Katie O’Reilly joined the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) on August 1st as an aquatic invasive species specialist with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant IISG). She has a Ph.D. in biological sciences from the University of Notre Dame and a bachelor's degree in marine biology from the University of Miami (FL). Before joining INHS and IISG, she did her doctoral (and later postdoctoral) research in the Stream and Wetland Ecology Laboratory at Notre Dame where her work spanned topics in aquatic ecology ranging from coastal wetland food webs in Lake Michigan to invasive aquatic plants in Alaskan freshwater ponds. Katie also is passionate about science communication, including through a popular Twitter campaign she created to raise awareness about Great Lakes fish species ("#25DaysofFishmas").
She recently answered a few questions about her work.
What is your background before coming to work at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS)?
I recently completed my Ph.D. and my doctoral research focused on understanding changes to Lake Michigan coastal wetland food webs using stable isotope analysis and otolith microchemistry. Following my defense, I continued as a post-doc in my graduate advisor’s lab and expanded my portfolio of research into the ecological impacts of an invasive aquatic plant (Elodea canadensis) in Alaskan freshwater ponds. Beyond my formal training as an aquatic ecologist, I’ve also been passionate about understanding how scientists can more effectively communicate with different audiences. During graduate school, I had the opportunity to learn about science communication and policy in Washington, D.C. as a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Knauss Marine Policy Fellow. In my free time (ha!), I also currently help run climate change communication training programs for the American Fisheries Society.
What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at INHS?
I am looking forward to combining two of my passions: aquatic ecology research and outreach, as well as getting to work with new collaborators.
How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
I first got interested in science as a young kid watching National Geographic nature documentaries at my grandma’s house. I read and watched anything and everything about animals (particularly those in the ocean) I could get my hands on. I dressed up as a marine biologist for my 2nd-grade class’s career day, and later, I was Jane Goodall for my 5th-grade wax museum project!
Who or what drew you to this field?
While I loved ocean creatures and pursued marine biology as an undergraduate, I also realized that I could take the things marine biologists were doing and apply them to a system that I grew up with – the Great Lakes. My earliest memories of going to the Lake Erie beaches in northwest Ohio where I grew up were of pea-soup green waves rolling in and having to wear water shoes because the razor-sharp zebra mussel shells would cut your feet.
What question do you get asked most frequently about your career or the subject you study?
“Are you going to fix those algae blooms?” “Are the invasive carp in Lake Michigan?” I also do not spend nearly as much time on a boat or fishing as people think (and as I would like).
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Graduate school is tough – no doubt about it. The transition from being a student to an independent researcher takes time and isn’t always a linear process (and doesn’t end when you graduate!). Imposter syndrome always hangs out in the background too.
What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?
Everyone can be a scientist! Science isn't only for people in lab coats or those with Ph.D.s. Science is a way of understanding the world around us and how it works.
What advice would you give to future scientists?
For those who want to do science as a career, know that there are a lot of options available to you – it’s more than just doing research in a lab (though it can be that if you like!). I recommend trying as many new experiences as possible to see what’s out there. Maybe you’ll find out that you absolutely love doing bench work, or maybe you’d rather be out in a stream catching fish. Maybe you realize that you like teaching others about science, or helping policymakers understand the implications of new research findings. There are so many possibilities!