What is your scientific background?
I have a Bachelors of Science degree from West Chester University. My focus was on freshwater ecology. I have a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. My capstone was “Combining DNA Barcoding and Macroinvertebrate Sampling to Assess Water Quality”
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to become a scientist?
When I was younger I loved the PBS show Marty Stouffer’s Wild America. Watching a true naturalist explore the world around him was something I had never seen before. I also loved the shows narrated by David Attenborough and was always fascinated by whatever he shared in his programs. When I was 10, my cousin from Germany came for a visit. He was in college studying to be a biologist, and during a walk in a local forest, he found a tiny little frog hiding in a tree. It changed my world-view; suddenly I realized that I could become a naturalist here in my own backyard. In college, I had many professors who were enthusiastic about ecology, most notably Dr. Maya Evenden and Dr. Winfield Fairchild.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
It was something that made sense to me and that I was good at.
How did you choose your field of study?
My professors at West Chester often worked with invertebrates when discussing population biology and ecology. I had an entomology course with Dr. Maya Evenden (who now teaches 6 + entomology courses at the University of Alberta in Canada) and her enthusiasm was contagious. She was a true inspiration and an excellent teacher.
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?
My current project is The Barcode of Life (barcodeoflife.org). We are working to build up the library of genetic CO1 sequences of all the Lepidoptera (and their parasitoids) of the Guanacaste Conservation Area in Costa Rica (http://janzen.sas.upenn.edu/). This project is our attempt at cataloging species in an effort to bring to light the higher-then-expected diversity in Costa Rica. As we examine our results, we are finding a surprising amount of biological diversity. What we thought was one species turns into 10, what we thought was a generalist parasitoid turns into 20 + species of specialists! If we can spread the word that there is still a large number of undiscovered species in these areas, we can add value to them.
I am also working on describing Crambidae species by dissecting genitalia and mounting them on slides. We will publish all our ecological, biological, genetic and morphological data on several species.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
My Master’s degree has been my biggest achievement career-wise, having my children be kind, generous people is my biggest personal one. My biggest failure career wise is not having a Ph.D. by this point in my life, and not spending more time with my children has been my biggest personal one.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
Staying focused. A lot of my job is repetitive and mundane, requiring an attention to detail. To be fair though, most data-driven science requires this kind of work.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
This is a difficult question for me. Yes, I doubt myself, I feel if I did not, then I would not be good at what I do. Attention to detail and consistency requires one to be a bit self-critical. I work hard at what I do, and I am a very capable cog in the wheel – but still a cog. I have a pretty great partner; he is always supportive and kind. I have amazing children who love everything I do. I go to therapy twice a month to manage my anxiety and depression. I have started to volunteer my time to educate young people about insects by bringing my live and dead collection for them to see and interact with. Watching their faces light up with wonder and excitement is truly uplifting.
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
Righteous indignation at how biodiversity and science are undervalued. Watching other scientists never give up in the face of uncertainty. Fear of disappointing my children.
Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?
It’s tough for me to pick just one. I feel like most ecology studies should receive more attention. And maintaining old collections is vitally important; museum funding should have a higher priority in our society.
If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
Freshwater ecology or the physiological basis of human asexuality.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
The most memorable moments have been on field trips. When I was interning at Stroud Water Research Center, I was given the opportunity to assist them with some fieldwork in New York. New York City and the EPA had been conducting a long-term study on the water quality of the streams in the Catskills. I was able to tag along, help out, and get to see how large-scale fieldwork was done. It was very exciting and beautiful.
The best trip was my trip to Montana. While working on my Master’s degree, I had an opportunity to go to Montana and Wyoming for 2 weeks for a field course. My husband and I had just bought a house and gotten married. We were pretty poor and couldn’t afford a honeymoon, but the course allowed the students to bring someone with them. My husband tagged along as we learned all about rocky mountain geology and ecology. It was an amazing experience that changed my life. I have made lifelong friends and if I had a chance to go anywhere in the world, I would return to Montana.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
I hope to have my Ph.D. in 10 years or at least a better paying job!
Stay tuned for part 2 of the interview with Tanya!