Episode 214: A Student of the Sea – Olivia VanDamme

Interview with Olivia VanDamme

Olivia VanDamme’s hope is that one day, in her older years, she’ll be at the beach, covered in seaweed and still contributing to community science. Olivia has always felt comforted, alive, and happy in the ocean. And as an educator, poet, singer, environmentalist, surfer, and more – Olivia celebrates that in eveything she does.

On this episode, Olivia shares an original poem, “Tu Perteneces! Nadar Mija” which helps paint the picture of the role the ocean plays in her life – all while bursting with song and joy. We learn how Olivia straddles worlds by virtue of being herself, why she loves geography, how being an educator has informed her environmental life, and how we can all get involved in collecting data that helps shape the future of the lands and waters we recreate in.

This is part of a series of interviews with some incredible humans who are featured in Women and Water – a new book from the team behind She Explores. We’re taking the conversation off the page and into their relationship with water today. You’ll hear from swimmers, surfers, paddlers, fishers, and more. 

Feature image above of Olivia VanDamme by Noye Kim (they/them)

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Featured in this episode: Olivia VanDamme

Hosted & Produced by Gale Straub

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Olivia VanDamme

Photo by Noye Kim (they/them)

Olivia performing at a Seawitches event; photo by Noye Kim (they/them)


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Note: This transcript was lightly edited and created using a transcription service. As such it may contain spelling errors.

Gale Straub – Narration: I’m Gale Straub and you’re listening to She Explores.

Olivia VanDamme: I feel alive. I feel so happy. I feel so comforted and so comfortable in the ocean, and I, I don’t know why all the time I don’t understand, because it seems like this place that maybe many people fear and many people feel are dangerous.

But for me, it feels like one of the most safe and joyful places I can be in the world, in any body of water, you know, in the rivers, in the lakes. And I just love the feeling. I always have.

Gale Straub – Narration: This is Olivia VanDamme. Among many things, she’s an educator, poet, singer, environmentalist, and surfer. Olivia is also a contributor to Women and Water, the new book from the team behind She Explores. If you’re curious to learn more, you can head to our website She-Explores.com, or you can listen to one of the recent interviews right here on our feed. 

As you’ll hear in our conversation, Olivia’s passion for the ocean and curiosity about the environment is a through line in everything she does. Whether talking about her love of surfing, her work with California Academy of Sciences, or community science, her excitement is palpable. I was trying to sum up a descriptor for Olivia after our conversation, and what came to mind was this. Olivia is committed. She’s committed to her work, to her exploration of self, and to her investigation of the many overlaps that exist in this big, beautiful world.

Let’s get to know Olivia.

Olivia VanDamme: My name’s Olivia VanDamme. My pronouns are she, her, and I am Mexican American. I’m Latina, um, mixed with white. My grandfathers are from. , it’s Italy and Belgium and, uh, have ancestry from there and from Mexico and I was born in California and feel really connected to the land and the ocean here.

And I live in San Francisco, California, um, also known as the REMA Land. And I’m really grateful to.

Gale Straub: Hmm. So you’re, you’re featured in, in the Women in Water Book, and, um, that’s, uh, One of the reasons that we’re hopping on is just to be able to get to know you a little bit more than what you can in, you know, 200 to 500 words, uh, segments. It’s like impossible to, to sum up anyone’s experience in that way.

Uh, and one of the things that I actually noticed in. The, uh, when you did answer some questions for us, when we were putting together the book, is that you, you shared a connection that you feel, uh, when you are in water, when you are in the ocean with some of your family members. 

Olivia VanDamme: Yeah,

Gale Straub: would you be able to speak a little bit to the connection that you feel with your family when you’re in the water?

Olivia VanDamme: totally. Yeah. It’s really important for me and I, one of my favorite holidays and celebrations is the Los Martos. And the Los Martos is a way in Mexico that we honor. Our ancestors and we connect with them, uh, at the end of, uh, at the beginning of November. Um, it’s a multi-day celebration and I’ve been able to celebrate that in the water, um, and bring se paci or, uh, marigolds out into the water with me and, um, you know, connect with my, with my grandmother and my uncle, um, my Theo Myla, Martha.

uh, passed away when I was, uh, seven years old and, um, from lung cancer and um, kidney failure. And I remember her death very vividly and my uncle passed away when I was in sixth grade. Um, same, same side of the family. My dad’s brother and my dad’s mom, and.

I knew that they both loved the ocean. They both connected with the ocean. They spent majority of their life in Los Angeles and they would go to Santa Monica and to, uh, the beaches in the LA County area. And both of their ashes are actually, um, spread in the Pacific Ocean in Alco in Mexico. And my. Went down to Acapulco with my family to spread Mylas ashes and I wasn’t able to join.

