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).

‘Escaping’ into Nature!

So I’m not sure about all of you, but I think my main activities outside the house since March have mainly included escaping*1 into nature! Mainly surfing the local beaches in LA, hiking on some local trails, and two multi-day backpacking trips in the Sierras.

Since I love these treks so much, I recently took some youth, instructors and parents from a local South LA educational program*2: on a nature hike yesterday. I decided to take them to the Los Leones trail – since its only a 30 min drive, not too strenuous and is a fairly short hike (if your want it to be). The hike is 2.6 miles round trip if you decide that your end game goal is the bench overlooking the Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica and the ocean. You can however go much further!

I also chose this trail because I was really excited to show them the invasive cape ivy- which I previously posted about here:

In addition to cape ivy- another invasive plant that we found and that I hadn’t previously known about was the invasive black mustard plant! (see the yellow flowered plant below)- not only is it destructive to native flora and fauna but it can also serve as kindle for Autumn fires in California- yikes! Read more here

Originally one of my aims was to show all of the participants how to use iNaturalist so that they could all try to identify the flora and fauna while on the hike, and after the hike in their own backyards/neighborhoods. They all had downloaded the app onto their phones before coming to the hike- however one short sight I had is that we did not have very good cellular service.. ha (oops!).. So instead I tried to tell them a bit about what I knew (without the help of iNaturalist) and we also took a lot of photos (above) for post-hike identification (Ive tried to identify a lot of these in the captions above!).

I think overall everyone had a lot of fun. After the group nature hike, I ended up taking the trail for a couple miles further to enhance the workout factor!

*Footnotes! (or how about some Footloose?!) Dang I just gave away my age….

  1. *I will admit that I should not be using the word ‘escape’- see this great essay by William Cronon -since nature is technically all around us all of the time.. take that fly that is on your windowsill or maybe even on your arm right now! I think in this sense that we should all appreciate both proximate and distant nature, and take extra care of our immediate surrounding nature-so that we never feel like we need to escape to wilderness.
  2. TheKnowledgeShop works in conjunction with Stem54.. and these two educational youth programs and their leaders- including Yolande Beckles and Dr. Michael Batie are truly making an amazing difference in the South LA community and Beyond! Check them out!

Black Lives Matter, COVID19 and Environmental Justice

Wow has 2020 been an insane year globally and in the USA..

But has it? In my opinion things have always been insanely messed up in this country and finally now the majority of Americans paying attention and trying to do something about it.

We have seen protests all over the country and world, which is a promising sign. However, we have also seen anti-protestors, white supremacists and fascists trying to stop these protests and trying to cause harm to the protestors and African Americans.

In fact, my cousin-in-law Daniel Gregory, whom is African American, was recently shot while trying to stop an anti-protestor that had driven his car through a crowd of protestors in Seattle, WA on June 7th, 2020. You can read the article here. I am relieved Dan is in stable condition now, but he is ridden with medical expenses, so please donate to the gofundme page here if you are reading this and want to help Dan the Hero (or you can bypass the fees and send Dan funds directly through cashapp: $Dthunderg).

 “A man drives toward the crowd at 11th and Pine, injuring at least one person, before exiting the car and brandishing a firearm”. Image: Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times Daniel Gregory (my cousin in-law) is pictured here reaching into the car to try to stop the driver (he was soon after shot by the driver, and now is in stable condition at a hospital). Please donate to him to help him cover his medical expenses via gofundme.

Perhaps protests like these, and those all around the world, as well as long overdue-attention have finally arrived due to the imperfect storm of COVID, Environmental injustice and civil injustice including the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other African Americans in the image below.

I’m not African-American, so Im not going to act like I know everything, or try to tell their narratives. I also have not gone into sufficient detail describing the atrocities against people of color in this nation or the concept of structural racism. Instead I’ll link to resources below this post that have been distributed from graduate students in the Earth and Sciences Department and have been circulating around at USC. Many of the resources (listed and linked below this blog) have been produced by African Americans, the very voices that deserve to be heard louder than any white narrative.

