Earth and Environmental Sciences Grad Student Driven by Social Issues
Science is just about Claire-Marie Kooi’s favorite topic. Whether mulling over ideas with her father (a retired physicist), as an Earth and environmental sciences graduate student at Chico State, or in discussion with undergraduate students at UC Berkeley, she feels at home, confident, and empowered when researching and exchanging ideas about science.
Initially a math major as an undergrad at UC Berkeley, Kooi switched to Earth and planetary science. To her, the difference was a tangible one.
“I was able to have a community and also see the impact of my work—that’s the thing about the Earth, nothing happens in isolation, everything impacts something else,” she said. “I think the connection to the real world is something I didn’t see in math at the time, and Earth and planetary science is where I saw connections to issues I was really interested in.”
After earning her degree in 2014, Kooi was granted the UC Berkeley Destination College Advising Corps fellowship to assist low-income and minority students at Vacaville High School in pursuing higher education. And though she enjoyed providing underrepresented students with access to higher education, she still had an identity of being a scientist.
She decided to pursue a graduate degree and found Chico State was an excellent fit for her, both academically and personally.
“My sister went to Chico State and I knew the community and the town,” she said. “I found great support systems in faculty and other students.”
Long before Chico State, though, Kooi’s earliest support came from her father, who exposed her to the sciences early and often—which continues to this day.
“He’s always taken an active interest in things that I’m interested in. He knew I was interested in environmental science, and he’d bring me science articles and we’d discuss those,” she said. “We have a lot of conversations that revolve around science or science education. It’s great to have that dialogue, it’s had a huge impact on me.”
Today, Kooi is Associate Director for UC Berkeley’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) Scholars, an initiative to improve the college experience for students in the Departments of Astronomy, Earth and Planetary Science, Physics, and Mathematics. She has been there just over a year, and when she interacts with students and helps them explore the sciences, she feels a personal connection.
“I can relate to a lot of the experiences students are having, which I think gives me a leg up when thinking about strategies or ways to support students,” she said. “We’ve seen that underrepresented students are not being retained in those majors, as much as other groups of students, so we’re trying to implement strategies to address that—and it’s cool because it’s also the department I went through as an undergrad.”
Today, highest on Kooi’s list of interests is environmental justice issues. Even though these issues are under more scrutiny from industry, non-profits, and government agencies, they have not been widely incorporated into college environmental science curriculums. Kooi’s graduate thesis explores the impacts an environmental justice education module could have on students’ perceived capacity to identify and address environmental hazards in our society.
To do this, Kooi collected feedback from Chico State students asking, “In what ways can an environmental justice education module increase students’ environmental justice self-efficacy, interest, and commitment?”
“Having a better understanding of how environmental justice education influences students’ confidence and willingness to engage with environmental justice in their education and careers could help colleges and universities integrate environmental justice subject matter more readily into the curriculum,” she explained.
Kooi’s graduate advisor, Assistant Professor in Chico State’s Earth and environmental sciences department, Kristen Kaczynski, has seen her evolve from a top-notch teacher’s assistant to a driven and passionate thinker who is ready to act.
“Claire is so passionate about environmental justice issues and exploring students’ understanding of them within an environmental science curriculum,” Kaczynski said. “She wants to know how students feel about being able to potentially tackle these issues when they graduate, since social issues are intertwined with environmental science.”
For Kooi, environmental justice issues are personal. Residing in Richmond, she also lives near a large oil refinery which impacts air quality, water quality, and the health of the community.
“There’s a personal connection to these environmental hazards,” she said. “As I explored more, it’s always affecting the most vulnerable communities—low-income communities, communities of color, Indigenous communities, undocumented communities. This kind of thing kills people.”
Kooi hopes to complete her thesis defense by the end of the fall 2023 semester, at the latest. As to what her future holds, her second child is due at the end of this month. And beyond that, she would like to keep working to increase STEM diversity, possibly in a leadership role.
“Not much has changed in the past 50 years in terms of the number of people of color in fields like Earth and planetary science, physics, math,” she said. “I’d like to really make an impact and see that increase. And I think my experience at Chico State has helped frame and shape those interests.”