Dr. Erica Smithwick of Science Moms: “Explain your choices”

Explain your choices. Why are you buying that product and not another one at the grocery store? Where is your energy coming from? As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Erica Smithwick. Dr. Erica Smithwick is a member of the Science […]

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Explain your choices. Why are you buying that product and not another one at the grocery store? Where is your energy coming from?

As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Erica Smithwick.

Dr. Erica Smithwick is a member of the Science Moms campaign, the largest educational campaign on climate change since 2007. As a landscape and ecosystem ecologist at Penn State, Dr. Smithwick studies the impacts of climate change on people and environments.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I first grew up in upstate New York, where some of my favorite memories are playing in a barn. After age 10, I moved to Massachusetts where our house was surrounded by woods. I also traveled a lot; my mom is from England and my dad oversaw study abroad programs. I remember laughing at the splash of the Atlantic on a cold English beach and seeing barren volcanic landscapes in Iceland. All these early experiences shaped my interest in the natural world and made me committed to sharing that love of nature and travel with my kids. That is why I’m excited to be part of Science Moms — the largest educational campaign on climate change since 2007.

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

When I was growing up, I knew I wanted to do “something for the environment,” but I didn’t know what. Fast forward to my time in college, I had a professor who talked about the formation of the earth: volcanoes! plate tectonics! earthquakes! It was his passion and excitement that got me hooked on geology and later forestry. When I studied abroad in Australia, I took advantage of the beautiful scenery to hike as many mountain trails as I could, and I realized I was recognizing all these geographic features by myself. I was amazed at how much I didn’t even realize I knew, and I thought I might actually have the confidence it took to be a “real” scientist. The earth had stories to tell, and I wanted to tell them.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

We all have our own personal connections with nature, and I try to kindle an awareness and appreciation for the environment in my kids, whether we’re traveling or just in our own backyard. Our lives can be so busy with work, commutes and chores that we sometimes forget about our relationship with nature, viewing it as some separate component of the world that doesn’t really impact us. The people who are inspired to lead on environmental issues are skilled at making connections between the natural world and our daily lived experiences. You don’t have to be the smartest, loudest or most creative person in the room to make a genuine difference in the world.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

I am thrilled to expand the umbrella of climate work. Through the Science Moms campaign, we communicate with moms across the country about why climate change is real and why our elected leaders need to act. There are so many ways to get involved, from writing to your representatives or simply starting the climate conversation at the next PTA meeting. It’s clear that this is a code red moment for humanity, and our kids will be most affected — that’s why I love the mission of Science Moms and the campaign’s ability to make climate science less overwhelming.

At Penn State, we are working with social scientists, artists, engineers, landscape architects and natural scientists to develop research and engagement activities that lead to solutions. I’m also part of a new Penn State Presidential Task Force on Reducing Carbon Emissions where I will help guide our institution to a net zero emissions future.

As part of my research, I work with Indigenous communities on several projects to aid decision-making around forest and landscape management under climate change futures. In our Visualizing Forest Futures project, we link projects of forest change to a virtual reality immersive experience. The idea is to provide different ways for people to engage in these decisions, and to allow for a fuller range of values about these forest futures to be more transparent.

One of these projects is based in Alaska, where we examine the effects different potential climates would have on berry yields. Berries are a critical food source in the area, but their availability has changed rapidly under climate change. Knowing where we might be headed in the future will allow us to start preparing now for all kinds of scenarios.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

It’s so hard to make ALL the right decisions, so people should try to be “climate better,” not “climate perfect.” Fighting climate change is like raising a teenager — it’s confusing, complex and 95% of the time you feel like the outcome is completely out of your control. Yet, as parents we engage anyway because it’s the right thing to do. Make the right decisions on an individual level when you can, but don’t let it consume you — that doesn’t help anyone.

I would also suggest getting involved with community groups in your area that work to support clean energy. There is abundant evidence showing that local efforts to be more environmentally friendly, like installing solar panels on a school roof, can have an enormous impact down the line. So, start small! It may not feel like a lot in the moment, but every move towards a more sustainable planet matters.

Lastly, tell your representatives that you support taking action against climate change, and that you expect them to as well. This sounds like a cliche at this point, but policy (and politics) matter. Use your voice!

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

  1. I would love to see kids engage more with arts, music and culture! Science is necessary to fight climate change, but it’s not how we’re going to change people’s minds or behaviors. I once went to a conference where a relatively simple (but boring) scientific figure was transformed into a hanging mobile, which captured the idea so much better. At Science Moms, we have lots of videos that explain complex scientific ideas in a creative, easy to understand way.
  2. We need innovators! My youngest loves those monthly boxes, but there are all sorts of science projects you can find online that allow kids to explore the natural world through experimentation. At Penn State, we have a nice program for exploring science at home: Science-U @ Home, or maybe there is a Makers club in your area.
  3. Explain your choices. Why are you buying that product and not another one at the grocery store? Where is your energy coming from?
  4. Backyard bug counts. I love this one — kids are natural explorers and once you ask them to change the ‘scale’ at which they are exploring their world, I think their curiosity peaks and who knows where that will lead!
  5. Hug them. Kids get scared when they see news stories about (or even live through) devastating wildfires, hurricanes, floods. We need to hold our kids close and talk to them about how grown-ups are trying to help.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Recent data shows us that job growth is much higher in the clean energy and renewable sectors compared to fossil fuels. So, moving to sustainable practices seems to be the way to go to benefit communities and the economic bottom line.

Changing operations to be Net Zero is now a goal of many major companies and universities. This transition includes a portfolio of decisions, including a transition to renewable energy. Businesses can also consider using “offsets,” which can be used in the short term to account for the carbon released during business activities. They include purchasing renewable energy credits or paying for natural carbon sequestration by vegetation (planting trees). For example, Penn State has partnered with Lightsource BP on a 70-Megawatt Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) solar farm array that will supply 25% of the University’s electricity needs and will provide Penn State with an estimated cost savings of 272,000 dollars in its first year and more than 14 million dollars over a 25-year contract term.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people! Many women in my life have been supportive mentors and uplifters. Monica Turner was my postdoctoral mentor when I was raising two little kids, and she provided me the flexibility to “keep my foot in the door” so that I could balance my research while being a mom. She is kind, supportive and an incredibly sharp scientist, and she showed me it was possible to be a successful scientist and mother.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d love to empower moms everywhere to use their superpowers. What I love about Science Moms is that it’s driven by a willingness to ‘care.’ We need more caring and empathy in the world, towards our natural world, but also towards each other, especially our children. Luckily, moms know how to do that well. I really think that can change the world.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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