This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Veronica Padula, a PhD candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a science education and communication specialist. She shares the importance of her research studying the effect of marine debris on seabirds and why outreach and mentorship is so important for her. Veronica was nominated for #MeetAScientist by Emily Lescak for her impactful work. If you'd like to nominate an amazing woman scientist to be profiled on our site, email our web manager here!
When did you first identify as a scientist? What does your research today center on?
I first realized I wanted to pursue a career in science when I was in 6th grade. We read Jurassic Park, and my mind was simply blown by the idea that in a science fiction world somewhere, people could extract DNA from amber to recreate dinosaurs. I knew it wasn't something that was really happening, but the possibility was so cool to me. I wanted to be a geneticist of some sort. But I didn't identify as a scientist back then. Then in high school I took lots of science classes, and as a junior, I took AP Biology. It was my AP Biology teacher that really pushed me to dive into the life sciences. It's actually a funny story, because I almost dropped the class. I had completely bombed an assignment. My teacher had pulled me aside and suggested maybe I wasn't cut out for her class and maybe I should drop it. Of course, saying that to a stubborn teenager like me led me to take an "I'll show you" attitude. I worked my butt off throughout the rest of that class. Looking back, I always wonder if that teacher knew me well enough to realize she was sparking a passion in me instead of discouraging me. She also ended up being one of my favorite teachers from high school. Go figure!
In college, I majored in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology. I took fascinating classes and really cool field courses — at the Biosphere II, in Peru, and in Australia. Still, I didn't identify as a scientist; I always thought of myself as a student of science, but not a scientist myself. Maybe the first time I identified as a scientist was during the summer between my junior and senior year when I was a research intern with an organization called Wildlife Trust (now called EcoHealth Alliance), working on a project investigating the health of black-crowned night herons in the New York Harbor. I was in charge of my own research project, working in the field to collect blood samples from herons and then spending time in the lab counting white blood cells on slides under a microscope. My mentor trusted me to do the work relatively independently, standing by in case I had questions, but allowing me to figure out what I was doing on my own. I used the data from that project to write a senior thesis, and we also published that work in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It really was that experience that made me feel like a legit scientist, and that mentor is the reason I'm in Alaska today. I owe quite a bit to that experience!
I started my research with birds and I continue to work with birds today. My PhD work investigates the impacts of plastic marine debris on seabirds breeding in the Bering Sea. We look at whether or not numerous species of seabirds are ingesting plastic. We have detected plastic ingestion in about a quarter of our samples, although we are not completely finished collecting data, so that is just a preliminary number. We also look at whether or not plastic-associated chemicals are getting into these birds' tissues. Specifically, we look at phthalates, which are endocrine disruptors. It's kind of crazy to think that seabirds that live in places like the far western Aleutian Islands, where there are no human inhabitants, are at risk of consuming plastics, a human-made material. It always hits home for me that humans touch every last part of this planet, even where no humans live.
On top of that, I work as the Science Education and Communication Specialist for the Ecosystem Conservation Office of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. It's a relatively new job, and I'm still learning the ropes. But I love what I do. I love making science accessible to students of all ages. I love the challenge of translating the research done by our office so community members can connect with what we're up to. In return, we get ideas from community members about what kinds of questions are important for them. It's a dream job, because over time I've come to believe that science needs to be accessible to all people; it shouldn't live in an Ivory Tower. While it took me a long time to identify as a scientist, in my adulthood I've come to believe that everyone is a scientist simply by observing the world around them. I hope I can communicate that to people in some way.
Plastic marine debris often seems like a far-off problem since it's not something many of us can see with our eyes. How is it a problem you got interested in and how do you communicate the urgency of the issue?
I was working with my adviser on a project investigating seabird trophic ecology in the Western Aleutian Islands. We collected seabird specimens from the region, and our original intention was to analyze muscle, liver, and feathers for stable isotope values. However, since we were interested in what the birds were eating, we looked in their stomachs, where we started seeing things that were not food. Plastics, which were not on our radar, were showing up in the seabirds' stomachs. It was really a story waiting to be told; it seemed that it wanted us to tell that story. It's been a bit of an evolution over time. We have been trying to track plastic ingestion and exposure in a couple of ways, looking at stomach contents and analyzing tissues for plastic-associated chemicals. It was mind blowing. We knew that seabirds in other regions were impacted, like albatross in Hawaii. But they are starving to death from eating too much plastic. Our seabirds were not starving to death, and the impacts of plastic ingestion are a bit more subtle because our seabirds mostly ingest microplastics, raising more questions about the more subtle impacts on seabirds.
