Women in Ecology – Erin Hotchkiss
March 31, 2021
The crucial role of mentorship has been a common thread connecting each unique story we've told thus far in our Women in Ecology series. The ability to continue these cycles of mentorship and encouragement has emerged as a key element in maintaining and increasing diversity in ecology.
This month we discussed the value of mentorship with Dr. Erin Hotchkiss, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech, and how she inspires others to pursue their passion for science. Dr. Hotchkiss also talked with us about her current and upcoming projects, including a collaboration with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) using sensors at NEON stream sites to investigate the relationships between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
Q: What inspired you to your become involved in your current research/field?
Like many ecologists, I've always enjoyed being outside. I've also always been drawn to water. As a younger kid, I lived in Northern California, close to the coast, so I have a lot of great memories of playing in tide pools and canyon gullies. But, I had no idea growing up how much water can tell us. As I learned more about ecology and how we can use water chemistry as an ecological fingerprint, it felt like home to me. Aquatic ecology was the type of science I was drawn to do.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your career path, and how you found yourself where you are now?
I started undergrad as a biology major. I didn't want to go the pre-med route, but I didn't know what other options were available to me. Getting research experience in different areas of biology and ecology was critical to opening my eyes to potential career possibilities. It was during a freshwater ecology class my sophomore year, and during a research experience the following summer that -for the first time - I realized freshwater research was something people did as a job. I also started to understand that many professors had a career in both research and teaching, which appealed to me. Then as a grad student, in addition to my research, I found an affinity for teaching and mentoring students, and started thinking more about combining these interests by pursuing a career in academia as a professor.
Q: During this time, were there any specific mentors or inspirations that helped you to realize your interests in ecology could become a career?
I've had many amazing mentors, but two biology professors I had as an undergrad stand out – Steve Baker and Theodosia Wade. Both helped solidify my interest in biology/ecology and see potential career paths based on those interests. In terms of research mentors, during my first freshwater science summer research job with Dr. Jennifer Tank's lab at Notre Dame, I got the chance to interact with her and her lab and get a feeling for the research environment. It was there that a then post-doc (now professor) Melody Kemp Bernot made me think, "I want to do what she does." Finally, my graduate advisor, Bob Hall, empowered me to be a creative and independent scientist who values good collaborators, has non-work hobbies, and enjoys working with students.
Q: What challenges do you think women may face getting into STEM fields? Have you experienced or overcome any of these?
Women in STEM still have a lot of things working against us from early ages and throughout our careers. Even as girls, there are still a lot of gendered assumptions about what careers we will pursue and find interesting. I never thought bugs or dirt were gross when I was a kid, and luckily, I had parents who encouraged my curiosity and bug collections, so I didn't experience these preconceived notions about women in STEM until later. I've heard comments like, "You don't look like a scientist," and "You'll never be a scientist." Women are more likely to experience abuse and harassment in the field, laboratory, and at conferences – why should we stay in places where we don't feel safe or valued? Some don't, and I totally understand that choice. Women often spend a disproportionate amount of time behind the scenes mentoring students outside of our research groups and working to improve academia and other STEM spaces, which are important activities but not weighted heavily in how we are assessed for hiring and promotions. Until we recognize all of the types of effort it takes to participate in inclusive and equitable research, mentoring, and teaching, many of the barriers to keeping women in STEM will persist.
Q: How can research and educational institutions inspire more women to study scientific fields, and retain them once they are in the field?
Something that I struggle with a lot is this sort of catch-22 in academia and other STEM careers where you want all of your students to see themselves in the field, but you're not retaining scientists from different backgrounds in positions where students can see themselves as scientists.
There's still a lot of work to be done to support women in academic and scientific roles, especially women with identities traditionally excluded from STEM. Some improvements will come with better parental or other caretaking leave, diversifying who we highlight in citations and science classrooms, and having support when we do experience harassment or discrimination. We also need to make sure the work to support the retention and training of early career scientists is a valued part of our job. These components need to be more integrated into how our contributions to the university or organization are assessed, as opposed to "oh that's a nice service but it's not a grant or publication."
Finally, I hope we continue to broaden our perspectives of what high-impact science looks like. –Much of this is still a legacy of who built our academic institutions, and often discounts work at the interface of science and society. Many folks with identities and experiences traditionally excluded from scientific professions are inspired to expand traditional science boundaries to answer questions they find compelling and impactful. We should welcome different perspectives and values in scientific inquiry. It will make our science more meaningful and will inspire future scientists who may have otherwise looked for different career paths.