But I feel as though when I think about them or when I’m connected in the water, I, I know that they’re, uh, remain, their ashes are in the Pacific Ocean and that they’re there with me. And I really know how much they loved the ocean, how much they enjoyed the beach as a place. recreate and feel, uh, peace and have fun.

And I know my uncle, um, loved boogie boarding and surfing with my dad when they were growing up in LA County. And so it just really connects me with those two family members that went, um, and passed when I was really young. And it’s been a way for me to remember them and honor them. And yes, that is a.

big part of my my why for spending time in the.

Gale Straub: Hmm. Yeah, it’s really, it’s really beautiful to think about both the. The physical connection, you know, just through like the element of, of the water and specifically the Pacific Ocean. Um, and then also, you know, those stories that, keep people, you know, with us in that way. 

 you know, and it’s especially lovely because it’s something that’s ongoing, you know, it’s a practice that you can continue to do. Um, and I’m sure I, I would assume it’s not every single time that you were thinking of those people, but there is this like subconscious and conscious connection that’s happening.

Olivia VanDamme: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sometimes I’m, I’m definitely not thinking of them, but then something will remind. , I did speak in the book about my first trip to Mexico and surfing for the first time in Mexico in, uh, port Valarta area. And, uh, yeah, that was really magical to really feel very close. Like I’m in the same country, um, that my grandma was from.

And, um, I’m in this place that, you know, S amazing people around me speaking Spanish, and there’s a Mexican surf culture here, and I get to be here doing this activity I love for the first time, um, in this country, uh, that my, my family’s from. And that just was a very powerful time. And I got to see these really beautiful rays, uh, next to me and flying fish and pelicans.

I just felt like, uh, the ocean was so alive and turtles, it was just all these amazing animals all around me. And I actually wrote a poem, um, in Sea Witches zine that was published and Sea Witches zine that kind of describes some of those feelings from that trip and some of those connections to my identity.

Um, and to me exploring my identity as a surf. As a Mexican American as being, um, someone with mixed race background. And I, it was a way for me to explore through my poetry and through my hobby of surfing and my, my practice of surfing, uh, with my family and with my friends. Just really understanding and, and kind of breaking that down.

So I’d be happy to share more, um, of that poem and, speak more about those experiences and how it translates to some of my art.

Gale Straub: Hmm. Oh, I love that. Yeah, I’d love, I’d love to hear, hear the poem.

Olivia VanDamme: Okay, so this poem is titled Tu Perteneces



When the water first touches my toes, 

There is hesitation,

but then 

an invitation 

Beckoning me to submerge 

A thought that it is not the perfect moment 

A reinforcing feeling that it is 


Knowing my body will enjoy the refreshing moment of escape 

Into a world we all know so little about 

Pushing the hesitation aside 

my heartbeat begins to accelerate 

my melanin toned skin begins to anticipate

I take a step forward 


“Tú perteneces aquí, mija.

Estás hecho de agua.

Naciste en el agua

y al agua volverás.”


Instead of butterflies in my stomach 

  Jellyfish are bobbing 

Instead of the shade of trees 

It’s kelp that puts me at ease 


Water- it sustains, entertains dreams of becoming like it 

Of living underneath the surface forever 

With whale sharks and manta rays greeting me

Coexisting with the waves that are beginning to teach me 


Swimming effortlessly as if I had gills and fins 

An imaginative state of mind as I sense the rising tide

Now I am at my waist 


“Tú perteneces aquí, mija.

Estás hecho de agua.

Naciste en el agua

y al agua volverás.”


Halfway in a world where the mountains are the protector 

And the other half where the coral reefs are the protector 


A familiar feeling living between two worlds- 

Where I am brown but have a white last name 

Where part of me is accepted and the other part is tokenized 

Where I don’t speak Spanish fluently, but can cook tamales y pozole in my kitchen 

Being asked “What are you?” and questioned about my identity everywhere I go 

Coexisting, drifting between two worlds – brown & white, land & sea 


Refocusing, listening to the waves crash and seabirds call 

I focus on the plunge. 

How I will move my arms overhead 

And how my feet will mimic the powerful tail of un delfín

How the breath I take will enable me to enter the aquatic world 

And my reality will feel different 


I am ready, I trust my body, and I feel as though all the creatures of the ocean 

are singing to me in unison, “tu perteneces, you belong.” 

This is a sweet melody- I am being welcomed home. 


The turtles dance and swim with delight 

The dolphins sing songs of joy 

The otters clap as they lay on the kelp 

The schools of fish create a safe haven 

When I swim, I am one of them 


“Tú perteneces aquí, mija.

