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  • Thérèse Burns

Biodiversity in and out of the field with Priya Shukla

Updated: Jun 9, 2019

DAVIS, Calif.

Priya Shukla is a first year PhD student at University of California, Davis. In between classes and lab meeting, Shukla is an avid twitter user and science communicator. While earning her masters at San Diego State, she studied the effects of warming oceans and rising CO2 on kelp forests. Through her work with professionals in the industry, she realized how important science communication was. “I recognized there was a lot of value of to the work I was doing but I didn’t know how to take that value beyond the journals that I intended to publish in.” Shukla has worked on video projects and articles for the New York Times, 500 Women Scientists, and the Scholars Strategy Network. She is also a Forbes contributor, writing about climate change and marine science.

After finishing her masters, she took online classes to delve into the world of science communication. Shukla found that, “ much as I love doing the science… there is something really fun about being able to share that story with more than just scientists. Since then, Shukla has discovered ways to continue her science education while simultaneously combining it with communication. Science communication wasn’t always so easy; before the internet, scientist would exchange findings through journals and emails. Today, scientists like Shukla use tools like twitter to network, collaborate, and bring attention to important science news. This isn’t the only way science is changing, the qualities that make a good scientist are also changing and expanding. “… if you were an applied scientist and you wanted to be taken seriously as an ecologist you had to show value and in that realm… now I think there is a lot more acceptability in terms of being able to both do the really good science but also communicate it in different ways and that can be anywhere from journalism to working with K through 12 students to working with policymakers.” Shukla finds personal validation in working to discover new things about the natural world through her research, but also in sharing this knowledge with scientists and the public.

In addition to her work in science communication, Shukla actively advocates for diversity in science, but this isn’t without some difficulty. Like many disciplines, competitive positions with tenure in ecology are often filled by white men. Breaking into the “ivory tower” can be difficult for minorities. One narrative that challenges Shukla is the idea that, “...if you advocate for diversity it can be seen as you not prioritizing science because you’re prioritizing changing the people who represent science.” Luckily, she believes this narrative is changing. In response, Shukla says, “ ecology specifically we talk about the importance of biodiversity, and when we have more biodiversity we have more ecosystem function. So, some scientists like to joke that if we increase diversity in science then we also get increased science function.”

However, increasing diversity is easier said than done. Making strides in diversity is more than just recruiting minorities to universities, it’s also about equipping them with tools for success. “when you bring people and you find a way to support them because they’re going to have unique challenges then maybe you’re not prepared to handle.” For her, science isn’t just a way to study nature around us, but it can be a way to lift people up and bring them into positions they historically haven’t been in but should.

Shukla challenges her community by saying, “what is the message that this discipline is putting out into the world that is keeping [minorities] at bay? How do we change the message so that they are now a part of the conversation?”

While these ideas are difficult to navigate, Shukla is actively helping the next generation of scientists by supporting undergraduates. Anika Agrawal, a fourth year in Environmental Toxicology, says, “I would not have been able to get through the [grad school] application process without her… thanks to her help I will be pursuing a master’s at Texas A&M”

Today, Shukla is busy navigating life as one of Dr. Ted Grosholz’s PhD students, straddling the worlds of academia and communication. In addition to writing for Forbes, Shukla fosters a community here at Davis centered around marine science. In her weekly newsletter, Thank Cod it’s Friday, Shukla announces the various events and job openings in Davis, and in the greater science community. In the past year, Shukla has been busy taking classes and thinking about her future research goals. Currently, Shukla wants to study how climate change affects aquaculture, and how that affects the industry and farmers. She hopes that her research will bring real world application to the aquaculture industry.

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