The New Year and 2022 Reflections

Happy New Year! I always like the new year as it gives one a chance to reflect on the past, the present and the future. This year my resolutions are to get eight hours of sleep/day, to leave the house earlier for things (run late less) and to try pottery throwing (particularly to make bowls!) before the end of 2023.

Also exciting is that this year marks my fifth year anniversary with USC and this recent Jan. 3rd was my one-year anniversary of my now not-so-new job as a sustainability data analyst. I really appreciated the added work-life balance of being on the staff side of things, and the fun and meaningful sustainability work with a great team.

A couple of work highlights from last year include:

  1. Getting to know so many more amazing people at USC, including our Sustainability Team and beyond!
  2. Some fun team events and field trips (some featured above), including trips to the USC Wrigley’s Institute, the CARB facility in Riverside, the USGBC Green Gala and UC Irvine (the latter to see all the amazing things that UCI has done for wellbeing first hand).
  3. Leading the development, distribution and analysis of the sustainabilty literacy and cultural survey
    • I previously blogged about this survey and now you can view the final report here! In a month I will be starting to review and update the survey for our April 2023 rollout. It will be really important to compare results between these two years, as many changes on campus have occured in the past year. (Including USC’s Asgmt: Earth Campaign which likely has helped to spread more awareness about USCs sustainability initiatives).
  4. Collaborating with the sustainability team at Carnegie Mellon University and mentoring a USC student- Brian Tinsley on a project to use keywords and an R package to map USC’s curriculum to the UN SDGs (check out the draft dashboard here, but please note that this is still a beta version). We even did a fun webinar on this for AASHE (view recording here)
  5. Mentoring five masters students at USC through the 2022 Fall CKIDS Datafest in a natural language processing project to map USC research to the UN SDGS. Check out their final project website here. *Note- lots of improvements to this dashboard coming soon.
    • Huge shout out to Alison Chen, Aurora Massari, Bhavya Raman, Ric Xian, and Xinyi Zhang to their hard work on this, and for winning first place for the Best Science Collaboration Practices Award and the Best Data Science Teamwork Award. Many thanks to Professor Mayank Kejriwal for helping to mentor the students in deep learning techniques and for providing feedback on the project! + Thank you to Abigail Horn, Keith Burghardt, Yolanda Gil and Guran Muric for organizing this amazing mentorship program.
  6. Collaborating with USC’s Transportation Department (shout out to David Donovan!) to obtain and analyze our AQMD transportation datasets at USC to estimate our Scope 3 emissions from student, faculty and staff commuting, as well as visualize commuting modes through time to strategize on how we can lower commuting emissions further in coming years.
  7. Being part of USC’s Task Force for Carbon Removal and Offsets (shout out to Hannah Findling, three amazing students (Harold Aaronson, Sean McCalla and Marisa Tremblay) and our newest Associate Director of Carbon Consulting- Brad Haydel for their hard work in leading the meetings and content!
  8. Giving a Microseminar with Dr. Camille Dieterle on “Growing Food, Community and Wellbeing in the Framework of Environmental Sustainability‘ to incoming freshman, with the second day taking place in the UPC Peace Garden (shout out to Professor Dieterle in her leadership in creating this garden)
  9. Collaborating with USC’s Spatial Science institute and helping to lead some fun data collection activities for USC’s sustainability data hub (more datasets coming soon!)
  10. Initiating and working with USC’s Open Access Task Force (shout out to Dr. Silvia Da Costa, Dr. Jennifer Dinalo, Melanie Vicedo and Alyssa Resnick) to promote Harvard’s Open Access Model as a path forward for open access at USC (mainly to implement an open access policy and repository so that all publications can be open access free of charge!). We met with the Academic Senate Executive Board, several faculty councils and the University Research Committee (fingers crossed that more progress is made in 2023!).

Anyhow, I’m ready to dive back into all the fun sustainability work after the long and relaxing break. This year, for the holidays, we went to St. Croix for a week (luckily before the holiday airport chaos). This was the first time my hubby and surfed in the Caribbean (which was super fun although lugging our surfboards and packing them to protect them during the travel was a new experience). We also snorkeled, golfed (well… just my hubby and his mom), worked out and all spent a ton of time on the beach reading (I finished “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez and highly recommend it!). Of course we also enjoyed some good food and each other’s company. Then, I spent the rest of the break in LA, and tried to catch up on all those ‘someday tasks’….but mainly some good surf (these winter waves are intense!), working out and starting up a new book- “Sapiens” (also a great read that I highly recommend!). More updates coming soon (and a better blog post too…lol).

You Can’t Manage What you Don’t Measure: Sustainability at USC

As the end of Spring Semester at USC approached, rather than my usual routine of frantically grading tons of projects and final exams as in previous semesters, I revved up to analyze a big sustainability-focused dataset (~6000 data points!)! As I mentioned in my last post– I recently changed career positions and am now a data analyst in the Office of Sustainability at USC! One of my first projects was to lead the development of USC’s first Sustainability Literacy, Culture and Behavior Survey that launched this past April! This survey will help USC gauge sustainability literacy, culture and behavior across USC through time (remember – you can’t manage what you don’t measure!) and it will help USC in its path to a gold STARS rating (current STARS rating is silver). We also added in several commuting questions to the survey for students to fill in some emissions-related data gaps to further assist USC’s 2025 carbon neutrality goal!

After developing the survey, implementing internal (USC) and external reviews (UCLA, CalTech and ASU – thank you!), myself and the sustainability team put in a ton of work to help market and distribute the survey! My boss- Mick Dalrymple (USC’s Chief Sustainability Officer) was key in getting top administration to approve survey distribution via email to every single person with a valid USC ID. We also implemented an incentive for all participants for a chance to win one of twenty $100 USC Bookstore e-gift cards. Our Sustainability Director, Ellen Dux gets the credit for telling me to come up with a marketing plan (that was a new experience!) to spread the word. Nichelle Huizar and Cynthia Tucker helped me locate places around USC where I could put up sandwich board and yard signs (that was good exercise btw! I think I lapped USC DPS on their rounds several times that day…). Elias Platte-Bermeo and Joshua Sierra were a huge help in marketing the survey at our Earth Week Events (and helping me carry the signs around!). Student interns helped me post fliers all around campus, as well as spread the word to their friends and our marketing specialist Erin Jebavy made sure that the survey was on all of the possible digital boards, social media, websites and newsletters. As Ellen says: Team work makes the Green Work!!

USC’s 2022 Sustainability Survey Response Distribution

In the end, ~ 6000 responses wasn’t bad for our first go around! As we will be conducting the survey every year, I think we will be able to garner more participation through time. I recently finished organizing and cleaning the data and I am now looking forward to analyzing and visualizing the data. We plan to release the full and executive summary reports in the Fall– so stay tuned for more on that soon!

In addition to the survey, I’ve also been working on automizing the process of classifying courses and programs at USC as sustainability focused, inclusive or unrelated. I’m currently collaborating with a group at Carnegie Mellon on this as they had an amazing mathematics undergraduate that started developing an R package to map courses to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. So this Summer, I’ll be working with CMU and a USC undergraduate to expand the package to map curricular programs and research as well. It’s exciting because I get to combine my passion for sustainability with my data analytics and R-skills! Go R Power!

