Roots as my teachers of success, failures, and intersectionality in graduate school
Written by: Edauri Navarro-Pérez
Translated by: Andrea Lugo-Torres
I do not know how many of you have felt it, but many times in our lives, certain subjects and situations ring like a home bell, and until we sit down to think and feel them, they will always knock on our door. Sometimes I feel like my PhD research topic is like this, a continuous introspection of our origin, roots, and values that serve us as anchors in times of turbulence.
My research in root ecology has led me to explore roots even in metaphors and incorporate them into multiple facets and ideologies of my life. To be more specific, my research involves the ecology of soils and roots of the desert. The more I study, experiment, read and learn about this topic, the more challenges I find, not only methodological but also personally. In addition to the constant challenges, being far away from my country, the imposter syndrome, and cultural clashes, my research on roots and soils has also given me great moments, which are often deeply tied to reflection.
Roots have led me to reflect on my privileges and oppressions, the different ways to grow, and the importance of community, impacting my life more than for research data, but also the need to learn and unlearn for growth.
The roots as privileges and oppressions
The roots are a vegetative organ that provides stability to the plant through their anchorage and absorbs essential resources for proper functioning, such as nutrients and water. In some plants, certain characteristics of the root structures have been associated with microbial activity in the soil, leading them to play an important role in the carbon and nutrient cycle. However, since they are not usually visible to the naked eye, many people do not commonly notice and think of roots.
In my experience, just like roots, privileges and oppressions are always present and often remain "underground", like secrets that we all live, some of us know and that few of us talk about. Yet, it is so important to reflect on them, talk about them and do the work to improve what surrounds us. Similar to roots, privileges, and oppressions are topics we often do not understand but are pretty important. Understanding how our social position, skin color, gender, economic status, and other related issues can feel like digging the ground without knowing what we will find, and in the end, we see a world that greatly affects how stable we are.
Just as plants need roots to obtain resources to survive, privilege and oppression are key pieces that define how we get things done in life.
The roots as teachers of growth
Terrestrial roots have the ability to follow different growth strategies, mainly according to the environment that the soil provides and their species. If they have few resources around them, maybe more energy (or more carbon in this case) is needed to grow until they find what they are looking for. If they need help, they can collaborate with other microorganisms such as mycorrhizae and, in the act of collaborating, make a home for those who help them (or have a higher diameter).
In my opinion, their growth process is so fascinating and usually with the goal of obtaining resources for successful growth. Similarly, roots have led me to think about my definitions of growth, success, and failure. Usually, society often leads us to compare ourselves and measure our achievements and failures based on those around us. But the reality is that, like roots, there are so many ways to grow, obtain resources, be successful, and fail. Therefore, comparing my successes and failures with others is not fair, especially because others do not live my reality, my intersections and do not inhabit the complexity of who I am.
As a result, progress, failure, and success are things that I have to define under my reality and continue to redefine according to my life path, my growth, and the opportunities that I have at my reach.
The roots as a community
In addition to its ecological use and importance, roots serve as a home and anchor, literally and metaphorically. Have you heard the phrase "Hay que aprender a echar raíces” and its literal translation “You gotta learn to grow your roots"? This is a way of understanding that we have to establish a home and build a community in order to keep going. Knowing our roots is understanding ourselves as human beings, where we come from, and how we carry our context wherever we go. Understanding our "roots" helps us know where we are going, our life foundation, our struggles, our purpose when we act and how we want to live. Roots have given me space to explore the margins of the intersections that I live in and how I can act according to my privileges and oppressions to provide healthy spaces for me and others.
As anchors of life, roots have allowed me to redefine myself while maintaining my essence. I also use them as a method to acquire justice.
To culminate this small reflection, roots help me with my art, poetry and provide me with other ways of connecting with others. In moments of reflection, we always return to our essence, what we are, and those who help us grow. We always go back to our roots.
Coming back to what we are: roots
Like plants, always looking for the Sun
I still found myself dreaming about new horizons
Do not mind the heat, do not mind the drought
Like the desert, full of wonders, I am always overlooked and full of surprises
They say that we need to be the seeds of hope
but then take away our water
They say that the future is ours
but cannot put a mask on to save what matters
They like the idea of success and call me resilient
romanticizing and adorning my lack of access
Living so much in the darkness has never been an issue for me
In here, dark is not the absence of light or something bad
Dark is the soil that gives nutrients to survive
Dark are the hands of the first human being
No matter how dark we are, we still shine bright, and we still exist
I am not the leaves of the garden
always exposed to the beauty of the day
I am the roots of the planet
working among others,
never receiving the acknowledgment of the flowers
Among my immigrant’s fellows, the poorer, black-brown, indigenous, and trans communities
Women, essential workers, and farmers,
I am the roots of the planet
Not conforming myself as the underdog of the garden
I am the roots of the planet
and like they always say,
We always end up
coming back to them.
Bardgett, R. D., Mommer, L., & De Vries, F. T. (2014). Going underground: root traits as drivers of ecosystem processes. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 29(12), 692-699.
Bergmann, J., Weigelt, A., van Der Plas, F., Laughlin, D. C., Kuyper, T. W., Guerrero-Ramirez, N., ... & Mommer, L. (2020). The fungal collaboration gradient dominates the root economics space in plants. Science Advances, 6(27), eaba3756.
de Graaff, M. A., Six, J., Jastrow, J. D., Schadt, C. W., & Wullschleger, S. D. (2013). Variation in root architecture among switchgrass cultivars impacts root decomposition rates. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 58, 198-206.
Erktan, A., McCormack, M. L., & Roumet, C. (2018). Frontiers in root ecology: recent advances and future challenges.
Minerovic, A. J., Valverde-Barrantes, O. J., & Blackwood, C. B. (2018). Physical and microbial mechanisms of decomposition vary in importance among root orders and tree species with differing chemical and morphological traits. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 124, 142-149.
About the author:
Edauri Navarro-Pérez is a graduate student in soil science and root ecology and a teaching assistant at Arizona State University. She studies grass-root traits and how these affect dryland's soil properties. Did you know that roots are extremely important for ecosystem services? Besides serving as plant anchorage and transport nutrients and water, roots are really important for the C cycle and can account for 10-60% of NPP in terrestrial ecosystems. Some root traits like root length, order & diameter can play a fundamental part in plant performance and survival since they have been linked with resource acquisition, mycorrhizal colonization, respiration rate, and more. Her research is looking for ways to understand 1) how grassroots traits changes in different soil abiotic conditions and species composition, 2) their relationship with mycorrhizal colonization & 3) how they affect drylands rhizosphere soil properties (for example C & N avail). One of her goals with this project is to apply it to restoration projects in the future. Besides being a scientist, she is also a poet that is inspired by life in and outside of the Ph.D. Also, she is super passionate about topics related to intersectional justice. Twitter: @Edauri1 Instagram: @eda_transoceanica Email: email@example.com Website: https://www.eda-np.com
About the artist:
Saimara Alejandro is an undergraduate student of Environmental Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico. She studies the population and behavioral effects that Hurricane Maria may have had on the endangered frog species, Eleutherodactylus richmondi. Her passion for wildlife has led her to integrate art and science, falling in love with scientific illustration. Her greatest desire is to study Color Ecology in relation to Evolution and become certified as a Scientific Illustrator.
Online shop: https://sailustra.bigcartel.com/