She says the gulf between her scientific studies and her lived experience began to gnaw at her more and more.

“It kind of felt like I was in an ivory tower,” White said on stage at the FAS Public Service Awards ceremony. “It took me a long time to relate the science that I was doing to the background that I come from – my identity as a Black woman.

“I was an ecologist that studied lizards, so I was chasing lizards around the deserts of Arizona and trying to understand their habitats. When I would talk to my parents, they would be like, ‘Oh, that’s so fun. What does that really mean? How does that translate into our lives and what it means to the people around you?’”

Conversations like that one led White to start thinking about environmental justice and the role that data can play in sound – or unsound – science policy. She and a friend came up with the idea for the AYA Research Institute – the subject of the policy memo that emerged from White’s participation in FAS/Day One’s Early Career Science Policy Accelerator.

“The AYA [name] stands for the African Adinkra symbol for resilience,” White explained, “and so we really thought that that was a good representation of what we thought about environmental justice and how we came to be environmental justice leaders. The work that we do handles technology as well as the policy aspects of what environmental justice can bring to the field.”

White’s journey as an environmental justice leader was just getting started. She followed up her policy memo by joining the first cohort of FAS’ Policy Entrepreneurship Fellows (PEF). During her time as a PEF, White joined with FAS staffers conducting a thorough assessment of the Biden Administration’s progress living up to its promises in the Justice40 Initiative. The analysis helped identify areas where progress was on track and others where it was lagging. Most notably, it helped identify yet untapped areas in clean transit and transportation, urban forestry and urban greening, which could yield greater progress than anticipated. White, together FAS staff, had an opportunity to brief both the Director of Environmental Justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, as well as the leadership of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (WHEJAC).

“I’m really glad to see that environmental justice is becoming a thing,” White said. “[Two years ago] it was not something that anyone knew about, and the Biden administration has done a really good job with Justice40 and pushing the language, pushing the funding, and now it’s a question of how to use [the data].”

Now White is completing her doctorate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan and plans to defend this spring. Her dissertation research focuses on biophysical indicators of sustainable agriculture and international climate governance pertaining to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #2: To End Hunger.

White was awarded the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Conservation Leadership Award in 2020 for her research and profound discoveries in food sovereignty and food justice, and in 2023, FAS honored her with its first ever Policy Entrepreneurship Award at its FAS Public Service Awards ceremony, where she joined fellow 2023 honorees filmmaker Christopher Nolan, Senators Chuck Schumer and Todd Young, and former OSTP interim director Alondra Nelson.

“I come from a family of sharecroppers, so within Texas and North Carolina, my grandparents were working the land, and I didn’t really pay attention to that when I was younger because I didn’t really understand the relevance of it,” White told the audience at the awards ceremony. “I didn’t understand the history and how it connected to the science that I practice today. And that alongside of, I’m from Newark, New Jersey, and so there’s a lot of factories there, a lot of different kinds of problems with the water pollution and lead. It wasn’t until I was in my Ph.D at the University of Michigan that I understood that I was empowered. I had the ability to make changes through my work, and through a critical analysis of data. So I definitely think that I’m kind of carrying on the work of my family as well as my peers.”