Part of our ongoing interview series with leaders and members of feminist-oriented labs and lab-like spaces, the following is our interview with Rui Liu (she/her) and Alex Zahara (he/him), members of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) at Memorial University.


Rui Liu (she/her): I’m a diasporic Chinese settler living in Dish with One Spoon territory, in a place called Tkaronto, located in Treaty 13 territory and the homelands the Mississaugas of the Credit River, the Wyandot, and the Seneca. I recently graduated with a BA in Women and Gender Studies and will be entering into a MA program in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto this fall. I joined CLEAR lab at the end of 2020.

Alex Zahara (he/him): I’m a settler from kistapinānihk, which is currently known as Prince Albert, SK. I’m located in Treaty 6 territory and the homelands of Metis nation and Dakota nation, Cree and Dene territory. I’m in the final year of my PhD research at Memorial University, where I study wildfire management and settler colonialism in my home community. I first joined CLEAR lab in 2016.

Regarding process: all of the following responses were drafted collaboratively, and then written up by one of us in proportion to the number of hours we’re paid for with CLEAR. Since Rui is working more hours with CLEAR currently, she summarized our collective responses for a larger proportion of these questions. We drew on our varying experiences with CLEAR, disciplinary backgrounds, and social locations to respond to these questions. For example, Alex has been a part of CLEAR for much longer and was able to reference his institutional memory of the lab. Rui is involved in a lot of new projects, and is doing important work in helping develop citation protocols and theories of justice for the lab. Both of us attend weekly lab meetings. We tried to be as equitable as we could with the distribution of labour given our different social locations and the gendered and racialized nature of divisions of labour, while accounting for differences in our work hours. In crafting our responses, we also drew heavily on work that had already been done for CLEAR’s website, and our Lab Book. Responses that discuss events internal to the lab went through a collective consent process before we included them for this interview. 

Lab location:

The physical lab space of CLEAR is located at Memorial University in what is currently St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, on the ancestral homelands of the Beothuk. Because CLEAR is a place-based lab, nearly all of our research is conducted in Newfoundland and Labrador. In our work, we acknowledge the island of Newfoundland as the ancestral homelands of the Mi’kmaq and Beothuk, and recognize the Inuit of Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut and the Innu of Nitassinan, and their ancestors, as the original peoples of Labrador. 

More recently (since the pandemic began), our lab space has moved online through weekly Zoom lab meetings. The research we do remains place-based, but the format has allowed for greater accessibility and participation of lab members who are located throughout so called North America, including both of us. 

When was the lab founded?

The inception of CLEAR is a bit blurry, and occurred across various moments. CLEAR’s director Dr. Max Liboiron started working at Memorial University in July 2014, and the idea of CLEAR emerged soon after. That year, Max and other CLEAR members started working out of a closet-lab. Some time later, they were able to move into our current (and larger) lab space. 

With which research area, or cluster of research areas, does the lab engage with? (be as specific or broad as you wish)

Broadly, CLEAR engages with marine plastic pollution science and feminist science and technology studies. We characterize ourselves as a feminist and anti-colonial marine science and technology lab. Working across disciplines, we specialize in community-based and citizen science monitoring of plastic pollution in Newfoundland and Labrador. Much of our work is focused on the creation and use of anti-colonial research methodologies within plastic pollution research.

What is a project, publication, community collaboration, or other output from the lab that you feel proud of?

CLEAR has many ongoing projects that we are excited about! These range from the collaborative reading project (#COLLABORATORY) by Dr. Max Liboiron and Dr. Deondre Smalls, to CLEAR’s Artist in Residence program (with Mukhtara Yusuf, Dr. Pam Hall, Prakash Krishnan, and Dr. Emily Roehl), to the Newfoundland and Labrador Food Pricing Project (with CLEAR members Willa Neilsen and Morgan Davidson), which is a citizen science project aimed at better understanding food sovereignty issues in NL, conducted in collaboration with the Nunatsiavut Government and Social Justice Cooperative NL. 

