Two students from The University of New Mexico have been named to participate in the Ecological Society of America (ESA) Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA) 2022 cohort. This award provides graduate students with the opportunity to participate in a virtual Congressional Visits Day.

Benjamin Gerstner
ESA 2022 Graduate Student Policy Award Recipient

Benjamin Gerstner is a Ph.D. candidate and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at UNM. Benjamin’s research focuses on the evolution of polyploid plants, employing both theoretical modeling and empirical experiments.

“I study the impacts of drought on ecosystems in New Mexico in order to promote resiliency to climate change disturbance,” Miller explained. “In particular, I look at how changes in precipitation and temperature alters and disrupts interactions between plants and their microbial communities to develop strategies for drought management. I am able to take advantage of long term datasets and large-scale field experiments at UNM’s Sevilleta LTER to ask big questions about the impacts of climate change in NM.”

“I study polyploid plant evolution through theory and empirical experiments. I identify as an evolutionary biologist that works with plants. I’m broadly interested in evolution across domains and learning insights from novel applications of ‘core’ evolutionary principles,” Gerstner said.

Cassandra Miller
ESA 2022 Graduate Student Policy Award Recipient

Cassandra Miller is a Ph.D. student at UNM. Miller studies how climate change disrupts traditional plant-microbe interactions and the subsequent impacts on carbon cycling in dryland ecosystems. 

The students learn about the legislative process and federal science funding before meeting virtually with their members of Congress to discuss the importance of federal investments in the biological and ecological sciences. Additionally, GSPA recipients will explore policy career options. Ecologists who work in federal agencies will share their career paths and how a scientific background can be applied to informing policy.

“This award means that someone believes in my leadership and ability to advocate for science. And in their belief, they’re giving me an opportunity to learn about the processes of federal governance and a means to meet our Congressional representatives. This award means I get to share my expertise and thoughts with the leaders that will vote on appropriations that have immeasurable impacts on science and society. I feel humbled and it is an honor that goes well beyond ‘the line on the CV’ or any feelings from a ‘congratulations’,” Gerstner remarked.

“I am so excited to receive this award! I am driven by my desire to help mitigate the impacts of climate change, especially in New Mexico where my family and I have deep connections to the land. This award allows me to get hands-on training in science-policy and communication and facilitates opportunities to meet with our federal representatives to advocate for the importance of science. It is my hope that this will be the first of many future collaborations to help bridge the gap between scientist and policy makers. This award provides crucial training for early career researchers on how to navigate the complex political system in order to communicate their research to better inform science policy solutions,” Miller said.

Both Lobos look forward to using this experience to represent UNM and promote their knowledge of water and drought issues to lawmakers.

“It is an honor to represent UNM and NM with this award,” Miller said. “As I pursue my Ph.D., I feel fortunate that my research will not only add to our collectively body of knowledge of promoting drought resiliency in drylands but that it can additionally have tangible impacts on society. By gaining the skills to communicate science to policy makers through this award, I will be able to successful advocate for the importance of science funding and education in NM to train the next generation of science leaders. I hope to be able to continue to share my skillset from this training with UNM Biology department and beyond.”

“This award means a representative from our own academic and metropolitan community is advocating for federal investment in the biological and environmental sciences to contribute to research and development investigating the problems that our communities face. One of the most pressing questions we must grapple with is how we can support our growing metropolitan population’s water use while also decreasing our net impacts on below-ground aquifers and the Rio Grande without disrupting the life we are accustomed to. In short, we may not be able to. Federal support for research and development is vital to finding tenable solutions,” Gerstner said. 

Miller plans to lead a career that combines her love of environmental science and education in New Mexico “where I am intimately familiar with the land and culture, to help enact equitable environmental solutions that promote resiliency.”

“My plan is to make a positive impact on society by promoting scientific literacy… I have aspirations to work in science education reform. I think one of the saddest realities of my generation is all of those that genuinely believe they are not smart enough to understand science. Ultimately this misconception impacts society far more than we can even realize. No matter what it is that I have as a career I know I’ll be working to make a positive impact, because if I’m not doing that then it isn’t a career worth having,” Gerstner remarked.

“It is very rewarding and encouraging to see our ESA graduate students interested in the science-policy interface and to hear directly from decision-makers the importance of receiving critical information on the ecological systems that their constituents are interested in. The valuable, hands-on experience this ESA award provides these young ecologists in essential science communication and listening skills will enable them to successfully engage in the policy realm,” said ESA President Dennis Ojima.