What is your scientific background?
My background is in Toxicology (Ph.D.) and Environmental Science (M.S.). I earned my Ph.D. in 2011 from the University of California, Davis (Bodega Marine Lab) and my Masters from Johns Hopkins University in 2005. I consider myself to be an Ecotoxicologist.
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?
Not a role model that I knew personally. I grew up in a wonderful solidly middle-class family just outside of Philadelphia. My dad worked for the Postal Service, my mom was an administrative assistant, my aunts and uncles were nurses and police officers, my grandfather sold Oldsmobiles. All were incredibly supportive and we were relatively close-knit, but no one had been to a 4-year college following high school, for example. As such, my interest in science, which began at an early age – we would take trips to the beach in New Jersey every summer and I would bring back shells and exoskeletons I collected along the beach to sort and stare at in my room once we got back home – was really considered more of a hobby than a potential career direction.
How did you choose your field of study?
In addition to the answer to the question above, I really migrated into the field of Toxicology following completion of my Master’s degree. My M.S. had been really more ecologically focused and my intention was to be finished with school once that degree was completed. I went to work for an environmental consulting firm outside of San Francisco after finishing my M.S. The work here was focused on testing for dischargers, places such as wastewater treatment plants, power plants, etc. We also did testing on sediments from marinas so they could be approved for dredging. We spent most of our time conducting bioassays which often involved doing a dilution series with water we had received from a wastewater treatment plant. We’d put some larval fish in the water, change it out every day for 4-7 days, and if the fish didn’t die we’d check the box and write a report saying that the water was safe for discharging into the bay or ocean. This is how such testing is still done across the country. We did some more complex assays with invertebrates for which we’d look at reproductive rate, and sometimes would look at the potential for shell deformities in bivalve larvae, but the job quickly became pretty repetitive and there wasn’t a lot of room for creativity or opportunities to contribute new ideas. I started to feel a bit stifled so I began to look into going back to school. Lucky for me the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab was just “up the road” from Tiburon where I was working, and I learned that one of the faculty there was a Toxicologist (Dr. Gary Cherr). I caught wind that there was a regional chapter of the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) and planned to go to their annual meeting with the intention of chatting with him. I found him at the meeting, we set up a time to meet at the lab later on, I applied to UC Davis and was accepted, and then I started feverishly writing grant applications to fund my future research.
If I were to name a role model that I had prior to college, I would say that Rachel Carson’s work inspired me to eventually work towards a career in the Environmental Sciences. Just about all of the other scientists I had learned of either in school or through books I had read were male. I think if I hadn’t read Silent Spring at that critical point that I would not have been able to even picture myself working in the sciences. I was also that annoying kid lecturing my parents on not leaving the water on while they brushed their teeth or reminding them on a daily basis that they needed to recycle. Reading her book during my early high school years made me realize that these “tendencies” of mine to feel strongly about protecting the environment and my profound interest in the natural world could, in fact, be combined into an actual career.
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?
I’ve been working on the effects of endocrine disrupting compounds since I began my dissertation work in 2007. Really the initial impetus for working on this topic was that I had seen a sign while riding the Muni in San Francisco advising people to not flush prescription medications down the toilet due to their effects on the aquatic environment. Of course, this seemed obvious to me, but I became very curious about what the specific effects might be, particularly because a lot of the work I was doing at my current job involved testing treated wastewater effluent. I began doing a lot of reading on the sublethal effects of prescription medications and other compounds on fish and aquatic invertebrates. I would work 9-5 each day and then return home to do research, this quickly became my new hobby.
I spent the first semester of grad school taking classes and writing grant application after grant application because I wanted to work on this very specific topic instead of joining a lab that had funding for unrelated work. At the time scientists at the universities surrounding the San Francisco Bay had begun to be very concerned about something called Pelagic Organism Decline. To sum it up in a nutshell, the populations of many of the fish species that were either migrating through or were residents of the San Francisco Bay estuary were in precipitous decline. I had decided that my research would focus on the potential role of endocrine disruptors in this decline, in particular on a newer class of pesticides (pyrethroids) that were being heavily used in California due to the phasing out of an older class (organophosphates) that was more toxic to mammals. Pyrethroids, it turned out, are highly toxic to fish and invertebrates.