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals

I’m also exploring an initiative to implement an Open-Access Policy, Fund and Repository at USC similar to what the UCs, Harvard, Massachusets Amherst and many other Universities are doing (If you are interested in this, then click on each of the links above). In a nutshell the way this works is that the University holds a non-exclusive copyright of the written scholarly work of employees so that then a researcher can submit their peer-reviewed accepted paper to the publicly available university repository (this is GREEN OPEN-ACCESS and is free!). This does NOT prevent employees from submitting their work to their preferred journal. If a journal does not agree with this open-access set up, then the researcher can obtain a waiver from the University and waive out of submitting their paper to the open-access repository. If a researcher waives out, then ideally they have funds to publish in the journal’s open-access option (GOLD OPEN-ACCESS, which is expensive.. just like gold). If the researcher does not have funds- they can apply to the University’s open-access fund so that they have the funds necessary to publish through the Journal’s Gold Open-Access. The University’s library is usually the one to host the open-access policy, repository and fund. So far myself, two librarians and a staff member in the Office of Research have met with an open-access consultant from Harvard – Dr. Peter Suber– (offers free OA consulting). Our next step is to try to find some open-access faculty champions at USC to spread the word and garner more support. (Please let me know if you work at USC and you are interested!) Open Access = Equity = Advancement for All!

Open Access benefits, from Aston University Library Services-

Aside from these fun projects and others (will fill you in more later)- I’ve also been enjoying my time off on weekends- and have been spending a lot of time gardening and going on lots of adventures -from snowboarding in Mammoth Mountains, kayaking in San Luis Obispo while visiting one of my best friends- to camping in and exploring the Anza Borrego Desert, motor-dirt biking in Hungry Valley (Lancaster CA)- and going to Washington DC for my mom’s (Anita Hopper) induction ceremony into the National Academy of Sciences (Go mom!) and visiting some old friends. All in all- I’m enjoying this new position greatly! I have a better work-life balance and feel like I can really make an impact. More soon!

An Amazing Semester + New Job!

Happy Holidays everyone! I’m sure you can tell by my stealth mode that I’ve been in the middle of another hectic but yet wonderful semester (with no time to blog!). This semester might have been the best yet because I felt like I finally got down the rhythm of both of my classes as well as the balance of how much work to give students (so that they still learn a lot but aren’t stressed out). Plus not to mention- we were back to in-person teaching (yipeee)! So I had full-reign with outdoor field trips for my USC BISC315 Ecology Students. (You can read about how I dealt with remote teaching here)

My amazing TA (Jennifer Beatty) and I definitely took it to the max this semester. To make up for lost time, we had the students conduct ecological field studies at the Ballona Wetlands and the Abalone Cove Tide Pools as well as at USC and the nearby Natural History Museum gardens. By the end of the semester- the students were definitely pros at surveying biodiversity with transects and quadrats as well as with pitfall traps (the former for plant and intertidal organism diversity and the latter to collect ground-dwelling arthropods). We also had a cricket-behavior lab and a parasite lab (the latter where the students collected snails and then dissected them for their trematode parasites!). I had a blast and I know most of the students did too! Throughout the course of teaching them experimental design – my TA (Jennifer Beatty) and I also provided them with the flexibility to ask their own scientific questions and to design their own experiments. We also taught them how to collect, analyze and interpret the data – using Excel and R. Here is a video where I presented for the CET Faculty Showcase and I describe the importance of student ownership when it comes to teaching data analysis:

The semester then concluded with a poster symposium where the students chose their favorite study to focus on and present (photos below). It was tons of fun!

I suppose all of this makes it a bit bittersweet to announce that I will be changing it up a bit and transitioning to a new career (which I’m stoked about -as bittersweet as it is to know that I won’t be teaching Ecology next year).

ok… you are in suspense I know.. Drumroll Please….

NEW Job Alert!: I’m going to be a Sustainability Data Analyst for the Office of Sustainability at USC! I could not be more ecstatic to combine my skills in data analytics and visualization with my passion for sustainability. I will definitely write more about my position once I start, but briefly: I will be responsible for collecting, analyzing and visualizing all the different data on USC campus that relates to USC’s sustainability initiatives. Ultimately this data will be used to evaluate areas where we can improve -including metrics like: waste, water and electricity usage, education and engagement, etc. This data will be presented in reports that are assessed by the STARS – Sustainability Tracking Assessment Rating System. The ultimate goal is to go from our current silver rating to gold and eventually platinum! This job is awesome because I get to stay at USC and I get to be part of this fabulous sustainability ride. Stay tuned and enjoy your holiday, or even just every day!

Recommended holiday break reading

‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle – all about being present in the moment, really helpful during these chaotic and uncertain times.

“Do you dream of Terra-Two” by Temi Oh – I would describe it as similar ish to Harry Potter but with astronauts and space (no magic) – the first fiction I’ve read since college and it was delightful!

Plastic Pollution Challenges & Solutions!

Wow- I’m not sure about you.. but this summer is flying by! I started off the summer w/ an exciting 10-day adventure in Oaxaca Mexico, and a couple days after I flew back to California- my new team and I (Team SD Zero) participated in and won the final 2-day competition to conclude the 6mo Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Challenge !

It seems like just yesterday that I was starting the Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge, which I wrote a little bit about in my previous blog post on how to use and waste less (especially single-use plastics). In a nutshell, this 6 mo (Jan-June 2021) accelerator program and competition aimed to create solutions to marine and coastal plastic pollution in San Diego County, California (USA). This program brought together a diverse group of people passionate about solving the plastic pollution problem, with backgrounds ranging across academia, nonprofit organizations, government, industry and other sectors. For the first three months, we attended virtual (zoom) sessions with speakers including policymakers, nonprofit leaders and scholars who research organizational and behavioral change. Afterwards, we were divided into different teams (‘Changing Human Behavior’, ‘Evaluation Solutions’, ‘Data Mapping’ and ‘Yes! In my Backyard, San Diego’), each focusing on specific aspects of the plastics pollution problem. For this part of the accelerator program, I was placed on the data-mapping team where we sought to collect, analyze and map plastic pollution data in San Diego County.

Being on the data mapping team was an awesome opportunity. Our specific goal in a nutshell was to analyze and map data on plastic pollution and related mitigation efforts in areas adjacent to and inside of the San Diego MPAs in the Pacific Ocean. I got to dive into all the available trash cleanup data portals- and then use my R-coding skills to subset and wrangle the data frames so that they were ready to use and map for the GIS mapping specialists on my team. Then I also did some graphics and stats in R as well to help visualize and analyze some of the trends we found. We ended up using the Marine Debris Tracker Data Portal (NOAA and National Geographic) and the Coastal Cleanup Data Portal (Ocean Conservancy), as these datasets were the most complete and accessible. On May 17th we presented our ArcGIS Story Map to the other teams and panelists- check out the full story map presentation here!

Our Data Mapping Team found two hotspots of plastic waste in the San Diego region:

(1) Areas visited by high numbers of tourists and special events

(2) River outlets from large rivers running through urban areas

We also found that the majority of plastic waste items (by count) are: 1) smoke-related products (cigarettes, cigars, packaging, e-cigarettes, vaping pens, etc) and 2) single-use food and beverage waste items (packing, serviceware, bottles, etc.).

However, on a positive note we found that bans work! Such as the notable plastic-bag bans which started as early as 2014, but most were fully implemented in San Diego County by 2016. You can see below in the graphic I compiled that the proportion of collected waste comprising of plastic bags significantly declines after 2014 in San Diego County!

Following the conclusion of my work in the data mapping team, we had a small break (at which point I ran off to Mexico), and then came back and were mixed up into new and smaller teams for our final 2-day competition from June 6th-8th to conclude this 6 mo accelerator program. My new team (Team SD Zero) comprised of: myself (USC Postdoctoral Fellow- science educator, researcher and data analyst), Lauren Hackney (MBA Candidate at UCSD Rady School of Management), Kristina Phipps (Contract Policy Analyst and Attorney at The Nature Conservancy), Tanya Torres (California Sea Grant Extension Fellow working with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program) and Jake Reynolds (The Behavioural Insights Team. Energy, Environment & Sustainability Policy, UK).

