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Zhao Ma Named Unsung Diversity Hero

Zhao Ma headshotDr. Zhao Ma, professor of natural resource social science, was named as the 2023 faculty recipient of the Unsung Diversity Hero award. The awards, which were presented on January 20 as part of the College of Agriculture’s Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Awareness week, recognize faculty, staff and students for their efforts to create an inclusive environment within the college and across the state of Indiana.

The award acknowledges individuals who work tirelessly to make a difference in the lives of others by setting a positive example for others to follow, creating a safe and welcoming environment and positively influencing a program, department, or organization from behind the scenes with a positive attitude, a willingness to help in whatever capacity necessary, and a commitment to excellence.

"Honestly, I am quite humbled by this award because I know there are other individuals in FNR and our college who have done a lot to improve diversity and inclusion and they all deserve this award too," Dr. Ma said. "At the same time, I feel a sense of reassurance that my mentoring effort has contributed to diversity and inclusion of our graduate and post-doctoral bodies and to the success of these early-career scientists."

Dr. Ma, the director of the Human Dimensions Lab, joined the Purdue Department of Forestry and Natural Resources faculty in August 2013 as an assistant professor. She was promoted to associate professor in August 2016 and to full professor in August 2020.

Dr. Ma has been heavily involved with diversity, equity and inclusion efforts within the department and the College of Agriculture in ways that extend beyond her professional responsibilities. Her efforts as a researcher, engaging teacher and mentor as well as her work in service of her colleagues at Purdue and beyond have made diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) an important aspect of her professional career and social activities.

Dr. Zhao Ma is presented the Unsung Diversity Hero Award from Dr. Pam Morris“Zhao is among the most effective faculty I know when it comes to making real-world DEIJ differences in academia,” said Stuart Carlton, research assistant professor and assistant director of Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. “Unsung hero describes her exactly: while others are making pronouncements, Zhao is getting things done, improving the inclusiveness of our department and providing a model of how to effectively and authentically incorporate DEIJ issues into internationally respected, high quality, and impactful research. Simply put: Zhao inspires me to do better.”

As a former co-chair of FNR’s DEIJ committee, which she helped create, Dr. Ma, along with co-chair Dr. Brady Hardiman, co-led the committee’s efforts to foster an inclusive departmental culture. She helped organize and develop DEIJ resources for FNR faculty, staff and students, including training programs to address implicit bias and racism. Dr. Ma also supports numerous initiatives to increase representation of historically excluded groups on campus, serving on the College of Agriculture’s Diversity Action Team in Agriculture (2014 to 2018), acting as co-coordinator of Women Faculty in Agriculture (2019 to 2021) and speaking as a panelist on the forum “BIPOC Farmers in Sustainable Agriculture” as part of the College of Agriculture’s Diversity Awareness Week in 2021. As the chair of FNR’s visiting scientist and seminar speaker committee from 2015 to 2021, Dr. Ma actively sought to increase representation of speakers from underrepresented backgrounds.

Dr. Ma models continuous learning about DEIJ topics, provides resources to and actively engages her undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral staff in discussions that promote strategies to improve DEIJ in their work.

Dr. Zhao Ma teaching“I am so grateful for the ways Zhao facilitated conversations about DEIJ in our lab and individual meetings,” said Dr. Rebecca Nixon, a former PhD student and postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Ma’s lab. “She gave us space to ask critical questions about bias and inequality while also talking through actionable ways we could address these issues through our research and teaching. This created a lab culture that encouraged and prioritized these conversations. Zhao’s example has empowered me to have these conversations in other spaces and continues to shape the ways I engage with others around these issues.”

Dr. Ma’s research focuses on how individuals and organizations make decisions about natural resource management and environmental conservation in the context of social-ecological change, inspired by the need to increase effectiveness, while promoting equity and inclusivity. Her research asks how decisions about natural resources are made in various contexts, including the social, political and ecological arenas, and also how these decisions impact individuals, households, communities and landscapes.

Her work has examined natural resource topics ranging from invasive plant management to payment for ecosystem services, to climate change perception and adaptation, water governance and ecological restoration. Her research has covered diverse geographical regions, including Bolivia, China, Pakistan, Peru and the United States.

“Zhao is a role model for how to be inclusive within international contexts,” 2022 PhD alumna Brooke McWherter said. “Working with her I have had the opportunity to see how Zhao engages with our local collaborators in their language, is aware of and respectful to cultural norms, and actively encourages their participation in the research design implementation, and publishing of our research. Participating in this process has provided me the opportunity to learn how to be a respectful and inclusive researcher when working with various diverse stakeholders and to make research not just about gaining knowledge but about building relationships that will promote inclusive and diverse collaborations in the future.”

All told, Dr. Ma has published 80 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters in a wide-range of journals and other outlets. She has advised 18 graduate students and served as a committee member for 37 graduate students. She also has mentored six postdoctoral scholars, 17 undergraduate research assistants and four international visiting students and scholars.

Dr. Ma has taught three courses in FNR: Introduction to Environmental Policy (FNR 22310), Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management (FNR 37500) and Research Methods for Natural Resources Social Science (FNR 58000).

Beyond Purdue, Dr. Ma also serves as an elected board member of the Human Dimensions of Global Change Specialty Group for the American Association of Geographers, and is an associate editor for three journals: Small-Scale Forestry, Society and Natural Resources and Environmental Management.

Dr. Zhao MaThis Unsung Diversity Hero award is the latest honor for Dr. Ma, who was named as a University Faculty Scholar in April 2020, an appointment which recognizes sustained research success. She also was tabbed as a faculty fellow for the Faculty Leadership Academy for Interdisciplinary Research (FLAIR) fellow program by the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research and Partnerships at Purdue in 2019. In 2018, she was named as FNR’s Outstanding Graduate Mentor/Teacher and in 2017, she received the department’s William L. Hoover Exemplary Faculty Service Award.

Dr. Ma is FNR’s most recent Unsung Diversity Hero award recipient, following Carolyn Foley in 2021.

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