Professor Israel Del Toro on climate science, politics and the first generation student experience

Del Toro in protective gear with a box full of bees. Photo from Smugmug.

Assistant Professor of Biology Israel Del Toro, elected to represent District 4 in 2022, is one of four Lawrence community members who serve on the Appleton Common Council. The others are Katie Van Zeeland, who serves as District 5 Alderperson and the Administrative Assistant for the Education Department, District 2 Alderperson Vered Meltzer ‘04 and Mayor Jake Woodford ‘13.   

Del Toro was born in El Paso, Texas in 1985. His parents are Mexican American immigrants who came to the United States in the 1980s. As well as being a first-generation U.S. citizen, Del Toro is a first-generation college student, who majored in biology and environmental science at the University of Texas–El Paso. He then went on to get his PhD at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and after graduating, further pursued his passion for the environment by studying ecology at Harvard Forest – one of North America’s oldest managed forests – for five years.

After completing his studies, he traveled abroad to study climate change, ecology and biodiversity. First, he went to Australia’s Northern Territory, and then taught at Bangor University in Wales. His last educational pursuit before becoming a professor was his postdoctoral research at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. In 2016, he was hired at Lawrence and was recommended for tenure this year.  

Del Toro’s biggest concern is climate change. He feels that the climate crisis is a global issue that requires local solutions at the city and university level that can drive decisions at the state and national level.  

Del Toro with hexagonal beehives on campus. Photo from SmugMug.

“It is going to take everyone doing their bit and staying true and committed to these goals,” Del Toro said. “When we set a particular carbon emissions goal for our university within a given timeline, we have to get to that […] goal.” 

Del Toro said that the climate crisis is something humanity is going to live with for our whole lives, due to the damage that’s already been done to the environment. He pointed out that decades ago, Green Bay would freeze over completely from Thanksgiving through April, but this year, the ice is already breaking by February and temperatures are already reaching 40° F at this point in the year. Del Toro is someone who enjoys ice fishing, and compared ice fishing to playing a video game, but also enjoys being able to create his own sustenance and develop a better relationship with where his food comes from through fishing. However, since the ice is breaking earlier in the year, ice fishing season now ends in February or March instead of April, which he pointed out affects recreation and jobs.  

As a professor at Lawrence, Del Toro feels that if his employer acted alone on climate change, nothing would change. However, we do not live in a world where actions take place in a vacuum. He feels that Lawrence can inspire other schools to act and hopes to see Lawrence hire a full-time sustainability manager to keep the institution accountable to its goals and pointed out that Lawrence has a lot of open roof space that could be used to build solar panels.  

“Signing a piece of paper is great,” Del Toro said, referring to the signing of the United Nations Second Nature Climate Pledge in April 2022, which committed the university to strong climate action. “Let’s put some teeth behind that. We owe it to the institution, we owe it to the land, we owe it to the ancestral caretakers of this land […] Environmental sustainability is an issue where I’d love to see more transparency […] from the administration and more dedication to that particular goal.” 

Along with the climate crisis, Del Toro is worried about the mass extinction of species currently taking place on Earth and wants to address the biodiversity crisis. He pointed out that there are a lot of benefits of biodiversity, using maple trees as an example. Humans can get syrup by tapping maple trees, but trees also recycle nutrients, take in carbon and stabilize the soil.  

As a professor and alderperson, Del Toro has been a big proponent of No Mow May – not enforcing lawn height ordinances until June 1 each year – and for allowing residents to grow vegetable gardens on their terraces. Del Toro pointed out that No Mow May is about protecting pollinators such as bees and butterflies, which is important because one third of the food humans eat is dependent on insect pollinators. He said that the vegetable gardens ordinance is educating people about the value of urban biodiversity and the importance of having a connection to your food, relating the vegetable gardens to his love of ice fishing. 

Del Toro in protective gear with a box full of bees. Photo from Smugmug.

“Building relationships with food is important for people to understand, and that’s a big aspect of the urban gardening legislation,” said Del Toro.  

Del Toro is soon to be the only nonwhite member of the council after District 7 Alderperson Maiyoua Thao steps down in April, as both candidates running to replace her are white. Although he is proud to represent Appleton’s Hispanic/Latine community, it can be challenging and even scary to represent part of the true diversity of Appleton as part of a government body that is disproportionately white. 

Del Toro has been one of many victims of hate crimes in the Fox Cities in recent years; while running for office for the first time, Del Toro was shoved and spat, and around the time of the 2020 election, his house was vandalized with swastikas and set on fire at night while he and his spouse at the time were sleeping. He recalls making the choice to set down roots in the community and create positive change instead of fleeing, and that these hate crimes were a big factor in his decision to run for Common Council.  

“Instead of making me cower to your vandalism and your hate, I’m going to stand up to it,” Del Toro said. “Now you’re going to see more of me.”  

He added that there are members of the Appleton community who are undocumented and/or don’t speak English and that as a bilingual person, he can communicate with people who are historically underserved by the city. As a son of immigrants who came to the United States as pickers, working cotton and chili pepper fields, immigration reform is close to his heart. People fall through the cracks of our broken system every day, he said, pointing out that environmental and racial justice directly overlap.  

“Where minority communities and environmental justice overlap is what I’m passionate about,” said Del Toro.  

As someone whose parents went through the immigration system, he finds that students at Lawrence who are undocumented or living in legal limbo end up coming to him for help, which reinforces to him that the system is broken.  

Del Toro has enjoyed his time on the Common Council, and said he gets along with 90% of his colleagues, characterizing them as “great, smart people” who make caring and thoughtful decisions to help their communities. Del Toro enjoys the opportunity to experience being a professor and an alderperson, pointing out that he often attended council meetings before his election to talk about climate-related issues, but now he can be the expert in the room and get involved with other issues he cares about. One of these issues is pedestrian safety, and he has been working with District 2 Alderperson Vered Meltzer ‘04 to reroute truck traffic away from Lawe Street and make it more pedestrian-friendly. He finds experiences like these extremely exciting and rewarding.  

“It’s an opportunity to blend the two and share my expertise on certain issues and just be a sponge and learn how the city operates,” Del Toro said. “It’s greatly rewarding.”