Drawing on behavioral science research we knew that although educational campaigns can raise the public’s awareness of environmental issues and result in public support for policy changes; these campaigns don’t typically affect people’s behaviors in the long term. The SD Zero team and I brainstormed potential solutions to the plastic pollution problem in San Diego by using existing information from all of our unique experiences and knowledge. During the 48 h – we came up with a proposal to implement a zero-waste event policy paired with a business accelerator. Our proposal centers around a policy change prohibiting single-use plastics at large events in San Diego (> 75 people), in addition to a business accelerator program to provide monetary support and resources to help organizations meet the new zero-waste requirements. The policy will leverage the city’s existing event permitting process and will require events to be single-use plastic-free or pay a fine and undergo zero-waste training. Events that become plastic-free will be certified as an ‘SD Zero Ocean Hero’ as their reward that they can publicly display.

We based this proposed idea on data presented by my previous data mapping team and several case studies that have demonstrated the effectiveness of zero-waste related policies. Bans such as the well-known plastic bag bans remove plastics from the consumer choice context and therefore reduce both plastic usage and the amount of plastic waste that ends up along our coastlines and in our oceans.

Furthermore, my previous data mapping team demonstrated that events in San Diego are typically very close to the coastlines, and similar to tourism can be a source of plastic pollution that can then leak into our waterways and oceans (figure embedded below).

Events provide discrete opportunities for piloting and evaluating the impact of interventions. Furthermore, implementing this policy requires only a simple modification to the language of San Diego’s existing permitting rules for events, and our team has already identified local zero-waste businesses (linked at bottom) that can help event organizers transition away from single-use plastics. We know this policy will be effective based on other case studies. For example, through similar waste intervention mandates, > 4 k water bottles and 1 mil plastic bags can be avoided annually in the San Francisco Farmers Markets. In another example, Jack Johnson’s All At Once Greening tour (40 concerts) eliminated 36,000 single use plastic bottles and 200,000 single use plastic cups. We see this as a starting point and ability to create an early concrete success that can eventually be expanded to restaurants and other jurisdictions across the nation and globe- ultimately leading to cleaner and healthier oceans.

Event Density and Plastic Pollution | From the Data Mapping Team White Paper | Fig. Credit: W. Quinn & J. Hopper | Data Credit:,,

For the finale, we presented our proposal to the other challenge participants and the judging panel (comprised of 11 distinguished professionals). We were a bit shocked when we found out we won since all of the other ideas presented by the other teams were also pretty amazing! However, now I realize we won because our idea incorporated everything we had learned throughout the past 6 months- from policy to human behavior and our proposal was based firmly in the data with easy-to-implement structure. You can watch the finale embedded below!

Our prize for winning this challenge is a meeting with Dr. Gwen Nero (Director of Corporate Affiliates, Business Development, Industry Outreach, and Innovation at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography) and Ian Clampett (State and Local Government Relations at Scripps Institution of Oceanography) to help us strategize and connect to the right people so that we can hopefully put this policy and business accelerator into action! The meeting is coming up soon.. so I will post an update once there is more progress on this initiative!

Related Press:

Businesses that can help you and your events become zero-waste and plastic-free!

Zero waste coaching:

Los Angeles:

San Diego:

Denver and Boulder, Colorado:

Blog post I wrote on zero-waste tips for your everyday life:

Adventures in Oaxaca 2021!

Hola! I just got back from an amazing 10 days in Oaxaca, Mexico – a treat to myself following a long year of zoom teaching @ USC and a break before the two-day intensive hackathon (that actually just happened) through the Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Challenge Program (I will detail that another post). Of course traveling has changed a bit since before the pandemic- but my friend, Traci, and I each were able to get fully vaccinated prior to traveling (Lucky us, I know!). We also wore masks when in public and stuck to mainly outdoor activities and dining. Overall we had a fantastic and safe time, complete w/ negative Covid19 tests upon re-entry to the States.

I highly recommend going to Oaxaca if you have the opportunity to do so, as we both felt like it was super underrated and such a gem of a place (the people are amazingly friendly and it was very safe also!). So here, I’ll try to discuss some of the logistics of our travels, including those pertinent in the Covid19 pandemic, as well as of course relaying some of our adventure stories! I am not making any income off of this post or from any of my suggestions- so rest assured !

First- I highly suggest flying in directly to the Oaxaca International Airport (OAX) if you can rather than through Mexico city. We left from LAX so had a quick and easy 4 hour flight via Volaris! If we had flown to Mexico City first- it would have been almost the same price and then we would have had to take about a 12 hour ride via bus to Oaxaca.. no thank you! Plus I’ve heard that Mexico city has crazy customs and lines right now because of Covid19.. .versus arriving to OAX was easy breezy (although coming back to the states is another story because of their confusing Covid19 checking process which I’ll explain in more detail @ the end of this post).

Day 1: Oaxaca de Juárez:Once we landed in Oaxaca and passed through customs (15 minutes), we went to the ATM, and used our US cards to get Mexican Pesos (MX) – which gets you a better exchange rate than going to a currency exchange spot.. especially at the airport. Then we grabbed a collectivo (shared taxi) via the airport transportation office for about 250 MX ($12 USD) each to get to the center of Oaxaca de Juárez- and to our first hotel where we stayed for two nights: Boca Del Monte (highly recommended B&B, although my favorite place was the AirBnB we stayed for our last two nights which was a bit cheaper and had a pool ! I’ll detail that one below). Once we were at the B&B, I went for a quick run around the city, we cleaned up and then we ate at my # 1 favorite restaurant of the whole entire trip: Las Quince Letras!!!! The author of the Oaxaca guide book, Cody Copeland, could not have more accurately described this restaurant or its infamous Chiles de agua a la vinagreta – where as soon as he took a bite he wanted to call his mom to rave about them! Basically this dish is chiles stuffed with pork and delicious seasoning. I typically don’t like pork and never order it… and so my friend got this- and once I tried a bite of it I forgot that I don’t eat pork and wished I had ordered some too (and wanted to call my mom and rave about them!). Anyhow- all of the food and drinks were amazing!

Day 2: Oaxaca de Juárez: The next day we had breakfast at our B&B and then walked to the Monte Alban Bus area (near the 20 Noviembre Mercado) and took a bus ($80 MX per person = $4 USD) to the Monte Alban Archeological site- where the Zapotecs once ruled! (~$100 MX per person including photographic permission = ~5$)- We had a blast walking around looking at the ruins and the amazing insects and plants all over the place!! Including the coolest locusts ever!!! That is.. an amazing time minus the blisters from new waterproof sandals we had bought prior to the trip because we thought it was going to rain every day which it never did.. whomp whomp… (lesson: never buy new shoes to wear on a trip….. try them out for a week before!).

Once we got back to the main city center, we stopped by the famous market: 20 de Noviembre- grabbed some lunch (Mole and Tlayudas) and then headed to the Bonito Juarez Market to grab some snacks such as nuts, Chapulines (grasshoppers), and ice cream (chocolate and coconut!).

