Taking Science Beyond the Bench: Critical Reflections for Change-Oriented Research

Krista Marshall

2019-2022 FFAR Fellow

University of California, Davis

  • Soil Health

Our Roles as Scientists

The urgency of climate change mitigation and adaptation in agriculture coincides with a call for all of us to envision food systems that promote equity, justice and dignity for all people who produce, process, distribute and consume food. As scientists, we can play an important and collaborative role in generating solutions to these challenges. We should reflect a collective vision that represents a diverse range of stakeholders in our scientific work.

But what does it look like for us to approach our roles as scientists who actively participate in broader movements toward a collective vision of positive change? This question is especially pertinent for those of us whose work is biophysical and ecological in nature, but undoubtedly affects the social, political and economic elements of our agriculture and food system.

I believe the answer is deeply embedded in the way we define science and our roles as scientists – what stakeholders we engage with, the scientific methods we use, the histories of science and its applications and who ultimately benefits from scientific contributions. During my time as a graduate student, I’ve had the opportunity to contemplate these questions from multiple perspectives: as a Ph.D. student at University of California, Davis, a member of the Sacramento urban farming community, a FFAR Fellow and as someone who has a deep appreciation for food. These experiences have led me to critically reflect on how I want my work as a scientist to contribute to positive change. They have also led me to grapple with the following questions:

  1. What stakeholders do I serve and how do their interests influence my research? Are there stakeholders I don’t serve and how can I better integrate their interests and needs into my work?
  2. Will my scientific contributions work to reinforce the processes that brought about the challenges we face as a society? How can I orient my work so it contributes to more collective visions of positive change?
  3. How can I contribute beyond the traditional applications of science and what skills do I need to contribute effectively?
FFAR Fellow, Krista Marshall working in field.

Advancing Positive Change

The FFAR Fellows program has offered opportunities to reflect on these questions, presenting a range of roles that scientists can play and providing opportunities to actively develop the tangible skills beyond formal scientific training. The policy and science communication trainings I’ve taken over the past two years as a Fellow have been invaluable in developing the skills necessary to play a role at the intersection of science, policy advocacy and positive change-oriented movements.

This spring, the 2019-2022 cohort participated in a 10-week science policy training to learn about political processes, science communication and advocacy. In addition to connecting with journalists, policymakers and advocates, we participated in multiple exercises to aid us in articulating what we care about, why it matters, who our work serves and what we can do as scientists to affect positive change.

I used this training and the skills we learned to advocate for Urban Agroecology by crafting a policy brief, practicing elevator pitches, mock interviews and refining my main message. Then I applied knowledge gained from the training to meet with my local council member to discuss the diverse social, political and ecological benefits of an Urban Agroecology movement for our city and what policies can help support urban farms. As both a researcher and member of an urban farm in West Sacramento, the opportunity to discuss research, advocate for specific policy actions and share the lived experiences of urban farmers in our community was deeply meaningful. It was a firsthand experience for me to see how my roles as a scientist, advocate and community member intersect and could be leveraged to advance policy changes that benefit urban farms.

This FFAR Fellows training – together with other experiences – has given me a clearer vision of how I want to contribute, the roles I want to play and what skills are necessary to do so. It has also left me wondering what it would look like if we expanded these opportunities to more scientists – especially young researchers just starting to define their work. What if we all got opportunities to conceive our roles as scientists who actively engage in change-oriented movements? Further, what if we prioritized the knowledge and training that enables us to move beyond benchwork into other forms of contribution? We all conceive our individual roles, contributions and degrees of engagement differently, but given the urgent and intersectional challenges we face collectively, there is no better time than right now to make this a reality and answer the call for science to play an active role in advancing positive change.

Krista Marshall works biweekly at an urban farm in West Sacramento. The farm pictured above prioritizes growing culturally appropriate and healthy staple crops for the community. Urban farms provide many additional benefits such as supporting biodiversity, restoring urban soil health, reconnecting people with nature and providing a space for people to build relationships with their communities.

Acknowledgements and Gratitude

I am continually grateful to the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) and the FFAR Fellows program led by North Carolina State University for designing a program that is much needed for graduate students yet not traditionally offered in higher education. I’d also like to thank my co-sponsors at the Almond Board of California and my mentor, Josette Lewis, for their continuous support of my research and professional development. I’d like to express gratitude to Marcia DeLonge, my FFAR Fellow mentor from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has provided me with thought-provoking insights and great conversations. I have a deep gratitude for the Gaudin Lab team and all of the academic, professional and personal support shared at our workplace. Finally, an infinite thank you to Ram Khatiwoda and to everyone in the New Roots community for the mentorship and sense of place you provide me at the farm.

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