Sebastian Moreno Wants Everyone to Feel Empowered to Be a Community Scientist

Moreno—an environmental conservation Ph.D. candidate, licensed falconer, and Latino Outdoors volunteer—spoke with us about his research on community science and the importance of access to the outdoors.
Sebastian Moreno standing outside with binoculars strapped around his neck.
Sebastian Moreno. Photo: Courtesy of Sebastian Moreno

Sebastian Moreno is an environmental conservation Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he studies at the intersection of ornithology, urban ecology, and social sciences. He’s also the program coordinator for Latino Outdoors Western Massachusetts and is a licensed Massachusetts falconer. As part of our collaboration with Latino Outdoors in 2021, we discussed with Sebastian what it means to him to be a part of the Latino Outdoors community, why equitable access to the outdoors is so important, and how birds can inspire people to get outside. You can watch the entire interview here. A curated version of that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, is included below.

What does “Latino Outdoors” mean to you?

That’s a great question to ask anyone that's a part of Latino Outdoors or hopes to be a part of Latino Outdoors, because we all have very different reasons—including in Latino Outdoors Western Mass. But for me, Latino Outdoors is a space where I get to enjoy my interest in nature with people who may look like me and share a similar background as me. As a person that's been in academia for almost a decade, sometimes there's a huge disconnect between those two pieces—between nature and culture—which can sometimes feel really lonely. So being able to come to a space where a majority of the individuals have the same interests as me—and we can actually combine those two worlds together—that means a lot.

How do you use birds and nature to connect to your roots?

So I think when it comes to birds specifically, I was a really late bloomer to that. I really didn't get involved with birds until I was in undergrad, so birds were never on my mind growing up. However, I do have a lot of memories growing up of camping and fishing with my family members and having these spaces to share stories. Sometimes, my abuelo or my tíos would tell me these stories about growing up in Colombia and the stuff that they would do or the adventures they would take. And now that I'm in a position to pay it forward, I use my knowledge and my connection with birds that I've created over the past couple of years as a gateway into the natural world. Because the beauty about birds is they're everywhere—go look out your window, look long enough, and you're probably going to see a bird.


How do you think your research connects with your work with Latino Outdoors?

So my research is all about engaging the public in nature, wherever they are. One of my chapters in my dissertation aims to address the barriers that historically marginalized groups face—identify what’s preventing them from participating in citizen science programs, specifically contributory science programs. So off the top of my head, the best example of a contributory science program would be eBird, where people just go out, collect data, and submit it into a database. 

In Latino Outdoors, I want to serve my community by empowering them and providing the resources they need to enjoy the natural world around them, wherever that may be. So as a researcher, I want to do a better job at implementing citizen science programs that allow for the participants with diverse backgrounds to be in those spaces. We have all this data, but it's coming from little pockets. We're not getting a complete picture [without their contributions].

What are some ways we can make community science more inclusive?

I think one of my answers would be to stay tuned to see my dissertation develop. But no, it's kind of in the same vein as what I was talking about paying it forward. Not everyone has the same accessibilities to science. So we need to tailor citizen science programs to meet the needs of the community [they’re] trying to serve. Whether that's providing material for more than one language, providing the equipment to conduct it, whatever that may be. I know for me as a scientist—and I'm very guilty of doing this—one of the priorities for me is to get my project off the ground. So I’ll sometimes go for the low hanging fruit by going to my local bird club and asking, “Hey, want to help me collect some data?” And as I was mentioning earlier, bird clubs tend to be a certain demographic—people that are retired, that have more time on their hands, people that have more disposable income. So as a scientist, I need to make a better effort in reaching out to other communities and making sure that if I'm going to get this program going, that I'm going to do it right and not just do it quickly.

Why is equitable access to the outdoors important to you?

Well, it's important to everyone. There's just a ton of studies that show that having access to green spaces, whatever they look like, benefits both your mental and physical wellbeing. I know when I'm working on my dissertation or my internship Monday through Friday, I don't go outside as often and I could feel the stress building up by Friday and I need to go outside. So Saturday morning, I’ll go on a hike or just go for a walk. And I'm very fortunate; I live next to a park. So even if I were just to walk to that park, I feel so much better and restored. So that's really important for marginalized communities that may not have access to green space. Like what can a simple park, or a simple green space, do for them and for their wellbeing? 

What would you recommend for a beginner birder? How can they start?

To start, I always like going out with friends just because more eyes out there makes birding a lot easier. So if you have friends—even if they're not experienced birders—just go out on a walk. It doesn't have to be anywhere crazy. It can just be around your neighborhood. Sometimes you don't even need special equipment like binoculars. Just go out and take your time and have the patience to look at what's around you. Sometimes it helps carrying a little notebook to be like, “Okay, I saw this bird. It was red. It had a crest. It made these weird noises that went poo poo poo poo poo poo.” And then when you go home, you can take that information and look it up and realize, “Oh, that was a Northern Cardinal.” There's also a ton of field guides out there that you can take with you, whether it's a paper copy or on your phone, that can make the birding experience a lot easier and less daunting. 

What do you think your greatest accomplishment is so far?

Everything I've done up to now as a first generation college student, as a child of immigrants, I think it’s making my parents proud. That's probably my greatest accomplishment just because I know the sacrifices they’ve made for me to get to where I am. So that's for sure one of my greatest accomplishments.