Then in the evening-my friend Traci joined me on a walk to a Capoeira Class (Afro-Brazilian Martial Arts) !! whoop whoop- and yes of course I found a capoeira group to train with while on vacation because why would you not?! One of the capoeira groups in Oaxaca is led by Instructor Golias. I had a blast training w/ all of them- and even ran into my old friend- Nemo from UCA Capoeira in Berkeley! I also showed them a couple of my favorite moves passed down to me from some instructors and Mestres here in the USA- shout out to Mestre Xango, Instructor Macaco and Mestre Paulo Batutua! The gym was open-air- so that was awesome (re: being safe during Covid19) and after training we all headed to a famous chain known for their great Tlayudas: Tlayudas El Negro. Tlayudas in my opinion are basically like a mexican version of pizza-, and in Oaxaca they are complete w/ Oaxacan cheese-and fun toppings like chapulines (grasshoppers) and mole (depending on what you want)- yum! Although they are great – I think I burned myself out from Tlayudas – since I had 2 Tlayudas in one day! lol..

Day 3: Oaxaca de Juárez to Huatulco:The next morning we had an early breakfast, and then to a taxi to the Lineas Unidas transportation area in Oaxaca (Bustamante 601, OAX_RE_BENITO JUAREZ, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico) to make our way down to Huatulco on the coast! First we took a ~6 hour ride via Lineas Unidas to San Pedro Pochutla ($250 MX/person = $12.50 USD /person) and then from there we grabbed a different collectivo by Transportes Rápidos de Pochutla to Huatulco ($35 MX/person, 1 hour ride). Note- very important: Many people warned us about how windy the roads would be, so we each took one dramamine prior to taking the first collectivo. We both felt fine… so I guess I recommend taking a dramamine just to be cautious and to avoid getting nauseous. The ride was super pleasant and Lineas Unidas has a tv so I got to watch three movies in Spanish including ‘Finding Nemo’! Lineas Unidas was also super comfy and the driver was great!! Also, all of the collectivos make sure to stop for bathroom breaks about every 1.5 hours or so. Eventually, we got to our Airbnb in Huatulco.. had a couple of issues w/ trying to get into our place.. but soon succeeded and settled in, topping the evening off w/ a swim in the pool, a couple strong cocktails @ “Maz + Mezcal” and a delicious dinner at Terra Cotta in La Crucecita, Huatulco.

Day 4 Huatulco: This was probably one of the days I was most excited about! We set out to explore, relax and snorkel @ Playa La Entrega ! One of the themes of our trip also might have backfired a bit on us this day- where we pretty much decided to skip taking taxis when we thought we could walk somewhere …. So we looked at a map briefly, talked to some locals and set out on our walking way to the beach with all of our beach gear and luckily plenty of water (I brought a camelback full of water which I highly recommend using for adventure traveling!). The path we were aiming for was supposed to take about 30 min… but somehow we missed our turn-off (likely because we were distracted by a group of people right at the turn off that were trying to get us to take a and ended up walking on a hilly path for almost 2 hours in the hot sun.. yikes (should have taken that taxi!) Anyhow, eventually we found our way to the beach and managed to waive off all the people asking us if we would like to pay for umbrellas/tables/chairs etc.. and found a great natural shady spot on the beach under a tree- and next to a guy playing some good mexican music. One funny thing however is that by the time I got back from my snorkel, I came back to find that another family had set up a full blown stereo system just 10 ft away from the guy next to us- and so two different groups were playing music on two different sound systems.. lol. Funny enough.. they just each kept turning up their music louder and louder… like a music war! So eventually we relocated to another shady spot by some folks selling oysters. After we settled in our new spot – I took my friend (Traci) for her first snorkel! The snorkeling was great- and I just wore my goggles while she borrowed my gear (but there was also gear there you could rent if you don’t bring your own). We weren’t too worried about our stuff on the beach because we didn’t bring much of value w/ us-aka didn’t have our phones- hence why I don’t have photos of this day (below are photos of playa santa cruz) After snorkeling, reading and working up an appetite, we ate at one of the local beach restaurants.. which I’m not sure I recommend because we both got really really sick the next day… I think it was the fish tacos because they tasted off (and because the tap water in Huatulco is drinkable… so unlikely it was the water ).

Day 5 Huatulco-Ugh.. so this day was a bit rough… I woke up in the middle of the night/aka the early morning w/ montezuma’s revenge (TMI?) and my friend also felt sick so we had to forgo our originally planned 7am jungle bike ride, but were lucky enough to be able to reschedule it to 4pm later that day. So to try to recuperate we went back to bed and self medicated by alternating charcoal tablets and pepto bismal tablets (two key medications I recommend for everyone to pack in their international travel bags!!) Charcoal binds to what ever crap is making you sick, and then well it comes out of you later (magic..) and then Pepto Bismol treats your symptoms and actually the problem sometimes- aka it actually kills the bacteria!! We took it easy in the morning at our favorite local cafe in Huatulco: Cafe Huatulco! and watched the birds, read and ate some very very plain toast (good for when you are sick!).

By 2pm we were feeling better so floated in the pool a bit, and then got ready for our jungle bike ride with our guide Antonio through the ‘Descubre Huatulco’ company. I highly recommend them! The guides are bilingual and know the Parque Nacional Huatulco pretty well. Plus we were advised by many people to not try to explore the park by ourselves. Anyhow Antonio was great, he picked us up w/ bikes and helmets in hand and then drove us to the park entrance where we explored the trails leading through the jungle to the beach and then to a cactus area and a bird watching area! After the bike excursion, he even took us to see a nearby lighthouse with some cool views! By the end of the night we almost felt almost back to ourselves so were able to eat some great fusion food at the Mercader in Santa Cruz Huatulco.

Day 6 Huatulco to San José del Pacifico: The next day we were about 80% normal and feeling pretty good for our ~3.5 hour ride up to the mountains in Sierra Sul to San José del Pacifico. So of course we decided to walk w/ our luggage about 30 min to an awesome brunch spot overlooking a harbor and the ocean Cafe Juánita prior to catching a ride to the mountains.

Prior to the long drive, we took some pre-emptive pepto bismol in the morning, followed by some dramamine as soon as we got on our van/collectivo. For this part of the journey, we ended up catching a ride w/ the company ‘Huatulco Dos Mil‘, (Transportes Huatulco 2000) but you can also use Expresos Colombo as well. Both of these companies go from Huatulco to Oaxaca and stop at San José del Pacifico,on the way (~$240 MX/person). We safely arrived in San José del Pacifico, just in time to get a tour of the town, check out the place we were staying @: La Puesta del Sol (highly recommended!) and then eat @ the La Puesta del Sol restaurant!

Day 7- San José del Pacifico:

The next morning, we woke up feeling 100% back to ourselves, and so of course planned an epic hike through the mountains (Traci has the AllTrails App... and so she found this trail!). I highly recommend the trail we did, but just a note we didn’t get all the way to the vista point because there were some guys and trucks on the road about mid-way along the trail and they didn’t want us to continue hiking. There was definitely something weird going on because when we got back to town, other people were asking us about the guys and the trucks and it definitely seemed like they weren’t supposed to be stopping us from our hike… but oh well- we didn’t want to cause any problems so of course we just complied when they told us to turn back around – whomp whomp! It also wasn’t that big of a deal because we still were able to hike for about an hour prior to being stopped, so tons of cool flora and fauna, and then we followed this hike up with lunch at the Café Express (huevos rancheros, complete w/ a mocha and a Oaxacan artesian chocolate bar!)

After lunch we walked around town and into the mountains again (but on a side road rather than finding a nature trail) and got to see some really cool artwork and vistas. For dinner- we wrapped up the day with some amazing Italian food @ La Taberna De Los Duendes (some of the best I’ve had.. and I’m part Sicilian!). The owner was super nice and the ambience had chic-hippy vibe.

