeing a lot more interdisciplinary degrees, but back then, it was a little more challenging to set up that kind of multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary work. I’d go to my art adviser, and they’d be like, “You need to take a science class”, and I’d say, “But I’m an ecology major.” There was a lot of bureaucratic nonsense and hoo-ha, but my advisers were happy that I was doing both and made it work for me.
A pivotal moment was when I became a NASA Space Grant fellow as an undergrad and got to work at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). They were like, “What do we do with this person? She works in a photo museum. She’s doing art and science,” so they put me in outreach, along with the in the graphics design and photo laboratory.
Half of my days in that internship would be spent developing images from the solar telescope in Socorro, New Mexico. I’d be in the dark room developing images of the sun. It was phenomenal in itself, but in the end, I was generating an archive of the Sun, documenting solar flares and other activities. We ended up using those images to create a video to show at outreach events.
That was awesome, because I was working with a department full of educators, but I was also interacting with astronomers. Astronomers, at times, can be incredibly difficult to work with, but I had a great relationship with my mentor Travis Rector who is now at University of Alaska Anchorage.
He was the first one to say, “Hey, you’ve got a little bit of an art background? Let’s talk.” We worked together on assigning colors to an image of a galaxy because when you’re processing an astronomical image, you assign a color to each gas. That’s how you get the depth. He was like, “Let’s assign colors that make sense. What looks good? How can we inspire more interest and engagement in science by really making these images rock?”
I was really, really fortunate to be in such nurturing environments throughout my undergrad. I was just in places where people respected and valued what I was trying to do, even though I didn’t really know what that was yet.
nSCI: Did you ever encounter people who were skeptical about your ability to do science because of your background?
MRA: It was hard, because I was straddling two different fields. People weren’t telling me, “Oh, you can’t do it.” Or “Oh, you’re not going to make it.” It was more like, “You’re not going to be good at either [science or art]” if you’re trying to do both.
One thing I did feel throughout my community and professional work was that no one called me “Ms. Ramirez” or “Monica” when I was meeting with a community group or presenting at a scientific meeting. One of my advisers witnessed that nobody would just call me by my name, they’d just be like, “Okay. Thanks, young lady.” It was very funny to see him reflect on that. He later nicknamed me “Yola,” short for “young lady.”
Another observation I had was that sometimes I felt as though I was the token bilingual Mexican-American. (“Oh. We need to show our diversity. We have Monica!”) That can be a little awkward, but at least they’re trying.
Going back to nurturing environments, I was lucky that I worked in a photo museum at University of Arizona with a lot of badass women. I mean, the Center for Creative Photography is like the best archive of American photography, probably one of the best in the world. Those women who made it happen were so passionate and so strong, and I learned a lot from them. And they valued what I was trying to do. I helped them with their pest management program because of my ecology background, because the silverfish insect eats paper, and you don’t want them on site at a photography museum.
nSCI: When you were thinking about grad school how did you arrive at going to Columbia for environmental policy?
MRA: I knew I needed a toolkit. I had the science, so I knew how to interpret things around me And I had art so I knew how to get people excited and I knew how to express myself via photography and by producing intriguing images. But felt like something was missing.
And you have those days when you ask yourself, “Can I do anything? Am I going to be able to do anything better for my community?” I was having a rough day. I was walking through the hall and saw the poster for the Columbia program, and I thought, “Whoa! This is so sweet, because it’s about environmental science and it’s about giving you the tools to change science policy…. That’s the missing piece. That’s my trifecta. I’m going to be able to have a policy background, an art background, and a science background, and I’m going to be able to really do something here.”
But never as an undergrad did I ever consider grad school. I was like, “Whatever. I like to ride my bike and be nice to people…,” but when I thought about it, [Columbia] seemed to make sense.
Key point #2: Sometimes you need to get a PhD in order to get your own projects going.
nSCI: How did you end up going back to Arizona and getting involved with the superfund program?
MRA: Well, I got my MPA, and I knew that I didn’t want work at a regulatory agency. That didn’t sound like a good fit for me. So I got a job at the Flandrau Science Center at the University of Arizona. I ended up having a really great boss who ended up being a mentor. Her name was Melissa Williams, and now she works at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
We started working together planning and implementing informal science education programs. I’d do everything from liquid nitrogen experiments with 500 high school students in both English and Spanish wearing a microphone to little intimate experiences with just a blow-up planetarium, where I’d have just 15 students in there with me and I’d look up at the stars. That was really great for me, because I enjoy education and communications.
