These scientists study plants and animals by land and sea
Meet our botanists, marine biologists and much more
When students think about studying science, some of them might envision swimming with dolphins or spending time in the woods. Not all science happens in the lab, after all. When Science News for Students sent out a call for pictures from women in science, technology, engineering and technology (STEM), we got more than 150 submissions from around the world. And some of these scientists really do spend their some of their scientific lives diving in the ocean for science and hiking in the forest. Today, meet 18 scientists who are living the dream.
Best is a botanist — someone who studies plants. She investigates the diversity of plants in different environments. She also loves language. And she gets to combine her two joys in her job. She helps other scientists publish books and scientific journals about plant science at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth.
When she’s not checking out plants, Best says, “I really enjoy memorizing rap songs (or any songs) with lots of very fast lyrics. Must be the word lover in me!”
Scientists have some odd choices for their favorite things. Cairns has a favorite virus — herpes. This is a virus that infects people and can cause sores on the mouth, face and genitals. Having a favorite virus isn’t so weird for Cairns, though. She’s a virologist — someone who studies viruses — at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Why does she like a virus that gives people irritating sores? Cairns studies how the virus enters cells, and her work has made her appreciate the virus’ abilities.
When not in the lab, Cairns likes life on the ice. “I started playing ice hockey in graduate school, and I wear a hockey jersey to the lab every day,” she says. “I own the jersey of every [National Hockey League] team, so I keep my lab mates guessing!”
Most of the time when you’re eating a sandwich, you are eating bread made with wheat. But wheat plants can suffer if they don’t get enough water or enough of the nitrogen they need to make proteins. Cousins is a botanist getting a Ph.D. at the University of Adelaide in Australia and the University of Nottingham in England. She studies how wheat plants respond to drought and low levels of nitrogen. (You can follow her experiences as a scientist on her blog.)
Cousins also has a unique talent — she can make an apple crumble blindfolded. She doesn’t do it most of the time, she says. She performed the feat, she notes, “to prove how easy it was to make apple crumble!”
Fritchman has always had a passion for fish. And now, she’s a marine biologist with the Coastal Conservation Association in Houston, Texas. The group works to conserve fishing areas and fish habitat along the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
To succeed at her job, Fritchman has to keep educating herself. She has taken classes to learn more about science and conservation, she says. She even took a class in taxidermy — how to stuff the skins of animals to make them look life-like. In the process, she learned how to taxidermy a rat.
Plants live surrounded by microbes. But they don’t just ignore them. Plants and microbes send signals to communicate with each other. Exactly how they do that is what Furches is trying to find out. She’s a botanist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. She started out studying plant genetics. Once she began managing another scientist’s laboratory, though, she says that she realized “I needed more scientific training.” Now, she is getting her PhD.
Furches is passionate about reaching out to young scientists. “My dream is to make the world a more egalitarian place for future generations while advancing humankind’s understanding of the universe in which we live,” she says.
You’ve probably taken a science class or two, and that may have taught you how scientists do research or about their results. But did you know there was also scientific research behind your science class? Glaze is one of the people responsible for that research. She studies how people learn about science. She works at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. She’s interested in how science interacts with people’s daily lives, especially for science topics that are somewhat controversial, such as evolution.
But before she studied science education, Glaze had a lot of passions. “Growing up, I balanced my time between two farms and dance lessons, [cheerleading] and collecting fossils, and cotillion and riding four wheelers,” she says. “Scientists come from all walks [of life].”
Harris loves SCUBA diving, but she spends most of her time on land. She’s a behavioral endocrinologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “I study how hormones affect behavior and how behavior can affect hormones,” she explains. “I am particularly interested in stress.” In her lab, she says, Harris and her students “use humans and animals to study how stress can impact fear, anxiety, memory and feeding.” When she’s not SCUBA diving, Harris also likes to run. She’s even run a marathon. That’s about 42 kilometers, or 26.2 miles.
Sonia Kenfack, Rita Adele Steyn and Mavis Acheampong
These three scientists have a love for the spineless things in life. They study invertebrates, or organisms that don’t have a spine. All three are graduate students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.
Kenfack is getting a PhD in entomology, the study of insects. She’s originally from Cameroon. “I am known as the happiest, giggliest person around,” she says. “[I’m] naturally curious, and I love to share knowledge.”
Steyn agrees that Kenfack has happiness in spades. Steyn is from South Africa, and says she is “utterly mesmerized by all things spineless in the ocean.”
Acheampong is also getting a degree in entomology. She’s originally from Ghana, and loves football (what we in the United States call soccer). Her favorite food is plantains, a fruit that is related to bananas.