Day 8- San José del Pacifico to Oaxaca de Juárez: The next day, after a quick jog through town (dodging some territorial dogs along the way!), some Oaxacan coffee, huevos rancheros and fruit- we started walking toward town to grab a van through Lineas Unidas to head to Oaxaca de Juárez. But- the van grabbed us before we could grab them!! We seriously were walking towards the bus area at the Café Express, and were about 10 minutes away (slowly dragging our luggage ), when a Lineas Unidas Van saw us and stopped right in the middle of the road in order to help us get on board w/ our luggage- what great luck?!! It actually happened to be the earlier van that we weren’t planning on catching, so it was great to get to Oaxaca de Juárez a bit earlier than initially planned- especially since we had to take Covid19 tests on this day! We were also lucky in the fact that once we arrived to Oaxaca de Juárez, we happened to be just about a 5 min walk from Salud Digna where we had planned to get tested for Covid19 via their antigen tests to meet the requirements of testing negative for covid19 within 3 days of re-entry into the United States (even if you are vaccinated!). You can take the antigen or the PCR test, and we chose the antigen test because it was a lot cheaper (260 MX versus 950 MX for the PCR test)! We didn’t have to have appointments as US citizens, but we did have to bring our passports and waited for about 15 min to be seen (not bad!). I think though if I had to redo it, I might have paid more for the PCR test because the antigen test was super uncomfortable- basically a really really long probe that they stick up your nose and practically all the way up into your brain (jk.. but felt that way…). Anyhow -it was good to get all of it out of the way and we received our results w/in 2 hours and were both negative- so hooray! After we got tested, we headed to our new AirBnB.. which was maybe my favorite place we stayed during the whole trip aside from our cabin in San Jose Del Pacifico. I cannot recommend this AirBnB enough! José, the host, was so kind and pro-active, and took time to talk to us about our plans and with great advice for our last two days in Oaxaca. After settling in, we headed to dinner at the highly recommended Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante. The views and the food were amazing! My favorite were the stuffed squash blossoms- which inspired me to cook with my squash blossoms @ home!

Day 9- Oaxaca de Juárez:The next morning we woke up to an amazing breakfast at our AirBnB and great conversation w/ the other guests and José (the AirBnB host). I had a goal to seek out some artesanal oaxacan chocolate bars, so we got some great direction to visit Mama Pacha’s chocolate shop (owned by a chocolate-making goddess and mother, her son was even there when I visited). I bought a ton of her chocolate-it was so good!). José also advised us to explore the Barrio de Xochimilco– one of the oldest neighborhoods in Oaxaca de Juárez and well known for its traditional textiles. If you are lucky enough to get an invitation like we were- you can actually watch the experts weaving the textiles on looms. After watching and meeting the artists.. how can you not want to buy some of the beautiful pieces? -So- yes, of course we bought some small souvenirs! (We couldn’t fit the large pieces in our carry-on-luggage.. womp womp! I also loved this neighborhood because there was so much beautiful street artwork! I mean in general, the street art is frikin incredible in Oaxaca, and so thus I’ve put more photos at the end of this post, in addition to the art we saw in Barrio de Xochimilco. After we finished exploring the chocolate and textiles around town, we headed to an art collective ‘ARIPO (Instituto de Artesanias Oaxaqueños)‘ which had some amazing pieces ranging across 3D sculptures, ceramics, paintings, textiles and clothing. There was even an amazing artistic replica of the Loteria game, that we saw being put together by the artist himself in real time (see photo below)!

By the time it was 1:30 pm- we were starving from all of the walking we did! So we got lucky and found a great lunch spot: La Popular w/ some amazing tacos and a guest star- a hairless dog! I’ve never seen one in real life before- and she was adorable!! After lunch, we managed to find another awesome chocolate spot (specializing in truffles) and then headed back to our AirBnB where I immediately plunged into the amazing pool for an afternoon swim. After cleaning up, we walked around town for a bit, and caught a massive local political convention/campaign -complete w/ a concert! For dinner- we managed to finally get a table at Los Danzantes……. a gourmet five star restaurant that did not disappoint! I highly recommend their mole sampler!

Day 10 – Oaxaca de Juárez to Los Angeles, CA: Womp womp.. this was our last morning in Oaxaca, and we had a flight at 10am out of OAX. So we didn’t even have time to get coffee or breakfast before heading to the airport. We ended up being glad we left so early as we got to the airport > 2hours ahead of time. It was definitely necessary due to all of the Covid19 related policies and checks. It was actually a huge mess, and even though we both had already checked-in online, had our vaccination information, our passports, our covid19 negative test results, and the online covid19 questionnaire from Volaris airlines— we still had to double back to a crazy swarm of people all trying to take photos of these tiny QR codes (all on the same bulletin in the same spot) in order to answer yet another online questionnaire. We then had to show we had completed this particular questionnaire to an agent at the Volaris desk… which meant we still had to wait in the line w/ all of the other confused passengers. Then we had to go through an immigration line, and a security line…so needless to say we didn’t get to our gate until 9:15 AM! Luckily they had a coffee spot, and so that helped us settle in and wait for our flight to take off. Lesson learned: give yourself lots of time for these international flights because the Covid19 related procedures definitely slow things down!

So- all in all -an amazing trip – full of adventures, beautiful art, friendly and amazing people, coffee, cocktails and food that you will keep coming back for! Get yourself to Oaxaca!

Sustainability and Covid19 Part II: Wasting Less

Happy 2021! Here we are.. still in a pandemic, but at least the political scene in the USA has improved since I wrote last (Great news for Mother Nature and Society!). Anyhow, as I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently part of the 6 mo Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Challenge, an accelerator program that culminates in different workgroups trying to solve some of the many complex issues inherent in the global plastic problem, particularly the plastic that ends up in our water ways and oceans. I’ve definitely learned a lot in the past two months, with experts speaking about issues ranging from human behavior and what incentives are necessary to decrease littering and wasteful behavior; to the policies and regulations involved in trying to decrease plastic waste as well as the difficulties of getting corporations on board for the long-haul, and the ins and outs of obtaining and analyzing data on the types and amounts of plastic waste that we find in the environment! Shout out to the Trash Data Treasure Trove via Win Cowger and his colleagues on the latter!

It’s estimated that between 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean in a given year (based on the year 2010: Jambeck et al. 2015 Image

Even though corporations do have a large role in a lot of the plastic waste observed in our environment, I came out of this short-course series with still the same main opinion I had at the start: INDIVIDUALS (YOU AND ME) STILL HAVE A POWERFUL ROLE IN DETERMINING THE AMOUNT OF WASTE THAT IS PRODUCED, AS WELL AS THE DOWNSTREAM HANDLING OF THAT WASTE (aka – preventing it from getting into the natural environment!). So let’s stop waiting for corporations to start changing/taking action, and let’s talk about what you and I can do (some of which includes buying less of the more wasteful products and single-use plastics which then puts financial pressure (aka incentives) on the corporations to change their ways! Take that! Karate Chop! HiYah!


Thus I’ve put together a list of tips that I’ve gathered from the expert zero-wasters (people like Lauren Singer who literally and incredibly only have a jar-full of waste from years of living on Earth!), as well as from my own life experience of trying to cut down on waste (while on a budget!).