Estás hecho de agua.

Naciste en el agua

y al agua volverás.”





Gale Straub: Oh. Oh, that was so beautiful. That was wonderful.

Olivia VanDamme: Thank you.

Gale Straub: I’m so curious about the, the process for you. I’m guessing the feeling comes first, and then so what, what was that like for you? Like when did you put pen to paper on this?

Olivia VanDamme: Yeah, I, I’m a songwriter also, and sometimes these, um, these songs come to me like, , I’ll be driving in my car on a road trip or I’ll be biking around the neighborhood or walking on the beach and all of a sudden a tune or a um, a melody comes to my head, and this is something my partner knows really well.

And, uh, I will sometimes do a voice memo or recording. And so I think what happened with this one is I had that. , I was listening to a lot of, um, Latin music and Cheto music and different types of, um, yeah, different types of music I grew up with. And I was thinking more about, you know, wanting to learn Spanish more through music and wanting to be able to write, um, songs that are bilingual and that use both languages a little bit here and there.

And so the, the chorus there, that starts with, it was the feeling of, um, a reminder that I belong, that I belong in this space, that I have a sense of belonging, and that I’m growing my sense of belonging in surfing and in, um, this surf culture. And, um, the idea about exclusion and inclusion, kind of, you know, thinking more about that.

And I, the translation for that is, , you belong here. And miha is like an endearing term for a daughter or, um, loved one in, you know, feminine, um, term here. And then um, you are here in the water, uh, and an . Um, you are born in the water. And to the water you will return. , you were, you were made of water, you were born in the water, and to the water you will return.

Now, this really came from, um, an amazing mentor. Her name is, uh, Dion, um, yata, and she’s down in, uh, central California. And she runs a project called Wahini Project. And when I was involved in an amazing, uh, collaboration at Stanford University, we held the Institute for Women’s Surf. And this institute was a coalition, a group of, of women, um, across many different nonprofits.

Policy, uh, surf Writer Foundation was present. Um, different nonprofit groups and different artists, different scholars who studied surfing, um, at the academic level. Um, and people visited from all over the world, um, New Zealand and uh, Wales. , uh, Costa Rica. I, it was just an incredible collaborative, um, called The Institute for Women’s Surfers and, um, two other mentors, Krista Comer and Dion, uh, Dina, Julio Whitaker.

Um, two incredible scholars and, you know, people I look up to and have both written books, um, about women in surfing, um, different, uh, concepts, different ideas here. , incredible scholars who put together this, this group along with many other leaders in the space, um, when we were there and talking about sense of belonging as women in surfing, sense of belonging and, and, um, access to, to the coast and different experiences that everyone is bringing.

Dionne said something that I will just never forget, right? Because I told her, or shared with a group I feel. Alive. I feel so happy. I feel so comforted and so comfortable in the ocean, and I, I don’t know why all the time I don’t understand, because it seems like this place that maybe many people fear and many people feel are dangerous.

But for me, it feels like one of the most safe and joyful places I can be in the world, in any body of water, you know, in the rivers, in the lakes. And I just love the feeling. I always have. And she said it’s because you were born in the water. You were, you were in your mother’s womb. And as babies, we were all in water.

We were in this space. That was our first place of growing in, in water and we’re made of water, right? We’re mostly water and we need water. It really is life. And that’s from, you know, native, uh, wisdom and native activists. Shared that with all of us as a, as a line that is so powerful. Water is life and I never will for I just, that, that moment for me was so powerful and that really helped, um, me write this and then the like to the water return because my grandmother, right, she’s in the water now.

Her ashes are in the water. And you know, when we think about death and we. Contemplate that I think about, oh, I definitely want my ashes in the water. Like I already know that. And that’s kind of interesting to have that, um, already decided, right? And like I’m turning 30 in a month and I already can tell my family like, Hey, put my ashes in the water and put ’em in the Pacific Ocean.

Um, it’s just an interesting process cuz I think in Mexico we, and, and. Um, Mexicans think about death differently than in, um, the us. It’s, it’s a different process. And so I think that’s kind of where this poem came from. And then that trip to Mexico and surfing with Mexican women, um, in the lineup and meeting and befriending new, new people in this town, um, San Pancho, um, in Naite and just having this beautiful experience.

It. helped me write this and then this concept of, um, being both, uh, of the land and of the sea, um, that concept right, is just, oh, I love that. I just love that we’re amphibious, right? We can swim and we can walk and we are, can be in both environments. And that helped me with my identity of being both brown and white.

That I can be both and I am both. And that that’s a strength, that’s not a weakness. It is something. Um, can help me be a bridge between communities, and that’s a part of my sense of responsibility and, um, identity that I’ve been really working on for a long time because it’s a, it’s a tough experience to be mixed in America.