I was fortunate enough to get a pre-doctoral fellowship through the Delta Science program, then known as CalFed, in 2007. I began working with an estuarine fish species (inland silverside) that I eventually developed as a model for effects of endocrine disruption in estuaries that I still use to this day 10 years later. My interest has continued to be primarily on the impacts of endocrine disrupting compounds such as pesticides and commonly used pharmaceuticals. My research has shown that environmentally detected levels of a widely used pesticide, bifenthrin, cause a large reduction in reproductive capability in my study species. I’ve also done some work in crustaceans, showing that another commonly used pesticide, fipronil (flea treatments, golf course pests), alters growth in juvenile crabs. I aim to connect changes in higher level effects such as reproduction and growth to changes at the molecular level (gene expression), getting at the mechanisms that underlie larger effects.
Most people think very little of the potential impacts the chemicals they use on a daily basis might have on the environment. My ultimate goals are to highlight these effects, explain why they are occurring often at such low concentrations, if possible show connections between impacts on ecological health with human health outcomes, and for my group’s work to have a positive influence regulatory decisions. The fourth goal is probably the most difficult one to achieve, as currently, the U.S. doesn’t prioritize the proactive evaluation of chemicals before they are out on the market and used in commercially available products. We are always playing catch-up with industry. The exception to this would be clinical trials performed to test the safety and efficacy of pharmaceuticals, but in this case, the priority is to test effects in humans, not the aquatic organisms that may expose downstream.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
Personally, I believe my biggest achievement to be my two wonderful inquisitive daughters. When I have a bad day I remind myself that ultimately I am doing this for them. Scientifically, my biggest achievement has been successfully funding my research program as an early-career faculty member. The opportunities for funding have been scarce and wonderful colleagues and I have been able to secure enough funding to continue conducting and publishing research that interests and inspires me on a daily basis.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
The most difficult part mostly relates to the schedule one really has to adhere to in order to be successful. You can’t let things go for a few weeks, you might miss an important opportunity such as a call for proposals, especially early in your career. Your schedule is flexible to some extent because in many ways you are your own boss, but at the same time, it can feel like you are on call 24/7. I love my job but the trade-off is that I am almost ALWAYS thinking about my job. You’re giving the kids a bath at night and in the back of your mind making a to-do list for what needs to get done after they go to bed.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
Absolutely, and I still do from time to time, I think we all do. Women constantly get mixed messages. You wake up in the morning and have 20 likes on Twitter because you posted the link to a paper that just came out, and then in the afternoon you call to book a hotel room for a conference and have correct the person you are speaking with when they assume you are a secretary booking the room for someone else.
Also, the pace of academic life and research is rapid and it can be overwhelming to do one’s job and to also keep on top of new findings and your overflowing inbox. It’s very easy to doubt yourself and to go down the imposter syndrome rabbit hole. Just have to remind myself that I belong where I am and that part of being an academic is that you are always learning, if you start to get too comfortable in your knowledge it means you are no longer on the cutting edge or that you aren’t exploring opportunities for new research directions.
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
I was very lucky to meet my future husband around the time I was finishing up my Master’s degree. He was a Ph.D. student at the time, and we happened to run into each other while I was doing a summer internship with The Nature Conservancy in the Virgin Islands, where his research program was based. I don’t think I would have had the courage to pursue a Ph.D. if it weren’t for his encouragement. He came from a very different family background than me, his grandfather had been a Physics professor, his uncle had also earned a Ph.D. in the ecological sciences and was a professor, it was kind of assumed for him at an early age that he would go into the sciences, and he was familiar with the pathway to get there. From my viewpoint, I assumed that only geniuses could get a Ph.D. and also really knew nothing about getting into a research-based graduate program. My Master’s degree had been coursework-based for the most part with a small side project that I turned into a publication after graduating, it was a part-time program at Johns Hopkins I had heard about while working in Washington D.C. after finishing undergrad. He really motivated me to reach a bit higher. Otherwise, I probably would have settled into the environmental consulting job I had gotten and not really looked to expand my horizons, I wouldn’t have really known where to look and even if I did, wouldn’t have believed that I was capable. He still provides encouragement and emotional support when times are tough and sometimes just on a day-to-day basis.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
Recently I have become very interested in epigenetics, which are changes that occur on top of DNA that alter the way genes are expressed. It is known that endocrine disrupting compounds alter the epigenome. Currently, we have a grant that supports the sequencing of the genome of my main study species, the inland silverside. Once we have this information we can use it to look at changes to the epigenome caused by exposure to chemicals, which can alter everything from early development, growth, immune response, and reproduction, etc. I’m also very curious about how changes to the epigenome facilitate rapid evolution, and how this may or may not allow organisms to adapt to changes in their environment. I have also become interested in the influence of global climate change on response to pollution exposure, my first Ph.D. student and I just submitted a paper on this topic.
Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?
Climate change, climate change, climate change!
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
I’ve had several great mentors, beginning with a fellow I worked with at the environmental consulting firm I mentioned in an answer above. He was a Ph.D. level scientist who had been hired by the firm to pursue new projects and to write grants. He really inspired me to go beyond and convinced me to apply to Ph.D. programs. I may not have done so if it weren’t for him. My Ph.D. advisor at UC Davis, Gary Cherr, was a phenomenal mentor, as was my post-doctoral advisor Richard Connon. Richard and I are still close collaborators and in many ways, he is still a mentor for me. In general, the faculty that was part of the Toxicology graduate program at UC Davis were incredibly supportive, I rarely felt at a disadvantage because I was female while in graduate school. Even when I became pregnant with my daughter as I entered my 4th year in the program, my mentors didn’t really bat an eye at this, or if they did they didn’t indicate any concern with me finishing and succeeding.
If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
I’m working on it currently, and that’s the best part!
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
One of the funniest things, at least it was funny after we solved the problem, was when my field assistant got stuck in the mud while we were out collecting fish from the SF Bay estuary. She was up to her elbows, the mud was almost quicksand-like. I had to tie a rope to a bucket, and then she somehow wrapped the bucket and rope around her, I tied the rope to the back of the boat we had been in and then floored it to yank her out of the mire. Definitely felt like watching McGyver as a kid helped us out in that situation. She came back to work with me the next week, if I were her I may not have!
The most memorable thing was meeting my future husband while I was a science intern for The Nature Conservancy and he was conducting his dissertation research on the island of St. Croix in USVI. It was a wonderful summer, he helped teach me how to scuba dive and we even got to attend an underwater wedding together.
Do you come from an academic family?
No, definitely not … see answer above. I come from just about the opposite of an academic family, I landed here due to their unwavering support combined with a series of fortunate accidents. I do find sometimes that I am in the minority because of this, many of my peers have parents, aunts, or uncles, or even grandparents in academia, or at least in a professional career in a science-related field. This isn’t surprising, I still think it’s a bit difficult to figure out how to get your foot in the door if you don’t personally know someone that has done it before, especially now since it seems you have to start doing internships while in early high school to build your resume so you are competitive enough to get into a good grad school.
How does your family regard your career choice?
At first, I think they didn’t quite understand why I had to be in school for so many years, and I do think they were a little worried about the job market for a degree in the sciences. I don’t know that to this day they really understand what motivates me (really you spend all day staring at fish in beakers?), but they have always been incredibly supportive nonetheless. At the end of the day, I know they are happy to see that the ultimate goal of my research is to protect the environment.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
Right now, as a parent of young children, my personal interests mainly revolve around them. Are they healthy, are they happy, how do I keep them that way? There isn’t a lot of time for hobbies at the moment. Eventually, I’d love to get back to throwing pottery, which was an interest of mine prior to having children. My goal is to have a pottery studio in the garage someday. I have managed to make the time to write blog posts on occasion, particularly since January when Trump became president and the situation for science and scientists has become very uncertain. My blog can be found here: https://medium.com/@susannebrander. The blog “I speak for the fish” really sums up my professional and personal reasons for being a scientist and for conducting the type of research I do.
What is a typical day like for you?
Typically I’m up at around 6:45 am, my husband and I work together to get our girls off to school and daycare, it’s often a bit chaotic. I then leave the house with my grade schooler and am at work by around 8:30 am. I may teach a class for an hour, then spend 30 minutes writing or revising a publication that a student is working on, then a few meetings with graduate students about challenges they are facing with their research or questions they might have, a phone call with collaborators on an outside project, completing some forms or doing purchasing for another 30 minutes or so, attending a meeting or two for faculty committees I am on, and then off at about 4:30 – 4:45 pm depending on which child I’m picking up at the end of the day. I almost always work through lunch because time is of the essence when you want to be home with your family for dinner. Usually, after dinner and bedtime, I’m back on my laptop for an hour or two between 8:30-10 pm. I enjoy my work immensely, but also prioritize family time (the hours between 5 – 8:30 pm are sacred for us), so I’m ok with fitting it in when I can, even if it ends up being a long day.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
It is hard, but my husband and I are able to manage both because we are equal contributors in our marriage. I don’t have to write to-do lists for him, he does things without being asked, he goes above and beyond every day. I feel truly blessed to be in an egalitarian partnership because I see so many women struggle with this. I tell my female students that selecting a partner is really one of the most important decisions they will ever make, particularly if they are interested in being successful in a demanding field while also being a parent. I dislike being asked “How do you do it all?,” because the question really should be “How do WE do it all?”