At that time, there was a really big push to build the [Flaundrau] science center, so I designed this community engagement program to understand what the community wanted to learn more about. What does science mean to them? What type of science do they want to know?
I ended up having people going to community centers and going to different community festivals to interview people about what kind of science they wanted to see. And Melissa told me, “You really have this knack with people. You really know how to engage them.” She mentored me and taught me the scholarly literature about engagement, because I was just kinda flying by the seat of my pants and doing what I intuitively thought was the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, that science museum had a really bad director at that time. I started to feel really suppressed. I was told that I wasn’t allowed to translate materials into Spanish anymore, because Arizona was an “English-only” state. And English being my first language and having half of my family only speak Spanish, that really bothered me.
On top of all that, all the work I just told you about doing- they wouldn’t let me present it at advisory board meetings .They would have someone who didn’t necessarily do the work but was more well known or had a doctorate at the time present the work I had done.
That felt like a glass ceiling to me. I don’t know what kind of “-ism” that had to do with, whether it was gender or racial or education. Whatever it was, those two things became very suppressive, and I thought, “I need to get out of here.”
And then I found out that there was a research translation coordinator position available, and thought, “What’s this? Ohmigod. It’s about making science more tangible to government agencies and communities. That’s what I do at the science center, except this is more specific to a research agenda.” I applied to that, I got it, and it was awesome.
[That job] allowed me to apply what I had learned about superfund sites and contamination,, the politics and the science behind the clean-up, and the challenges in determining the health effects associated with chemicals of concern at Superfund sites.
nSCI: How did you end up going from that job to pursuing a PhD in Environmental Science?
MRA: I would have these great grant proposal ideas. I would write them, and then I would have to give them to someone else to champion because they had the PhD.
Being a Mexican with a lot of pride, I was like, “I want autonomy and I want to represent myself,” and it was that stubbornness that really pushed me into being like, “Screw it. I’m getting my PhD, because I want to do this type of work. I’m sick of going under the umbrella of others. I’m just going to do it!”
And then I got my PhD.
I decided to do my minor in art, because I wanted to communicate the science my project would generate. I want to do everything I can and put what I can in the hands of those who can use it and need it. A visual communications professor from the school of art sat on my comps committee, who really helped me graphically design informational and report back materials for community members.
nSCI: Can you share any of your favorite stories from when you were working with community members?
MRA: One highlight was when my colleague Denise Moreno-Ramírez and I were able to get a grant to get a summer camp designed [CampCIENCIAS] specifically for high school students along the Arizona-Mexico border. Originally, our idea was to have it be US students and Mexican students, but the grant wouldn’t let us pay for any people outside of the United States. Rocío Estrella was a big help on this. We brought in about 16 students from the Arizona side of the border, brought them to University of Arizona for a week, and had them do a variety of experiments in environmental science, chemistry, astronomy, biology, and field trips, as well as incorporating the arts. I had the university’s Center for Photography put together a little show of environmental photography, and we had the students reflect via journal writing.
It’s a ton of work to do summer camps, but it was worth it. It was so worth it. The whole premise behind the camps was that along the border there are no informal science learning opportunities like you’d have within cities or even suburban settings. Because of obvious infrastructural issues, but this was our way of responding to that.
I also worked on a pollution prevention project, and again Denise, Rocio, and I worked in collaboration with a community-based organization called the Sonoran Environmental Research Institute (SERI). Our role as the community engagement and research translation people was to train promotoras, who are community health advocates, on contaminants of concern and pollution prevention techniques so that they could go out and train small businesses that used a lot of solvents like nail salons, automobile shops, paint shops. So it was a “train the trainer” model.
Key point #3: Always engage with the community. It will pay off.
nSCI: How did your dissertation project get started?
MRA: The Iron King and Humboldt Smelter superfund site had just been added [to the Superfund site list], and I went to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s community meeting. I introduced myself and said that I was from the University of Arizona Superfund Research Program. Community members came up to me and said, ““We’re really concerned about our soil quality? Should I be concerned about gardening and consuming vegetables from my soils?”
And I told them, “Umm…I can give you really general information, but I don’t have a specific example to this [geographical] area.” Gardens ended up being a really fascinating place to conduct research. You can do a lot of informal science education programming around gardens.
