Dr. Alyssa Whitcraft, Deputy Director and Program Manager of NASA Harvest, recently appeared on IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society’s Down to Earth podcast to discuss the importance of intersectionality in the geosciences. Speaking to the universal threat that is climate change and food insecurity, Whitcraft argues that the only solutions with any hope of succeeding must incorporate a broad and diverse range of expertise and experiences. She draws upon the scholarship of Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who developed the concept of intersectionality over 30 years ago and is a key originator of critical race theory.
During the episode, Whitcraft explores how a fortuitous university course caused her to transition from her earlier pre-med path to agricultural monitoring. Using satellites to study how crops are grown in diverse communities across the globe, she realized how intertwined social justice and climate change are.
“They’re not distinct topics that can be tackled or solved separately. From a food security perspective, every year we still have a huge number of people who are not getting enough nutrition. We’re absolutely able to produce enough food for everybody, the question is if we can do so ecologically and safely.”
Whitcraft adds that it needs to be done so equitably, as well. Given the complex ways in how different communities manage their land and how these management strategies can exacerbate or mitigate climate change, it’s important to approach each situation knowing there is nuance best understood by those already working there. Taking the time to understand the unique circumstances of an area and working with those most intimately aware of its needs and histories allows NASA Harvest to co-develop applied research problems that can help meet nutritional needs while also ensuring economic and environmental stability for local communities.
Whitcraft also explored her journey as a research scientist and experience combatting the hurdles that geoscientists often face during their career. One particular example she points to is the lack of recognition of the caretaking responsibilities that many professionals face, particularly women. The ability to conduct and present research, both critical for research faculty, is often limited by these responsibilities. This problem is often even harder to overcome for members of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities, who already face severe underrepresentation in the geosciences, potentially stunting their career progression.
As a parent, Whitcraft has been faced with the choice of missing conferences and research meetings in a critical part of her career or paying significant costs to hire caretakers while she travelled for work. Knowing that neither were good or fair options - particularly for those without economic security and privilege - she advocated within the University of Maryland School of Behavioral and Social Sciences to create a grant fund that anyone with dependents can use to offset the hardships that travel brings. The program is still in its pilot phase, but is an important step in sealing the leaky pipeline that caregivers - overwhelmingly women - in academia experience.
Down to Earth is a podcast put together by the Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society (GRSS), a technical society within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). IEEE is the largest academic and professional organization with members spanning 94 countries. GRSS is one of the groups within IEEE and focuses on combining geosciences, hardware development, and data processing methods.
In an effort to promote and empower geoscientists from diverse backgrounds, GRSS created the Inspire, Develop, Empower, and Advance Program (IDEA), which oversees the Down to Earth podcast series. The series highlights women geoscientists and previous episodes have covered generational change, entrepreneurship, and economic barriers in the geosciences. Previous episodes can be listened to here.