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Talk NERRdy to Me: Bella Mayorga

May 26, 2021 | Reserves, San Francisco Bay, California, Talk NERRdy to Me

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29—soon to be 30—Reserves. For the May issue, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed Bella Mayorga, the new education coordinator at San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. They talked about feathered dinosaurs, science translation (into Spanish!), and how bad golf courses can make good marshes.

Nik: Ok, so, is it the San Francisco NERR, or the San Francisco Bay NERR?

Bella: San Francisco Bay. The Bay’s the important part!

Nik: Said no one in Silicon Valley or San Francisco, ever. You’re the newly installed education coordinator there. You’ve only been on the job since… March? How’d you get there?

Bella: I’m originally from outside of LA, in Rancho Cucamonga. I got a bachelor of science in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara, then I went right to grad school at the University of Michigan and got a master of Science in Environment & Sustainability. I moved back to California, actually, to start working with the NERR. 

Nik: How did your family get to Southern California? Were you a nature kid growing up?

Bella: My parents were born in Ecuador and moved to LA when they were teenagers. There wasn’t a lot of nature where we lived because it’s very developed, but my parents would always take me to the museums like the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the Aquarium of the Pacific

Nik: What do you remember from the museums? What were your favorite exhibits?

Bella: I always loved the dinosaurs, and I think my current love of birds is a natural extension of that. I also just have a lot of good memories of spending time with my parents there. Even though neither of my parents have a formal natural science background, I always loved how they could appreciate the things there. 

Nik: I started my career working in a science museum, and we always wondered if we made any difference at all. Hundreds of thousands of kids would come to our museum every year, but it felt like they would just come, press all the buttons and eat in the cafeteria, and we had no idea if any of the exhibits or programs were sinking in. Every once in a while, though, one, like you, would say ‘oh yeah, that totally influenced me.’

Bella: The visits allowed me to see a lot of things I couldn’t see where I grew up. At the museum, you can see creatures from the Sahara or rainforest or deep sea. So it’s almost like reading, in the sense that you can visit places you wouldn’t normally be able to.

Nik: You said you were a bird lover. I like to think that in our system there are the mud people, the crab people, the grass people, the bird people—

Bella: Don’t forget the algae people.

Nik: I try to. Why birds, for you?

Bella: Because they’re extant dinosaurs! That part just blows my mind. You look at their eyes, those are dinosaur eyes.

Nik: And you can see that old lizard body underneath the feathers. How did you make your way to estuaries?

Bella: My pathway to estuarine science has been roundabout; I did my thesis on sustainable agriculture. But I went to school in UC Santa Barbara, and that campus is right on the coast. While I was there I worked as a restoration intern on the North Campus Open Space Restoration Site. It’s a site that was originally a giant wetland, and then they drained it and built a golf course. And you might be shocked to hear this, but it was a really bad spot to have a golf course. So the University bought the land and implemented a restoration project. Over the three years I worked there, I saw the estuary really take root.

Nik: You got a taste for restoration there, but some of your studies took you to other places in the world, not just California and Michigan, right?

Bella: Well, my graduate work was supposed to be in Puerto Rico, but with the travel restrictions over the past year, it ended up being virtual. Luckily my graduate degree specialization was in geospatial data science; with remote sensing we can do a lot of things without having to go there. But let the record show I’m actively trying to find an excuse to go down and visit the NERR in Puerto Rico, though!

Nik: They’re very welcoming. Did you ever get to go to Ecuador, to look up family or do any research there? 

Bella: My parents took me and my brother once when we were about 13. But as you might imagine, a lot of it was wasted on me as a thirteen-year-old. No one’s their best self when they’re thirteen.

Nik: So true. I happen to have a thirteen-year-old in the next room. [calls over shoulder] You’re not your best self!

Bella: I really wanted to go back and get more out of the experience, so I went during college as part of a study abroad program. We stayed in a lot of field houses, did little research projects, got to go to the Galapagos Islands. I can say that I definitely appreciated everything a lot more, considering I was paying for it this time!

Nik: You’ve gotten some great experiences, but you only just graduated! You’re at the very beginning of your career, and yet like any good Millennial, you’ve already blogged it all… How did you convince SF Bay NERR you were their next education coordinator?

Bella: They’ve told me now that what really stood out is how I express myself and my research background. I did a study in undergrad, interning with Stacy Philpot at the University of California Santa Cruz, and we published a paper together that came out in 2020. I also submitted my master’s thesis for publication in an open access journal. I think they liked that research background and my hands-on experience in a wetlands restoration project. They could also see that I have a genuine passion for the ecosystem and that this job really aligns with my professional and personal interests. I want to connect people to these beautiful places and the science that goes on here.

Nik: Is that going to be a particular focus of yourstranslating the science that goes on at the NERR? Or translating the weird ramblings of Mike Vasey? Is it too soon to ask what you’re going to be working on?

Bella: In the Bay Area, there’s people from a lot of different cultural backgrounds, speaking different languages. I think the language of science is another language that’s learned. But science can be really scary for people who haven’t really interacted with it before. Everything’s so systematic and there’s a way of speaking that’s not really the way most people would communicate. In estuaries, a lot of people will be more inclined to care if the work that’s being done here and the threats and challenges that the estuary is facing are communicated to them in a way that they can understand, and in a way that’s not just “doom & gloom.”

Nik: Why is “doom & gloom” tried so often, and why doesn’t it work?

Bella: I think stage one of learning about environmental problems is: you hear something like ‘you should recycle.’ And you think, ok, yeah I can recycle. But then you start learning about all the systemic problems about how recycling isn’t actually the answer and it’s really easy to get discouraged. 

Some of the classes I took were on climate psychology, which shows that all doom & gloom does is put people off the issue and activate cognitive mechanisms that make you want to dismiss the issue. Climate change is one of those problems that triggers every psychological inclination we have to just forget about it.

It’s difficult for people to understand it, see how they can help, and see how what they do makes a difference. But they don’t have to address climate change on a global scale in order to be impactful; you can create a really positive impact by focusing on a local ecosystem. 

So connecting people to the work at the SFBNERR and how we can save the estuaries we have locally is a really great opportunity to get people to care more about climate change. 

Nik: I’m putting you on the spot, newly installed Education Coordinator, but how are you going to get people to care? How are you going to make your NERR as inspiring as the museums you visited as a kid?

Bella: The first step is getting people interested in the ecosystem and habitat itself. I just put together a feather lab for Rush Ranch’s discovery day. A great first step is birds, because that’s something people feel stewardship of relatively easily, they’re charismatic megafauna, and often very cute!

Another thing I’d like to do is make our NERR’s education program more accessible to diverse audiences. I’m conducting a needs assessment where we’re reaching out to different groups that the Reserve hasn’t interacted with in the past, which includes working with community science educators, mentors from afterschool programs, educators that work with special education children, faculty from SFSU.

Nik: Will you have the capacity to do bilingual science education at the Reserve?

Bella: That’s something I want to do. At China Camp they are trying to do some Spanish-language content, and the Puerto Rico NERR actually has a Spanish language climate change activity booklet, so I connected them to that resource. 

Nik: There’s your ticket to Jobos! You get a Science Collaborative transfer grant, some travel money, get down there, bring all those materials back. Ok, time for one lightning round question. I was going to ask favorite animal, but I’m going to skip right to: favorite bird?

Bella: The Oak titmouse. It’s the first bird that I identified on my own. I heard its call and then suddenly it came into view, and it was exactly as cute as I wanted it to be. I love its little crest, which looks like constant bed head, and reminds me of myself sometimes.

Nik: My bird up here in Maine is the Northern Mockingbird. One of the first I could identify, and it too reminds me of mealways sitting on top of something, yelling.

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