Meet scientists who take on the study of life | Science News for Students

Meet scientists who take on the study of life

From birds to salamanders, these STEM women are all about biology
Sep 16, 2016 — 7:15 am EST
Lisa Chella

Lisa Chella studies Zulu sheep — a type of sheep that is native to South Africa.

Namhla Mdutshane

When Science News for Students asked for women in science, technology, engineering and math to send us pictures of themselves, we got answers from all aspects of STEM. We received more than 150 responses! They include 18 countries and all seven continents.

We’ve put some photos in our feature story on women in science. But we wanted to make sure they all got their chance to shine. So this week, we are sharing their stories. Here are women who are taking on the study of life. Meet our biologists!

Joanna Bagniewska
Joanna Bagniewska has lived in seven countries! Now, she helps immigrants in England adjust to their new lives.
Andrew Steele

Joanna Bagniewska

“I'm a zoologist, and I study invasive species,” says Bagniewska. “These are species that have been brought by humans, accidentally or intentionally, to new places and have become a threat to native biodiversity there.” She works at the University of Reading in England.

Bagniewska’s life has taken her around the globe. Originally from Poland, she’s lived in Italy, Thailand, China, Germany, the United States and England. “In my spare time,” she says, “I now work with migrant communities in Britain.”

Lisa Chella

“My research and life's work so far is conservation of indigenous species,” says Chella. She’s a biologist at the University of Zululand in Mangeze, South Africa. She studies a type of sheep — the Zulu sheep — and has mapped out its genome.

Chella is fearless around some animals. She’s handled crocodiles, pythons and chameleons, for instance. But her weakness? “I am utterly and completely terrified of moths and butterflies,” she says.

Lorelei Eschbach
When Lorelei Eschbach isn’t handling giant millipedes, she’s tearing it up on the roller derby rink.
Sean Hale

Lorelei Eschbach

Ever wondered where the animals in your classroom come from? Eschbach knows. She works at Ward’s Science, located in Rochester, N.Y. “Basically, whatever science needs your classroom has, we provide it,” she says. “I more specifically work in the algae and protozoa lab. If a class needs amoeba or tardigrades, I culture them and prepare them for shipping.”

As part of her job, Eschbach gets to take her work on the road. She heads to schools to show off what is housed in the entomology lab, she says. “We are the only company that sells giant tropical millipedes in the [United States], so it is an awesome experience for the students to get to hold one.”

Diana Freire

Why submit your own picture when you can make a video with all of your fellow scientists? Diana Freire, a graduate student at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Hamburg, Germany, made us this great video! Check out all the science she and her colleague do and the fun they have.

Friere didn’t just share her own work with us, she made a video with all of her friends at EMBL!
D. Friere
Charlotte Milling
Charlotte Milling holds one of her study subjects, a pygmy rabbit.
Laura McMahon

Charlotte Milling

Milling is a graduate student in ecology and conservation at the University of Idaho in Moscow. She is studying why animals choose to live where they do and the influence of physiology on their behavior and personality. “Knowing how and why an animal uses the habitat and resources it does allows us to make informed and effective wildlife management decisions,” she notes.

Scientist is definitely Milling’s first choice of career. But if she could be anything other than a scientist, she says, “I would be a baker and a track coach, because I love pastries, running and teaching, and the schedules are compatible.”

Kerry “K” Nicholson

Many people might see a bear and run. Not Nicholson! She’s a carnivore biologist who’s studied everything from bears to lizards in places as varied as Texas, Antarctica, Sweden and South Africa. But in the end, it was Alaska that drew her. “Although Sweden was filled with meatballs and Prinsesstårta, it was just not the same midnight sun,” she says. “The moose were too small, reindeer too nice and too few wolves or bears — this Goldilocks needed to go home.”

K. Nicholson
K. Nicholson went on a bear hunt for science, and she got a big one.
Don Young

Now she’s a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. But that’s not all. Nicholson throws pots, kayaks, does traditional Native Alaskan bead work — and has even learned how to breathe fire.

Agnés Pelletier

Have you ever wondered why marmots get divorced? Agnés Pelletier has. She is a biologist who teaches at universities in Winnipeg, Canada. “I teach biology, genetics, environmental science and communication,” she says. “I have studied why black bears that should supposedly be similar have genetic differences, as well as...why marmots divorce!”

