Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

Scripps Celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Students and staff share personal stories about their heritage and discuss ways to support the Asian American and Pacific Islander community

This May, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego is celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This event, which started in 1978, honors and recognizes the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) who have enriched and shaped the history of the United States.

Scripps Oceanography is proud to have members of the Asian/Pacific community among our faculty, students, staff, and alumni. The AAPI community represents more than 20 national cultures, including Asian Americans whose heritage stems from the Asian continent and Pacific Islander Americans with origins in Hawai’i, Guam, Samoa, and other Pacific Islands.

While Asian Americans are well represented in STEM fields and across the broader UC San Diego community, they are underrepresented in the geosciences. According to a 2018 survey by the National Science Foundation, only 5.5% of geoscience doctorates were awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents identifying with an Asian background. In an effort to cultivate a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive campus environment, Scripps is working on increasing AAPI representation among students, faculty, and staff.

The 2021 heritage month celebration comes in the wake of several high-profile hate crimes against Asian Americans and other rising incidents of anti-Asian racism. As with previous years, and especially this year, Scripps joins UC San Diego in supporting and standing in solidarity with our Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander American community members.

To amplify underrepresented voices, we invited members of the Scripps AAPI community to reflect upon their heritage and share ways in which others can lend support. Here, four members of the Scripps community—staff member Frank Truong and PhD students Shailja Gangrade, Sam Kekuewa, and Ariel Pezner—share their personal stories and advice.

What ethnic or racial background do you identify with? How has your identity informed or impacted your career?

A selfie of a woman wearing a blue rashguard and snorkel gear. She is at a tropical beach and the water is crystal clear.
Ariel Pezner

I identify as multiracial, Chinese and white. Throughout my education, I've had few mentors/professors who look like me or had similar experiences growing up. Finding a community of other mixed race students through UCLA's Mixed Student Union was immensely important in supporting me during undergrad. As a graduate student, I believe that my multicultural background has made me a better ally and mentor to others, and motivates me to pursue a career where I can serve as a mentor or role model to other budding scientists, especially those of Asian or mixed descent.
—Ariel Pezner, PhD candidate in biological oceanography in Andreas Andersson's (SCOOBY) lab

I am Indian and Chinese. My parents immigrated to this country to attend graduate school. Their success has driven me to push boundaries and always go after what I want.
—Shailja Gangrade, PhD student in biological oceanography working with Peter Franks

I am Vietnamese-American. My parents emigrated from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. I was raised in the working-class suburbs of New Jersey, from immigrant parents who emphasized the importance of education as the primary means for success. I eventually completed my BS and MS at UC San Diego and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School. The combination of scientific and legal backgrounds provides a strong foundation for my role in supporting the research ecosystem through research contracts and grants.
—Frank Truong, Director of Scripps Contracts and Grants

I identify as a Native Hawaiian who was born and raised in California. Growing up, I never really thought about my racial identity all too much and it was not until undergrad that I started to learn more and inquire about my heritage and the history of Hawai’i. Through my sister’s research in Hawaiian studies at UH Mānoa and my own personal research, I was able to come to a better understanding of where my family’s lineage comes from and how Native Hawaiians as a people revolve their lives around the land and the ocean. With this in mind, during undergrad, I quickly noticed that there were only a few Pacific Islanders let alone Native Hawaiians in earth science/oceanography at UC San Diego/Scripps. This disparity has helped motivate me to keep pursuing my goals in academia and demonstrate to other Native Hawaiians and multi-cultural people in general that academia and grad school is not far-fetched.
—Sam Kekuewa, PhD student in chemical oceanography in Andreas Andersson's (SCOOBY) lab


How do you celebrate your heritage? What memories from your upbringing resonate with you today?

A man in a wetsuit and helmet climbs down a hanging ladder off a pier
Sam Kekuewa. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

Sam Kekuewa: I used to celebrate my heritage by being a member of a local hālau where we practiced hula. However, it is unfortunate to say that I have stopped due to time commitments. At the moment, I am starting my journey of receiving my Uhi, or traditional Hawaiian tattoo. The tattoo represents one’s lineage and responsibility in life.

Ariel Pezner: My family blended our different cultures in so many ways—from the food we ate, to the languages we used, to the holidays we celebrate. I love sharing those aspects of my Chinese heritage with my friends and peers, such as making homemade wonton soup for Chinese New Year.

Shailja Gangrade: I'm a foodie! I celebrate most explicitly by cooking and sharing meals that my families have always enjoyed. My favorite meals include Hakka-style chili chicken and our family-famous Dal Baati.


Who or what inspired you to get involved in science?

Portrait of a woman with long dark hair. A docked ship is seen in the background.
Shailja Gangrade

Shailja Gangrade: There has always been a lingering fear of the ocean on both sides of my family. On the other hand, I've always embraced it. Encouraged by my parents' scientific careers, I grew my love for the ocean grew into a passion for ocean science. Throughout this pursuit, it has been difficult to find other people who look like me—people who share my cultural experiences. This has motivated me to challenge myself and dive deeper into becoming an oceanographer.

Frank Truong: I’ve always been interested in understanding the natural world, but really discovered that passion when I enrolled in lower-division biology and general chemistry. I knew that I would pursue an advanced degree in biology after excelling in my favorite upper-division classes, which included metabolic biochemistry, immunology, virology, microbiology, molecular biology, and organic chemistry.

Ariel Pezner: My parents are both scientists themselves and have always inspired me.


What advice do you have for the next generation of Asian American and Pacific Islander scientists and team members?

A portarit of a man with short brown hair. He is wearing a light blue button-up shirt. shirt.
Frank Truong

Frank Truong: Nurture a growth mindset and don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from taking on new risks and challenges. Failure is often poorly regarded in Asian culture, so it is important to fail hard, fail fast, and fail often to develop those skills to learn how to keep moving forward.

Shailja Gangrade: Share your culture! It can even be a story about how your family reuses old containers to make their own yogurt, or how your heritage has shaped how you think about your scientific field. These stories help build bridges and support communities within the field. As finding others who look like you may still be difficult, finding others who share your experiences may be easier.

Sam Kekuewa: It is extremely beneficial to reach out to individuals further along in their career for guidance or assistance. Furthermore, do not hesitate to ask for help whenever you reach a hurdle.

Ariel Pezner: Find your community everywhere you go and remember that your culture and your experiences are strengths that shouldn't be left at the door.


How could the Scripps community support the AAPI community? What are the sorts of Scripps community culture changes that you would like to see at Scripps?

Sam Kekuewa: I understand this is not isolated to Scripps, but the generalization of Asian American and Pacific Islanders needs to be changed in a way that illustrates the immense differences in cultures across ALL of Asia and the Pacific Ocean instead of lumping them all together into one box. Beyond that, when conducting fieldwork, I would like to see researchers implementing more inclusive outreach programs to locals in the areas. I understand that is a lot to ask for, but I believe putting this into practice will be a critical step for science as a whole.

Shailja Gangrade: More forums for cultural exchange between all faculty, staff, and students. Let's hear stories; let's share stories. These stories you are reading now are great launching points. Go out of your comfort zone and strike up a conversation with someone new.


Join UC San Diego in celebrating the 15th anniversary of the university’s Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Celebration through a series of events in May. Visit the event calendar for details.

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