Tips for How to Waste Less

  1. Biggest Tip: WHAT YOU DON’T BUY = YOU DON’T USE
    • Below are some swaps for things that you can stop buying (and save $$!):
  • For cleaning cooking, drinking and eating:
    • Instead of Single-Use Water Bottles – use a Reusable Water Bottle, and get a cheap water filter for your home tap water (if you are concerned about your tap water). Honestly, unless your are in Flint, Michigan (and my heart goes out to you guys)- the water quality in the USA is pretty well regulated (typically more so than bottled water)-and you can just google ‘water quality’ and the name of your city to find out what is in your water- see here for California
    • Instead of SaranWrap – use Tupperware, or Beeswax Wrap
    • Instead of Paper Towels- use Washable and Reusable Cloth Towels/Rags
    • Instead of Paper Napkins- use Washable and Reusable Cloth Napkins(you can make both of the above from old tshirts or towels if you are short on cash)
    • Instead of Ziplock bags– use Tupperware, silicon ziplock bags or do what I do, and reuse the ziplock bags from trailmix, and other snacks that you buy from Trader Joes or other stores that use too much packaging!
    • Instead of Aluminum Foil or Baking Sheets- use a silicone baking sheet, or keep your food in a covered pot in the oven. I will admit though that this can be tough for very large dishes such as a Turkey… but that is only once a year- so a box of foil could last you a life time!
    • Instead of single use Cleaning Cloths (such as the lysol ones)– use a soapy sponge- works just as well and is less toxic and cheaper.
    • Instead of One-Time Use Masks: Use Reusable/Washable Cotton Fabric Masks -ideally the ones with 2-3 fabric layers (unless you are working in the medical field of course).
  • For Self Care:
  • Self Care- What you can stop buying:
    • Instead of Cotton Rounds/Balls – make your own washable ones by cutting up an old tshirt into little squares (you can sew the edges if you want them to look pretty, but I just stuff my cotton squares int a glass jar and call it a day!). Pro-tip- use a lingerie bag to wash and dry the little pieces so they don’t clog your washer or get lost!
  • Use Refillable Products!
    • Instead of buying dish soap, laundry detergent, and all of the other household products that come in plastic containers- check out these cool detergent pods that you can use in refillable containers!
    • Instead of buying new shampoo, conditioner and body soaps in plastic containers: buy the bar forms of shampoo, conditioners, soaps and lotions, or buy refillable products where you can return the containers and the companies sterilize them and reuse them! My favorite is:
    • Instead of floss in plastic packaging, use refillable floss containers w/ waxed silk floss
  • Instead of plastic toothbrushes- use bamboo toothbrushes (that are not wrapped in plastic packaging!)
  • Fix, Trade or Thrift instead of Buying New
    • Instead of Buying New Clothes- go to a Tailor with Existing Clothes from your closet or a friends closet to spruce them up, make them fit better and/or fix that zipper (or do it yourself)
    • Instead of Buying New Shoes– take your shoes to your Local Shoe Cobbler – they can replace the heals, fix the straps, and shine them up like new!
    • Check out trendy thrift stores near you– like Crossroads Trading Store in Santa Monica! They actually have very fashionable and new-looking (lightly used) items. It is so fashionable that they consistently reject all of my clothes when I try to sell my stuff to them… .lol Don’t judge me!
    • Conduct clothing swaps w/ friends (outdoors or after the pandemic of course)
  • Eat at Home More Often (no this does not include takeout): It’s Cheaper + Less Plastic WasteTo make this easier- try food-prepping or cooking while watching a tv show on your laptop or listening to a podcast- or better yet- do it with a friend!
  • If you do go out to eat to support the local restaurants: Be sure to Support the Businesses that do NOT use Styrofoam, and ideally support businesses that use compostable or recyclable or reusable containers + Don’t forget to bring your own utensils and ask the restaurant to hold off on the single use silverware/ and straws (for takeout). If you are dining in/outside then bring tupperware with you when you go out to eat so you can pack the leftovers in your reusable containers.
  • Instead of Buying Coffee at Starbucks or another cafeMake it at Home –and please don’t use those plastic pod coffee things.. yuck! Although if you must, they have ones that use recyclable pods. Ideally use a french press or an italian espresso maker. If you do go get coffee then use a reusable coffee travel mug (during non-covid19 times…)
  • Bring reusable grocery bags to the stores – Almost all stores are now letting you pack your goods in your own bags again now (thank goodness!). If they don’t let you then just take the unpackaged goods to your car and load it in a bag in your car. A little more effort on your part makes a lasting effort on Earth : )
  • Shop at places that have bulk items in bins to so that you can pack dried goods in reusable cloth bags (or ones you make out of old pillow cases that you wash and sew). The bummer is right now most places that used to do this are pre-packaging their bulk items in plastic- yuck! However! You can try to find shops like this one in Los Angeles (Tare Grocery) where they will pack up goods for you in your own glass or aluminum containers (no cloth allowed right now). I actually just went to this shop last week! They pack everything in paper brown bags (from recycled paper) if you don’t bring your own reusable containers.
  • Similarly- Don’t use Plastic bags for Produce! I mean really.. do you really think you are being more sterile by putting it in plastic instead of directly in your cart? How do you think the produce got to the store and onto the display cases? (people’s hands!) I just put mine directly on the cart (wet and everything) and then on the checkout counter directly before putting it into my reusable grocery bag. I have not gotten Covid19 from doing this for the past year… you will be fine as long as you rinse off your produce before eating it (which I’m sure you do anyhow).
  • Don’t buy/use Plastic Garbage BagsUse biodegradable bags– I mean .. really.. why are we buying plastic just to throw it away? The biodegradable ones work great- especially if you compost your food waste in a separate container.
  • Compost your food waste (no meat or diary, just fruit, veggies, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea, etc.). Just keep a small container under your sink next to the trash so it is convenient to use. Then if you have a garden, you can get a compost tumbler and use the compost-produced soil for your garden; or if you don’t have a yard then chance are you can throw the fruit and veggie scraps into your green yardwaste bin! USA cities typically provide every household (and apartment complex) a green waste bin for free.
  • Use rechargeable items, and use re-cheargable batteries for items that cannot be recheargable.

Remember: Take it one small step at a time– don’t try to go completely zero waste all at once, just see which of the tips/tricks and online suggestions work for you the best and start there. You got this!

Below are some resources for zero-waste goods that you can buy online

(I don’t get any kickbacks of any sort- these are just the companies I use).

-They carry plaine products shampoo/conditioner/etc as well as the leaf razors and many other awesome products such as bamboo tooth brushes etc- that you can buy all together.

-This is where I buy my dish soap powder and tablets for hand soaps and household cleaning products

Holiday Updates + Progress on Fighting Marine Plastic

Happy Holidays! If you are reading this congratulations- you’ve almost made it through 2020! (knock on wood! keep on going, be healthy and try to be happy… you got 29 days left!). After this zoommester-I feel like myself and all of my students should win an award at this point, and looks like a lot of people feel that way based on this plaque I just found on Etsy:

In addition to surviving the 2020 zoommester- I recently blogged about how the last paper from my Delta Science Postdoctoral Research Fellowship was accepted to the Journal of Biological Control. Now it is hot off the press (Hopper et al. 2021) in all of its glory! You can access this free link and download the free scientific article for about 45 more days.. so have at it (and share it if you like it). I also want to thank California Sea Grant and the Delta Science Program for helping to fund this project and give a shout out to all of my coauthors from USDA and UC Davis. This includes my long-time undergraduate mentee (Somanette Rivas) who worked for me both when I was a grad student and when I was a postdoc, and is now at the USDA as a Research Technician! (I’m a proud mama bear… what can I say..)

Graphical Abstract from Hopper et al. 2021 (Biological Control)

If you want to learn even more about this postdoctoral research, check out my earlier blogs from 2016-2018.

Beach cleanup I organized in Oct. 2020: Photo by Maurice Roper

I also have some really exciting news related to my last blog post, where I discussed the huge problem with marine plastics and potential solutions, including beach cleanups. I promise I will soon post a Part II that details how we can all decrease our waste (including single use plastics) and how we can be more sustainable, even in these weird pandemic times. However, for now I’m excited to share that I will officially be part of the 2021 Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge! I will be on the data mapping team working with other researchers, students and activists to help solve our ocean plastic pollution problem. This program is a 6-month program focused on identifying effective, evidence-based approaches to curb the flow of plastic into the ocean, with a specific focus on marine cultural preservation and marine conservation areas along California’s coast. 