A. Pelletier
Agnés Pelletier with her scientific hero, primatologist Jane Goodall.
Baptiste Marcère

Science has given Pelletier an opportunity to meet people she admires. “Jane Goodall has always been my hero,” she says. Goodall is a famous primatologist and one of the world’s greatest experts on chimpanzees. “When I was expecting my second child, I knew that if it ended up being a girl, I would give her ‘Jane’ as a middle name,” Pelletier says. “I had the immense pleasure to tell Jane Goodall in person when she came to visit my university.” Pelletier even got to take a photo with Goodall "holding" her baby while she was pregnant.

E. Sedivy
From left to right: Emma Sedivy, Nicole Aponte Santiago, Sonya Entova and Amelie Raz are all biologists at MIT.
E. Sedivy

Emma Sedivy

Every scientist needs a little time away from the lab. Sedivy and her colleagues like to hike. “Here's our summit selfie from a recent trip,” she says. Sedivy is a graduate student in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. She studies “how individual cells made complicated decisions about life and death,” she says.

Her friends Nicole Aponte Santiago, Sonya Entova and Amelie Raz are also all scientists. Santiago studies the brain. Entova studies how individual cells take in the sugars they need to live. Raz studies regeneration — how animals can regrow parts of themselves that become injured. Sedivy says Raz is “committed to developing a real-life Wolverine,” the X-Men character that can almost instantly recover from any injury.

Nadya Sotnychuk
Nadya Sotnychuk gets down to business in the lab.
MD Akram Hossain

Nadya Sotnychuk

Research doesn’t have to wait until graduate school. Nadya Sotnychuk is a college student at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware. She studies how microbes affect bird feathers, and she’s already making waves. “I just received an honorable mention for my undergraduate poster presentation at the NAOC VI (North American Ornithological Conference) in Washington, D.C.,” she notes.

College is a great time to make sure you do it all. Sotnychuk is majoring in zoology and psychology — and minoring in theater.

Joan Strassman
Joan Strassman shows off a fungal find.
David Queller

Joan Strassmann

“You can get paid to explore the forests, to study whatever you like?” Strassman recalls discovering when she was younger. “I signed on and never looked back.” She revels in the freedom of scientific study and is now a biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. She studies social amoebas. These single-celled organisms are a lot smaller than the fungus she found in the forest.

Yiwei Wang
Yiwei Wang holds a baby mountain lion.
Veronica Yovovich

Yiwei Wang

Very few people have been able to hold a baby mountain lion for the sake of science. Wang is one of them. She started out studying mountain lions, but now she’s the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory in California. Her research has taken her around the world and placed her face to face with many different animals. Or maybe that’s trunk to trunk. “An elephant almost got its trunk on me in a car while I was working in Kenya,” she recalls.

Heidi Ware

“When I was a kid, I was the nerd who loved Lord of the Rings and insects,” Ware recalls. Now, she says, she’s mostly a “bird nerd.” She studies birds professionally at the Intermountain Bird Observatory in Boise, Idaho. “I love working with birds because you can study them anywhere,” she says. “They are on every continent and in most any habitat.”

Heidi Ware
Heidi Ware is a self-described “bird nerd.” Here she holds a baby barn owl.
Carlie Levenhagen

Jessica Whited

Biology can be exciting — so exciting it gets you out of bed in the morning. “Despite all the late nights studying and in the lab, I’ve never ever had a cup of coffee — and I honestly don’t need it to get out of bed each day and do what I do,” says Whited. She’s a biologist at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., and nearby Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She studies how animals such as salamanders can regrow entire limbs. “I am a huge believer in little girls growing up and not doubting they can do whatever they want,” she says.

Jessica Whited
Jessica Whited hangs out with her twin sons.
Mike Sullivan

Ann Marie Rivera

Women in science come from all walks of life. The video below shows off the wonderful professors of Mt. San Jacinto Community College in California. They started out in medicine, environmental consulting and even yoga!

These scientists do it all! Meet the STEM faculty of Mt. San Jacinto Community College in California.
Ann Marie Rivera

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

algae     Single-celled organisms, once considered plants (they aren’t). As aquatic organisms, they grow in water. Like green plants, they depend on sunlight to make their food.

amoeba     A single-celled microbe that catches food and moves about by extending fingerlike projections of a colorless material called protoplasm. Amoebas are either free-living in damp environments or they are parasites.

Antarctica     A continent mostly covered in ice, which sits in the southernmost part of the world.

behavior     The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

biodiversity     (short for biological diversity) The number and variety of species found within a localized geographic region.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists .

birds     Warm-blooded animals with wings that first showed up during the time of the dinosaurs. Birds are jacketed in feathers and produce young from the eggs they deposit in some sort of nest. Most birds fly, but throughout history there have been the occasional species that don’t.

