AAPI in Geosci: Introductory Remarks at the 2020 AGU Fall Meeting Meet-Up

Christine Y. Chen
7 min readJan 19, 2021
The AAPI in Geosci logo, which uses teal and brown colors.

On December 16, 2020, AAPI in Geosci held an informal virtual gathering at the AGU Fall Meeting. This event served as a “soft launch” of this newly formed grassroots-organized affinity group. The following introductory remarks were written and delivered by co-founder Christine Y. Chen, a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech. The text has been modified for Medium. Co-founders Daniel Ibarra, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley, and Kimberly Lau, an assistant professor at Penn State, also contributed to the presentation.

Hello everyone! Welcome to the soft launch of AAPI in Geosci: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Geosciences. Dan, Kim, and I have been thinking about this moment for months — if not years — and it feels great to finally kick this off.

Right: A word cloud of words from the self-reported ethnic identities of people who filled out interest form. Left: Pie chart
Left: A graphical cloud of words and phrases used to describe self-reported ethnic identities of people who indicated interest in the group. Right: A pie graph showing the distribution of people at different career stages and sectors within geoscience. Google Interest Form: https://forms.gle/c4bJm617UyoDZCwW8

Not only do we wish to thank all 150 people who expressed interest in this group, but we also want to mention and thank a few folks in our circles who advised and guided us. Those folks include Rachel Bernard, Emily Cooperdock, Cin-Ty Lee, Wendy Mao, Sam Ying, Rosie Alegado, Victor Guevara, Sara Tenamoeata Kahanamoku, Sami Chen, Rohini Shivamoggi, Rocío Caballero-Gill, Pranoti Asher, and Lisa White. If you’re in the room, thank you for your help in getting us this far.

To start, let me explain a few things: how this started, why it’s happening now, and why we think AAPIs should band together in these times, now more than ever.

So, how it started: In 2018, Rachel Bernard and Emily Cooperdock published their landmark Nature Geosciences commentary, No progress of diversity in 40 years. Seeing those results, Dan and Kim became interested in looking at trends for AAPIs in the data. They reached out to the authors, started a collaboration, and found that representation among Asian American geoscience PhD graduate students has not improved over the past few decades.

Graphs showing trends in Asian American geoscience PhD graduates over the past few decades.
Graphs from Ibarra, Lau, Bernard and Cooperdock (2018) showing the number of Asian American geoscience PhD graduates over the last 30 years. AGU poster: https://doi.org/10.1002/essoar.10500088.1

Dan and I had known each other for several years, and when he presented these results at AGU in 2018, we chatted and both agreed that it would be great to have an affinity group for AAPIs in our discipline. But as graduate students, we were both early career, and very aware of the perverse incentives in academia that discourage folks like us from leading such activities.

We had that conversation again in 2019, at another conference. Our feelings were the same: Yes, an AAPI group would be awesome, but gosh, do we have the time? And are we the right people to lead this? It feels like a huge responsibility… what if we mess it up?

And then, 2020 happened. To say the least, it has been quite the year. So many of us have been deeply affected by the recognition that the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other members of the Black community are more of a feature than a bug in America’s law enforcement system. In this racially fraught moment in America’s history, there is a loss of innocence, and with it, a seeming loss of predictability (save for all that was predictable).

Artwork ofGeorge Floyd and Breonna Taylor. A screenshot of a NYTimes headline about COVID-related health disparities.
Left: Artwork featuring George Floyd by Nikkolas Smith and Breonna Taylor by Alice X. Zhang. Right: A headline from the NYTimes featuring Dr. Gbenga Ogedegbe, who conducted a study looking at outcomes from COVID-19 for people of color and found that racial disparities in outcomes stem from social inequities.

And not only that, we have loss related to the 200,000-plus* individuals in the U.S. who have died from coronavirus causes thus far. And we’ve experienced unprecedented wildfires and record-breaking numbers of tropical storms and hurricanes. Most days, it’s hard not to feel as if we are on the precipice of the ensuing collapse of human civilization.

In the wake of these events, I know that many of us here, like me, have been grappling with questions of identity and ethical responsibility within institutional and academic spaces. In my darkest hours, I have an existential crisis thinking about the futility of individual agency, feeling the weight of centuries of history. I know I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed, wondering what I can do—what I can do to make sure that how I spend my time each day has an actual positive impact on society. And I also know I’m not alone in evaluating the ways in which I have unwittingly been a part of systems that perpetuate harm.

For the next hour, I want to ask you all to perform a herculean feat of grit, which is to let all this be fully present with us today, rather than something that we dissociate from so that we can consider some abstract subject matter.

So, that was the year of 2020. Knowing that many of us were having the same emotions and thoughts, and while still having the same concerns we had before — whether we were capable, the right people for this, and so on—Dan, Kim, and I decided that we had to start something. At the very least, we needed a community where we could talk with and support one another as we grappled with these issues.