The idea that we were discovering something that you couldn't necessarily see with your naked eye was what got me really hooked on the project. These birds also lived on islands with no human inhabitants, yet they were ingesting human-made plastics. I can't ask seabirds to stop eating plastics (I promise you, I wish I could), so what was I going to do to apply this work and make a difference? I started doing lots and lots of outreach about the work — visiting classrooms, public lectures, blog posts — because I wanted people to know that this was a huge issue, and we needed to do something about it. While cleaning all the plastic debris out of the ocean might seem like an impossible task, I didn't want people to feel helpless. So I started talking about small actions we could all take to reduce the amount of plastic we use in our lives. Having reusable bottles and utensils at hand, for example, is a great way to start. I love my coffee, so I always make sure I have travel mugs around. I basically have one for my car, one for the office, and one that I take on trips with me. I would really love to get a plastic bag ban going in Anchorage. Other communities in Alaska have enacted plastic bag bans, like Cordova and St. Paul Island, where I work. It would be huge if Anchorage was able to do so, and I've chatted with numerous folks about it. But it is difficult to know where to start when it comes to enacting city-wide sanctions. I really wish I had more time to get to know the policy side of things better, and hopefully one day I'll get there. In the meantime, conversations with as many people as possible helps, because many times people have important knowledge to share, such as the steps they took in their community to enact policy changes.
You have an amazing track record of mentorship and outreach. Why do you think it's important for you to reach out? What advice do you have for people just getting started in the outreach and mentorship space?
It's important for me to reach out because I know that if people hadn't reached out to me in the past, I wouldn't be where I am today. I'm a firm believer in karma and paying it forward. So many people invested in me and cheered me on in my successes throughout my life. While I always try to express my gratitude directly to them, I believe the best way to show my gratitude is by sharing what I have learned from them with a new generation of scientists. I hope that through mentorship and outreach, I am able to foster a passion and love for science in at least a few students. I also think it's extremely important, especially right now, to show everyone that science is all around us and that we can all access some version of science with a little help. I hate the idea of science being in an Ivory Tower. It doesn't belong there. Science is all around us, therefore I think it belongs to everyone. I hope that I can model that when I do my outreach activities or mentor students.
One of my biggest pieces of advice for people just getting into the outreach and mentorship space is that success doesn't happen overnight. I wasn't good at it at first, and I'm still learning every day how to be a good communicator and mentor. So it's important to allow for space in which to grow and evolve in how you do your outreach and mentorship. Also, pay attention to each relationship as much as possible. It takes some emotional investment, which is a big ask, but it's worth it in the end, because you never know which relationships will evolve into lifelong friendships or collaborations or partnerships. Each person that passes through your life has the potential to make a huge impact on it if you allow relationships to grow.
How did you get involved with 500 Women Scientists? What do you hope to get out of the group and what do you hope to contribute?
My friend and colleague, Emily Lescak, is the champion for 500WS in Alaska. She's one of my science heroes, and I definitely try to model my efforts on all the good things she has done at University of Alaska Anchorage. When she asked me if I was interested in participating in 500WS, I said of course, even though it's sometimes difficult to keep up with everything, particularly during the field season. In terms of what I would like to get out of 500WS, it's mostly a sense of camaraderie and gaining a support network. The way our world is structured, sometimes I see these microaggressions going on, or injustices toward a particular group of people, and don't see anyone speaking up about how wrong these things are. I sit back and wonder if I'm overly sensitive, or imagining things, or getting upset about nothing. I don't necessarily feel comfortable bringing that up with people, particularly male colleagues. I appreciate having a safe space to air my concerns and not be told to get over it.
The women who lead the 500WS pod in Anchorage have created a safe space in which I can be myself, discuss my feelings openly, and get help resolving issues I care about. Or, when it comes to large injustices, we can figure out an action together. For example, we all have strong feelings about the way our education system works, and how the system in place really leaves students with a subpar education, particularly in the sciences. We firmly believe in making science education accessible to as many people as possible, particularly young women. So we are trying to get out there and participate in more outreach programs to have as much contact with students as possible and show them that it doesn't matter what you look like or what your background is; anyone is capable of doing science! I hope I can contribute by supporting outreach efforts, particularly with groups in rural Alaska, as I have built up a network of teachers over time, and I am happy to put them in touch with our 500WS members.
When you're not doing research or outreach, what do you do to unwind?
I'm a Zumba instructor. I might not be the best dancer, but I love it regardless! Getting in front of people and leading Zumba songs has actually made a big difference in the rest of my life. I've had to get over lots of nerves to lead the songs, and that has helped me when presenting at scientific conferences or teaching in classrooms. Now I'm at a point where I'm likely to dance anywhere at anytime.
I coach at the Anchorage Fencing Club also. I've been fencing since I was in 6th grade, and love coaching. Our students are pretty awesome, but I'm probably biased. Now that it's winter, I'm excited to get on my cross country skis! Thankfully Anchorage has lots of good trails for that. Finally, when I just want to sit and listen to my podcasts, I really enjoy knitting.
Veronica Padula was born and raised in New Jersey, and received an undergraduate degree in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology from Columbia University. She didn't discover her love of the environment until the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of college, where she participated in a five-week Field Biology course at the Biosphere II in Arizona. That experience shaped her career pursuits, and her research adventures eventually brought her to Alaska in 2007. Since that time she has done field research all over the state on fish, birds, and mammals. She has completed a Master's in Fisheries through the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Fisheries through the same school. Her research investigated the impacts of plastic marine debris on seabirds breeding in the Bering Sea. In addition to graduate school, Veronica also serves as the Science Education and Communication Specialist for the Ecosystem Conservation Office of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Alaska. She loves her job because she gets to share her love of and passion for science with an amazing community, and beyond.