These scientists study plants and animals by land and sea

Meet our botanists, marine biologists and much more
Dec 6, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
K. Lesnecki

Katey Lesneski takes a dive. She studies how to help coral recover from environmental stress.

K. Lesnecki

When students think about studying science, some of them might envision swimming with dolphins or spending time in the woods. Not all science happens in the lab, after all. When Science News for Students sent out a call for pictures from women in science, technology, engineering and technology (STEM), we got more than 150 submissions from around the world. And some of these scientists really do spend their some of their scientific lives diving in the ocean for science and hiking in the forest. Today, meet 18 scientists who are living the dream.

Brooke Best
Brooke Best checks out a prairie.
David Fisk

Brooke Best

Best is a botanist — someone who studies plants. She investigates the diversity of plants in different environments. She also loves language. And she gets to combine her two joys in her job. She helps other scientists publish books and scientific journals about plant science at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth.

When she’s not checking out plants, Best says, “I really enjoy memorizing rap songs (or any songs) with lots of very fast lyrics. Must be the word lover in me!”

T. Cairns
Tina Cairns shows off one of her hockey jerseys.
T. Cairns

Tina Cairns

Scientists have some odd choices for their favorite things. Cairns has a favorite virus — herpes. This is a virus that infects people and can cause sores on the mouth, face and genitals. Having a favorite virus isn’t so weird for Cairns, though. She’s a virologist — someone who studies viruses — at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Why does she like a virus that gives people irritating sores? Cairns studies how the virus enters cells, and her work has made her appreciate the virus’ abilities.

When not in the lab, Cairns likes life on the ice. “I started playing ice hockey in graduate school, and I wear a hockey jersey to the lab every day,” she says. “I own the jersey of every [National Hockey League] team, so I keep my lab mates guessing!”

O. Cousins
Olivia Cousins with two of her plants.
O. Cousins

Olivia Cousins

Most of the time when you’re eating a sandwich, you are eating bread made with wheat. But wheat plants can suffer if they don’t get enough water or enough of the nitrogen they need to make proteins. Cousins is a botanist getting a Ph.D. at the University of Adelaide in Australia and the University of Nottingham in England. She studies how wheat plants respond to drought and low levels of nitrogen. (You can follow her experiences as a scientist on her blog.)

Cousins also has a unique talent — she can make an apple crumble blindfolded. She doesn’t do it most of the time, she says. She performed the feat, she notes, “to prove how easy it was to make apple crumble!”

A. Fritchman
Amie Fritchman catches a big one.
A. Fritchman

Amie Fritchman

Fritchman has always had a passion for fish. And now, she’s a marine biologist with the Coastal Conservation Association in Houston, Texas. The group works to conserve fishing areas and fish habitat along the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coasts. 

To succeed at her job, Fritchman has to keep educating herself. She has taken classes to learn more about science and conservation, she says. She even took a class in taxidermy — how to stuff the skins of animals to make them look life-like. In the process, she learned how to taxidermy a rat.

Anna Furches

Anne Furches is proud to be having her first baby soon.
Steve Furches

Plants live surrounded by microbes. But they don’t just ignore them. Plants and microbes send signals to communicate with each other. Exactly how they do that is what Furches is trying to find out. She’s a botanist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. She started out studying plant genetics. Once she began managing another scientist’s laboratory, though, she says that she realized “I needed more scientific training.” Now, she is getting her PhD.

Furches is passionate about reaching out to young scientists. “My dream is to make the world a more egalitarian place for future generations while advancing humankind's understanding of the universe in which we live,” she says.

A. Glaze
Amanda Glaze sent us a selfie.
A. Glaze

Amanda Glaze

You’ve probably taken a science class or two, and that may have taught you how scientists do research or about their results. But did you know there was also scientific research behind your science class? Glaze is one of the people responsible for that research. She studies how people learn about science. She works at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. She’s interested in how science interacts with people’s daily lives, especially for science topics that are somewhat controversial, such as evolution.

But before she studied science education, Glaze had a lot of passions. “Growing up, I balanced my time between two farms and dance lessons, [cheerleading] and collecting fossils, and cotillion and riding four wheelers,” she says. “Scientists come from all walks [of life].”

Breanna Harris
Breanna Harris loves life under the sea when she’s not in the lab.
Zachary Hohman

Breanna Harris

Harris loves SCUBA diving, but she spends most of her time on land. She’s a behavioral endocrinologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “I study how hormones affect behavior and how behavior can affect hormones,” she explains. “I am particularly interested in stress.” In her lab, she says, Harris and her students “use humans and animals to study how stress can impact fear, anxiety, memory and feeding.” When she’s not SCUBA diving, Harris also likes to run. She’s even run a marathon. That’s about 42 kilometers, or 26.2 miles.