However, one subject that I am more knowledgeable in that relates intensely to the Black Lives Matter Movement is the intersections between Environmental Health and Social Justice – aka Environmental Justice.

To clarify Environmental Justice, let’s use the definition from the EPA:

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys: the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work”.

To explore how communities of color are exposed to more pollution and hazardous waste- check out this environmental justice mapping tool, and enter in your address to see what types of pollution or environmental hazards are near you.

If you live in a wealthier area, go ahead and enter in an area where you know more low-income people or people of color live.. I guarantee you that you will be shocked (or maybe not if you are already well-informed) to find out that not only are people of color more likely to be discriminated against in their day to day lives. .but they are also living in hazardous areas that are affecting their health!!! I think this outrageous, and we need to do more about this issue in our country, and around the world (Not to mention how we ship a lot of our hazardous e-waste to countries in Africa.. leading to environmental injustice from global change).

If you live in Los Angeles, CA you can even see what uncovered oil wells are near you (releasing toxic fumes daily btw… ). You can read more about how you can take action here:

“A map of active oil and gas wells in Los Angeles. (Source: DOGGR)”

Thus, in addition to restructuring police systems, holding police accountable and letting the community have a direct role in how funds are spent in a given city/town in terms of policing and safety- I also think the community needs to have a more direct role in their surrounding environment, and control over water they drink and air the breathe. For instance – remember the Flint Water Crisis? Aka the city trying to cut costs, switching water sources and then lying to the people about the quality of their water all while the residents of Flint were drinking water with extremely high lead levels and other toxins- leading to permanent health issues for many of these residents. Oh and guess what % of Flint’s population is African American?: 57%!… exactly.. that is why issues of environmental justice are CRITICAL to discuss in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement.

To illustrate another example of environmental justice, I recently worked with another professor at USC this past spring semester to incorporate a question on the intersections between Environmental Justice and COVID19 as a final essay question in my Environmental studies. Remember all of those articles about people of color, primarily African-Americans, having higher infection and mortality rates from COVID19 compared to white people in New York City? Due to systemic racism in this country, again low-income individuals and people of color predominately live in areas with poorer air and water quality, and often don’t have access to sanitary infrastructure, much less access to health insurance- and aka health care. (By the way its not like these people choose to live in these places, on the contrary -a lot of companies choose these regions because they can get away with polluting more in these areas compared to areas that are primarily white and upper class…If that’s not an unjust criminal act then I don’t know what is). All of these factors compound, and leave these people not only more susceptible to infectious diseases such as COVID19, but also less likely to recover.

Go ahead, and explore this for yourself, by using the COVID mapper:! and then again go back to the environmental justice map I showcased previously: and you will see for yourself how environmental health and social justice intersect (again this is called Environmental Justice).

I will stop here, because this has already become very long, but Environmental Justice extends way beyond what I have covered here. To learn more: check out a free youtube lecture by another professor, Chelsie Romulo (University of Northern Colorado) on environmental justice,

In addition to learning more about environmental justice and using the mapping tools above, you can take action by calling the EPA in your region about environmental justice issues of local concern, and check out the Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice page.

Below, I have also included list of what you can do to become more educated about anti-racism and being a better ally to the black community. Because remember Environmental Health and Social Justice are linked, and you need to be informed about both to make a difference! You can do it.. now go out there and be the bad ass activist that you are!

Daily Learning:

Justice in June – a syllabus for folks new to anti-racism (or wanting to learn more) to spend some time each day in June learning how to be a better ally to the black community (this contains several of the resources listed below)

75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice, Corinne Shutack

Race and Racism in the Geosciences, Dr. Kuheli Dutt

Why Are College Campuses So Tense?, Claude Steele

(you can get around this paywall with your library proxy if you are part of a University)

If Not Now, When? The Promise of STEM Intersectionality in the Twenty-First Century, by Drs. Kelly Mack, Orlando Taylor, Nancy Cantor, and Patrice McDermott

Collectors, Nightlights, and Allies, Oh My! White Mentors in the Academy, Dr. Marisela Martinez-Cola

Why Teaching Black Lives Matter Matters, Jamilah Pitts

What Do I Want From White People (An Illustration of Being Black in America), Tianna (from the blog What’s Up With Tianna?) 