Um, and I know other mixed race people that I’ve had numerous conversations with, um, And so this, just this metaphor and this concept and all of these different pieces, mentorships, friendships, women in this space and had this book, this book, you know, women in Water really highlights all of that too. And so I, um, think that all of that has shaped and shaped this poem.

And, um, definitely shout out to Margaret Sealy who invited me and to submit this and who chose it to be published and that. So incredible for me, um, as an artist and really was a someone, you know, taking a chance on me and my, and my writing, um, and giving me a sense of excitement around my writing and sharing of my ideas.

And, you know, it’s a, it’s a sweet, like small zine that’s local here, but it actually was, um, kind of distributed in different parts of the world. And, um, Margaret has done incredible work in this space. . 

Gale Straub: one, one thing I love about, about poetry is that it is, Uh, and, and music too. Both are containers that can hold so much, you know, and I think they’re also invitations to learn more. You know, I think some people have a resistance, maybe even just like stepping that foot into the ocean to, to.

All that poetry can hold cuz I think sometimes people just are quick to maybe not understand or not even open themselves up to the experience of absorbing and hearing it. Um, but I think it’s really cool to, to hear you talk about all the different connections, um, that. Or made and expressed through something like a poem like that.

And another thing that I loved about it, I am just like sharing things I love, but I, I love that like push and pull that I heard, you know, the, the. You know, you didn’t immediately dive into the ocean. There’s that, um, a little bit of trepidation. There’s, um, accepting the invitation and there’s that push and pull between, you know, the worlds that you’re straddling and you’re talking about.

Um, but ultimately I felt this like lovely integration, um, in the resolution and in the animals and the more than human world kind of, you know, singing to you and singing with you. And so, so I, yeah, I just really enjoyed that. So thank you for, for sharing a little bit more of the background behind it as.

Olivia VanDamme: Yeah. Thank you. . Yeah. I think there’s something that’s very animated and and exciting about that imaginative state of mind that I wanted to bring my inner child also out of thinking about the little Olivia and like the younger version of me who was playing at the beach and you know, building sandcastles and seeing the tide pools for the first time and trying to draw on all those positive experiences at the beach that I had.

Um, one of them that I love to highlight is I l I remember my, my dad and my mom and, um, my whole Mexican family. Like we have a really big extended Mexican family in Southern California, Los Angeles. And I remember this one beach day, um, down in Corona Delmar, where, you know, you had to be there early to get a good spot.

And so we would get there at seven in the morning to have a, everyone get parking, everyone gets settled. , we’d bring the, the easy up tent. My mom would pack sandwiches, um, on rolls, like, uh, these Mexican bread rolls. And you know, I just loved that bread. It was like this fresh baked bread from the Bonilla.

And we’d put like Turkey and ham and cheese and lettuce and she’d build the sandwiches in the morning and we’d, you know, pack all the food and bring the boom box and, , we’d get a great spot at the beach because we got there so early and we were able to have everyone there and that beach was so fun to explore and enjoy the beach as a big family.

It was, it was pretty gentle waves and safe for all the kids to run around. The parents didn’t have to worry that much. There were rocks to explore. There were tide pools to explore. There were caves that you can go into and we used to pretend we were, we pretend we were mermaids and pirates and pretend we were.

you know, different animals and be like, pretending to be in the caves. And I just, gosh, I just was trying to draw on all these experiences that were, were positive and that were, um, exciting for me as a child to bring in that sense of joy and childlike joy that the ocean brings me and has brought my family.

And, um, yeah, we would be there all day. We’d be there all, it was an entire Saturday, you know, it was, we get there at seven. I think we left, you know, before that to drive out there. Um, I grew up a little bit more inland in Inland Empire, Riverside, um, San Bernardino, Redlands. And we’d drive out to Orange County, you know, get the parking, get the spot, and they had bonfire pits there.

So we really would be there all day and then we’d build a fire. You know, my dad brought the firewood and him and my uncles would, would build the fire. And gosh, I just remember those days with community and with um, just this vivaciousness and that. The excitement around an entire day at the beach, like 12 hours, right?

I’m like, wake up. And then you’re falling asleep, just exhausted and you know, all, you have all the sun that you got all day and then you’re just, you know, driving back home and you get home, unpack, you unpack the next morning on Sunday, right? Um, because you just had a full, full day at the beach from morning till night to enjoying s’mores together and.

yeah. Having that fire experience, um, at the beach too, which is really exciting. So yeah, that’s one of my fa favorite memories as a child.