R.A. Steyn
Sonia Kenfack (left), Rita Adele Steyn (middle) and Mavis Acheampong (right) are in graduate school at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.
R.A. Steyn

Sonia Kenfack, Rita Adele Steyn and Mavis Acheampong

These three scientists have a love for the spineless things in life. They study invertebrates, or organisms that don’t have a spine. All three are graduate students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

Kenfack is getting a PhD in entomology, the study of insects. She’s originally from Cameroon. “I am known as the happiest, giggliest person around,” she says. “[I’m] naturally curious, and I love to share knowledge.”

Steyn agrees that Kenfack has happiness in spades. Steyn is from South Africa, and says she is “utterly mesmerized by all things spineless in the ocean.”

Acheampong is also getting a degree in entomology. She’s originally from Ghana, and loves football (what we in the United States call soccer). Her favorite food is plantains, a fruit that is related to bananas.

A. Kerr
Amber Kerr inspects a rain shelter she built over a patch of corn field to mimic a drought.
A. Kerr

Amber Kerr

You may not think about where your food comes from every day. But Kerr does. “I'm an agroecologist, studying how plants, air, water and soil interact in agricultural systems,” she says. She does her work at the University of California, Davis. She’s interested in how combining different plants together in the same field might help them survive in drought or heat. People might think that science requires fancy tools, but no. In her work, Kerr says she uses “leaf litter bags made of pantyhose, rain gauges made of plastic bottles, a notebook and, of course, a hoe.”

Kerr’s work has taken her all over the world. “When I lived in Malawi, I got quite good at ‘butchering’ jackfruit,” she recalls. “These are tropical tree fruits that often weigh more than [9 kilograms] (20 pounds). Inside their tough spiky skin, oozing sticky sap, is a nest of inedible fibers hiding amazingly sweet pockets of yellow flesh wrapped around huge brown seeds. They are messy but delicious.”

Katey Lesneski (picture at top)

Many people love SCUBA diving, but relatively few get to do it for their job. Lesneski gets to dive for science. She’s in graduate school for marine biology at Boston University in Massachusetts. “I study bleaching and wound healing in staghorn coral, an endangered Caribbean coral,” she explains. “I am working to provide the science needed to guide certain reef restoration projects in Florida and Belize using this coral.”

Lesnecki doesn’t just dive for science; she’s also a divemaster. In her free time, she teaches others how to dive. “I am passionate about sharing my love of diving and the underwater world with others around New England,” she says.

Jaiana Malabarba
Jaiana Malabarba studies how plants defend themselves.
Leila do Nascimento Vieira

Jaiana Malabarba

If a plant doesn’t have obvious thorns, spines or hard bark, it might look pretty defenseless. But don’t let those innocent stems and leaves fool you. Plants have many ways of defending themselves from insects or other creatures that might try to take a bite. Malabarba is a biologist who studies how plants do this. She started her career in Brazil, where she grew up, but her passion for science has taken her to the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany.

Johanna Neufuss

“When I was younger, I had always bad grades in school because I was more passionate about watching animals outside than doing homework,” says Neufuss. But she turned her love of the outdoors into a career. She is now a graduate student in biological anthropology at the University of Kent in in Canterbury, England. Biological anthropology is a field of research that focuses on the behavior and biology of humans and their ape relatives.

Johanna Neufuss
Johanna Neufuss checks out a mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.
Dennis Musinguzi

Neufuss is especially interested in hands. “My research focus is on hand use and hand postures used by African apes during locomotion and object manipulation,” she explains. (Locomotion is when an animal moves from place to place. Object manipulation is when they are handling something.) She studies animals that can be found in the wild as well as in sanctuaries, where they are protected. Learning about how apes such as gorillas use their hands can teach scientists both about the apes themselves and how early humans may have used their own hands as they evolved. 

Megan Proska

Love both bugs and plants? Proska does. She uses her degrees in entomology — the study of insects — and horticulture — the study of plants — in her work at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Texas.  She studies how plants and insects interact with each other.

Proska also displays her love of plants by dressing up as the villain Poison Ivy from the Batman comic books, movies and TV series.

Megan Proska
Megan Proska (right) dressed as the Batman villain Poison Ivy loves to cosplay. She’s here with Christina Garlisch (left) dressed as Batman villain Harley Quinn.
Cosplay Illustrated

Elly Vandegrift

Some people love learning about science, but others suffer through their science classes. Vandegrift wants to change that. She’s an ecologist who runs the Science Literacy Program at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Her goal, she says, is to make science classes “interesting, accessible, engaging and relevant for all students.”

