Gods'gift Chukwuonye is a PhD student at the University of Arizona studying Environmental Science. Below are her reflections on the SW CASC Natural Resources Workforce Development (NRWD) Fellowship.
My childhood was somewhat unpleasant. I am from Niger-Delta, Nigeria, a community that is both blessed and incredibly cursed. Blessed because, due to our rich oil and gas resources, our community contributes over 60% of Nigeria’s gross domestic product. It is also incredibly cursed because as a result of oil exploration activities, our land, air and water have been incredibly polluted. I have a very vivid recollection of oil floating on open water bodies, contaminated land, and of inhaling black soot. As a result of these contaminations, dead floating fishes, dead mangroves, and immense poverty were prevalent. As a child, I had certain curiosities–I wondered why I knew so many sick people, why my aunt had cancer and why my mum has a chronic heart disease. This was the beginning of my academic inquiry into environmental contamination, health, and justice. As a Ph.D. student in environmental science at the University of Arizona, my research focuses on understanding soil and water contamination in environmental justice communities after the compounding effects of wildfires and flash flooding, and the resultant health effects of such exposures.
As a scientist, I seek ways to grow, which is what attracted me to the NRWD Fellowship. I applied for the NRWD Fellowship because I wanted to change the world through actionable science. I needed to make sure that my science, my research and all the work I do help to make a difference in the world through use-inspired, concrete science. When I was selected for the Fellowship I was ecstatic but also nervous. This was my introduction to transdisciplinary research work and multi-institution collaboration! My nerves did not last long, however. Before the Fellowship started, all the Fellows were invited to Logan, Utah, for induction and training. This meeting was transformative for me in many ways. First, it allowed me to physically connect with other scholars, learn about their research, their interests and their drive. This physical connection is important because we are conducting a year-long research project virtually, and need to understand each other to be able to work well. To give us the tools to work well together, a two-day training on multidisciplinary teams was organized by the NRWD mentors. This training was the best team-work training I have ever had. We learned through reenactments, exercises, brainstorming, assignments, and situation-based scenarios to explore how to work effectively together. In the training, we started to work on our team’s contract, mission, vision and code of conduct, to ensure mutual understanding, respect and ease of collaboration. This training helped to change our team’s dynamic, and I can’t emphasize enough how important it was to start with this training! On the third day, we attended the Science and Policy Forum. For me, this was the first time I had been in a meeting with policy makers, scientists, community members and students, all meeting together with a mutual goal of finding solutions to the Colorado basin crisis. This meeting was when I truly realized that I had made the right decision applying for this Fellowship. The presentation from the past cohort helped to set expectations for me, and gave me something to look forward to all year. The trip to Utah helped me to expand my network, participate in a forum for actionable science, and to continue to reevaluate ways I think about my science.
Our Fellowship activities, post-Utah, have continued to transform me and help me grow. The NRWD Fellowship allows me to explore my research interests in multidisciplinary ways. As part of the cohort working on understanding the effects of compounding climatic effects on aquatic ecosystems, I have found parallels in my research but also have gained immense appreciation for understanding science through the lens of others. My team is comprised of natural scientists, earth scientists, data scientists and social scientists, all pulling their weight to make this research a success. Our meetings feel like a symphony orchestra, with everyone playing their notes, whether research, writing, cartography or data science, to produce beautiful music. The NRWD Fellowship has enabled me to continually push my abilities, and with support from all the mentors and my cohort colleagues I feel myself transforming into the scientist I dreamed I would be. As a team, we are defining our projects in ways that can make the most impact. We are prioritizing community-engaged research through working with community partners who are custodians of resources. As scientists with different backgrounds and interests, the team-building training we received at the onset of our Fellowship has allowed us to navigate complex challenges, decide on research areas, and work seamlessly together with mutual respect.
When I look back at the past six months, I feel incredibly blessed to be going through this process. I have met amazing people who will be my future collaborators and colleagues. With each conversation, meeting and task, I feel like I am equipping myself and adding more tools to my toolbox that will help me excel in my future career. This Fellowship has enabled me to gain an appreciation for collaborative, multidisciplinary, actionable and community-engaged research. Upon the completion of my PhD program, I hope to work in the environmental sector in ways that help bring relief to people who live in contaminated communities, and I am confident that the skills I have obtained from this Fellowship will enable me to succeed. These skills will help me to connect with communities like the Niger-Delta, where I am from, treating them with respect and dignity, and doing work I wish someone had done in my community when I was younger.