Why did you choose to become a scientist?
Picture your typical suburban public school playground: you have the children playing on the monkey bars, the kids occupying the tire swing, the group on the basketball court, the few children drawing with chalk, and then way on the edge of the field by the woods there was me…picking at a dead bird. If there were no decaying avian specimens, I was usually looking for other animals—mostly inchworms and spiders because they were abundant and small enough to take back to our classroom where I could hide them in my pencil case inside my desk. It is moments like these that my mom likes to reference as my start as a scientist. I was driven by my curiosity to figure out how the world worked. Years of spending time camping and adventuring in the outdoors with my family made me wonder why one place looks the way it does and why some animals and plants can only be found in certain corners of the globe. Since I am being candid, I will admit that much of this evolved out of my existential crisis in second grade when I realized that sea otters only live off the west coast of the United States…and I, unfortunately, lived on the east coast. As I continued to grow up, I took every class and read every book related to mathematics and science that I could get my hands on. I was fascinated and totally hooked. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I had a confrontation with one of my male high school teachers who: 1) didn’t believe in climate change, and 2) didn’t think women could become successful scientists, that I decided to act on my passion for environmental and biological sciences. Through a series of events involving wonderful female scientist mentors and various fieldwork opportunities in undergrad, I eventually determined that the field of ecology would allow me to answer these questions that I had always wondered about. Of course, being able to travel to beautiful places, handle animals, and get paid for it is always a plus.
Do you come from an academic family?
Nope! A few people in my family have attended college, but I think I may be the first person to attend graduate school. I have always enjoyed the process of learning and was always encouraged by my family to stay in school. From the time I was about 8, I told people that I was going to be a Ph.D. I don’t think that I really knew what that meant, but it was something instilled in me from a young age by my mom. She never had the chance to take advantage of her education because she was raising me as a single parent, but she always valued education because she saw it as my ticket to a better, easier, financially secure life. Although my mother isn’t an academic in the traditional sense, she is my #1 role model. She ran a small-business teaching people martial arts. Yes, she is a living, breathing Wonder Woman. As a woman in a male-dominated field, she showed me that with hard work, perseverance, and leadership you could accomplish your goals—even if you had to work twice as hard as your male colleagues. The road may be difficult and frustrating, but worthwhile. Her lessons continue to aid me as I navigate my career as a woman in science and I credit her with all my life accomplishments.
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
Broadly I am interested in understanding how both environmental conditions and community assembly dynamics (i.e. how and which species disperse and establish in a community) affect the structure of ecological communities through space and time. Currently, I am studying the interrelationship between a terrestrial salamander species, Plethodon cinereus, its skin bacteria, and the chytrid fungus. We are now experiencing a global mass extinction of amphibians and this is largely driven by two factors: habitat degradation and wildlife disease (the chytrid fungus). Thanks to hundreds of dedicated scientists and conservationists around the world, we have been able to determine that the bacteria on some of these amphibians (known as the microbiome) can protect them from the chytrid fungus. I am examining how habitat degradation, specifically urbanization, is impacting the bacteria in the soil environment, the bacteria on the skin of salamanders, and the presence or absence of chytrid. In the lab, I have also been able to simulate and manipulate the microbial communities that we might see on these salamanders to better understand how their microbiome is protecting them from a disease. I hope my work will better enable us to either develop probiotic treatments or better conserve wild amphibians around the globe—while also expanding our knowledge of how our own human microbiomes might similarly function to protect us from a disease.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
All my years as a scientist have been spent in New York City. As an urban ecologist, I don’t think there is ever a dull moment. Doing your fieldwork in a city of 8 million people presents both its rewards and challenges, but I think it has given me some of the most memorable moments in my scientific career so far. When I was in undergrad, I interned at the NYC Audubon Society and we were collecting long-term data on bird-building collisions (i.e. when birds collide with glass buildings, a huge problem for migratory birds). We wanted to know for how long birds persisted in the urban environment until someone reported them to NYC Audubon. So, I was entrusted to place decoy dead birds around the city to see how many we would get back. This basically consisted of me going out at night and inconspicuously dropping dead birds in densely populated areas using a false bottom bag that I had designed from two Trader Joe’s paper bags. It was a thrilling adventure that eventually got me added to my first publication!
