McNair Scholar Gabriel Jones: In his Element in Environmental Research

It would be fair to say Gabriel Jones wants to help save the world. But he’s not doing it wearing a cape.

The senior majoring in anthropology with a minor in geography at California State University, Dominguez Hills is working toward making positive changes in environmental justice and policy based on research.

Gabriel Jones1crop2A lofty goal to be sure, but with the opportunities that being a scholar in the Ronald E. McNair Program at CSU Dominguez Hills provides him, he is well on his way to the education he will need to ensure his ability to attain that goal.

Named after the late African-American physicist who perished in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the post-baccalaureate achievement program prepares undergraduate students who are traditionally underrepresented in college to pursue graduate studies. Jones remarked that the program is enabling him to take steps toward graduate school, including preparing for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), making visits to universities as part of his graduate program selection process, and participating in professional activities. The financial burden on the Ph.D. hopeful is also lessened through an application fee waiver agreement that the McNair program has with most graduate institutions.

Being a McNair scholar has also helped Jones to think more and more like an academic.

“McNair made me forget that I’m an undergraduate. The way it’s designed, it really gets you to think about grad school,” he said. “It’s changed my outlook on my academic ability, even down to the courses I take: Is this going to prepare me for what is expected of me in grad school? Is this what I need to know for the research I’m interested in? It’s definitely changed the way, fundamentally, I write, the way that I view academia, and the opportunities for doing research.”

Jones has availed himself of those opportunities and as a testament of the program’s ability to prepare students for graduate studies, he has several research presentations under his belt.

He has twice presented at CSU Dominguez Hills Student Research Day (SRD). In 2012, he presented a poster with fellow anthropology students that reported the research they had conducted through an applied anthropology course (ANT-390) taught by assistant professor of anthropology Ana Pitchon. The students used a mixed-methodological approach and shared their findings on how student consumer behavior influenced decision-making of campus dining services management and on the sustainability of operations in the Loker Student Union using the Sustainability Tracking and Rating System put forth by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

For the 2013 SRD, Jones gave an oral presentation on the results from a California Sea Grant-funded research project carried out with Pitchon on marketing opportunities and regulatory impediments within the Pacific sardine fishery.

“Within Southern California, fishermen can only sell sardines as live bait and that presents a problem,” explained Jones, who was the recipient of that California Sea Grant 2012-14 John D. Issacs Marine Undergraduate research assistant program. “If they can sell them to markets or restaurants, they can make more money and it also promotes the coastal communities in general, while getting more people [interested] in local seafood.”

Jones shared material from that same research during the 20th Annual McNair Research Symposium held at the University of California, Berkeley, and during the 14th University of Maryland National Conference for McNair Scholars and Undergraduate Research in spring 2013.

An aspect of McNair that he finds has aided him in his research is the feedback he receives from his fellow McNair Scholars. Jones said the varied research interests and cultural backgrounds among the dozen McNair scholars in his cohort often result in alternative perspectives, leading to presentation improvements.

“If you can communicate your research with people who are not in your field, it’s a key factor, I think, for being a good researcher in general,” he said.

It’s not just research that benefits from the alliances in the program. Jones explained that since members of his cohort go through many similar experiences—in life, school, and research—the bonds between them are strengthened, as well as their resolve to secure a spot in grad school.

His experiences in his classes coupled with the support of McNair have been valuable to his growth as a student. “Through the anthropology department and McNair, I was introduced to real research and what that entails.”

Having taken part in the various projects of his professors, the honor’s student is now starting to hone his own research interests and agenda.

“I’m interested in exploring people’s cultural conceptions of the environment,” he said, adding that he is particularly interested in understanding how these perceptions shape decision-making behaviors in grassroots environmental justice organizations and community members as a whole as well as mainstream environmental organizations.

Toward that end he plans to build a case study on how politics and activism intersect using the 1994 to  mid-2000s case of a recycling facility’s acres-wide and stories-high heap of concrete rubble, dubbed La Montaña by Huntington Park residents who were sickened from breathing its dust, how those residents came to speak out against the hazardous eyesore, and the resultant cleanup.

“I feel that communities facing a similar problem can learn what are the dos and don’ts when taking on these sort of issues,” the Bell resident said. “It’s also important because it documents a successful case where a low-income Latino community was actually able to achieve environmental justice.”

Jones believes that no community should bear a disproportionate burden of pollutants on their immediate environment regardless of their ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Accordingly, he plans to focus on environmental justice in graduate school.

As he begins his fall semester of his senior year, graduate school is more and more on his mind.

One of two CSU Dominguez Hills students awarded a 2013-2014 Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholarship from the CSU Office of the Chancellor, Jones was able to participate in the 2013 Summer Research Opportunity Program at the University of Michigan, and is planning on attending the Graduate and Professionals Student Initiative at The Ohio State University, a two-day graduate recruitment program in October.

He also took a Princeton review course at the University of Michigan in the summer, subsequently passed the GRE in August, and is now developing a list of schools where he plans to apply for graduate studies.

While the Casanova scholarship has provided an extra layer of support and opportunities to prepare him for the next step in his educational journey, he gives all the credit to McNair for making it possible.

“McNair made me realize that I have the potential to succeed and get into these programs and to do well,” he said.

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