Gale Straub: Yeah. I mean, even you just talking about brings back memories for me as a kid. You know when you spend the whole day like in the water kind of bobbing up and down and then I remember going to sleep, closing my eyes and feeling like I was still moving

Olivia VanDamme: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Gale Straub: Yeah. And I love that there is that like. . You know, there are these lines that kind of connect points in our lives and I love that there’s like the time aspect of water that you can kind of, time can collapse. Like you can be a kid, you can. There’s just something visceral about that. And, uh, you know, there are different places in our lives that we can’t tap into that, but like, I, I think that water is like a really powerful connector for us to ourselves, you know, like you said in terms of that we are water, we’re, and, and we are just, you know, it’s a, it’s a, a medium for that, which I think is so great.

Olivia VanDamme: Yeah.

Gale Straub: Yeah, I was just even thinking about, for us in New Hampshire, it was more lakes. Um, we have a very small coastline. Um, but just as like Ashire kid, it was like a place where even under the water, my sister and I would do like tea parties and stuff, and

Olivia VanDamme: Yeah.

Gale Straub: just, uh, yeah. A way to, to feel a little bit of freedom.


Olivia VanDamme: Ugh. It’s just so great. I, yeah. I have this thing where I remember meeting a friend in high school for the first time on a beach trip, and we met in the water

Gale Straub: Oh wow.

Olivia VanDamme: We always referenced that when we were on campus and when we were walking around school, um, his name was Seth.

And just, you know, his friend group came and my friend group came and we were playing in the waves. Everyone immediately ran out of their cars and jumped in the ocean, and then we ended up like being introduced while we were in the water. And I, I just love that, you know, it’s just so cool and it’s a different experience of meeting someone.

And that still happens today as a surfer. You know, you meet someone for the first time and they’re in a wetsuit and. When you see them again in on land, in real clothes, you’re like, oh wait, did we meet already? Oh, but you’re, you just look so different. I just saw you in a wetsuit. So that’s kind of a common experience that you have with surfers. 

Music break


Gale Straub – Narration: Another thing that intrigued me about Olivia, that we didn’t get to fit in the Women and Water book, is that she said that studying geography in undergrad helped shape her worldview. And hearing her talk about straddling worlds in her poem made me ask her about this. My own geography knowledge is limited to basic map reading skills and a frankly less than stellar orientation beyond the countries I’ve visited. Thanks to Olivia, I learned that geography is so much more than that.

Olivia VanDamme: Yeah. I majored in geography and along with my, my love for the beach and the ocean as a kid, I also loved National Geographic and my dad got me a subscription to National Geographic Magazine when I was really young and I still have a subscription and I asked him, what is geography like, what does geographic mean and what does geography? And my dad has a love for maps and we, one of our connections. Really keeps us close is looking at maps and we love looking at maps together. And a lot of people think of that when they hear geography. Oh, it’s, it’s mapping, it’s um, gis, you know, it’s, uh, thinking about building maps or looking at maps or, you know, that’s, but it’s, it’s very limiting to the discipline and it’s actually so much deeper than that.

I think geography really studies the interconnectedness of nature. and humans and the different aspects of the more than human world, the built environment, the urban geographical spaces, and the interconnectedness we have and the impacts we have as humans, um, on our world and how we shape our own cultural geographies as well.

It studies language, culture, uh, human geography studies a lot more. , the different ways that data intersects with that. We have so many data points about who we are as humans and, and what we leave behind and what we, uh, even what we dream about and what we build and what we, um, what we connect with. And I think that.

this discipline just called to me really early on in my, in my academic kind of career and pathway. And I love how it’s very interdisciplinary and that’s what I love about geography. You pool and you can work with, uh, many different disciplines, you know? So in my studies I studied geology and climatology and GIS mapping.

So cartography and pyro, geography, the study of fire on the. And, uh, urban geography, um, economics, right? You, you need to understand economics and how that works within culture and society. Um, there’s sociology involved psychology of people’s connection to nature or other questions around psychology. Um, and it’s just a, it’s a beautiful discipline.

I think that it helps people underst. Who they are in the world, where they are in the world, and that there’s so much at a local level, at a national level, and then at a global scale. And it helps, um, students and people really understand the global, just the global phenomenon of nature. Um, you learn everything from that.

The earth is tilted and you learn about the Earth as, uh, the way it rotates and the incredible. , uh, ways that currents and wind and things are interconnected from different continents, you know, and you’re studying just this beautiful interconnectedness across, across borders, right? And across, um, different landscapes and elevations, and you’re learning about different ecosystems and, and biomes.

And then you’re learning about the species and how. interact with the world as well and what impacts them. So it’s a, it’s so incredible of a discipline. So yes, I, I think everyone should take a geography course if they’re in, when they’re in college, um, and just be introduced to it as a discipline. I think it should be way more incorporated into our K through 12 curriculum.

