Student Spotlight: Do what you can, where you are

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Meghan Petersen is a graduate student at Colorado State University, motivated by the interconnection of health and the environment, something she’s experienced first-hand. Signing up for a graduate course in Public Communications led Meghan to a project with CitSci and Leave No Trace where she learned about the many possibilities public science projects can offer. Especially providing hope.

About the Student Spotlight Series

One of the most rewarding elements of working in public science are the people we meet and learn from each day. We especially love it when we have the honor of teaming up with fantastic students learning and contributing their knowledge to help public science grow and improve. And we want you to get to know these students too. Who knows? You may wish to recruit them for your team after they graduate!

Cover image: Meghan Petersen

This blog was written by Meghan Petersen and edited by Sarah Newman.

From health scare to graduate school

Do what you can where you are: a motto that has influenced my path leading to the present. At 27 years old, I decided to leave a job, a community, and the known to move to a state where I knew no one. Moving to Colorado was motivated by the feeling as I had done everything I could where I was and was ready to immerse in a new place. 

I am pursuing two graduate degrees simultaneously, a Master of Social Work and a Master of Public Health with a concentration in Global Health and Health Disparities, with the hopes of focusing on One Health, the mind-gut connection, and sustainable local food systems. While a superb undertaking, I am constantly motivated to honor and improve the health of the place, people, and animals around me. 

Four years ago, I had a significant health scare and saw the interconnection of health and the environment behind the curtain. As I healed, I realized how much my food choices were influenced by my environment, including accessibility, which is affected by policies and community assets, all connected to the natural world. This incident made me realize how different my healing outcome could be based on factors such as my location, appearance, and societal status compared to someone with the same ailment in another circumstance. The circle of interconnectedness motivates action and perspective, leading me here to seek wisdom in gaining the tools to work with communities to re-connect to the aspects of their being and life that have been taken away from them in the name of progress and capitalism. When one human can be in a symbiotic relationship with the animals and environment around them, healing comes from integration. Health is being rooted and supported to thrive where you are. Understanding the vital interconnection of one’s well-being is the beginning of doing what you can where you are.

One Health and citizen science

Citizen Science, at its core, is about connection and One Health, so when a classmate proposed an alternative project emphasizing getting college students to become more engaged with the trash issues in their community and build the bridge between them and their environment, I needed to be a part of it. One Health is a trans-disciplinary approach to the health of humans, animals, and the environment.

Recently, in my Environmental Health class, we learned how plastic and microplastics impacted water and health. This message had been at the forefront of my mind considering how Colorado has been in a drought for a significant amount of time. Engaging with this project and prompting people to document and clean up trash was a way to participate in a solution to reduce waste and its impact on our water health. 

Embarking on this project, I yearned to learn more about different avenues to communicate the need for humans to see the connection between their health and the environment’s health. 

Meghan Peterson learning beekeeping skills
Meghan Petersen learning beekeeping skills.

Citizen science meets people where they are

I know I am part of the global population experiencing climate grief. We share in feeling hopeless about the status of the shared home’s health and outlook. In a country that runs on the value of money and independence, sentiments of doom can cloud our vision or motivation to take helpful action. Small barriers to participation can seem like mountains when it’s one more obstacle to overcome in a grim situation. Citizen Science intentionally meets people where they are and spreads the mission that people’s environments are around them, and we can partner with nature to be resilient. 

Becoming more observant through Leave No Trash

Before starting this project, I only knew of citizen science from the lens of participating in a BioBlitz and utilizing iNaturalist. During the summer of 2021, I had the privilege of living and working on a sustainable farm in Benson, Vermont, where I participated in a community bioblitz to help identify species on private land that was about to be entered into public trust. 

After spending a semester working with CitSci, Leave No Trace, and Leave No Trash, my perspective has changed about how varied citizen science can be. I always thought it was more about documenting species rather than projects focusing on human environmental impact. 

Leave No Trash is a project that has made me more observant. I inherently knew that trash was a problem, but consciously taking the time to think about the journey of trash and its impacts on each level of the ecosystem has made me reconsider my daily actions involving waste. 

Outside of my perspective, I learned a vital lesson in knowing your audience and meeting them where they are. Overall, people want to be connected to their environment and desire to help; however, the grief of our current climate situation imposes a sense of hopelessness on people—understanding where a community’s needs and outlooks on their environmental situation are the foundation to motivating collective action. Therefore, creating messaging that helps break down barriers and is hopeful assists communities in feeling seen and wanting to engage in citizen science. 

While working with CitSci and Leave No Trace, speaking with our audience and empathizing with the community’s state informed our understanding of how to motivate and support their Leave No Trash efforts. We came up with the slogan “Do What You Can Where You Are” to break down the looming cloud and give concrete steps to help the environment by picking up trash and documenting it.

Setting sights on National Geographic

The mission of “Do What You Can Where You Are” connects the collective efforts of citizen science and my aspirations of working with National Geographic in telling stories about communities that are growing and healing through and beyond the climate crisis. Trash has a story, and documenting it creates data that writes a story about a community’s needs and well-being. Citizen science is a tool that threads together the stories of animals, people, and the environment, and each project narrates issues into action.

Join Meghan in the Leave No Trash Project

You can join Meghan in “doing what you can where you are”.

  1. Join in the Leave No Trash Project on CitSci and start documenting the trash you see in your community. The data you collect helps Leave No Trace decide where to target their efforts to improve our environment. 
  2. Pledge to pick up trash in April with Leave No Trace.
  3. Ask a friend to join you in your efforts. After all, citizen science is even more fun when we work together!

Keep Exploring

Learn about other public science efforts focused on trash and cleanups.

What happens when people choose to #OptOutside

Earth Challenge 2020: A global citizen science experience for good

Six months after Earth Day: Collaborations around six citizen science grand challenge questions through Earth Challenge 2020

Student Spotlight: Conservation planning and citizen science

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