On the science and social justice of soil
“It always really frustrates me that people talk about the environment in just technological terms, as if these are just things that happen, pretending that there are not all these social things interwoven with them,” says IAS faculty member Melanie Malone.
With a bachelor’s degree in Geology and English, a master’s in Soil Science, and a doctorate in Earth, Environment, and Society, Malone brings an interdisciplinary perspective that connects the physical sciences of the environment with social issues of the communities that live there.
One of Malone’s current projects studies soil contamination in community gardens. The gardens Malone studies are spread across Seattle and New York City. They are located in historically marginalized neighborhoods like the Lower Duwamish Waterway, populated by racially and ethnically minoritized people, and disproportionately affected by high levels of contamination.
“What I try to do before even getting to the science is give people context for why something matters,” says Malone. She combines her own measurement and studies in these localities with discussion and education. Building trust is essential to her research process.
After a couple of years sampling soils and plants in the Lower Duwamish, people knew Malone and that she was always ready to explain her scientific findings to the community. So they came to her and asked her to examine an area that they wanted to use for a children’s garden: “We don’t want to poison our kids,” they explained.
“That in itself was a really great experience for me to have, because I really value that trust and the fact that that they asked me to do it. Also they came to me with their own project idea and had some ideas about how they wanted to do it and so forth,” notes Malone. This request resulted in one of the many research collaborations Malone is working on with local community members and scientists.
“I'm not saying it's easy,” admits Malone, “but I think it's very rewarding, especially in these times when we know systemic racism affects so much of our environment. Everything that's going on with COVID-19 – I could have predicted it. It’s nothing new. It's just more apparent right now.”
Identity is another reason Malone finds value in her community-engaged research: “I take that very seriously, because a lot of people don't get to see themselves represented in the science itself.”
Malone’s approach to research is carried over into her teaching at UW Bothell. Teaching students how various technologies work, Malone finds that they naturally begin to ask the larger “Why?” questions behind the methods. Students begin to ask the questions they’ll need to be able to answer if they go into careers that bridge science and policy, like environmental management.
“This is really important, because if you don't understand both the science part of how things work, and then how the policy of things work, then you will never understand our current situation, or how things are managed in our environment,” affirms Malone, who has been excited to see the level of student engagement in projects. Many of her students gravitate towards social issues concerning housing and environmental justice, and have conducted research and interviews in those in homeless encampments.
Malone tries to help students see the larger context of the research they’re doing: “How landscapes are formed has a lot to do with power and who has the right to the power and who has the right to do the research.”
Malone’s integrated, transdisciplinary work contributes to the emerging field of Critical Physical Geography. In the video below, you can hear Malone describe this approach in her own words.