Um, in other countries, when I’ve, what I’ve learned is in other countries, geography is highly regarded. Equally important or equally distinguished as becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Um, geographers are, are seen as, as really an important, uh, discipline. And here in the United States, it’s just not as common of a major or common of a, of a study.

But the programs that we do have here are really excellent and really, um, tackling questions and mapping intersections of. Data that is just powerful and really cool. And so I think it really, really shaped my worldview and the way that I interact with the world and interact with other people. And it’s been such a great way of, um, connecting with, with people as well.

And I could definitely talk about it for a long time.

Gale Straub: I can definitely hear the passion.

and the one quick, uh, thing I’ll say about maps is that, uh, Noel Russell, who I know that, you know, co-author of the Women in Water Book, uh, one of the early things I remember her telling me was how much. can just, she looks at a map almost like it is a book. Like she can dream through looking at a map and planning, you know, a trip or, uh, so I imagine that you see maps in, in a similar way, but also in even more multi-layered like dynamic way.

Olivia VanDamme: Yes. I, I think it’s so exciting. I mean, my favorite maps are topographic maps, and it’s funny when you study cartography and I know my professors at, um, Chico State Geography Department be so. happy that I, I give feedback on maps and I, I get angry when a map is not right.

I get, um, I get excited about Google Maps and Google Earth, you know, I can, I can look at those maps and I love just, I love knowing and feeling, um, connected through the world in that way.

So, yeah, it’s exciting for me for.

Gale Straub: Hmm. So what, what kind of led you from the, the study of geography to, uh, you know, today you work for the California Academy of Sciences and you, and you started on the education side. Um, . So what shaped your path to where you are now?

Olivia VanDamme:  I was able to begin my career after, um, getting my degree. . I got a really exciting internship at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC and it was through an NSF funded program called reu uh, or research experiences for undergraduates. And these are experiences across the whole country.

So I would highly recommend for anyone listening, it is an incredible program If you know of anyone in their undergraduate career in the sciences. Um, who come from historically underrepresented groups. It is really, um, advocating and trying to amplify, um, bipo and LGBTQ plus and, um, disabled candidates in the sciences and trying to get them, uh, research experiences in different institutions.

And actually here at California Academy of Sciences, we have one here that’s an nsf, uh, R a U site as well. So these are across the country. I applied for it and I got the experience and it was really eye-opening to learn more about academia and about what pathways are available to me and what that space looks like, and I was really excited and appreciative for that opportunity.

And that kind of opened my eyes up to museum education and museum spaces. And also could have potentially put me on a path to getting a PhD in my in sciences or to continue research and continue, uh, you know, pursuing higher education as a pathway. And it just didn’t feel like the right fit for me at the time I was, you know, 22 and still needing to.

Different life decisions and it felt like a big decision to try to continue my higher education, even though it’s something that I may be still in thinking about or dreaming about, you know? Uh, but it also is overwhelming in the sciences to choose a discipline or choose a, a research question, um, that you wanna study, you know, kind of right away.

Uh, you gotta.

Gale Straub: five years,

Olivia VanDamme: Yeah. For five years. Yeah, exactly. It’s a big, it’s a big decision, a big dedication to that. And I, I had so many interests. I love botany, I love flowers, I love, you know, geography. I, I do love marine sciences, and I was excited about maybe exploring that. And so with so many interests and coming from an interdisciplinary background and not just, , someone who studies invertebrate, zoology, or ology or ornithology and loves birds, right?

It’s like, I love it all. I don’t know, how do I choose? Um, I love these interactions more in the, and that’s something I could definitely have studied too, but I, I also knew that I had a gift as an educator, and education was something I’m passionate about. It changed my life and there’s so many teachers and educators.

my life, including my mom. My mom is an elementary school teacher, and that’s been her career, uh, since we were little. And she’s still teaching today and seeing her teach, um, in a K through 12 or you know, actually K through six setting at elementary school level. I saw the, the setbacks of you. What teaching in a classroom has.

And I just knew that that wasn’t my route. I’m not gonna get my teaching credential and go the traditional route. But I was curious about what other type of education is there. And there’s this whole other field called informal education. And you know, formal education is more in the school settings.

Informal is folks who teach at libraries. You know, librarians are seen as informal educators, um, after school centers. Environmental education groups, um, any like nonprofits that are doing residential, uh, camps or, you know, summer camps. So it’s basically where students and children learn outside of their classroom and those spaces are in, there’s a huge amount of those spaces that people learn in and learn from.

