Katalina Salas

Research Assistant University of Texas

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You are not alone; you are enough, you are strong, you are beautiful, you are success, you are a boss, you are intelligent, you are creative, you are genuinely you.

What do you do?

Scientific data and models are and will continue to be used and developed by the scientific community. Scientists are aware that providing these data and models to the community is essential in securing a better and more sustainable future. In regions such as the Southwestern US with high water stress, it is imperative that scientists learn to effectively communicate these data and models, enabling forward-looking strategies and communication to achieve water sustainability informed by evidence.
Due to the complexity of the issues involved in addressing water stress and their nature to cross environmental, political, and economic variables, interactive simulations are often used to promote communication and translation between experts and decision-makers. This being only one mechanism for presenting data and models I will be looking at.
My research focuses on how people understand, communicate, and reason about future scenarios of food and water availability using scientific data and models. We want to know to what extent scientific data and models can facilitate understanding, decision making, and impact user knowledge and competencies about food and water sustainability. Our study questions focus on data and model reasoning competencies, including understanding, knowledge, systems thinking, strategic thinking, futures thinking, collaboration skills, data skills, and values thinking. The mechanisms we will be investigating for presenting scientific data and models include static graphs, canned models, interactive models, and conceptual models. This will be done through a series of workshops where participants will be exposed to more complex data and models each time. They will also be using a variety of online tools.
These findings will prove useful in improving our understanding of how non-scientists engage with scientific models and data. We will also be able to assess the effectiveness of the various mechanisms used to present scientific data and models to these non-scientific users.

Why did you choose this field?

Science is a significant part of my life. I grew up with a science teacher, my mom. She always made sure that when I had a question, we would answer it together. Stemming from this curiosity I was drawn to science courses as I grew, I knew I wanted to go into a STEM field.
Upon entering college, my initial major was biology because I was dead set on becoming a marine biologist. Unfortunately, I was in the Chihuahuan desert, and we have more marine fossils than actual marine life. So by chance, I took a geology elective and switched my major that same semester.
When I graduated, I knew I did not want to go into oil or mining, so I shifted my interests over to environmental science and was still drawn to water but no longer seawater. I take an interest in the lack of water in my community and how this connects to our food, energy, and environment. Towards the end of my Master's program, I was required to complete an internship. I chose to intern with the City of El Paso Office of Sustainability; I worked on a project focusing on food apartheid. This project introduced me to the food, energy, and water nexus. Upon the completion of this work and a few discussions with several mentors at my home university, we concluded that I would be a great asset to work on the water issues here in my community.
This led me to the project I know currently work on, which allows me to understand how actual water users think about water and the future of water using scientific data. The most rewarding thing about my project will not be the completion of my Ph.D. but the ability to give back to the community that provided for me.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

Receiving the Diana Natalicio Environmental fellowship and getting to work at La Semilla in the summer of 2018, then becoming a board member for La Semilla in January 2020. “La Semilla was established in 2010 the result of community garden, youth development, and food system education efforts in southern New Mexico. Owing to these efforts, La Semilla is the only nonprofit organization solely devoted to fostering a healthy Paso del Norte food system. Since our inception we have taught thousands of elementary and middle school students how to grow and cook fresh food while establishing a 14-acre education and demonstration farm in Anthony, New Mexico” (La Semilla).
My experience with this nonprofit rewarded me spiritually, emotionally, and with knowledge. I reconnected to my Mexican heritage and to the native knowledge of the land I grew up on. I learned about native medicinal plants, native pollinators, and traditions that root from our native resources. With my new loves and knowledge, I developed educational materials to share with youth at our local farmers market and the farm. Many of the individuals who work for La Semilla share a similar passion and love for the community that I do, so upon completion of my internship, I continued working with La Semilla. Through my work at La Semilla, I was able to inspire my maternal grandfather to cook with Nopales (cactus pads), a staple in Mexican cuisine, so much so that he began to grow his own. I also gave guest lectures to their You Grow Chica summer camps. My knowledge became grounded to my literal and figurative roots, just adding kindling to my fire to address water issues in my community.
My relationship with La Semilla continued to grow, and one of the founders asked me to become part of their board, and I gladly said yes. I have absolutely no experience with this, but because of how great a team they are and their belief system in empowering people of color and especially women of color, there was no way I could say no. So today at 25, I am proud to say I have a B.S. in Geology and a PSM in Environmental Management and Sustainability. I am in the fourth year of my Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Engineering. I actively engage in my community and work with amazing women to ensure a better future for our youth.

Why do you love working in STEM?

The ability to communicate what I learn with others to make our Earth a better place for all living things is what I genuinely love. Being able to connect people with nature, food, and other resources are something that I hold dear to my heart. I proudly say that I can communicate with many people about what I learn because of all the various people, places, and cultures I have encountered.
I have been given so many opportunities to learn about geology, sustainability, environmental science, ecology, and culture through travel. Being in STEM has allowed me to visit over eight different countries and interact with so many beautiful people who are changing the world. Science would be useless if we did not connect it back to the communities that need it, and I am happy to be part of this connection.

Best advice for next generation?

You are not alone; you are enough, you are strong, you are beautiful, you are success, you are a boss, you are intelligent, you are creative, you are genuinely you, and that is what will make our world a better place! Do not be afraid to reach out to someone who inspires you because chances are; they have been where you are. It is not an easy battle being Femme in STEM, but the path is being lit by many warriors. We NEED you to join the fight to make Mother Earth a better place for all living things.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

You have to hold yourself accountable for your actions, and that’s how we’re going to protect the Earth. – Julia Butterfly Hill

NOMINATE a woman in STEM

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