So I said, “I don’t really have an answer, but are you guys willing to work with me on it?” and they said yes. I ended up getting an EPA grant to conduct a controlled greenhouse study in parallel with a co-created citizen science program to characterize the uptake of arsenic by homegrown vegetables near a Superfund site (Gardenroots).That was massive and gave me a great deal of freedom. My advisers would say, “We don’t have money to support that, but please don’t give up, it’s a great idea!” so I said, “Okay. Fine. I’ll get my own money.”
One big thing that I practice as a scientist is always engaging the community. Those community members had come to me at a community meeting hosted by the EPA, but that town had other festivals and town hall meetings that they host themselves, and I always went to those. I made a conscious effort to attend community meetings hosted by the US EPA, the town council, and to be present at community festivals and events to engage the community and provide information.
At these events, I would say, “Hey! I’m going to be conducting a study called Gardenroots, to determine whether vegetable grown near the Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter Superfund site accumulate arsenic. Want to work together and submit your soils, water and vegetables for analysis? If you’re interested, let me know.” I maintained a constant presence in the community. I devoted a good four to six months to build trust in the community before the project began. Then, I did the training on how to collect the samples, so people signed up ahead of times for the trainings. But what happened after the first training was people told their neighbors,and those people would just show up to the second training.
nSCI: Did you ever encounter anyone who was skeptical about the project or thought they didn’t “have time” to listen to someone talking about arsenic in the vegetables?
MRA: That happened a few times.
There was one guy who always came to things and said, “I don’t know why you’re doing this.” But he would always show up to my events.
People have strong attachments to the land, and I think that he was protective of his land in a way. He didn’t want to be told that it was contaminated. He didn’t want to be told that his private well water could potentially have elevated levels of arsenic.
I never asked him directly, but I concluded that he had a really strong sense of place. He showed some opposition, even after he decided he was going to do it. He was always asking all these questions like, “What is this IRB [Institutional Review Board] thing? Do you really have to do all of that?” We ended up hanging out for quite some time and after I explained everything, he decided to take me to his friend’s house so they could participate as in Gardenroots as well.
I met his friend and his family and he showed me his entire garden. In the end he up being an ambassador for the project…I don’t know. He was a great example of how people can be skeptical but then really intrigued. We just worked through it.
nSCI: After you wrapped up your dissertation, what made you decide to come to Northeastern?
MRA: Well, after I finished, I applied to several science museums, got an offer at one, and then I also began considering postdoctoral fellowships. I got torn on whether I wanted to stay in academia or whether I wanted to go to work at a museum.,
But I had always really admired the work of Dr. Phil Brown, who is the director of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute. He was originally at Brown University and got recruited to Northeastern, and was advertising for postdoctoral fellowship.
So I applied for the post-doc. And I got the post-doc. And then about nine months into the post doc, he asked, “Are you interested in being a tenure-track assistant professor here? I’d like to recruit you.” And I was like, “Whoa! Yes! I mean, you don’t say no to that.”
The big thing about his work is that he works closely with community members and research-based organization called,Silent Spring Institute, They’re very in-tune with the needs of communities neighboring contamination and they advocate for 100 percent report-back. And that’s my philosophy.
When I did my Gardenroots project, everything I did was reported back [to the project participants and community]. And so it was going to be really important for me to work with somebody who also valued that.
nSCI: What’s in the handout that you give to the community when you report their data back?
MRA: So this is an example of the tailored personalized booklets I made for each participant—first page is a thank you and introduction to the how the results were calculated, and then the results were reported back to the participants to answer questions such as: Can I consume vegetables from my garden? The booklets contained the “raw” confidential data (i.e., milligrams of arsenic per kilogram of vegetable) as well as a table that outlined the quantity of vegetables they could consume at various target risk levels in reference to the US Department of Agriculture recommended amount.
[She shows me a whole bunch of informational brochures, the manual for collecting the arsenic level data, invitations to events.]
My advisers were telling me, “Monica, you’re spending so much time designing things…” And I was like, “But no. It’s really important!”
nSCI: Did you do all of the graphic design yourself?
MRA: I did.
nSCI: You like bright colors.
MRA: I do!
nSCI: What are you working on now?
