Kate DeMarsh ’21 Combines Policy and Science to Affect Change

Kate DeMarsh '21, left, installing an air quality monitor.

Photo: Kate DeMarsh ’21, left, installing an air quality monitor.

By Mirabella Miller


For Kate DeMarsh, scientific study and community engagement are inextricably linked. As a student at Scripps, where she majored in biophysics, DeMarsh worked with Science Bus, a student-run organization that brought weekly science lessons to local elementary schools. Now, as a PhD student in environmental systems at the University of California Merced, where her research focuses on community-based air monitoring, she has expanded this passion for scientific engagement with local communities through numerous projects.

One of the largest of these projects she’s undertaken at UC Merced is in partnership with the San Joaquin Valley Center for Air Injustice Reduction (SJV-CAIR). The San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air quality in the world due to both topography and human activity: the surrounding mountain ranges trap air pollutants in the low-lying valley, while heavy truck traffic on I-5 and agricultural machinery on large farms release pollutants into the air and stir up particulates, creating a perfect storm of hazardous air quality.

DeMarsh’s project involved installing 130 air quality monitors in various locations across the San Joaquin Valley to better characterize air pollution trends and spatial variability. The monitors also allow scientists like DeMarsh to compare air quality to health outcomes in the region. Furthermore, the monitors empower residents with accurate exposure information, which they can use to protect their health and advocate for change. DeMarsh is also using the collected data to inform policy through a bipartisan working group addressing economic and climate-related concerns.

“[My community engagement work] has solidified the value of the place-based knowledge community members bring to projects, and how their goals to make change in their community are the driving force behind everything we do,” she says.

DeMarsh was not sure that she wanted to pursue graduate school until a transformative opportunity solidified her passion. During the summer after her junior year at Scripps, she landed a position as a research intern at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The position was part of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, a network of competitive summer research programs in various universities across the country sponsored by the National Science Foundation. At LASP, DeMarsh was able to conduct research independently and in collaboration with mentor professors, an experience so exciting that it propelled her to apply to PhD programs in environmental science.

While graduate school is not without its challenges, DeMarsh credits various opportunities at Scripps with preparing her to take them on. In addition to volunteering with Science Bus, DeMarsh served as an New Student Programs & Orientation peer mentor and a Teacher’s Assistant for biology classes at Scripps. Her Science Bus and TA work prepared her with a foundation of teaching skills that gave her a head start in graduate school.

“Graduate school has been a challenging but rewarding experience so far,” she says. “I’m grateful for my interdisciplinary background at Scripps which encouraged me to explore different research areas when I started at UC Merced.”

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) recently recognized her dedication to community engagement by naming her its 2023 Next Generation Policy Fellow. The fellowship is an opportunity for DeMarsh to further explore the intersection between science and policy and learn how to advocate for change.

“I’m passionate about bridging the gap between policy and science and finding ways to use science to propel actionable change,” she says. “Engaging and empowering communities allows for the translation of scientific findings into practical solutions that address real-world challenges.”