More recently, I was sampling salamanders in the Bronx at one of my field sites, which borders a golf course. Creeping along the edge of the golf course and disappearing into the woods had attracted an audience, including one of the managers. When I reemerged covered in mud, I was questioned intensely. I explained that I was a scientist studying the urban salamanders that live at the golf course and someone immediately responded, “Wait, there are salamanders in the Bronx?!” I took this small group just inside the forest edge and lifted an old tire to reveal a few salamanders. Connecting urban residents to the wildlife that they didn’t even know existed within the city limits is one of the most rewarding aspects of what I do. In my line of fieldwork, science communication can happen anywhere and at any time and these experiences have helped me learn to explain my work to almost any audience.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
Being very young and in a Ph.D. program can have its challenges. I came to graduate school straight from undergrad. I knew I wanted a Ph.D. and I didn’t want to wait. Luckily Fordham allowed me to combine my Masters and Ph.D. receiving both within the typical 5 years. However, this meant that I started graduate school just one month after turning 22. It was scary and for a while, I felt inferior to a lot of people in my cohort who seemed to know so much more than me not only about their field but also about themselves. I found myself regularly dealing with imposter syndrome (then again, who doesn’t in graduate school?) and spending countless hours studying and reading to overcome my weaknesses. Deep down I just felt an immense pressure to prove myself. As time passed, I actually got to know the people in my cohort and it turned out that we all had pretty similar fears. This bonded us and we really have become like a family. We continually challenge and push each other, while also providing a network of support. I know that I wouldn’t be the scientist I am today without them.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
It’s hard to say for certain where my Ph.D. will take me, but I hope to stay in academia. Most importantly, I hope to have made significant contributions to ecologists’ understanding of how the various mechanisms of assembly shape community structure and function. The topic of community assembly had been controversial for years because no one could agree on which mechanisms were most important. In recent years, it has seen a revival as ecologists have more advanced tools to experimentally test their hypotheses and more data suggesting that there are multiple mechanisms at work in any given system. I am excited to build on this knowledge because it is foundational to our field. I also hope to continue to contribute to our understanding of the microbiome (bacteria, fungi, viruses)—much of which is still in the exploratory phase (i.e. what is out there?). We are beginning to manipulate these systems to get beyond correlation and towards causation, and I am excited to be a part of those advances.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
A lot of progress has been made over the past few decades to improve diversity in science, but I think there are still a lot of barriers to women, minority, and LGBT scientists. For one, I think many fields of science, at least in academia, present themselves as “ivory towers.” Your income, gender, sexuality, and race (and the intersectionality of these) can all be seen as barriers between young scientists and their dreams. This is a shame because the diversity of perspectives would actually improve the science being done. As an undergraduate who came from a low-income family, I constantly struggled to balance opportunities to further my scientific career with economic security. Almost all lab technician jobs were unpaid and most internships would only pay you through “college-credit,” which in reality means you are paying your undergraduate institution to work for another company (AKA you are worse than unpaid). I know I am not the only person who has had to deal with these realities, which is why I always try to get my undergraduate mentees some sort of funding either through the university or through grants. Even if this is not possible, providing mentorship to young scientists that represent these groups is critical! Sometimes all someone needs is for someone else to believe in them, reach out to them, give them a chance, and guide them. Be a good role model and do your best to combat discrimination (either overt or through micro-aggressions) both in the classroom and the workplace. Discuss what implicit bias is and describe how everyone has a bias, even scientists. Lastly, we need to more regularly recognize the pervasive mental health struggle among scientists and provide support for our colleagues in need instead of judgment or guilt. These are all giant issues that cannot be solved by any one person. However, I believe that if we all actively participate in not only acknowledging, but actually doing something to combat these barriers, science will become the accepting discipline that most want it to be.
You can contact Elle via email at ebarnes7@Fordham.edu and follow her on Twitter!