Every year the UC President's Postdoctoral Fellowship Program funds 30 outstanding postdoctoral fellows conducting all types of research across the University of California's ten campuses.
We sat down with Josh Garcia — a National Science Foundation and UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow with the Department of Land, Air, and Water Resources here at UC Davis — to ask him more about this prestigious honor.
What does being a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow mean to you?
As a scholar of multiple marginalized identities, my goal is to address issues of equity and inclusion in the research, teaching and service that I do. Being a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow means a lot to me as I get the opportunity to connect with a community of like-minded scholars from throughout the UC system who are all doing some incredible and inspiring work. Additionally, the fellowship has provided me with some amazing research, professional development, and social opportunities in just the first two months, which I’m very thankful for!
What research are you working on?
For my UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship, I’m working on a research and extension project to examine how soil amendments derived from municipal waste products can improve aspects of soil health in urban agriculture.
Right now, urban agriculture is expanding very rapidly across the country due to growing public interest in issues such as sustainability, food justice, and environmental justice. However, one of the glaring challenges that we face right now in urban food production is a lack of research and information...
Right now, urban agriculture is expanding very rapidly across the country due to growing public interest in issues such as sustainability, food justice, and environmental justice. However, one of the glaring challenges that we face right now in urban food production is a lack of research and information on sustainable soil management strategies that are uniquely suited for urban agriculture practitioners.
Soil amendments that are derived from municipal waste products (e.g., compost) could help improve soil health in urban agriculture while also providing an avenue for urban communities to repurpose municipal waste. However, very little work has been done to examine the specific effects that these amendments can have on urban agricultural soils here in California, which is key for their recommendation to urban farmers. To help address this issue, I developed a greenhouse experiment with urban agriculture practitioners and community organizations in the Bay Area where we are examining how a variety of publicly available soil amendments derived from municipal waste products such as food scraps, yard waste and animal waste can improve urban soil health. Specifically, we’re looking at how different amendments influence soil fertility, carbon sequestration, bacterial and fungal diversity, and soil structure using soils from real urban farms in Oakland and San Francisco.
In addition to performing this experiment, I’m also working with urban farmers, extension colleagues, and other community leaders to coordinate outreach to diverse communities throughout the region about findings and recommendations from our work and about soil health information more broadly. Our outreach efforts include urban farmer workshops, an episode of the UC WaterTalk podcast covering our project, and soil health lessons for elementary school students in West Oakland.
It’s a dream come true... to also have the chance to merge my interests in soil science with my interests in community engagement, social justice, and science communication through this project.
It’s a dream come true for me to not only be able to research urban soil health, which is a hugely understudied topic, but to also have the chance to merge my interests in soil science with my interests in community engagement, social justice, and science communication through this project.
What does it mean to you that you’re back at Davis doing this work?
Davis is very special to me because it’s where I started my journey as a scientist and discovered my passion for agriculture. One of the biggest things that I’ve appreciated since being back is all the full-circle moments that I’ve had. For example, as an undergrad I was in the McNair Scholars Program here, which is a program that’s dedicated to preparing students from marginalized backgrounds for graduate studies. McNair was highly instrumental in my success, and coming back to Davis and being able to interact with some of the new McNair Scholars as they start their academic journeys is very special to me!
I’m also excited to be back at Davis as it has allowed me to give back to my home region. I love Northern California and the agriculture that we have here is unmatched. I’m really thankful to have the opportunity to work with the people that I share this home with to develop more sustainable agroecosystems and foster community among California farmers in the process.
What do you think more people need to know about the postdoc experience?
Off the bat, one thing that I’ll say is that being a postdoc is hard! It’s a mix of past, present, and future because you’re trying to finish up and publish projects from your PhD while also making progress on your postdoc work and figuring out what your next career step is going to be. On top of that, it’s hard because you’re still expected to do lab and field work like grad students, but also expected to do things like help write grants and mentor students like faculty members. Altogether, it can be very tough and demanding!
However, while being a postdoc is hard, it’s also a very exciting career stage to be at. You don’t have to worry about handing in a dissertation anymore, and you also don’t have a tenure clock or promotion to be thinking about yet, so it’s a time for you to just have fun with your work and explore interests that maybe you didn’t get to explore as a graduate student. For example, my UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship project was something that I dreamed about doing since grad school, and now I have the opportunity to actually do it and be the lead on the project! It’s very exciting to have this type of freedom as a postdoc and to be able to take some time to explore your interests and learn new things.
[Being a postdoc is] a time for you to just have fun with your work and explore interests that maybe you didn’t get to explore as a graduate student.
What advice do you have for current grad students?
I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is to trust the process. I think like a lot of people I really struggled at the beginning of grad school because I felt like everything was moving so slow and that I wasn’t making good progress. I realized though that good things take time and over the years I was able to slowly but surely do things like publish, teach, and develop my CV more. I know now that it’s all part of the process of grad school and academia more broadly and if you’re patient and give yourself time you’ll get to where you want to be.
Another big lesson that I learned was the importance of balance. I think as a grad student I became more cognizant of my physical and mental battery and realized that in order to do this job effectively, I need to do things that help me feel recharged and whole. Doing things like exercising, reading, being outdoors, and connecting with my community really helped me as a grad student and gave me something to always look forward to.