Sorry, I Can’t Just Focus on the Science, Naia Butler-Craig

The American Nightmare, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

Letter to my Son, Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Why is this Happening?” An Introduction to Police Brutality (some articles, some videos)

To watch:

Black Feminism & the Movement for Black Lives Matter, by Barbara Smith, Reina Gossett, and Charline Carruthers

13th (Ava DuVernay) — available on Netflix and Youtube

To listen:

A Decade of Watching Black People Die, NPR Code Switch

The Limits of Empathy, NPR Code Switch

1619 Project, created by Nikole-Hannah Jones (New York Times)

Books to read:

How To Be An Antiracist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (for an excerpt, see “Letter to my Son” above)

Teaching while ‘Sheltering-in-Place’

Wow.. has life taken a surprising turn.. not just for me but for the whole world. With the onset and spread of the COVID19 pandemic we have seen people across the whole world have to adjust and make changes in both their personal and work lives.  It’s been interesting for myself and other teachers (K-12 and Higher Education) to try to quickly readjust and attempt to deliver a premium education for our students. Its also been comforting to see the rebirth of ‘community’  such as folks helping out their elderly neighbors and teachers banding together and sharing online teaching resource and tips.

Thus the focus of this post is to share what others have shared with me, as well as some of my lessons I have learned in the first week of online teaching.

However before I go into the meat of  online teaching.. let me back up a bit to BC (Before Coronavirus) time period. As you may know – I recently started a teaching postdoc position at the University of Southern California (USC) , which has been absolutely amazing so far. In the Fall semester I taught an upper division Ecology class and a lower division Env. Studies GE course, and now in the Spring Ive been teaching two sections of the lower division Env. Studies GE course (no labs this semester thank goodness!)

It all seems like a blur but just two weeks ago USC was still proceeding business as usual… as were most schools in California. Then as we got closer to our Spring Break, USC announced a ‘trial-period’ of online teaching for 3 days before Spring Break so that we can adjust our methods as needed “IF” we needed to extend to online teaching. Then as the # of COVID19 cases rose (see here a live tracking website made by 17 year-Avi Schiffmann)- USC quickly changed the plan to teach remotely after Spring Break until April 16th… and then two days later extended online teaching to the end of the semester. Ha.. people’s plans have been changing so fast.. but not as fast as the virus spreads and mutates:

Immediately I had mixed feelings about online teaching for the rest of the semester: Cons: Im not very good at this online teaching thing yet and now I better get good at it fast! Pros: I can teach in my workout clothes (with makeup on and a nice top) and foster or adopt a dog since Ill be home all day! (..already made progress on latter- see my foster-fail/adopted dog- Yesenia) from the North Los Angeles Animal Shelter. I still have to officially fill out her adoption paper work.. but haven’t been able to go to shelter yet due to COVID19 restrictions.

Anyhow, now that I have my trusty dog by my side, I have been focusing on how to improve my online classes. I also have received lots of helpful links that I am pasting below this blog post to pass on the shared resources and knowledge.  