And that’s how this group started and why it’s starting now. Now, I’ll talk about where AAPIs fit into all this. As we all know, the AAPI categorization is a very broad umbrella covering many different ethnicities and countries of origin. Even the chart below, which lists many examples, is incomplete.

A relational diagram showing examples of different racial and ethnic categories under the AAPI umbrella term.
The racial and ethnic categorization of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. From The State of Higher Education in California—Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander Report (September 2015).

We must recognize that there exists a huge range of differing experiences encompassed by different groups under the AAPI umbrella. And, on top of that, we must recognize that many other identities and backgrounds intersect with being AAPI. For instance, the way a recent immigrant experiences America and our discipline will be different from that of someone who has been here for a while, or somebody undocumented, or someone who is multi-racial, and/or LGBTQ+, and so on.

In addition, different challenges face different groups. These examples below barely scratch the surface of all the examples I could list: from anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism and hate crimes rising in the U.S. in the wake of the coronavirus; the harmful persistence of the model minority myth; to the fight for land rights, sovereignty, and self-determination for Native Hawaiians. The Thirty Meter Telescope debacle is one example that is highly pertinent to our field: here, Sara Tenamoeata Kahanamoku, a fellow geoscientist among us here today, has been playing a critical role in guiding discussion on this important issue.

Newspaper headlines on the rise of racism against Asian American doctors and nurses, and the Thirty Meter Telescope debacle.
Left: A headline from May 19, 2020 in the Washington Post about the sharp increase in reports of verbal abuse and physical attacks by Asian Americans. Right: A headline from March 23, 2020 in Space.com about the Thirty Meter Telescope construction on Maunakea in Hawaiʻi. Below the headline is a reference to Kahanamoku et al. (2020)

With all this diversity amongst ourselves, one might ask: why does the AAPI category even exist? It can be frustrating to see this huge range of experiences lumped together as a monolith in demographic data.

To this, I want to remind ourselves that there is power in numbers. The term “Asian American” was born in the 1960s in solidarity with the Black Power Movement and in recognition that there are more things that unify than divide us. In the 1980s, “Pacific Islanders” were added to this designation in the U.S. Census, in a move to allocate and advocate for more funding and resources to communities that needed it. There is power and real gain, material and otherwise, in numbers.

A headline on the history of Asian Americans in America. A photo the Asian-Pacific Islands Advisory Committee of U.S. Census.
Left: A headline of an article from May 31, 2018 from NBC News on the history of Asian Americans. Right: Members of the Asian-Pacific Islands Advisory Committee at the U.S. Census Bureau, who coined the term “Asian Pacific Islander” for the census. Yellow arrow points to High Chief Leuluso’o Fualauto’alasi Leatutufu. Credit: Terisa Siagatonu (Twitter)

Everything expressed here in these last few minutes are the thoughts, sentiments, and ideas that Dan, Kim, and I attempted to infuse into the first draft of the group Mission Statement, a document that we are taking very seriously. We want to make sure this group truly serves all members of the AAPI community, well-aware of the history of Pacific Islanders being ignored and further marginalized under the AAPI umbrella term.

An image of the first draft of the Mission Statement.
The first draft of the Mission Statement for AAPI in Geosci. Google Doc: https://bit.ly/2J8bG4f

But we cannot achieve all the goals outlined in the mission statement without help from you! And this group arguably cannot be started without further input and community investment from people like you, too — our personal circles are limited and we want to hear from as many people as possible.

So, that is all to say, there is an intentional reason for why we’re calling today a “soft launch” of AAPI in Geosci. Firstly, we’re just getting started. Secondly, because we answer to no one but ourselves, we have incredible agency to do whatever we want. And what we want is for this group to support you, whoever you are, wherever you’re coming from. And we need your help to make sure this group does just that.

A slide of bullet points that explain why the event is a “soft launch.”
Slide from Introductory Remarks at the AAPI in Geosci Meet-Up at AGU Fall Meeting. December 16, 2020.

So, please don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re interested in taking on a leadership or organizational role. Help in any capacity, big or small, is welcome. Thanks for listening and considering.

*At the time of this event. As of today, the number of reported coronavirus deaths in the United States has passed 400,000.

About the co-founders

Chen is the O.K. Earl Postdoctoral Fellow in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech. She is a geologist who combines field geology and uranium-series geochronology to reconstruct the history of Earth’s rainfall patterns. Lau is an Assistant Professor in the Geosciences Department at Penn State. She studies how climate caused environmental changes in Earth’s ancient oceans. Ibarra is a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow and Miller Research Institute Postdoctoral Fellow in Earth and Planetary Science at University of California, Berkeley. He is an isotope geochemist working on the water and carbon cycles over Earth history.

Left: Christine Y. Chen, O.K. Earl Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech. Middle: Kimberly V. Lau, Assistant Professor at Penn State. Right: Daniel E. Ibarra, UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow and Miller Research Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley.



Christine Y. Chen

Postdoc @Caltech. ½ geologist ½ climate scientist studying ancient lakes & past #climatechange: a tufa-one deal! PhD @MIT-@WHOI, @NatGeo Young Explorer. she/her