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Putting science on the ballot

Doctoral student Kayla Mathes studies forest ecology and is raising awareness of climate change ahead of Virginia's 2021 elections through her work with the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
a scientist cutting a sample of plants with scissors [View Image]

Kayla Mathes, a Virginia Commonwealth University doctoral student, is channeling her passion for raising awareness about global warming to inform voters about how that issue could play a role in the Virginia primaries on June 8.

Mathes, who studies forest ecology and climate change in the lab of Chris Gough, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has partnered with the Virginia League of Conservation Voters Education Fund to produce a voter education guide to raise awareness about the primaries, which traditionally have low voter turnout.

“I specifically wanted to focus on helping people understand how to be a climate voter and have a better understanding of ‘How do I assess if my candidate is taking climate change seriously? What are the ways in which their solutions to climate change can be impactful to me,’” said Mathes, a student in the VCU Life Sciences’ integrative life science program. “That's the work that they do at the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.”

The league works to preserve Virginia’s landscape and mobilize concerned voters to raise awareness about pressing environmental topics, including land use, conservation, transportation and energy-related issues as well as air and water quality.

Mathes researched each candidate on the ballot, included information about them in the guide and provided a link to the website where Virginia voters can determine their district.

“She had a very good grasp on things that are intimidating to voters,” said Sarah Ahmed, the league’s deputy director of voter registration. ”A lot of people really don't want to say out loud, ‘What's the difference between my federal district and my state district?’ Having the what-district-am-I-in section is really simple, but an important way to propel folks into feeling more confident voting in the primary. It was so great working with her. She had so much attention to detail.”

Soil scientist, connecting to policy

Mathes’ connection to the league was spurred by her participation in the American Geophysical Union’s Voices for Science program, which focuses on training scientists how to communicate the value and importance of Earth science with policymakers, local legislators, journalists and the general public.

Mathes said voter awareness is important because so much is at risk.

“Our future and the health of our communities is at stake,” Mathes said. “We're talking in Virginia about threats on the coast of sea level rise that will not only heavily impact the economy of shoreline communities, but the livelihoods of people that live there.”

"She had a very good grasp on things that are intimidating to voters. A lot of people really don't want to say out loud, ‘What's the difference between my federal district and my state district?’ Having the what-district-am-I-in section is really simple, but an important way to propel folks into feeling more confident voting in the primary."

Mathes will continue working with the league to create a nonpartisan voter guide for the November general election focused on candidates on the ballot, applying her knowledge of environmental issues to help people be better climate voters. She studies carbon sequestration — the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide and a method of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“I study forest carbon cycling and disturbances with a focus on how climate change is impacting forests’ ability to sequester carbon dioxide,” Mathes said. “Forests are a very important part of the solution to climate change. We're trying to figure out what makes these forests either resistant or not to these disturbances, which are increasing globally.”

Mathes is specifically interested in looking at soil as an important part of forest carbon cycles because the Earth stores a lot of carbon in a forest. Gough’s lab studies many parts of the ecosystem, from different tree communities to how leaves function in the forest.kayla mathes removes tree bark and sugar-transporting tissues immediately under it, using a process called stem girdling [View Image] Kayla Mathes removes tree bark and sugar-transporting tissues immediately under it, using a process called stem girdling. Her work with the Virginia League of Conservation Voters aims to help "people understand how to be a climate voter." (Courtesy photo)

Making data and expertise available to the public

Mathes is used to connecting with people in creative and public ways. She is a cellist who made a switch to the sciences, and she still performs in the Richmond Symphony Orchestra.

Gough said Mathes’ efforts with the league are well worth her time because communicating and translating complex scientific concepts and results to the public in a clear and accessible way is essential to what scientists do, particularly in the realm of climate science.

“There’s demand from the public and policymakers alike to take what is often obscure, technical science and make it useful, understandable — even relatable — to the nonscientist,” Gough said. “Kayla’s voter guide [will] offer an important nonpartisan summary of where candidates stand on a science-informed issue that affects us all. This service is vital, I think, to the science consumer and deliverer.

"More broadly, Kayla, as a future career scientist, understands the necessity of translating our scientific understanding into evidence-based policy recommendations. All of our research is funded by the public through federal grants and we have a responsibility to make our data and expertise available to the public. They can decide how to use the data, but it needs to be understandable and applicable to the nonexpert."

Ahmed is struck by Mathes’ sense of urgency to translate science to the public.

“She sees this information, understands research, can interpret data and she wants to be as efficient as possible,” Ahmed said. “It's clearly one of her passions.”

Mathes hopes the voter guide for the general election will raise awareness about environmental hazards, such as air quality.

“We know that rising temperatures are due to climate change and are decreasing air quality, specifically in urban areas. So in Richmond in the summer we have increasing temperatures and summers are just getting hotter,” Mathes said. “And that's only going to get worse with climate change with things like urban heat island effect and poor air quality. Those impacts are falling disproportionally on our lower income communities, our Black and our brown communities.”

She wants voters and candidates to see key environmental issues as a humanitarian crisis.

“It's not just about saving endangered species, which is important too. But this is a human issue. This is a health issue. This is an economic issue affecting livelihoods.”

Ahmed said the voter guide makes clear the context of environmental issues as they are applied to everyday life, putting politicians’ platforms in that perspective.

“We think it's owed to voters to lay out questions that will help them sync in terms of how [the environment] affects them, their neighbors, their family, their friends, their job and the future,” Ahmed said. “So we are really intentional about putting things in a nonpartisan sense that helps folks think about these issues that they're hearing about every day and how they really affect them. We want to make sure it's truly the vote that the voter believes in.”

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