Kathryn joined EnviroLab Asia in August 2017 as the Postdoctoral Fellow. “We are thrilled to have Kathryn on board. She holds a unique position at the Claremont Colleges as a 5C teaching and research postdoctoral fellow,” says Branwen Williams, Co-Principal Investigator of EnviroLab Asia. Kathryn teaches EA30L (Fall 2017) at Keck Science. In this Q&A, Kathryn talks about her interests and background. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: Please tell the Claremont community about yourself. What are you working on at the EnviroLab Asia? What experiences led you to pursue this?
I am an environmental scientist and limnologist (study of inland waters). I am interested in understanding environmental changes in coastal Thailand, as connected to ecosystems and different land use practices. For instance, I plan on studying nutrient movement through shrimp farms and potentially identifying ways to decrease their impact on mangroves and coastal waters.
I was drawn to this Postdoctoral Fellow position because I wanted the challenge of a new study system, as well as a balance between amaching and research. Teaching at a liberal arts college where students feel more involved in their learning is important to me. Regarding the EnviroLab Asia program, I am most excited about the notion of the travelling classroom that is the Clinic Trip. The idea of learning concepts in the places where many of them are being practiced is fantastic.
Q: Where are you from and what are your research interests?
I am from Toronto, Canada, and completed all three of my university degrees in Ontario. I also recently completed a federally-funded exchange at UCLA, where I studied the effects of sea level rise on coastal California salt marshes. Broadly, I am dedicated to understanding human impacts on the environment. Traditionally, I have used paleolimnology (the study of lake sediment records) to examine different anthropogenic impacts on the environment, including tracking temperature changes in lakes from climate warming, mining contamination, and hunting pressure impacts on seabird populations, to name a few examples.
I completed my PhD at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and looked at how subarctic lakes and peatlands have responded to past and current climatic changes. Prior to coming to CMC, I was at the University of Ottawa developing a new method, utilizing animal steroids achieved in lake sediments, for tracking the historical occupation of nesting seabirds on islands throughout the Canadian Arctic.
For my first Postdoctoral position at the University of Ottawa, I received a privately-funded 2-year fellowship from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation. This fellowship gave me the opportunity to travel to Arctic sites, along with several government scientists and Inuit guides, and collect really comprehensive samples (e.g., water samples, sediments, vegetation, and bird surveys). In turn, we have used these samples to build a story on the intricate connection of seabirds to Arctic islands. By feeding in marine ecosystems and depositing their nutrient-rich guano on islands, seabirds overtime have inadvertently transformed these islands from bare rocks to lush habitats with thick vegetation mats, ponds thriving with plankton, abundant insects, and even polar bears detect the smell of the islands and arrive to eat eggs. The Foundation board required recipients to make videos to improve science outreach, and though I did not have prior editing or cinematography skills, I did capture some nice footage.
Q: How would you describe your teaching/pedagogy?
I believe in “learn by doing.” With environmental science, I feel that it is really important for the students to see the relevancy to their lives, and be motivated to understand and propose solutions to environmental problems, whether they be at the local or global scale. I am excited to introduce the scientific process to students, and to use case studies, papers and discussions as well as teamwork to understand not only the process, but also how “failure” or unexpected results in science can be equally important in driving science forward.
Q: Tell me about a memorable moment in your academic experience.
Several courses stick out as really momentous is driving my academic experience. My 1st year of university in biology was a complete let-down for me. It was far too factual, relied close to 100% on multiple-choice testing, and really just too broad. I felt unmotivated, but I did not know any other options, so I continued studying biology. My first year grades were not great, but when I took animal zoology – a course that walked through the evolution of all lifeforms today– it really sparked my interest in science.
Professor John Smol inspired me to complete an Honours thesis, which introduced me to microscopy and the wonderful world of diatoms. I loved looking into the microscope to witness a new perspective to the world. This is how I really got introduced to the scientific process and hooked on research, and specifically limnology.
Q: What components of EnviroLab Asia are you most excited about?
I’m most excited about being a part of this holistic teaching method that not only includes environmental analysis, but also asks questions about the important social links and economic practices behind different land uses and management scenarios. Often I feel as scientists, we can separate ourselves too far from the people with which our data affects the most, albeit we identify important environmental concerns we often don’t synchronously provide realistic solutions.
Q: What tips would you pass on to current college students, like some things you wish you knew when you were a college student?
I would say volunteer in research labs early on. There are many reasons I say this, but the most important is to truly learn what field of science spikes your interest and challenges you. Although I also find that there can be a lot of memorization work in biology and students may find themselves not truly experiencing how science is practiced. Lab work gives students hands-on experience and much needed mental breaks; it allows students to be apart of the processes in testing scientific hypotheses!
I would also say practice science communication, whether in a blog, twitter, video, or other forum. It’s important to voice your opinion and be active in describing science to your peers.