What is your field of study, and what drew you to that field?
A. Growing up my dad was really into recycling and planting native prairie plants, woodland plants, trees, and shrubs. We would watch Nature and Nova on PBS almost ritually. So I grew up wanting know everything about the Earth. In high school I went from meteorology (tornado chaser!) to volcanology to finally geology because I wanted to “save the planet.” I earned a degree in geology from U of I and started a master's in geology–hydrogeology at UT–Austin but quickly decided that I was more interested in fixing problems than finding problems. So I took a semester off to do some “soul searching” and started a professional master’s of science degree in environmental engineering at the U of I and finished in August 2010.
What is the best part of your job?
A. Going back to “saving the planet” and “fixing problems,” the best part about my job is that I get to do both those things. I have varying roles under “research specialist” that involve both lab work and public engagement duties. In both these roles, I’m working toward a solution, whether it comes from tech advances or behavior change. For example, our most recent work has been on pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCP) in the environment. For the pilot research starting in 2013, I would collect samples from the waste water treatment plant (WWTP) and prepare them for analysis in the laboratory. That work eventually led to the principal investigator being able to do several proposals and funded research, hiring two research assistants and a post-doc. Then my role switched to public engagement to fulfil the outreach portion of the grants with a medicine collection campaign to the public, independent pharmacies, and health care professionals. Tangible outcomes were posters, brochures, and a video. In addition, we hosted a one-day workshop on the topic for about 35 teachers, which translates into about 4,000 future decision makers being educated on the topic each year.
What part of your job would be surprising to non-scientists?
A. That the job requires quite a bit of creativity. If something doesn’t work right in the lab you will need to think outside the proverbial “box” to come up with a new system. Or, if you have way too much, but really good information you want to include in a brochure, you need to think of colors, side boxes, and minimalist writing to get the message across in a powerful and meaningful way that people will remember.
What advice would you give to other female scientists?
A. Getting involved! If you are just starting out, look for ways to do undergraduate research and make sure your professors know you by name. Do internships, join professional organizations in your field of research. I have never gotten a job from just filling out a recruitment application. It’s always been someone who knows someone who knows me. But most of all, listen to your intuition. It doesn’t matter where you come from, but the quality of what you’ve done on the way to your dream. As you continue to learn your dream may change—that just means you are growing.