And so I was really interested in those spaces. I know that that’s what shaped my education a lot. You know, K through 12 for sure, and amazing teachers that I definitely appreciated. But a lot of my education also was supplemented by the field trips, the camps, the. museums I got to go to from the library system that my mom and dad, you know, would, they would take us to libraries to do amazing programming that they offer for free or at low cost.

Cuz we were, you know, um, didn’t have as much as wealth. And, you know, we were, we were sometimes struggling financially as a family and so I couldn’t do all the cool. Expensive camps and, you know, go away for the summer or do these other things that other kids were doing. Um, the library was a place that offered so many amazing things.

So I was, I was dreaming and thinking about this space. And so, um, environmental education came up because it was a, an intersection of my passion for environmentalism, my passion for the natural sciences and for education and for bringing people outdoors and. , this is when the movement for diversifying the outdoors and engaging, uh, Latino families, black families, um, more awareness around indigenous and native connections to the environment and to their role in, in environmentalism.

And, um, these conversations are really getting started and getting kick started and, and more and more obviously building on years and years of mentors and incredible leaders in this space. of these topics, right? But I wanted to be involved. I said, this is exciting, this looks great. I’m gonna try it out.

And so, yeah, so I, I moved to the Bay Area and this is a, this is a heart and a really incredible place for environmental education. There’s so many environmental education, residential camps and groups and nonprofits who are bringing youth outdoors. And I just plugged myself right in and, and I just kind of got kickstarted into that and met amazing people along the way.

Um, one of the biggest moments for me was the PGM one conference, which is people of the global majority in the outdoors, nature and the environment. And I went to, it’s an inaugural year. Um, oh, went to its inaugural year and got to experience that. and it really was incredible to network and connect with people, um, at that conference.

So from there, I kind of, through environmental education, I was able to come back to the museum space and join the education team here at California Academy of Sciences and maybe move more towards my original passion and ideas that I had. A lot of life experience and nonprofit work experience kind of behind me and, and moving me back towards some of my passions and some of my original curiosities and passions for science and for STEM and, and seeing a space for me as a Latina woman kind of changing a little bit and becoming more open to having, um, the desire and the welcoming of being in, in these spaces, you know, so, It was a, yeah, it’s been an amazing journey and I’ve been in the Bay Area this whole time for, for my, my career so far since I was, uh, 22.

Gale Straub – Narration: Olivia’s current role at the California Academy of Sciences is as a Community Science Coordinator. In the Women and Water book, we have a how-to section around getting involved with community science, which can contribute to when you’re recreating. Community science, in its simplest form, is scientific research undertaken by the general public. And it’s surprisingly easy to participate when you spend a lot of time outside. The California Academy of Sciences operates a popular app that helps you do this – iNaturalist. 

Olivia VanDamme: yes, definitely. So here at the California Academy of Sciences, uh, we. host a, an app and the the iNaturalist team is um, incredible and this app iNaturalist has really taken off, um, and has engaged folks, um, through their mobile devices, through their phones, to become and be amazing naturalists and community scientists wherever they live, and to help document.

Nature in and around their neighborhoods and their backyards and at parks and, um, in national forests and in different spaces. And so I now work, um, more closely on community science campaigns. I just started a new position in December of last year as a community science coordinator, uh, for the Center for Biodiversity and Community Science.

Honestly, it’s really a dream role for me. It really is combining all of my skillsets and all of my experience and my passions. And I think at the core of it, it really is geography. A lot of geography concepts, you know, in included and including mapping. And yay, I get to like be involved with some really cool mapping projects and there’s amazing data scientists, um, post-docs on my team who.

Creating maps and using those maps to inform policy and conservation. And the one amazing project, I mean, there’s several community science campaigns that I’ll be helping with, but one that’s coming up is called the City Nature Challenge, and this is happening April 28th through May. And it’s happening all around the world.

People who are engaged and love their natural areas and, and their cities and connecting with urban nature, um, have a, it’s a friendly competition, global competition. On iNaturalist, it’s one of the largest, uh, events on iNaturalist where we have organizers from. Over 400 different cities and, um, over like 38 different countries.

This experience has grown and grown with people wanting to engage and, um, document nature on this app. And the, the data is available to scientists and it helps researchers pull the data. , um, you know, they could never collect on their own. If you’re studying a specific species or the migration of a species or the occurrence of a species and abundance of a species, it’s just impossible as a single scientist to go to all these different places and your study area and collect data.

So it really is this incredible effort and really amazing way to engage everyday people. community scientists to really contribute and, and share what they’re observing out there that, you know, scientists can never do alone. And so it’s really increasing the collaboration, um, between science and, um, people.

Gale Straub – Narration: The collective impact of community science really is incredible. And iNaturalist has a bunch of different ways to get involved. If you live or are planning to visit the California Coast, this next project is perfect for you.