MRA: I’m working on several projects. One is field project in a recently remediated community Garden located in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts to determine both the concentration of toxic trace elements (lead, arsenic, cadmium) and macronutrients (calcium, magnesium, potassium) in locally grown vegetables and how traditional amendment practices such as composting may alter the uptake of toxic elements. To do this work, I approached the the Boston Natural Areas Network. At first, I was just introducing myself and telling them, who I was “Hey! I did this big project looking at the translocation of arsenic in crops. You guys manage manages community gardens throughout the Boston area, and I was just curious to see if you need any research done.
And [their director of property and horticulture] was really receptive to the idea of working together. He was told me, “Well, Boston University has done a lot of really good work with contaminants in the soil but no one analyzed the concentrations of various elements in the edible tissue in plants.” And, well, that’s what I like to do!
Now we have a test plot at a community garden. Last summer we grew twelve different vegetables in unamended soil.
This summer, we amended the plot with compost provided by the city and will evaluate the potential differences in the uptake of toxic elements. This research evolved from a Northeastern University’s research and development grant awarded to me along with my colleagues Drs. Sara Wylie and Phil Brown in early 2013.
nSCI: Are you still involved with reporting environmental health risks to community members?
MRA: I’m part of a big collaborative project called PROTECT (Puerto Rico Test Site for Exploring Contamination Threats). PROTECT is a multi-project, multi-institution collaboration that involves four primary institutions:Northeastern University,University of Puerto Rico, Medical Sciences Campus,University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez andUniversity of Michigan.We’re all working together at looking at the effects of phthalates on pre-term birth in Puerto Rico. I’m part of the community engagement in translation research cores.
The part that I’ll be involved in is reporting the data back to the women and families.They’ve been collecting a variety of biological and environmental samples during the various stages of the pregnancy.
I’m also working with Dr. Brown and Silent Spring Institute on a research grant to examine how biomonitoring studies carry out and report the data back to participants and what the participants gain as a result of the study and communicating the results back. This work involves interviewing participants of environmental biomonitoring studies.
nSCI: What do you teach as an assistant professor with an interdisciplinary background?
MRA: What I teach is right now is “Intro to Environmental Health,” which is a graduate course. For example, I give them these (grabs a basket of plush toy vegetables) and then I ask them to order the vegetables in what they imagine would have the highest calcium uptake and then get them to reorder them for uptake of the deleterious elements. But that’s just one mini-lecture. Intro to Environmental Health covers air, soil, water, everything.
nSCI: What are some of the biggest differences between teaching in an academic setting and your more informal community engagement settings?
MRA: Oh god, it’s massive. Teaching in a formal setting you have these rubrics of what they need to get out of the class, and you have such a limited amount of time. I’m used to a summer camp setting, where you’re together for a full week, all day. I was an AstroTrek camp leader. I was in charge of environmental science education during the day, and my colleague, Jake Noel-Storr designed the astronomy activities at night. We were with the kids for five full days. You really get to explore topics, and it’s all inquiry-based. Sometimes it feels so manipulated to get that inquiry-based experience in the classroom. But regardless, even though it’s more challenging, I do my best to bring in the skills that I learned in an informal science education setting.
Key point #4: Scientists need to take the time to build a relationship of trust and empathy with the community.
nSCI: What can we do as a scientific community to improve science communication? Are there any misconceptions you encounter again and again when you interact with the community?
MRA: Well, I think a big obstacle is people wanting absolute answers. They say, “Tell me if it’s safe or not.” But after you take the time to educate the individual, regardless of their educational background, they understand the difficulties and challenges associated with the question. Once they have the tools and more information, they on their own recognize and understand there might not be one absolute answer—that the data depends on other variables.
When you take the time (and that’s a general statement), to talk to people and listen you can build empathy and trust with people. Now both the community and you can learn a ton more.
So if you don’t do any true, true honest-to-god engagement, then it doesn’t matter what the educational background of somebody is. I get really pissed off at these big national surveys of “Oh, Americans are so stupid….”