You may not think about where your food comes from every day. But Kerr does. “I’m an agroecologist, studying how plants, air, water and soil interact in agricultural systems,” she says. She does her work at the University of California, Davis. She’s interested in how combining different plants together in the same field might help them survive in drought or heat. People might think that science requires fancy tools, but no. In her work, Kerr says she uses “leaf litter bags made of pantyhose, rain gauges made of plastic bottles, a notebook and, of course, a hoe.”
Kerr’s work has taken her all over the world. “When I lived in Malawi, I got quite good at ‘butchering’ jackfruit,” she recalls. “These are tropical tree fruits that often weigh more than [9 kilograms] (20 pounds). Inside their tough spiky skin, oozing sticky sap, is a nest of inedible fibers hiding amazingly sweet pockets of yellow flesh wrapped around huge brown seeds. They are messy but delicious.”
Katey Lesneski (picture at top)
Many people love SCUBA diving, but relatively few get to do it for their job. Lesneski gets to dive for science. She’s in graduate school for marine biology at Boston University in Massachusetts. “I study bleaching and wound healing in staghorn coral, an endangered Caribbean coral,” she explains. “I am working to provide the science needed to guide certain reef restoration projects in Florida and Belize using this coral.”
Lesnecki doesn’t just dive for science; she’s also a divemaster. In her free time, she teaches others how to dive. “I am passionate about sharing my love of diving and the underwater world with others around New England,” she says.
If a plant doesn’t have obvious thorns, spines or hard bark, it might look pretty defenseless. But don’t let those innocent stems and leaves fool you. Plants have many ways of defending themselves from insects or other creatures that might try to take a bite. Malabarba is a biologist who studies how plants do this. She started her career in Brazil, where she grew up, but her passion for science has taken her to the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany.
“When I was younger, I had always bad grades in school because I was more passionate about watching animals outside than doing homework,” says Neufuss. But she turned her love of the outdoors into a career. She is now a graduate student in biological anthropology at the University of Kent in in Canterbury, England. Biological anthropology is a field of research that focuses on the behavior and biology of humans and their ape relatives.
Neufuss is especially interested in hands. “My research focus is on hand use and hand postures used by African apes during locomotion and object manipulation,” she explains. (Locomotion is when an animal moves from place to place. Object manipulation is when they are handling something.) She studies animals that can be found in the wild as well as in sanctuaries, where they are protected. Learning about how apes such as gorillas use their hands can teach scientists both about the apes themselves and how early humans may have used their own hands as they evolved.
Love both bugs and plants? Proska does. She uses her degrees in entomology — the study of insects — and horticulture — the study of plants — in her work at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Texas. She studies how plants and insects interact with each other.
Proska also displays her love of plants by dressing up as the villain Poison Ivy from the Batman comic books, movies and TV series.
Some people love learning about science, but others suffer through their science classes. Vandegrift wants to change that. She’s an ecologist who runs the Science Literacy Program at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Her goal, she says, is to make science classes “interesting, accessible, engaging and relevant for all students.”
In her work and travels, Vandegrift has experienced the scarier side of science. While on a hike in Kenya, she recalls, “Our Maasai guides got lost. We wandered in circles (with stinging nettle plants more than six-feet tall all around us through areas with lion footprints larger than a dinner plate) for hours. Just after it started to rain, [it] began to get dark and we were out of food and water. Our guides told us they were going to have us sit in a circle in the grass all night while they kept us safe from potential lion attacks. Totally surreal. And then a scout found the trail and walked us two hours back to camp. The ‘hike’ lasted nine hours and stinging nettle rash for two weeks.”
Many people who’ve been to the beach have played in tidepools — pools of saltwater left behind when the tide goes out. Tidepools have lots of creatures living in them. And people have been studying them for centuries. That includes Young. She is heading up a project to find out who’s at home in a tidepool and what it means for the environment. She’s a marine biologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Her job focuses on citizen science — research performed by anyone, whether they have scientific training or not. Her groups of volunteers document biodiversity and do long-term monitoring. That is “helping us better understand changes taking place in the tidepool community that are potentially correlated to things like El Niño, climate change and human disturbance,” she explains.
When she’s not hunting tidepools, Young is hunting other treasure. She likes to do geocaching, which is a worldwide scavenger hunt. Geocachers use global positioning systems on their smartphones or other devices to find small items based only on their coordinates. The joy is in the hunting, and Young has found more than 2,000 geocaches.
If you enjoyed this post, make sure to check out the others in our series on women in STEM. We’ve got women in astronomy, biology, chemistry, medicine, ecology, geology, neuroscience and math and computing. And keep an eye out for our last installment on fabulous science educators!
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