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STEM funds are helping bridge the gap between environmental research and marginalized communities

COURTESY PHOTO: NORTHWEST ECOLOGICAL RESEARCH INSTITUTE - Researchers hold up turtles caught in local ponds and waterways. The group worked with the Northwest Ecological Research Institute to catch and survey native turtles as part of a paid internship.Leya Descombes spent part of her summer collecting data on turtles. Descombes, 19, would head out to ponds and use traps with bait to catch turtles and record their weight, length, and shell, while keeping the invasive species.

Descombes is among a group of interns doing work for the Northwest Ecological Research Institute.

The group surveys habitats to see if turtles are present, inspects the ground for nesting sites, and checks public access to the ponds, as well as any disturbances.

Researchers also remove invasive, non-native species of turtles, turning them over to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Descombes enjoys collecting data on the reptiles, along with the other interns. When she started working with NERI, she was a high school senior connected to her local Native American Youth and Family Center.

"I really love nature and learning about the area that I am in," Descombes said. "I love learning new things about the native turtles here."

Recently, Northwest Ecological Research Institute has made a bigger push to bring in indigenous women like Descombes.

Since its founding in 1985, NERI has sought to combine technology and science with ecological work through research, training, and outreach. The Portland-based nonprofit organization aims to further knowledge of the Pacific Northwest's natural history by leading a variety of educational projects, including species surveys, nest box installations, habitat restorations and more.

"For many years NERI has been struggling with understanding our role in advancing environmental justice in today's world," Laura Guderyahn, an ecologist with NERI, said.

COURTESY PHOTO: NORTHWEST ECOLOGICAL RESEARCH INSTITUTE - A research intern with the Northwest Ecological Research Institute examines a turtle found in Oregon wetlands. NERI was recently awarded a grant to help recruit female students of color to take part in environmental and climate-related research projects.A $5,000 grant from the Society for Science is helping NERI do just that. NERI was among 45 organizations to receive funding from the Society for Science from $176,000 STEM Action grants. They were awarded funds to continue their goal of building inclusive exchanges of information that center the indigenous experience.

"This grant allows us to do just one thing that we think is important - providing paid opportunities for women and young people of color to gain experience in field science," Guderyahn said. "This grant has inspired our organization to investigate other ways we can center racial justice and lift up other organizations led by people of color with similar goals to ours."

The grant is funding a project led by Guderyahn to conduct turtle basking and trapping surveys at over 300 sites throughout Northwest Oregon, with the purpose of recording up-to-date information on where Oregon native turtles are living.

"Oregon is home to only two native freshwater turtle species and both are listed by the State of Oregon as Sensitive — Critical. In fact, the NW Pond turtle has been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act with a decision pending later this year," Guderyahn said. "Having this up-to-date information will better allow land managers and conservation advocates to protect the animals we have left and to improve habitat for those populations that are still thriving.

The Society for Science is on its own mission to connect indigenous communities with climate work.

The ecology centered STEM program is geared toward indigenous female students.

"(They) provide female indigenous students with a diversity of field biology experiences and the encouragement to pursue a career in the biological sciences, with the goal of building inclusive exchanges of information that center on the indigenous experience," said Aparna Paul, director of communications at the Society for Science.

The project specifically selects female students of color from marginalized communities as their paid interns to provide them with real life experience they may not be able to get otherwise.

"We recognize that having the time and money to pursue biological field studies has long been a privilege of the white elite," Guderyahn, the ecologist leading the research project, added. "Many women, and especially women of color, do not have the ability to participate in unpaid internships. Therefore, this project uses the funding from Society for Science as well as Portland SummerWorks Program to pay young women, women of color, and other marginalized groups to participate in scientific studies that result in life experience and hard skills in biological field sciences."

"It is our hope to inspire our interns to enter field science as a career and through this work, to add much needed diversity to PNW natural history research."

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