In addition to those ongoing projects, we want to highlight a few other finished or nearly finished projects that demonstrate the range of CLEAR’s work. We are so excited to have them out in the universe. These include:

Our working group on citational politics that we are really proud of and of which Rui is a part of. With this working group, we aimed to self-reflexively grapple with our own citational habits, and learn more collectively about the challenges of (and potential tactics for) citing in a more equitable way. That is, citing beyond the the types, sources, and norms of knowledge shored up by Anglo-American academia. We’re documenting what we’ve learned via a series of blog posts on CLEAR’s website and have published our first three entries, which examine the colonial roots of “firsting” in research, coercive citational norms for junior academics, and the racist and sexist algorithms behind search engines. Our learning and writing processes were truly collaborative – we read and discussed a set of works together, edited and credited each other’s work, and co-worked our way through impossible quandaries. More to come!

A second project is a paper that we recently published in Science of the Total Environment, called “Abundance and types of plastic pollution in surface waters in the Eastern Arctic (Inuit Nunangat) and the case for reconciliation science”. The paper was led by Dr. Liboiron and is published as part of a special issue about plastic pollution in the arctic. The paper is truly interdisciplinary and collaborative and has over 15 authors (!), including Alex and a number of representatives from Inuit governments and northern research institutes. In it, we provide a baseline for plastics in surface water in and around Inuit Nunangat, or Inuit territories in what is presently Canada, which includes parts of Newfoundland and Labrador. But more so, the paper is about how to conduct plastic pollution research in Inuit homelands in an ethical way– one that recognizes the history and present colonialism or entitlement to Indigenous homelands for non-Indigenous goals, including benevolent ones that permeate a lot of scientific research (see Dr. Liboiron’s Pollution is Colonialism for more on this!), particularly in the Arctic. This is something we are accountable to as scientists in NL. In the paper, we draw from Inuit Tapariit Kanatami’s National Inuit Strategy on Research to reflect on the state of plastic pollution research in Inuit as well as our own scientific research practices, which aren’t perfect, and how these might be improved. We provide concrete examples from the Strategy and Indigenous studies and data sovereignty research to discuss how research might, at a minimum, participate in ‘reconciliation science’ through scientific research practices. This means ensuring that Inuit have a say on whether and how research is conducted on their territories, that proper licensing takes place, and that a project benefits Inuit in ways that are defined by Inuit.

Lastly, is the Regional Report on Plastic Pollution in Newfoundland and Labrador 1962-2019 that CLEAR published last year. The Report draws on a lot of different sources– and not just academic articles!– to provide a state of knowledge of plastic pollution research throughout the province. The report was designed for a variety of people– scientists, policy-makers, teachers — because having usable information is necessary to make good decisions about plastics, such as how to target pollution issues in ways that are relevant to the NL context. So, this means the report is also quite pretty and has lots of nice pictures and graphs.

What is one way (or a few ways) in which the lab centers equity, inclusion, or justice in its methods, protocols, or approaches?
—Alternatively, what is one way (or a few ways) in which the lab decenters dominant methods, protocols, or approaches through its work?

We center our lab values, humility and accountability, through how we do feminist and anti-colonial science, and through how we collaborate and function as a collective, with these two areas being deeply interconnected. Humility means recognizing that we are always connected to others (including connections we might not like) and accountability means being beholden to those connections. Guided by our lab values, we’ve developed protocols for practicing anti-colonial science which attempt to be accountable to the ways settler colonialism informs scientific practices (including our own) by assuming settler access to Indigenous lands for scientific research. Settler colonialism also informs well-intentioned efforts such as environmentalism. Our protocols include: our guidelines for working with Indigenous groups, as a lab with many settler members. For example, our guidelines detail that we only do research with Indigenous groups when and if they invite us to work with them. These protocols also include our community peer review process (see question 9), the practice of repatriating samples back to land, and the co-creation of Indigenous data sovereignty contracts

Within the lab, we center humility and accountability through our equity in author order protocol, which distributes credit through a consensus-based decision making process that involves the entire lab, including folks who are not authors of the paper, and with consideration for potential authors’ varying social locations. We also account for the overlooked and often devalued forms of labour – like emotional, logistical, and reproductive labour – that always go into making science. In doing so, our protocols challenge the ways in which women, queer folks, trans folks, Black, Indigenous, racialized, and junior researchers are often under-credited for their labours of knowledge production. In our day-to-day activities, we also center lab values through tasks as mundane (and significant) as how we run lab meetings, or how we onboard guests and new members.