Aside from these two bits of news, I just plan on using my teaching break to chip away at all of my Fusarium spore-suspension samples from my research in collaboration with Tom Dudley’s group at UCSB on an invasive fungus-beetle team that invaded Southern California in 2004, as well as taking a road trip to Sedona w/ my hubby, mom and pitbull rescue pup- Yesenia (lots of hiking planned), and then spending some time with my in-laws! Stay heathy and happy y’all!

Sustainability and COVID19, Part I: Combatting Plastic Pollution with Socially Distanced Beach Cleanups!

I’m sure all of you have heard that our oceans are in a crisis.

Humans have been drastically altering marine ecosystems through our overexploitation of marine resources (eg. over fishing), our contribution to rising global sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification (via the greenhouse gas effect from our dependencies on and combustion of fossil fuels) and the massive amounts of pollutants that we pour into the oceans every day (eg. plastics, oil spills, toxic waste, and more). In fact today I just stumbled upon a shocking and horrifying LATimes article on the 1950s dumping of DDT off the coast of San Pedro and near Catalina island, with the latter resulting in approximately 384 to 1,535 tons of DDT dumped on the seafloor. (Absolutely awful…. I know). Plastic pollution has also been getting a lot of press in recent years as it has been acknowledged that these plastics breakdown into micro and nano particles, likely lasting for long periods of time and transferring of plastic particles and chemicals up the food chain (including to us!). In fact this plastic pollution might even threaten ocean carbon sequestration (a process which is critical in decreasing the rate of global warming).

Fig. 1 from Shen et al. 2020:
“Carbon sequestration, transportation and cycling in the ocean. DOC, dissolved organic carbon; POC, particulate organic carbon; LPOC, labile dissolved organic carbon; RPOC, recalcitrant dissolved organic carbon. Microplastics can affect the development and reproduction of marine phytoplankton and zooplankton, thus affecting the ocean carbon sequestration”

Thus- it is critical that we all take steps to prevent more damage to our oceans and at the same time help the oceans recover. The first step is reducing our waste, which I will cover in a future blog, but another step that we can all do is to cleanup our parks, streets and beaches to prevent more plastic waste from entering our oceans. We can even do this during Covid19- while socially distanced outdoors and wearing our masks and gloves!

So this ‘Zoomester’ I decided to organize a Plastic Cleanup- with an in-person beach cleanup event at Playa Del Rey Beach in Los Angeles and a remote option for those individuals that were living afar. This took place last Saturday (10/17/20) and all in all it was a tremendous success with about 15 people that participated! This included faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduates, including four undergraduates from my Environmental Studies class that I had never met in person prior to this day (I get so excited to meet people in real life now.. ha). In the below photo are two students (and roommates) from USC posing behind some of the trash that they and several others collected. Unfortunately I forgot to ask everyone to stack their trash, so I wasn’t able to document all of it.

Two USC students, Emilia Weske and Raquel Lazaro, posing in front of some of the trash they helped clear off the beach in Los Angeles, CA! ps. They live together.. hence the close proximity!

The fabulously talented photographer: Maurice Roper (USC) also came and documented the whole event! Below I have included a gallery showcasing some of the photos he took!

In addition to Maurice Roper documenting the event, I was very fortunate to have the wonderful support of USC’s Environmental Studies Program and the Wrigley Institute. I want to give a special shoutout to Dr. Jill Sohm (Director of the Environmental Studies Program) and Dr. Ann Close (Wrigley Institute, Associate Director) for their help. Lastly, I was able to use hands-free online waiver forms with the help of Kate Tucker at Resmark Systems with “WaiverSign” (I highly recommend them for your hands-free events!).

I truly felt like this event was impactful. Aside from all of the trash that we cleaned off the beach (the majority of which was plastic), there were many people that watched us and thanked us, and even some that joined us! So I have hope that this event spread awareness as to the little things that WE CAN ALL DO to help our oceans and environment!

Mid-Zoomester News at USC!

What a turbulent, crazy year.. but .. I finally have some good zoomester news!

First: I just received word that my recent article submitted to J. Biological Control over the summer was accepted w/ minor revisions- so Yippee! It’s also exciting because it wraps up the last data bits leftover from my work as a Delta Science Postdoctoral Fellow back in 2016-18. I’ll be sure to link to the article once it is in press!

Second- so far this zoommester has been going ok.. and maybe even well! (I decided that ‘ok’ is actually a very positive word choice relative to how I would describe the majority of 2020). I managed to provide hands-on activities for students in both of my classes, particularly in my BISC315 Ecology class which was recently featured in the USC Dornsife News!

For my Ecology class (which has a lecture and a lab), the article highlighted my students’ insect collections and pit-fall trap surveys of arthropod diversity. Other projects that they are conducting include: 1) an iNaturalist study and report (where they submit photos of surrounding flora and fauna to an iNaturalist class project, and then they write up a report about their observations in nature as well as the life-history of some of the species that they documented), 2) an independent literature review (they research a research topic of interest in the field of ecology and then give an oral presentation on their findings to the class at the end of the semester), and 3) an independent research project (they write up a mini research proposal, conduct an experiment or observational study (post approval), summarize and analyze their data in R, and then make a research poster to disseminate their findings). I’m hoping they can present their research at the undergraduate research symposium in the Spring (but TBD via COVID19). For the students on campus, I can lend them equipment for their independent projects and sterilize the equipment before and after. Whereas for the remote students- I try to direct them to alternative free or cheap ways to conduct the studies that they want to implement.

Some of these projects are remotely guided, particularly for my students in Northern California, Michigan and Taiwan, and then others are a bit more hands on. For example-with the students that were able to come to USC campus, I handed out insect collection kits and demonstrated how to catch insects with a butterfly net in the first lab, and in the second lab, I handed out equipment and supplies for arthropod diversity field surveys and demonstrated how to set up pit-fall traps in the ground. For each of the -in person socially distant field-labs on campus, I also sent youtube videos to my remote students to help them understand how to catch insects and deploy pitfall traps.

I also discovered the beauty of teaching R via zoom (ironically I don’t have to physically ‘zoom’ around a room and can just calmly use breakout rooms with small groups of students or have students share their Rstudio screens with me one-on-one. I tried something new this semester as well and so far it is going great!-Basically I selected students that had previous R-experience and asked them if they were willing to be leaders of breakout rooms. That way small groups of students can help each other work through Rcode and practice datasets that I give them and then eventually work their way up to using their own research datasets and modifying the practice rcode. If they get stuck, they just simply buzz me into their rooms and I can help them pretty efficiently. So far so good! My TA, Tina Nguyen has also been instrumental in helping me manage all of this!

I’ve also thought about ways to make my other lecture-based GE course (Environmental Studies) more interactive, fun and hands-on. I try to use mixed media in my lectures- so good documentaries and podcasts, along w/ a mix of lecturing with powerpoint slides and lots of participation-point based breakout room activities that involve group discussions and case-studies. For the students that can’t attend lectures, they can always access the recorded material and can make up any point-based activity within 48 hours. I also recently converted one of the assignments on endangered species from a written word-docx assignment to a blog! I actually really enjoyed grading these blogs (way more than grading essays!) and I think the students enjoyed it as well. Not too mention the additional skillset they gained by learning how to make a blog.

