Environmental science major sows seeds of campus advocacy

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USC senior Claire Mauss has always had a deep love for desert plants. Her earliest memories include exploring her grandmother’s backyard in the town of Rialto, San Bernardino County, which she likened to a “jungle.” This initial fascination with flora turned into a passion for the environment when her high school teacher described how she collected shower runoff to water her garden.

“Something about it really inspired me, the way she incorporated an academic interest into a lifestyle,” Mauss said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to pursue a career in environmental science.

I had never really gotten my hands dirty and wanted to challenge myself.

Claire Mauss

And Mauss didn’t want to be a lounge activist either. The summer between her freshman and sophomore year, for example, she decided to work at an organic herb farm in Hollister, central California, to experience farming and growing plants.

“I wanted to do hard labor. I had never really gotten my hands dirty and wanted to challenge myself,” she said. “I was poking roots in the sun and getting stung by bees, but then you make a tea and you feel very accomplished. It had such an impact on me that I worked on another farm the following summer. These experiences made me realize that I wanted to work with plants for the rest of my life.

plant justice

Mauss spent the last years of his college career studying agave at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. There, she conducts research on plant tissue culture in the on-site laboratory with the goal of increasing biodiversity and ensuring the survival of the species.

Her particular interest in agave intersects with her passions for biodiversity and equity. Agave, widely used for the production of tequila, has become genetically homogeneous and therefore vulnerable. It also holds cultural significance for Mauss, with his Mexican roots, and his work aims to create a safeguard against its extinction.

“It’s incredibly important to me as a person of color that I investigate and bring to light the causes that relate to issues surrounding my culture or taking place within my culture,” she said.

Environment and justice are intertwined in all of Mauss’ work, from studying endangered plants to researching food scarcity in underserved communities. “Globally, disenfranchised people are the most affected by climate change,” she said. “And they have the least political power to solve this problem. When people like me suffer in the world this way and I have the privilege of going to USC, I’m not going to lose my voice.

And she made her voice heard. Outside of the lab and the classroom, Mauss is also co-executive director of the USC Environmental Student Assembly (ESA). Under his leadership, the organization was restructured to have a more direct impact on university policies and the daily lives of students.

The seeds of environmental defense are sewn

The summer before he started as a freshman at USC, Mauss had already researched every organization with the environment in its mission. She decided that ESA was the best fit for her. “USC was my dream school and I was so excited to get involved here,” she said. “I went to the very first reunion and loved it and made a bunch of friends. Now that’s my baby.

While ESA has given her a community of like-minded peers, Mauss said she sees the organization’s untapped potential. “We were mostly doing on-campus events before we restructured the club,” she said. “Now we still organize events, but we have really transformed into an advocacy organization. We are now focused on promoting the specific changes we want to make on campus, with measurable results. »

These results, under his leadership, are impressive. Mauss and his team successfully lobbied to remove plastic straws from dining halls, increase the transportation subsidy for USC staff, and make Mondays meatless at residential restaurants. This latest initiative will rotate continuously between restaurants on campus every Monday starting in fall 2020.

Nathaniel Hyman, its co-executive director, describes the transformation he has witnessed: “There was a fear within ESA of not rocking the boat, and Claire changed that. She demanded change, and she transformed the ESA into a vehicle to achieve that change.

Growing sustainability at USC

The positive momentum comes from many factors, Mauss said, including the university’s new leadership. President Carol L. Folt has made progress toward a more sustainable campus, community, and world a top priority since taking office in fall 2019.

The environment is lucky to have [Claire] in his corner.

Nathaniel Hyman

Mauss said she and other student conservationists noticed a change right away: “In the past, when we asked for something, we usually got an immediate ‘no’. Now, with President Folt in power, while obviously we can’t put everything on our wish list, there is a lot more communication, more attention and more thought from our leaders. Our proposals are studied, and if something is not feasible, they will take the time to explain exactly why.

Mauss and his fellow student leaders have a seat at the table with senior administrators and staff as members of USC’s sustainability steering committee. And she’s working on transitioning ESA’s new leadership, so the organization continues its clip by pushing the sustainability needle forward.

“Claire is a strong advocate for environmental justice,” Hyman said. “The midfielder is lucky to have him in his corner.”

She won’t be stopping anytime soon. After graduating in May, Mauss is headed straight for a doctoral program in plant biology and a career change, one plant at a time.

More stories on: Early 2020, Environment, Students, Sustainable Development

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