What is one internal (within the lab) challenge that you have encountered while devising, following, maintaining, or revising these methods/protocols/approaches? Is there a specific occasion that comes to mind in which an internal challenge presented itself? How did the lab work through it, or if it’s ongoing, what has been useful to think with?

One internal challenge we’ve encountered with our methods is with our consent protocols and whether or not they were working. This challenge became more apparent in the context of CLEAR’s frequent collaborations with external researchers, artists, and journalists, who have a different set of accountabilities than those of us within the lab. Although we have explicit protocols in place for collective consent of new projects with outsiders, until recently, we’ve yet had a consent meeting that did not result in full consent from everyone within the lab. Following the first time that consent was not collectively given, CLEAR’s director, Dr. Liboiron, said this was a good thing and highlighted in a lab memo an important tension between respect and respectability, and the difficult work of refusing proposals from others (often people we like very much) in a reflexive and accountable way. This experience of collective refusal underscores how real consent requires the possibility of refusal. Refusals maintain the integrity of consent if and when consent is given, and help us maintain a safer space like CLEAR where we can have guidelines like What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas (i.e. don’t divulge what is said in lab without consent). When this process works well, we end up with wonderful and robust collaborations like the films CLEAR made with filmmakers Taylor Hess and Noah Hutton. 

What is one external challenge that you have encountered while devising, following, maintaining, or revising these methods/protocols/approaches? (e.g. in terms of the lab interfacing with its broader institution or community). Is there a specific occasion that comes to mind when an external challenge presented itself? How did the lab work through it, or if it’s ongoing, what has been useful to think with?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is an external versus an internal challenge! But probably one of our biggest ‘external’ challenges comes with the language, protocols, and methods that you inherit when doing plastic research. Of course, it’s not all bad, but there are common practices like categorizing fish as ‘biomass’ that take away the being-ness of a fish and that involve a relationship between researcher and fish that assumes fish are this extractable resource that you kind of have to work against. Or another one is the category of ‘user’ versus ‘industrial’ plastics, which doesn’t really make sense when we know that all plastics come from industry. So as people who do a lot of writing for the lab, these are some of the things we think about.

Other inherited goods that aren’t so good include things like just assuming publishing data is inherently the right thing to do. This is something we grappled with when we first started getting results. For example, in one of our first papers, we looked at plastic ingestion in Atlantic cod, which is a huge culturally and economically important fish in NL. And we found plastics– a low amount– but we found plastics nonetheless. And these were in cod guts that fishers caught and ate! So, suddenly we realized that the information we found wasn’t inherently good and could actually cause a lot of damage. This is how we started our community peer review process, where we work with impacted communities to see if research should be published, and if so, how it should be framed. Because we understand that our research doesn’t take place in a vacuum and part of being accountable to communities is understanding that they know what’s best for this information, including who needs to know about it and how it should be interpreted. This is also why a lot of our lab members are from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Where have you found lab inspiration and resources? Which labs, authors, and makers would you love to signal boost?

There are so many amazing labs who’s work we align with! The Technoscience Research Unit, led by Dr. Murphy at the University of Toronto, brings together social justice and Science and Technology Studies, and emphasizes Indigenous, feminist, queer, environmental, anti-racist and anti-colonial scholarship. We’ve also drawn from and cited the work of The Collaboratory for Indigenous Data Governance, led by Dr. Stephanie Russo Carroll in Arizona, and the work they’ve done in developing research, policy, and practice innovations for Indigenous data sovereignty.