E. Vandegrift
Elly Vandegrift combines her love of science with her love of teaching.
E. Vandegrift

In her work and travels, Vandegrift has experienced the scarier side of science. While on a hike in Kenya, she recalls, “Our Maasai guides got lost. We wandered in circles (with stinging nettle plants more than six-feet tall all around us through areas with lion footprints larger than a dinner plate) for hours. Just after it started to rain, [it] began to get dark and we were out of food and water. Our guides told us they were going to have us sit in a circle in the grass all night while they kept us safe from potential lion attacks. Totally surreal. And then a scout found the trail and walked us two hours back to camp. The ‘hike’ lasted nine hours and stinging nettle rash for two weeks.”

Alison Young

Many people who’ve been to the beach have played in tidepools — pools of saltwater left behind when the tide goes out. Tidepools have lots of creatures living in them. And people have been studying them for centuries. That includes Young. She is heading up a project to find out who’s at home in a tidepool and what it means for the environment. She’s a marine biologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Her job focuses on citizen science — research performed by anyone, whether they have scientific training or not. Her groups of volunteers document biodiversity and do long-term monitoring. That is “helping us better understand changes taking place in the tidepool community that are potentially correlated to things like El Niño, climate change and human disturbance,” she explains.

Alison Young
Alison Young shows off a tidepool resident.
Ivan Veraja

When she’s not hunting tidepools, Young is hunting other treasure. She likes to do geocaching, which is a worldwide scavenger hunt. Geocachers use global positioning systems on their smartphones or other devices to find small items based only on their coordinates. The joy is in the hunting, and Young has found more than 2,000 geocaches.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure to check out the others in our series on women in STEM. We’ve got women in astronomy, biology, chemistry, medicine, ecology, geology, neuroscience and math and computing. And keep an eye out for our last installment on fabulous science educators!

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Power Words

anthropology     The study of humankind. A social scientist who studies different societies and cultures is called an anthropologist .

ape     A group of rather large “Old World” primates that lack a tail. They include the gorilla, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gibbons.

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers .

Atlantic     One of the world’s five oceans, it is second in size only to the Pacific. It separates Europe and Africa to the east from North and South America to the west.

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.

blog     Short for web log, these Internet posts can take the form of news reports, topical discussions, opinionated rants, diaries or photo galleries.

bug     The slang term for an insect. Sometimes it’s even used to refer to a germ.

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.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective that describes properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chemical ecology     The study of how plants and animals use chemicals and chemical signals in their interactions with each other and their environment. Scientists who work in this field are called chemical ecologists.

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact with one another. Chemists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) The term is used to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties. People who work in this field are known as chemists.

citizen science     Scientific research in which the public — people of all ages and abilities — participate. The data that these citizen “scientists” collect helps to advance research. Letting the public participate means that scientists can get data from many more people and places than would be available if they were working alone.

climate     The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

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.

conserve     To protect, as from loss or degradation.

coral     Marine animals that often produce a hard and stony exoskeleton and tend to live on the exoskeletons of dead corals, called reefs.

degree     (in geometry) A unit of measurement for angles. Each degree equals one three-hundred-and-sixtieth of the circumference of a circle.

diversity     (in biology) A range of different life forms.

dolphins     A highly intelligent group of marine mammals that belong to the toothed-whale family. Members of this group include orcas (killer whales), pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins.

drought     An extended period of abnormally low rainfall; a shortage of water resulting from this.

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.

egalitarian  The idea that all people are equal and deserve the same rights.

El Niño     Extended periods when the surface water around the equator in the eastern and central Pacific warms. Scientists declare the arrival of an El Niño when that water warms by at least 0.4 degree Celsius (0.72 degree Fahrenheit) above average for five or more months in a row. El Niños can bring heavy rainfall and flooding to the West Coast of South America. Meanwhile, Australia and Southeast Asia may face a drought and high risk of wildfires. In North America, scientists have linked the arrival of El Niños to unusual weather events — including ice storms, droughts and mudslides.

endangered     An adjective used to describe species at risk of going extinct.

