This is the first of hopefully a continuing series highlighting the research and careers of the many amazing scientists at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center…
At the 2012 USGS Open House this weekend, one of the many USGS scientists the public will meet is Laura Valoppi. A biologist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, Laura currently serves as the lead scientist for the multiagency South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project.
Laura has to coordinate a massive portfolio of research projects -- ranging from mercury toxicity to sediment transport, from mudflat invertebrates to endangered plovers -- and organize findings not just from USGS but from a suite of other research institutions and universities all collaborating on the salt pond research. It’s a mammoth undertaking, but as Laura says, a rewarding one that allows her to work with great colleagues and new science.
Here is our Q&A with Laura:
For a lot of commuters and travelers, the South Bay wetlands are simply a blur out the driver’s side window during their daily drive. What are they missing?
They’re missing quiet trails along serene salt marshes, viewing platforms that overlook migratory bird colonies, and a personal connection with one of the most valuable natural infrastructures protecting South Bay cities. There’s a lot of science that USGS is conducting out there in the South Bay salt ponds, but for everyday folks, you can jog and bike along the many trails managed by California Department of Fish and Game and the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, whether you’re east in Hayward, or south in Alviso, or commute over the Dumbarton Bridge.
You can learn more about how to visit the salt ponds at http://www.southbayrestoration.org/visit-the-ponds/
What led to you to become a scientist? Are there any memorable childhood experiences?
A few early events stand out – the first was a women science teacher that I had in the 3rd grade. I went to a parochial grade school and was taught mostly by nuns, so she was one of the few lay teachers in the school. This teacher inspired within me the interest and fascination with science and the natural world that I still have today. There was a TV show at about the same time -- Time Tunnel I think was the name -- that had a woman scientist as a character on the show that wore a white lab coat. That was my first inkling that women could be something other than nuns or moms.
Another memorable event was when I was about 14 years old, and went on a boat down the Detroit River to go to an amusement park (I’m a Detroit native). This was the early 1970s, and the Detroit River was very much polluted. I recall standing on the top deck of the boat and being outraged to see a nasty, orange plume of water coming out of one of the very industrialized areas of downriver Detroit, and I thought “People should not be allowed to do that.”
I went on to get a B.S. degree in Natural Resources, and an M.S. degree that included study in chemistry and toxicology. A good chunk of my career was spent as an ecological risk assessor and wildlife toxicologist working to clean up areas that were polluted. It was that early visceral reaction to pollution on the Detroit River years earlier that guided my career choices.
As a woman scientist, were there any challenges in your career?
When I was in graduate school, I took classes in environmental engineering and hydrology, where I was usually one of two women, sometimes the only woman, in the class. This was in the 1980's, but I still felt like I was patronized and not accepted by the older professors, and even some of my fellow students. It was not universal, so I just tried to ignore those that did not approve, align myself with those that were accepting, and focus on my work.
Where do you want to go in your career?
Right where I am now! As lead scientist for the South San Francisco Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, I am involved in direct restoration of an ecosystem. It is so exciting to me to see areas become enhanced for nature, whether it is seeing birds use newly constructed islands, or a salt pond come to life once the levees are breached to let rush of tide water come in. I get to work with great scientists from USGS and many other institutions, I learn something new every day (or I try to), and I get to see a site transformed back to what it was originally. It's like watching a TV program that's a combination of HGTV and a Nature program.
What are your words of advice for kids and teens who aspire to become natural scientists?
Many years ago I found a greeting card with this quote, that I have framed and keep on my desk:
“If you always do what interests you, then at least one person is pleased.”
- Advice to Katherine Hepburn from her mother
I think as scientists we have a curiosity about the world around us, and the best scientists are always asking ‘why’. So if you keep studying what interests you, and keep asking “why”, then you will continue to make contributions to scientific understanding. And have an interesting and happy life as well.
-- Ben Young Landis