Zero Hour Story
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Zero Hour Story: Pablo, Scientist

pablo on a hiking trail

Pablo is a 25 year old first generation Mexican-American pursuing a PhD in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of California, Riverside (go Highlanders!). His research is focused in plant cell biology, using corn as a system for experiments. In Pablo’s words, “My family came to America so that I can be a corn farmer, haha.” Actually, with his degree, Pablo plans to become a professor at a Junior or Community College because he loves the hands-on educational system and wants to be a mentor for his students.

What does sustainability mean to you?
It’s the balance of how I live my life in the context of the world around me. My path to becoming a scientist might have influenced my thoughts on sustainability, but I view the definition from an energy standpoint. As humans we must eat, breathe, and be physical. It’s difficult to know the amount of energy we need to balance our lives –– and the truth is, we can’t balance our energy completely or we would die. However, we can minimize our impact with the decisions we make.

Your lifestyle is heavily influenced by your family’s values. Did you grow up in an environmentally aware household?
Thinking back, my family wasn’t consciously aware but we practiced a lot of habits that ended up minimizing our impact on the environment. Reducing and reusing has always been a common theme in my childhood. It’s mostly due to how my parents grew up and because we didn’t have a lot of money. For example, we never wasted food, clothes, or “things,” nor did we throw away items that could be reused. My clothes always got passed down to my younger cousins and brother. When my parents went to the market, they’d buy meat from the clearance section. It was cheaper and it minimized food waste. My grandma would save her empty tuna cans to use as decor or as a jewelry box.

“Reducing and reusing has always been a common theme in my childhood. It’s mostly due to how my parents grew up and because we didn’t have a lot of money.”

That’s awesome! We think a lot of families can relate. Did your family do anything you felt was different from your friends?
When I was a younger, my siblings and I wanted a pet. Instead of getting a dog, my dad thought it was a better idea to get us chickens. We still have chickens as pets today. I’m not sure if they were a “greener” pet than a dog, but there were a lot of things I loved about my chickens. They laid eggs so we didn’t have to buy them from the supermarket (extremely farm-to-table). We would give our chickens leftover food scraps (we didn’t compost so this saved on food waste). And my dad and I would collect eggshells and chicken poo to sprinkle in our yard as a food source for the garden.

Have these decisions influenced your lifestyle as you’ve gotten older?
In most cases, I think it’s best to buy used items –– it’s economically and environmentally friendly. Over the years, I have convinced my family to buy used hybrid cars… so that’s cool. Good quality, used cars save on gas, are cheaper, and help the environment because you’re using something that may have potentially been thrown in a landfill.

Cycling is a big part of your lifestyle. Can you talk more about that?
In the beginning, I didn’t cycle as a means of alternative transportation. I just really enjoyed cycling. There’s a trail in Riverside called Sycamore Canyon that I used to go for hikes. One day, I saw a group of mountain bikers riding and I thought they were so cool. So I saved up my money and bought a used bike. It started as a hobby, but after awhile I began to bike everywhere –– to school, to work, and to the grocery store. Cycling became easier and is much faster than walking. It saves gas and buying my bikes used reduced my impact on waste. Fixing up older bikes and giving them new life has proven to also be extremely rewarding.

Do you still bike a lot today?
Today I bike about 30 miles a week which has significantly reduced my carbon footprint on the environment. Once I graduate, one large factor I will consider when I move to a new city is to live in a metropolitan area that provides biking lanes for cyclists and is within biking distance to my workplace, and other necessities such as the grocery store.

You’re very passionate about science. How has working in this field affected your views on sustainability?
The knowledge I’ve gained has given me a real sense of what I can and cannot do. For example, with the California drought we have going on, my research has really deepened my interest in plants. Recently, I talked with my parents and we decided to introduce drought-tolerant plants into our yard in an attempt to reduce our water usage. My mom wanted to include wildflowers and I really wanted to plant milkweeds, an important food source that is available to monarch caterpillars. With their population declining, I wanted to add a plant that could potentially help them –– even if it’s just a small population.

“My sister would help me track them [butterflies] and she’d get really excited because she gets to “take care” of them. A large part of sustainability is educating the next generation and I love sharing this with her.”

Since you’ve planted milkweeds, have you noticed any changes in your yard?
It’s really cool because since we’ve planted the milkweeds we’ve had about 30 caterpillars make our yard their home. Among those 30, about half of them have survived and became butterflies. My sister would help me track them and she’d get really excited because she gets to “take care” of them. This activity has also influenced her to leave the computer and go outside. A large part of sustainability is educating the next generation and I love sharing this with her. She’s also taken interest in bees and other insects too. It’s awesome.

Has the science field made you more aware of your impact?
Sadly, I’ve realized how wasteful lab work and science experiments are. But that’s just the nature of the work. We have to limit contamination, so this means plastic pipettes and gloves can only be used once before they are thrown away. It’s extremely wasteful and the trash builds up very quickly. Luckily, the lab I work in is aware of our impact and has implemented small changes such as using recyclable gloves and recycling the pipettes and cardboard boxes. We’ve also switched over to energy efficient fridges to store our materials. Working at a university, they also are conscious of how waste is managed across the campus to help minimize the impact of the waste generated.

What are your thoughts on the future of the environment?
I’m hopeful. A lot of people continue to be educated about the environment and want to learn about our human impact on the planet. Awareness is brought up in elementary schools too –– the other day my sister’s kindergarten class taught her about water conservation and she came home saying, “brown is the new green!” It’s awesome. As a society, we’re embracing hybrid and electric cars. It’s the new “cool” thing to have, which isn’t a bad trend because it’s helping limit our carbon footprint. They’re more accessible now too and I hope everyone can buy one someday. California has also banned plastic bags and many countries are contributing to limit their waste. Still if that’s not enough, I try to tell myself, “Even if humans destroy the environment and everyone dies.. Earth will replenish itself with new life anyway, so it’s ok.”

Any last words?
Go ride a bike. It’s really fun and is one of the most efficient means of transportation. If you can, consider living in a city that is bike friendly. Oh yeah, and biking is healthy for you. You can eat more if you bike because you’ll burn a lot of calories.

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*This interview was modified for the purpose of the series.

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