They actually started to modify the NSF survey so that it has more inquiry based questions. If you look at their survey, it has questions along the lines of “If you’re watering a garden, do you use saltwater or regular water?” And if you ask someone that, they’ll tell you, “No. You use regular water or you’ll kill the plant.” Or a gardener has an idea that a plant needs sand in the soil for healthy growth. In order to test her idea she uses two pots of plants…. If you put it into terms of things that people do (and people garden a lot!), you see that they understand the scientific method a lot more than they do in questions where you just ask, “What are the stages of the scientific method?”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes those surveys don’t ask those questions in the right way. And I think that if we go back to a more informal, inquiry-based education, we can reignite individual’s curiosity about the world around them and make the science applicable to their lives. If we build upon the interests individuals already have, we can more easily engage people and naturally increase their science literacy or awareness
With environmental issues around contamination, people are intrinsically motivated and tend to be more engaged.
But I guess the other thing is to tailor science so that it’s applicable to the people.
nSCI: That takes a lot of time.
MRA: It’s a lot of time.
And that’s why I think that positions like research translation or community engagement cores or the sections of big NSF grants that require you to have a plan for reaching broader audiences are so important to have.
We need to do true environmental education. There’s a program called Earth Keepers, and their whole premise is to regenerate the connection to nature from a very, very young age. They do this work with inner city kids, and sometimes, there won’t even be any grass in the whole school. But they tell the kids, “Go find something living.” And then you see these kids all huddled around this corner watching a herd of ants, so the whole environmental education program became about the life of an ant.
They also have people just sitting quietly in nature. So I would argue for a reconnection or an attempt to dissolve the barrier and separation between humans and nature.
nSCI: What about when you’re talking to policy makers?
MRA: I’ve worked with project managers in charge of cleanup, and the biggest barrier with that work was timing. If you’re under the federal government and you’re trying to clean up a site, you have a strict timeline of activities. So it’s incredibly important to get involved at the right moment.
Being able to work at the superfund site in Arizona was primarily due to timing and partnership building. I met the project manager right when the site got listed and built a partnership with her. Now there are three other projects going in at the due to my initial partnership building and timing.
Something I would do to reach policy makers or inform US EPA project manager is I would take the major scientific findings from a project and boiled it all down into two pages—and almost half of it was pictures. I basically presented [the policy people] with: “Here is the science. Here is the innovation. Here’s where you need to go if you need more information.”
Those were very popular, because it was the one stop answer for “What are you trying to tell me? Oh, you want me to think about different clean-up options. What are they?” Those two pages explained it.
A lot of times those policy memos are just words, but then you can get caught up in “Does it say enough? Does it say the right thing?” But you get asked to [use pictures]. Even within the scientific literature, there’s been a movement toward having a graphical abstract.
nSCI: There’s this mentality floating around out there that “People don’t really care about science or the environment or else, they would do something about it.” What do you think we do about that?
MRA: I feel like it’s a mixed bag. There are a lot of people who really do care and immediately start doing things. I think Northeastern University is a really great campus for that. I’m really impressed with the undergraduates here and the way they’re taking initiative in trying to increase environmental awareness across campus and throughout the Boston area.
I think sometimes what happens is people don’t know where to go when they’re concerned. If I’m concerned about phthalates, who do I talk to about phthalates?
I think that the community-based organizations, nonprofits, and environment working groups, the Silent Spring Institute, the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, those organizations are starting to become a great, great resource for people who know a little bit but don’t know what to do it about.
The Environmental Working Group has a project called Skin Deep, and you can type in your product and see whether you should use it or not. With the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, they have a toxicant and disease database.
So you have a lot of really great organizations that are popping up in that niche and providing information to people who are concerned. You also have a lot of great academics doing participatory research or community-engaged research efforts where they work side-by-side with the community on issues that are important to them.
Building partnerships, maintaining relationships, and NGOs are playing a large role in in the change.
I think, unfortunately, minorities are not equally represented in the sciences or in the dialogue about environmental issues and environmental decision making. I think that we need to be much more cognizant of that and that we need to make research more relevant to those communities.
So I would just stress for community-engaged research as a tool for science communication. If you look at citizen science projects across the board, they’re great but they’re all older, white, and educated, and I think the reason why is that some of the questions that the research is answering aren’t really questions that minorities have. There is a great publication by Rajul E Pandya, “A framework for engaging diverse communities in citizen science in the US” that stresses this as well.
I’m doing [this research] to really address the concerns of diverse communities and do collaborative research on issues that they deem important.
Monica Ramirez-Andreotta is an assistant professor of Health Sciences at Northeastern University. More info about The Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter site can be found at the EPA’s Superfund web portal. For more from the author of this article, visit her site atdianacrowscience.com or follow her at@CatalyticRxn on Twitter.