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
That it will all work out eventually. When you are in the trenches of graduate school it is sometimes hard to envision that you will ever be successful. I would have also advised my younger self to quickly grow a much thicker skin, which I am still working on to this day. You have to let a lot of things just roll off, otherwise, you can waste valuable time and brain power ruminating about little slights, especially as a female scientist and academic.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?
Since earning my Ph.D. I would say that the biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome is being taken seriously as a scientist while also being a mother. The realities of the sexism that still exists in the sciences, and everywhere else, didn’t really hit me until then. It’s kind of a death by a thousand cuts type of situation though. For example, after I had my second child I had emphasized to a group of collaborators that my husband and I were both taking leave at the same time so we could keep up with projects as needed (academics don’t really get three months completely off, grants don’t stop). I thought this would assure people that I wasn’t neglecting my duties as a parent if I needed to attend an hour-long meeting for a project, but shortly thereafter a collaborator made a comment during a meeting that babies really need their mothers when they are young, in front of the entire group. But if I would have neglected my duties to the project for several months I would have been written off as not being serious about my career. It’s very much a damned if you do, damned if you don’t type of situation for mothers. Another example is that I was at a conference and was asked about my kids a few times, and I responded that my husband was at home with them and that they were doing just fine, and I get a comment from someone that dads don’t really know what they are doing, they just pretend. Well haha, but that implies that raising a family is my primary job, and the assumption there is that I don’t have as much time for science as he does. So even if you are fortunate enough to share child-rearing equally with your spouse, which I am, you spend a lot of time dealing with other people’s assumptions.
Offhand comments like that are very difficult to deal with and happen on at least a weekly basis. My husband gets no such comments, in fact, he is lauded anytime he lifts a finger to care for our kids as being the greatest dad on the planet. And I think he is the greatest dad on the planet and that he should get all due credit, but it’s difficult when as a scientist mom you sometimes feel you get nothing but criticism or unintentionally hurtful comments, even when you are doing the same amount of work or maybe a little more (e.g. breastfeeding, he can’t share that) to raise your family. It also still doesn’t seem to be socially acceptable for a mother to work because she enjoys her work, not just because she has to work.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
See above. Being a mother comes with a set of assumptions that are difficult to overcome. I also sometimes get mistaken for admin staff at my current university. It makes you feel disrespected … and it’s something you have to deal with really on a regular basis, the world isn’t going to change overnight. I just continue to remind myself on a daily basis that I belong here, and that my existence as a scientist is contributing to a slow and positive change in the way society perceives women and mothers. Also because I am present in this career, if my daughters decide to embark upon any type of professional career it will hopefully be easier for them.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
I think that parental leave needs to be more consistent across universities, not just for faculty but for post-docs and graduate students too. All of us are pursuing these lengthy degrees during our prime reproductive years, the reality is that the pipeline is going to continue leaking women until we can allow for this most basic human need, permitting people to start families when it is best for them. I also think that parents should take leave together when possible (it should be easier to do this!) to normalize the sharing of parental duties from the beginning, otherwise, those things are destined to become the responsibility of the mother. I hear about so many situations where the dad gets about a week or two off and then is back to work, of course, that is going to set you up to fall back into traditional gender roles.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?
I feel incredibly honored and lucky that I have ended up in this line of work. Growing up I really got the impression that a job was just a job, you put in your time from 9-5, clocked out and that was the end of it. Of course, I don’t ever get to clock out really, but my work inspires me, gives me hope for the future, and I get the opportunity not only to interact with and mentor students but in effect get to continue learning myself throughout the rest my career. Really as a scientist and educator, I get paid to be curious, and that is the best part.
Susanne’s blog can be found here: https://medium.com/@susannebrander. You can also follow her on Twitter!