There were many incredible blogs, but for the purpose of time/space- here are three excellent blogs from students in my class (I received permission from them to repost):

Blog by my student, Mario Koenigsperger, link below

Mario Koenigsperger

Juliana Tichota

Bela Echternach

The coolest part about having to adapt to the current situation and make modifications to our courses -is that ultimately myself and other instructors are actually becoming better educators! The days of just lecturing (with questions and mini discussions here and there) are over- and that is a good thing. More on this soon.

The Invasive Polyphagous Shothole Borer Beetle, Its Fungal Symbionts and the Fastest, Most Intense Summer Experiment Ever…

One thing I’ve learned while in a teaching focused position: is that you have to collaborate with others, piecemeal together workspaces, and work fast and hard if you want to do research during the academic holidays. The fast part means designing experiments that will start and end within a reasonable time frame.. say- how about less than 2 weeks?

So I tried this approach.. and just wrapped up an intense 11 day experiment (12 days if you include clean-up time) that included three car trips back and forth between USC and UCSB, countless hours spent in a laminar flow hood, and the trips speckled with adventures and good times w/ friends and my collaborators.

In a nutshell, I collaborated with the UCSB Rivr Lab group to investigate the growth of the pathogenic invasive fungus, Fusarium euwallaceae, on different host plants- including two native willow species, two native cottonwood species and three avocado cultivars (Zutano, Bacon and Hass). (See funding and acknowledgements below this post!)

This invasive fungus causes Fusarium dieback disease on a lot of native plants in California, and is known to infect avocados (luckily there are management practices available to control the spread and pathogenicity in avocado orchards).

This fungus is spread by the invasive polyphagous shothole borer beetle which was first discovered in Southern California in 2003, and is thought to have been accidentally introduced via products and/or shipping materials from SouthEast Asia. By 2010, this beetle was recognized as being the main cause of death of several street trees in Long Beach and by 2012 it was found in a residential backyard avocado tree. If you like your guacamole.. you can understand why the alarm bells started to ring!! This beetle has now been found in almost all Southern California counties and has been found as far north as Santa Cruz county. Furthermore, this beetle has invaded many other countries all around the world.

 Invasive Polyphagous shothole borer beetle Euwallacea aff. fornicatus
Photo credit: Jiri Hulcr, Ph.D.)
Entry holes from the shothole borer beetles – 
Photo credit: Monica Dimson, University of California Cooperative Extension

The spread of this beetle is problematic because it carries several mutualistic fungi (including Fusarium euwallaceae) that help it digest the tree tissues as it bores into its host trees. As the beetle bores into the tree and chews away- the spores of these fungi get released into the tree (beyond the protective bark) and can cause pathological symptoms in the tree, including ultimate death. Meanwhile the little beetles keep munching away and reproducing as much as they can.. and their offspring continue the cycle along with their mutualistic fungi …

Hence for management purposes- if we want to understand what tree species will be most impacted by this invasive beetle and its fungal symbionts- we need to know: 1) what species of trees are most likely to attract and be attacked by the beetle- and of these, which ones result in the highest survival, growth and reproduction of the beetle (and why)? and 2) what species of trees promote or prevent the growth of the different fungal symbionts (and why?), with a focus on Fusarium euwallaceae, which is particularly pathogenic. These questions are intertwined because the fungus needs the beetle to drill the holes for it, and to introduce the spores into the tree tissues; and the beetle needs the fungus to be able to digest the tree tissue to obtain nutrients and to keep growing, reproducing, etc.

There are many different research groups in California (including Akif Eskalen’s group at UC Davis, Shannon Lynch at UC Santa Cruz and Richard Stouthamer’s group at UC Riverside) and all around the world working on answering these questions. Our work this summer was focused on a small part of the larger picture, specifically investigating the growth of Fusarium euwallaceae on native California trees that grow in riparian habitats, as well as on several avocado cultivars. In regards to the native riparian plants, a graduate student at UCSB -Shelley Bennett, sampled from different parts of the Santa Clara River so that we could examine how proximity to the river impact the moisture, density and nutrients in the tree tissues and whether this impacts the fungal growth rate on these different host tree species.

Even though this was an 11 day experiment- it actually took a lot of prep work, a lot of troubleshooting and a lot of reconfiguring and pilot studies prior to execution of the actual experiment (what experiment doesn’t?!). Also complications due to Covid19 definitely put a huge slowdown on the research with massive supply and shipping delays and errors in June through July- which then meant that we no longer had time to cultivate the fungus from the beetles themselves (which requires cultivating, isolating and then propagating .. and ensuring that we had the right Fusarium isolates)- so we were very fortunate enough to receive fungal isolates from Richard Stouthamer’s lab at UCR just in time to start and finish our experiment before I started teaching classes (next Monday- eek!).

Fusarium euwallaceae isolate that we received graciously from Richard Stouthamer’s laboratory at UC Riverside.. which I propagated like woah to prepare for our experiment.

In the end we settled on two experimental methods:

1) using a saw to create saw dust (very inefficient I know) from over 140 branches of different host plants in order to produce unique host-plant autoclaved agar-based solutions that we could pour into petri dishes (along w/ just PDA agar replicates as a positive control); and 2) sawing cross-sections of the different branches, and bleaching, and rinsing these thin cross section pieces before putting into petri dishes (not-autoclaved). Then we put a 6 mm agar plug of Fusarium euwallaceae on the center of each of these samples (or a 6 mm agar plug without the fungus as a negative control).

The idea was to test the impacts of nutrient differences among these different host tree species (present in the agar-based solutions and in the cross-section pieces), and chemical defenses (which would ideally still be present in the cross-section pieces) in respect to the growth of the invasive fungus, Fusarium euwallaceae. Originally we did not want to use cross-sections, we wanted to create longitudinal slices.. but turns out that it is very difficult to do that safely and to get it to fit into petri dishes. So hence we had to change our experimental design on the spot. During the set up of this experiment, I also found out that I get very excited about the idea of consolidating nature from large sizes to small consolidated items that fit into a petridish.. is that weird?

Anyhow- we just took this experiment down this past weekend- and now we have probably about 1000 images to process with imageJ (measuring the area of fungal growth from days 0-11) and over 140 spore suspensions to count with a hemocytometer (they are safe and sound in the freezer at this point .. I hope they are safe anyhow…). Wish us luck!

Since everything is now in a ‘do it later’ state- this experiment model gives me time now to finish prepping for my two classes (Env. Studies and Ecology) that start on Monday (eek!).. all online, with guided outdoor-distanced projects for my Ecology lab section- some as distanced as Taiwan!. I had to make an insect collection care package for that student.. Anyhow- stay tuned for my ideas on fun, distanced/remote hands-on learning for Ecology and Env Studies!

Funding and Acknowledgements

This work was funded by the Thelma Hansen Fund of UC ANR and additionally supported by Annemiek Schilder, the director of the Hansen Agric Research & Education Center in Santa Paula, CA. We want thank Dr. Richard Stouthamer (UC Riverside), his postdoc: Valeh Ebrahimi and lab technician Taha Farooqi for providing beetles and fungus during the initial phase of this research, as well as USC for use of their unused teaching lab space to conduct pilot studies, Ryoko Oono (UCSB) for her advice and use of her lab’s laminar flow hood, Carla D’Antonio for use of her lab space, and Dr. Akif Eskalen (UC Davis) and Annemiek Schilder for their advice. Huge shout out to Dr. Tom Dudley and Dr. Adam Lambert for this research opportunity and to Zoe Wood and Shelley Bennett for being awesome rockstar teammates on all of the field and lab work (Adam helped in the field too!)! I think their thumbs are still hurting from all of the sawing… lol (funny but maybe not funny).