Britain     Another name for England. It is not the same thing as Great Britain, which refers not only to England but also to Scotland and Wales. It’s also not the same thing as the United Kingdom, which includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

carnivore     An animal that either exclusively or primarily eats other animals.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the naked eye, it consists of watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells, depending on their size. Some organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chameleon     A type of lizard known for its ability to change the color of its skin.

conservation     The act of preserving or protecting something. The focus of this work can range from art objects to endangered species and other aspects of the natural environment.

continent     (in geology) The huge land masses that sit upon tectonic plates. In modern times, there are six geologic continents: North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Australia and Antarctic a .

culture     (in biology) The community of cells or tissue that is intentionally grown outside the body (or the wilds) for research purposes, usually in a laboratory. (in social science) The sum total of typical behaviors and social practices of a related group of people (such as a tribe or nation). Their culture includes their beliefs, values, and the symbols that they accept and or use. It’s passed on from generation to generation through learning. Once thought to be exclusive to humans, scientists have recognized signs of culture in several other animal species, such as dolphins and primates.

ecology     A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

entomology     The scientific study of insects. One who does this is an entomologist . A paleoentomologist studies ancient insects, mainly through their fossils.

environmental science     The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists .

fungus     (plural: fungi) One of a group of single- or multiple-celled organisms that reproduce via spores and feed on living or decaying organic matter. Examples include mold, yeasts and mushrooms.

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

genome     The complete set of genes or genetic material in a cell or an organism. The study of this genetic inheritance housed within cells is known as genomics.

graduate school     A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

graduate student     Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

habitat     The area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef or freshwater lake. A habitat can be home to thousands of different species.

insect     A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

invasive species     (also known as aliens) A species that is found living, and often thriving, in an ecosystem other than the one in which it evolved. Some invasive species were deliberately introduced to an environment, such as a prized flower, tree or shrub. Some entered an environment unintentionally, such as a fungus whose spores traveled between continents on the winds. Still others may have escaped from a controlled environment, such as an aquarium or laboratory, and begun growing in the wild. What all of these so-called invasives have in common is that their populations are becoming established in a new environment, often in the absence of natural factors that would control their spread. Invasive species can be plants, animals or disease-causing pathogens. Many have the potential to cause harm to wildlife, people or to a region’s economy.

limb     (in physiology) An arm or leg. (in botany) A large structural part of a tree that branches out from the trunk.

lizard     A type of reptile that typically walks on four legs, has a scaly body and a long tapering tail. Unlike most reptiles, lizards also typically have movable eyelids. Examples of lizards include the tuatara, chameleons, Komodo dragon, and Gila monster.

mass     A number that shows how much an object resists speeding up and slowing down — basically a measure of how much matter that object is made from.

microbe     Short for microorganism . A living thing that is too small to see with the unaided eye, including bacteria, some fungi and many other organisms such as amoebas. Most consist of a single cell.

millipede     Long-bodied invertebrates with many segments. Most body segments have two pairs of legs.

molecular biology     The branch of biology that deals with the structure and function of molecules essential to life. Scientists who work in this field are called molecular biologists .

native     Associated with a particular location; native plants and animals have been found in a particular location since recorded history began. These species also tend to have developed within a region, occurring there naturally (not because they were planted or moved there by people). Most are particularly well adapted to their environment.

physiology     The branch of biology that deals with the everyday functions of living organisms and how their parts function. Scientists who work in this field are known as physiologists.

psychology     (adj. psychological ) The study of the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. To do this, some perform research using animals. Scientists and mental-health professionals who work in this field are known as psychologists.

python     A large, heavy-bodied, nonpoisonous constrictor snake.

selection     In biology, a process in which environmental or genetic influences determine.

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Or a sunlike star.

tardigrade     An eight-legged creature not much larger than the period at the end of a sentence. Tardigrades live in many places, including ponds, the sea floor and parts of Antarctica where rock sticks above the ice.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

undergraduate     A term for a college student — one who has not yet graduated.

United Kingdom     Often referred to as Britain, its roughly 60 million people live in the four “countries” of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. More than 80 percent of the UK’s inhabitants live in England. Many people — including UK residents — argue whether the UK is a country or instead a confederation of four separate countries. The United Nations and most foreign governments treat the UK as a single nation.

womb     Another name for the uterus, the organ in mammals in which a fetus grows and matures in preparation for birth.

zoology     The study of animals and their habitats. Scientists who undertake this work are known as zoologists .


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