 Olivia VanDamme: And I love this. I love this new job. I’m really excited and though the group that I’m really excited about is, um, the campaign I’m excited about is Snapshot Cal Coast. And this one is similar. But it’s just in California along the Rocky Coast, Rocky Inner title of studying. Um, the species that are along the California coast.

So this one is happening in June, um, uh, through July, June 17th through July 9th. And it’s a similar, it’s a collaborative between marine protected areas, California state. Other government entities, nonprofit groups, tribal groups, um, that are engaged and involved along the coast, and some who’ve gotten their land back, which is just really exciting, um, that they’re gonna have, uh, you know, that space to connect and to help contribute to this project.

And this is the eighth year that it’s running. And so what’s so great is that we have data sets over eight years looking at. what has lived there and what has changed, what has moved. And there, there are these intertidal species that are indicator species of warming climate. Um, there are certain neu to Brinks that will, you know, have moved north more north than they have before.

Um, and so they’re typically in warmer waters in like Southern California. And then when we see them move north, it’s indication of, of changing habitat and changing. Environments along our California coast. Another big issue is the sea star wasting disease that happened in 20 16, 20 17, where there was a pathogen, um, that really, uh, hurt a lot of our sea stars.

And, you know, that contributed to them dying off. And there was a big die off of sea stars. And so through community science and through iNaturalist, we’ve been able to engage people. Uh, over the years to say we wanna document the sea star recovery. Are they coming back? Are they, where are you seeing them come back?

What species are you seeing, um, in the intertidal zone, uh, and how are our sea stars doing? And we can actually look at the data and document that, um, throughout the years, thanks to all the community scientists who are out there on low tides, passionate about this. and feel so much sense of pride and sense of connection to these places, and that they’re really contributing to supporting our C Star friends that need our help and want, um, we want to support them and, um, learning more about them.

So it’s a, that’s a really cool example of the power of community science and I’m just so, so, so grateful and excited to. Under the leadership of, um, Dr. Rebecca Johnson and Dr. Allison Young, um, who are the co-directors of our, of our center and, um, both study marine biology and are also incredible women in water and who are studying this.

Gale Straub: Oh my gosh, there’s so many different things. So many questions I have for you about these projects. Um, and I just love that there’s such a full circle kind of element for the people who are getting to contribute, who are. Also gaining, you know, from the experience there’s, it’s very symbiotic in that way, 

Plus the community aspect where you’re likely, you know, the city project where you’re also learning and changing the narrative of like, what is nature, like, where does it exist? Um, and also then encouraging people to, to look out their window and, and notice that, and know that that noticing has an impact, you know, a cumulative impact.

Um, so there’s just a lot. a lot to unpack there, so I can see why you’re so passionate about this work. Um, but I also recognize that we are exactly at time right now. So, um, Olivia, I just wanna thank you for, for taking the time to, to chat with me and, um, is there any, anything else that you wanna add in, in this last 30 seconds, per se?

Olivia VanDamme: No, I think, yeah, I, I just loved sharing more about my story and I really am so grateful for the opportunity to share more. And I definitely are, um, am available to chat more about our community science work and, uh, if folks are interested and wanna be engaged in this, definitely check. Um, city nature challenge.org and you can see if your city is engaging in, in this.

And if you’re here in California, um, definitely join us in the tide pools and come learn more about the work we’re doing and, you know, learn more about the animals that live there and the seaweed that live there. It’s a beautiful place that, um, I think I will be . I think my vision for my life. I will just be covered in seaweed and happy, uh, studying this space and being at the beach as much as I can until my older years.

And I, I see, um, elders and community members who are in their sixties and seventies who are still out there contributing to these projects and who are still in love with the ocean and how it’s just captivated all of us and. Look forward to being a wise, older woman. You know, still like sharing my love for the water in the ocean and, and having wisdom to share with young people when I’m, when I’m retired and old and probably still helping with some of these things,

So that’s, you know, I’ll leave it on that. I don’t know why, but the elders came to mind right now and just like giving them a shout out and being appreciative for the people that come before us and. , the women who have shaped my life, so thank you.

Gale Straub – Narration: Thank you to Olivia Vandamme for taking the time to talk. You can follow along with Olivia @olivialomasi on Instagram. I’ll make sure to link iNaturalist, Seawitches Zine and all the other great resources Olivia mentioned in the show notes.


Olivia’s section in Women in Water is called “A Student of the Sea.” Women and Water is a book filled with stories of adventure, self-discovery and connection in and on the water. It’s available for order NOW wherever books are sold. 


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This episode was produced and hosted by me, Gale Straub.

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