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Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

For this edition of “The Grad Activist,” I spoke with my friend and colleague Omar Gowayed, a Ph.D. student in materials chemistry at NYU. We spoke last year about his vertical farming project, which has since evolved into a local company and an undergraduate course that Omar teaches at NYU.

This past week, Omar’s vertical farming team organized a campus week of action. I asked him about his experience organizing on campus, which required him to work with students, faculty and external partners. For Omar, activism has been a central part of his life; through his course, he teaches students not just about engineering and vertical farming, but he also encourages them to get involved with their community and advocate for causes relevant to their projects, such as sustainability and health. The Climate Week of Action highlighted the overlap between science education and these fields and sought to bring activists and academics into the same space.

Q: What motivated you to host a week of action at NYU?

A: Before I get started on the week of action, I want people to understand the Urban Food Lab. It is a multisemester course focused on the development of student-initiated projects surrounding vertical farming, in which students can retake the course for up to five credits. The farm is an aquaponic vertical farm which uses fish waste as nutrients to grow four shelves of plants. It is located in the basement of the NYU Makerspace in the Engineering School.

My friends and I built from experiences learned from prototypes that we developed during the start of my Ph.D. program. The farm has grown a lot in size since then -- we started off by building a desktop solution, then we turned a lab fridge into a vertical farm. Afterwards, we took a space in the basement NYU Tandon School of Engineering Makerspace and turned into a full farm.

My co-founder of the farm started a company called WE ARE THE NEW FARMERS that grows spirulina, an edible algae. I, on the other hand, started a class!

Students enrolled in the class are required to submit proposals, with a specific template, for an independent project on how to solve a problem of their choosing in the vertical farming space, with sustainability in mind. Proposals are used in order to validate feasibility and merit of student projects as well as give students preliminary practice in proposal writing. Throughout the semester, students participate in weekly meetings to maintain the farm and discuss their projects, the design and implementation of these projects, and complete a final presentation. Furthermore, students are encouraged to take part in community activities to promote sustainability through the use of extra credit opportunities.

The desire to make the farm more a part of the community is what prompted the week of action. As the co-chair of March for Science NYC, I believe that taking our science into public spaces really helps us know why we do what we do, and can help provide a resource for people who need to know more about the science of the movement.

Q: What was your planning process like? How did you decide what programming to hold? Who did you reach out to for partnership, and what was the response like? What were the biggest challenges in organizing the week?

A: Since this was a new event, and we started planning it only two months ahead of time, we worked closely with the university administration to plan around already existing events, such as their Diversity in STEM summit held every year around this time. We didn’t want to double or compete with anyone’s efforts, so we sought partners and marketed events that we thought fit into the theme of our week of action, and planned events where we saw an opening.

The events included a hackathon, a research expo for the farm’s students, a forum on energy solutions in NYC, the diversity summit and a climate action panel. Over all, the events were a success, but the biggest obstacle was to make sure that all of our partners had the same message. Regarding the climate crisis, for example, it’s trendy now to for corporations to use sustainability in their branding. However, it’s always important to listen to their actions and do your research about who they have worked with in the past. In my experience, we had several organizers during one of our events who refused to acknowledge policy change as the route to tackling the climate crisis, instead focusing on consumer decisions. I was shocked, as these were words spoken at a week of action at held a scientific institution. To sum it up, it’s important to make sure that no one is just co-opting your movement as a brand or for clout.

With that said, the farm’s expo was my favorite event, as it connected students to their peers as well as local activists and organizations in Brooklyn. We had representation from NYU’s administration, including our dean, the Office of Sustainability, the Makerspace and NYU’s Vertically Integrated Programs speak. It was great to put on an event centered around sustainability knowing that other departments are also doing work to be more sustainable.

Roughly 80 people attended the event, talked to my students about their projects and got a tour of the farm. The food was great and catered by the inspiring chef Allen Dabagh, owner and head chef of Boutros. I’ve been getting emails nonstop about collaborations and how people can get more involved, and I love it!

Q: You’ve been an activist your whole life -- how has that fit into your work as a scientist?

A: I’ve always been the person who cited peer-reviewed sources in activist meetings. When I became a scientist, I realized that I have a community around me that is researching how to make the world a better place, I wanted to connect the dots. Ingrid approached me to join her in her efforts to get more involved with the March for Science. I was thrilled at the opportunity to connect these dots!

My scientific work is nonphotochemical laser-induced nucleation, or shooting lasers at supersaturated solutions to make crystals. Fundamental research on an optics table doesn't give many opportunities to engage in activism, but I try my best to mix my activism with my farm work.

Q: How would you suggest other scientists get involved with activism if they are unsure?

A: I would recommend just joining activists in a meeting. Say hi to people. Let them know who you are and add them on social! Being an activist has a lot to do with building a community. You talk to and meet people who are interested in a similar cause. For an example, go to a meeting for a cause you care about and just say hi! Learn what they’re about. Show up to the protest or letter-writing campaign after that. Show up to any happy hours that are hosted. I think people forget that most of activism is about building a community and leveraging this community’s power into effecting change. Just go out there: make friends and build power!

[Photo credit to Ingrid J. Paredes.]

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