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

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create for that organism or process. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature, humidity and placement of components in some electronics system or product.

evolution     (v. to evolve) A process by which species undergo changes over time, usually through genetic variation and natural selection. These changes usually result in a new type of organism better suited for its environment than the earlier type. The newer type is not necessarily more “advanced,” just better adapted to the conditions in which it developed.

fiber     Something whose shape resembles a thread or filament of some kind. (in nutrition) Components of many fibrous plant-based foods. These so-called non-digestible fiber tends to come from cellulose, lignin, and pectin — all plant constituents that resist breakdown by the body’s digestive enzymes.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory. (in physics) A region in space where certain physical effects operate, such as magnetism (created by a magnetic field), gravity (by a gravitational field) or mass (by a Higgs field).

fossil     Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils. The process of forming fossils is called fossilization.

fruit     A seed-containing reproductive organ in a plant.

gauge     An device to measure the size or volume of something. For instance, tide gauges track the ever-changing height of coastal water levels throughout the day. Or any system or event that can be used to estimate the size or magnitude of something else.

generation     A group of individuals born about the same time or that are regarded as a single group. Your parents belong to one generation of your family, for example, and your grandparents to another. Similarly, you and everyone within a few years of your age across the planet are referred to as belonging to a particular generation of humans. The term also is sometimes extended to year classes or types of inanimate objects, such as electronics or automobiles.

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.

geology     The study of Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists. Planetary geology is the science of studying the same things about other planets.

global positioning system     Best known by its acronym GPS, this system uses a device to calculate the position of individuals or things (in terms of latitude, longitude and elevation — or altitude) from any place on the ground or in the air. The device does this by comparing how long it takes signals from different satellites to reach it.

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.

hormone     (in zoology and medicine) A chemical produced in a gland and then carried in the bloodstream to another part of the body. Hormones control many important body activities, such as growth. Hormones act by triggering or regulating chemical reactions in the body. (in botany) A chemical that serves as a signaling compound that tells cells of a plant when and how to develop, or when to grow old and die.

horticulture     The study and growth of cultivated plants in gardens, parks or other non-wildlands. Someone who works in this field is known as a horticulturalist. These people may also focus on pests or diseases that affect cultivated plants, or weeds that may bully them in the environment.

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.

invertebrate     An animal lacking a backbone. About 90 percent of animal species are invertebrates.

journal     (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with the public. Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send out all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.

lead     A toxic heavy metal (abbreviated as Pb) that in the body moves to where calcium wants to go. The metal is particularly toxic to the brain, where in a child’s developing brain it can permanently impair IQ, even at relatively low levels.

litter     (in biology) Decaying leaves and other plant matter on the surface of a forest floor.

locomotion     The ability to move from place to place.

marine     Having to do with the ocean world or environment.

marine biologist     A scientist who studies creatures that live in ocean water, from bacteria and shellfish to kelp and whales.

mean     One of several measures of the “average size” of a data set. Most commonly used is the arithmetic mean, obtained by adding the data and dividing by the number of data points.

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.

neuroscience     The field of science that deals with the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Researchers in this field are known as neuroscientists.

nitrogen     A colorless, odorless and nonreactive gaseous element that forms about 78 percent of Earth's atmosphere. Its scientific symbol is N. Nitrogen is released in the form of nitrogen oxides as fossil fuels burn.

organism     Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.

PhD     (also known as a doctorate) A type of advanced degree offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).

plantain     A starchy, green banana that is fried before it is eaten.

plastic     Any of a series of materials that are easily deformable; or synthetic materials that have been made from polymers (long strings of some building-block molecule) that tend to be lightweight, inexpensive and resistant to degradation.

protein     Compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. The hemoglobin in blood and the antibodies that attempt to fight infections are among the better-known, stand-alone proteins. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.

reef     A ridge of rock, coral or sand. It rises up from the seafloor and may come to just above or just under the water’s surface.

scavenger     A creature that feeds on dead or dying organic matter in its environment. Scavengers include vultures, raccoons, dung beetles and some types of flies.

scuba diving     A form of underwater diving in which the person carries special equipment in order to breathe, including a tank of air and a breathing mask. The word scuba is short for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.

smartphone     A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the internet.

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

stress     (in biology) A factor, such as unusual temperatures, moisture or pollution, that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional, or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance, or stressor, that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative. (in physics) Pressure or tension exerted on a material object.

taxidermy     The reconstruction of an animal, for permanent display. Skilled people model its structure on the carcass of a real animal, sometimes incorporating parts of the original animal’s carcass, such as the bones, pelt, skin, toothed jaws or fins.

Texas     The second largest state in the United States, located along the southern border with Mexico. It is about 1,270 kilometers (790 miles) long and covers an area of 696,000 square kilometers (268,581 square miles).

unique     Something that is unlike anything else; the only one of its kind.

virologist     A researcher who studies viruses and the diseases they cause.

virus     Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.

wood     A porous and fibrous structural tissue found in the stems and roots of trees, shrubs and other woody plants.