Advancing Education Scholarship awarded to entomologist Maria Chavez

Maria Chavez, a doctoral candidate in the Colorado State University Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, researches excretions from insects called frass.

“Which is insect poop,” said Chavez. “I’m using it as a fertility amendment in horticultural crops.”

Chavez is looking into using frass as a replacement for fertilizer. Frass is a waste product of a large, growing industry called entomophagy – the use of insects for food and feed. If this waste can be used to reduce conventional fertilizers, it could be an affordable and sustainable solution for growers.

In addition to her doctoral research, Chavez teaches a course at CSU as a primary instructor, serves in leadership roles for university symposia, and serves on several diversity, equity and inclusion committees on campus.

In April, the CSU Graduate School awarded Chavez the 2021-22 Advancing Education Scholarship in honor of the legacy and memory of Martin Luther King Jr. Chavez received the award in recognition of her outstanding achievement in promoting equities in education for underrepresented and racially minoritized students. The Graduate Center for Inclusive Mentoring in the Graduate School oversaw the selection process.

Building change

Chavez serves as the co-chair of the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and helped develop the program’s first DEI Strategic Plan. The committee started off by designing and distributing a DEI climate survey for graduate students in the program. The survey revealed high rates of mental health concerns among the respondents.

“I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The structures that we impose on people weren’t built for this era. Academia was meant for wealthy white men to go to college who didn’t have to worry about tuition,” said Chavez, “We’re expecting students to work furiously to make it through academia while they’re still trying to support themselves, when they don’t have this familial network of wealth.”

She and the rest of the GDPE DEI committee are planning focus groups to further investigate the current experience of minoritized students in the program. This is meant to help the committee to identify and recommend steps to reduce bias and discrimination, increase retention, and advance equity.

Chavez is also part of an effort to form a university-wide group for graduate students of color. The first meeting of the group took place this spring with support from Michelle Foster, assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Health and Human Sciences and the director of the Graduate Center for Inclusive Mentoring.

“I think it is important to recognize that Maria has accomplished these initiatives in addition to the excellent work she’s doing on her dissertation,” said Jennifer Neuwald, assistant director of the GDPE. “Maria is an excellent student.”

Chavez has received recognition for her scientific pursuits, including the competitive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research Fellowship.

“I was fortunate enough to recruit Maria to CSU in the fall of 2018,” said Mark Uchanski. “Her outstanding scholarly work is already leading to her international recognition as a subject matter expert.”