Meet Dr. Erika Marín-Spiotta, Professor and Activist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Committed to creating a better scientific community by bringing together history, politics, sustainability, human rights, and ethics.
Originally from Spain, Dr. Erika Marín-Spiotta is a Professor of Geography and an affiliate of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the Department of Soil Science and Forest and Wildlife Ecology, and the Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research projects focus on the effect of human activities on land use and cover on soil processes, with an emphasis on carbon and nutrient cycling. Her team also looks at reforestation after agricultural abandonment, forest succession, and the effect of plant and microbial diversity in biogeochemical processes in agricultural systems.
The professional background
Dr. Marín-Spiotta grew up in a heavily agricultural landscape on the eastern coast of the country, where she contemplated planted forests that had been managed for thousands of years. At an early age, she moved to the United States and the concept of American wilderness was introduced to her, a wilderness she hadn’t experienced before. With time, she learned that even the most natural environments can have human imprints, and so she became interested in the history of the landscape. This led her to pursue an undergraduate degree in Biology with a minor in Political Science at Stanford University, where she learned about sustainable development and environmental management.
Upon graduation, she had the opportunity to go to Brazil to work on a research project in the Amazon Rainforest. She became interested in Terra Preta, a set of dark soils with deep horizons of organic matter associated with the legacy of past indigenous people; and so, the interest for the effect of human activities on the environment carried through. This motivated her to pursue a doctoral degree in Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California-Berkeley where she sought the answer to the following question and continues to do so on this very day:
"What do you see in the landscape and what assumptions can you make based on what you see?"
Her Ph.D. advisor introduced her to Puerto Rico, and she fell in love with the island after looking at how forests change over time after pasture use in different landscapes.
‘Puerto Rico was showing a regrowth in forests where many other countries were seeing major deforestation, and so it became a good model for other countries of how tropical forests are resilient because their soils are resilient. They can come back.’
To this day, she continues conducting research in Puerto Rico, collaborating with organizations and institutions to create opportunities for students.
Stirring up necessary conversations
‘If you’re interested in academia, your goal is tenure, but after tenure what do you do?’
Unsure of what her next step will be, Erika continues to challenge herself and after obtaining tenure, she’s exploring service and leadership positions inside and outside of her university. However, she is contemplating perhaps a dean or other leadership position to make a broader impact on the university.
"The main reason why I went into academia is that I love working with students and giving undergraduate students opportunities to explore things that they’re interested in whether from my university or from others. Working with students is the highlight."
However, academia is not only composed of students, it’s a complex system that touches the lives of many. For this reason, Erika strives to make scientific environments and universities more equitable places and works on increasing diversity in science fields by questioning the negative aspects that unfortunately, push people aside. This is why she was on the board of the Earth Women Sciences Network, space where she connected with others and built a community of support, especially in departments where there aren’t many women. Erika sees an opportunity to instigate policy change at organizations and in working with professional societies to change their policies to support diversity, bringing antiracism, anti-sexism, anti-harassment into the conversation.
"I know too many people who have left science or decided to stay in science and are unhappy because of the exclusive environment. It’s not right, we shouldn’t have to put up with these things. It started as activism and advocacy, but now we’re actually doing research on this.’
Erika was also on the American Geophysical Union (AGU) committee that rewrote their code of ethics and scientific misconduct, a great way to formalize activism on harassment, bullying, and discrimination. She says that scientists shouldn’t be rewarded for their professional accomplishments if they treat people badly. However, in academia, it isn’t as simple as rewriting a document to instigate change. Nevertheless, she says that we all have a lot more power and leverage in our roles that it may seem, "maybe not hierarchical power but advocacy power to ask and demand change."
"The bureaucracy and the fear of retaliation of people coming forward makes it hard. People don’t feel safe coming forward about these issues and part of my job is to remind people of them. Sometimes I feel it makes me grumpy all the time but if that’s the price I have to pay for people to be aware, so be it."
What lies ahead
Erika sees agriculture as a valuable and fundamental discipline because we all need to eat, and women are at its core.
"We need to be able to feed people and sustain communities, and hopefully we can find a way for it to be more sustainable for humans and the environment."
Around the world, many women manage the land, they may not own it, but they manage it as well as food production and families. Erika says that their contributions are so important that we can’t keep them out, and they must be included in agricultural issues at all times and in all places.
"For me, it’s a human right that people study and can pursue what they’re interested in and what they can become skilled at. If we’re excluding people because of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, it’s not right. It’s an ethical issue."
Erika doesn’t believe in idolizing one person as a role model. Instead, she’s inclined to peer communities of mentors, colleagues, and students. She says these are the people that really make a difference. This is why she advises others to build and maintain a community of support and to join as many different groups and professional societies as they can, especially now in the virtual world, where we’re all connected. Many of them have leadership positions for graduate students and postdocs, ideal roles to make the change from within.
Here are a few suggestions:
Earth Science Women Network (ESWN)
"It’s a lot easier to overcome challenges with people beside you. You’re not the only one experiencing challenges. Everybody at some level experiences frustration even in a wonderfully supportive environment."
Erika is a committed and hard-working scientist that seeks every opportunity to create a better environment, both inside and outside of academia. She’s an example to follow because she isn’t afraid to speak up when she sees injustice and has taken matters into her own hands. Her scientific research is intimately interlinked with her activism because environmental sustainability cannot be achieved without a change in mindset.
How we treat the landscape is a reflection of how we treat others and what we do to the land, eventually, we do to ourselves.
Thank you for an extraordinary interview, Dr. Marín-Spiotta.
We wish you the best now and always!