Katey Strailey recently joined the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) as a postdoctoral research associate at the Illinois River Biological Station in Havana. As an undergraduate, she attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she received a B.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Management. She recently obtained her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, where she studied how fish spend energy and what conditions they choose in turbulent flows. Between undergraduate and graduate school, she spent three years working on the West Coast.
She recently answered some questions about her work.
What is your background before coming to work at INHS?
For the past four years, I have been working on my Ph.D. at UIUC, mostly doing lab work with a focus on fish physiology. Before that, I worked as a technician for various governmental and non-governmental groups as a fisheries technician out west in California and in Washington.
What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at INHS?
I’m really excited to get to do applied research. For me, it’s the best of both worlds–I get to do work that is both scientifically engaging and valuable for conservation. Conservation and management of our aquatic resources are really important to me, and I want to make sure that whatever I do for work is supporting those resources.
How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
I’ve always wanted to be a biologist, as long as I can remember. Granted, when I was young I mostly thought “biologist” meant I got to go around and look at cool animals, but I always was interested in the natural world and how it worked. My family is not very outdoorsy, but I was the kid who always watched Animal Planet and always wanted to go to natural history museums or the zoo. I was also always annoying people by asking “why” about just about everything, so becoming a biologist was a very natural evolution of my interests!
What drew you to study fish?
I actually used to think that fish were lame. I had grand dreams of being a large wildlife biologist, which is a tough field to get into. I tried getting technician positions but wasn’t successful, so I took a position working with fish. After doing my first stream snorkeling surveys, I was hooked. The world fish live in, especially freshwater fish, is usually hidden from our view, but there’s so much going on under the water’s surface. I really enjoy getting to peer into that secret world in which fish live. I’m now 100% a fish person- even most of my décor at home is fish-themed.
What question do you get asked most frequently about your career or the subject you study?
The questions I get vary a lot depending on who I’m talking to, but the questions that I get most from the general public all relate to fishing. People will ask where the best fishing spots are or how they can catch the best fish, which is always really funny to me. I do very little fishing, so chances are most people interested in asking me that question probably can answer it a lot better than I can!
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Early-career positions in my field tend to be so short-lived, and often it’s really difficult to get multiple positions in the same place. Before starting graduate school, I moved once a year, every year, for three years in a row, with a new job each time. I went from the Central Coast of California to the Bay Area, to Washington before coming out to Illinois. It’s pretty taxing to have to completely pack up and restart your life so often.
What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?
I wish more people knew that science is very involved and usually very hands-on. I think there is sometimes a perception that all scientists do is sit inside and read about things other people discovered. Reading about known science is absolutely an important part of the job, but that’s not what makes us scientists. Especially for those of us working in the area of natural resources, we spend plenty of time getting our boots muddy, collecting new data, and making new discoveries!
What advice would you give to future scientists?
Don’t be afraid to pursue a field you’re interested in just because it wasn’t your best area when you were in school. Academic achievement isn’t everything. Being smart isn’t everything. Math was always difficult for me, and so I thought it wouldn’t be possible for me to make it in a scientific field, but I still made it. Passion and hard work can take you a long way and can sustain you even when the road is tough.