At USC most of the teachers and myself have started using Zoom as well as Blackboard, the latter which most of us have regularly used to post announcements and assignment instructions, as well as a platform for students to turn in assignments which we can grade online. So far: I have definitely learned some dos and don’ts with Zoom and remote teaching and testing:


  1. DO RUN A PRACTICE SESSION FIRST! I suggest practicing with your actual students in the physical classroom if possible prior to going to online only (this is what I did and we sorted out some issues on the student’s side of things this way, as well as how to share the powerpoints for them in slide show not presenter mode), but if not possible – get together w/ some colleagues and practice with each other (my mom actually did the latter and I thought that was a great idea!)
  2. Do set the settings to put everyone on Mute when they enter the room
  3. Do tell the students to unmute themselves when they have questions and feel free to speak whenever (much more engaging and feels more like a real class than written chat-room based questions/comments)
  4. Do TURN YOUR VIDEO ON and encourage students to turn their videos on if they feel comfortable-I noticed it makes me feel like Im actually talking to someone than just a green light on my laptop
  5. Do use the ‘polls‘ in lectures to mix things up and encourage participation
  6. Do use youtube videos or other documentaries to break things up, but be sure to adjust the settings to ‘optimize for full-screen video clip
  7. Do assign in-class activities, put students in ‘breakout rooms’ and have them report their results in their breakout rooms.
  8. Do record your lectures in the cloud in case you have international students that are in different time zones.

ZOOM Don’ts: 

  1. Don’t just lecture at the students and forget about encouraging participation and interaction (I actually am still working on this one.. it is more difficult than in-person classes because you can’t see all your students…)
  2. Don’t assume that all of your students are on the same time zone. I know for me it took me a couple days to realize some of my international students had gone back home. Thus I needed to adjust my expectations for them and let them watch recorded lectures and makeup any in-class activities w/in 24 hours .
  3. Don’t talk too fast (oops.. Im also working on this one…).

Blackboard tips and protocols for online testing: So I actually had in-class midterms planned for this week (BC) and I had to adjust to remote testing formats. I knew I didn’t want to use the ‘honor system’ since some students might cheat and that wouldn’t be fair to others… so I decided just to make it completely open-note, but I expanded on the # of questions in the exam so that it is fast paced enough that the students won’t have time to look up every question. Thus they still have to prepare for the exam a decent amount. I also decided to go with the “Respondus Lock Down Browser” app available in Blackboard for Online Exams. It basically locks out everything on a student’s computer except for the exam. For me the only reason why I decided to go this route is so that students can’t copy and paste answers from their lectures or from internet sources. But I did tell them they could use their ipad or iphones or other computers and notes for information. The key with online testing, just like with online classes, is to have the students PRACTICE! I offered my students 2 pts extra credit to try a practice exam with sample questions and the lock-down browser so that we could get all the kinks out of the way ahead of time. 

I also told me students to have a plan for what computers and internet sources they were going to use, and a backup plan in case they had an internet or computer malfunction. As for the actual testing day/time I will be online and can answer questions my students have via email in live-time.

For my international students and DSP students, blackboard testing tools lets you make make exceptions and adjustments to the test time period, date and time of test on a person-by-person basis. So for my students in countries with very different time zones, I adjusted the time of the exam to be at a more reasonable time for them. For my DSP students, I was able to provide them with extra time to take the exam. 

As far as how to make exam questions- I used the Blackboard ‘question poolsand then used questions from those pools to make the exams. The students are not able to see the question pools or the tests until the available date/time that you dictate in the settings. The tests are this week.. so fingers crossed they go smoothly. If not then Ill have to adjust and just make a take-home essay-based assignment for the final exam. The key about teaching and adjusting to a global pandemic is to be flexible, adapt and stay healthy.  To stay healthy, again I totally recommend fostering or adopting a pet, as well as getting more into cooking and working out everyday. (Lots of great online videos to stay in shape while sheltering-in-place, such as this oldie but goodie with Billy Blanks!:

With this said, Im leaving you with some great resources that have been forwarded to me from many great teachers: You got this!

Climate Mitigation and Adaptation E-Learning Site from AESS

Shared Resources for Online Teaching Received from Professor Chelsie L. Romulo (Univ. of Northern Colorado):

  1. Shared googlesheet resource
  2. Geoscience Materials for Teaching Online
  3. Ecology and Environmental Science Materials for Teaching Online
  4. Dr. Romulo’s lecture videos for her Introduction to Environmental Studies course

teaching meme
From Jazzmemes: