How Dr. Samantha Ying is Leading Social Justice-Focused Scientific Inquiry through Student-Centered Mentorship

April 3, 2022

Dr. Samantha Ying, PhD makes a point every year to tell her circuitous, self-doubt-filled journey to academia to her Introduction to Soil Science class. (Dr. Ying uses "she" and "they" pronouns interchangeably which you'll see reflected throughout this profile.) “Because I never thought of myself as being predestined to become a science professor, I almost have this outsider view from many more dimensions from my training, interest and experiences with discrimination,” they say. “I can view the institution from the outside while I’m in it, which gives me this comfort to speak up.” For students who hear this perspective, they can feel empowered to do the same.

As an assistant professor of soil biogeochemistry at UC Riverside (UCR) and co-director of the UC Global Health Institute’s Planetary Health Center of Expertise, you see their diverse perspective and multi-faceted thinking in the way Dr. Ying mentors their students and in the environmental justice lens they bring to their scientific work.

Dr. Samantha Ying, PhD, working in a lab
Photographed above: Dr. Samantha Ying, Photo courtesy of Canadian Light Source

In their undergrad as a microbiology and physical geography major at UC Santa Barbara, Dr. Ying was most inspired by questions around how human action affected the natural environment. When entering their PhD in geological and environmental science at Stanford, she immediately felt out-of-place because, as she puts it, “I look at everything in a much bigger picture than detailed chemical reactions.” The department chair saw Dr. Ying's potential though, urged her not to quit, and instead consider switching to chemistry as his advisee. He nurtured and supported her bigger picture inquiries while advocating and helping her through personally difficult times, especially when she became a single parent during her graduate education. He saw that Dr. Ying had what it takes to help transform how scientific inquiry serves people and the community and that has translated directly into Dr. Ying doing the same for her students who might be traditionally excluded from academia.

Now in the advisor and mentor role, Dr. Ying fought for her recently graduated advisee, Claudia Avila, PhD–a first-generation college student who started her education in community college–acceptance into the UC Riverside soil science program. When Dr. Avila had a child during the program, Dr. Ying worked with Dr. Avila to create a schedule that allowed her to be present for her child while being able to complete her degree. "I knew that Claudia was a rising star and is exactly the change-maker that academia needs given her life experiences," says Dr. Ying, "but the institution is currently built with systemic barriers that keep people like Claudia excluded if we don't think outside the box."

“I feel like other mentors have this idea of what the ‘perfect’ graduate student is and try to mold them into that,” says Dr. Avila. This sentiment is echoed by Dr. Ying's current advisee, Mónica Hope, Master’s student in the Environmental Sciences Department at UCR, who is also first-generation and a person of color who would have left academia without Dr. Ying's support. "She really sees her students as individuals and works to give them what they need to succeed," Hope says, "meaning she doesn't try to force us into a mold." Dr. Ying believes in her students, sees their individual value, and their points of view through their intersecting identities, as the key to cultivating social justice-minded scientific research rooted in environmental justice. Dr. Ying says of Mónica Hope: "Mónica has a fire in her that makes her always ready to fight for justice and she's not afraid to speak up. She spearheaded a whole new research direction for our lab that allows us to engage community members and work with organizations like Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability that truly partner with and fight for the rights of low income, rural communities, including the right to access safe drinking water."

Dr. Ying brings that environmental justice lens to their role as the co-director of the Planetary Health Center of Expertise (COE). “Environmental justice and working toward it in health equity is the number one priority in how we form our planetary health research objectives,” says Dr. Ying. “So that we know that the results that we’re aiming for are informed by issues that are brought up by the communities.” For example, measuring arsenic in drinking water in the East Coachella Valley is also about advocating for migrant worker rights as they’re the most negatively impacted by contaminated water. The February 2021 Environmental Science Technology article, Shallow Groundwater Manganese Merits Deeper Consideration, Dr. Ying is the corresponding author with collaborators from the UCR School of Public Policy, and serves as an example of how their work aims to reveal disparities at the intersection of human interaction and the environment amplifying environmental justice issues. Millions of Californians are dependent on groundwater as a source of drinking water, and overlooking certain contaminants, such as manganese, can have the most significant health and economic impact on underserved communities. "Access to safe and affordable water is supposed to be a human right in our state," says Dr. Ying, "but we have a long way to go until everyone in California has a consistent source of clean drinking water."

With that social justice and environmental justice lens, Dr. Ying will co-host UC Global Health Day 2022 at Santa Cruz on Saturday, May 7th where the theme of Centering Social Justice in Community Health is rooted in all of the projects that come to their lab, from the impact social determinants of health has on individuals to the planet’s ecosystems : “How does this work help the community? What is the product that we can communicate so that it resolves a piece of environmental justice?”

These are all questions Dr. Ying hopes attendees, especially learners, will continue to ask and examine at UC Global Health Day and beyond.