Q: What work are you most proud of at this point in your career?
I had the most freedom to dig deep into scientific knowledge and be creative as a PhD student – that research is still some of the work I am most proud of. I had an incredibly supportive adviser in Bob Hall; he pushes his students to make their science their own and to be creative about testing knowledge gaps. The final experiment I did in graduate school was supported by an NSF grant that enabled me to trace the fate of carbon in a stream as it was photosynthesized by algae and moved to different parts of the whole-stream carbon pool as algae respired, leaked carbon back into the stream, and died. That had never been done before and it opened a lot of untapped questions about how carbon moves in cycles in stream ecosystems.
More recently, I'm proud of my role as a mentor and the research my students are doing. This still stems from my work as a graduate student because I know how important it was for me to be independent and creative, and I really want the students working with me to have that opportunity to discover what they're interested in. I encourage them to identify knowledge gaps that may not get funded by a big proposal because it would be considered too risky, and they have been successful in digging into some of these unknowns in such creative ways.
Q: What do you hope to do in your field in the future?
Scientifically, I'm excited to move beyond single-ecosystem research. Traditionally a lot of our research is focused on what's happening in a single stream reach, pond, lake, wetland, or forest patch, but ecosystems are connected to one another. Some of the work I'm doing now is focused on trying to understand how water connections across ecosystem boundaries control the fate of carbon and nutrients as they move across landscapes.
For example, I have an NSF-funded collaboration that recently started in the Delmarva Basin of Maryland looking at the hydrological connections between small, isolated wetlands. We want to understand how carbon moves and cycles when wetlands are disconnected from one another as well as when they expand and reconnect across the landscape.
Another new collaboration addressing ecosystem connections is one supported by NEON infrastructure and funded by NSF. We are leveraging the terrestrial and aquatic measurements that NEON is making, and we are installing additional sensors at some of the NEON stream sites. We want to better understand how the links between ecosystems move carbon from leaky terrestrial landscapes to freshwater ecosystems. How can those links support food webs, and where do they enhance carbon emissions from streams to the atmosphere?
I also believe it's really important to be recognized as someone who supports and promotes early-career scientists and works with them as collaborators. Building a more inclusive scientific community is something I feel very strongly about, and I'm working to make that happen. We still have a long way to go, but I know I can leave the field better than I found it.
Q: Are there tactics to keep early-career scientists involved in research? How do you support them in this endeavor?
Allowing people to bring their true selves to their science is one of the best ways to retain scientists and move the field forward, both scientifically and in the type of environment I hope to work in. Yes, there is a lot of important training, a lot of new sampling techniques, troubleshooting computer code, and looking at how to best graph data. But encouraging creativity, collaboration, and independence is one of the best things we can do to set early career scientists up for future success. When we are supportive of both student creativity and of who they are, they'll feel more welcome, less stressed, and come up with crazy stuff you never thought of that ends up being really cool and impactful science.
Q: What is the most satisfying part of being an ecologist? What is the most challenging?
One word comes to mind for both: complexity. Something I love about ecosystems is how complex and dynamic they are. It means there are always things you don't know, ecosystems are always changing, and ideas emerge when you think you've finished a project and it turns out you've got at least 10 more new questions because you find that you don't understand some things as well as you thought you did. I find that part of the complexity of ecosystems inspiring.
It can also be a challenge, because it means ecologists say "I don't know" or "it depends" a lot, and that's a pretty unsatisfying answer. Finding ways to better train early-career scientists to know that "I don't know" is an acceptable answer, that it's part of the process, while also figuring out how to better communicate complex issues and uncertainty with non-scientists – I think that's one of the most challenging parts of being an ecologist.
Q: What is the most alarming discovery you have made?
Humans are changing ecosystems in a lot of different ways. I think one of the more recent challenges, that is also alarming, comes from working in less pristine (more human-impacted) landscapes. There's a stream that runs through Virginia Tech's campus in Blacksburg, VA, and we've been doing a lot of work to understand what's going on with that stream, including where pollutants like excess salts are coming from. Like many watersheds in human-built environments, the landscape is "messy": water drains many different land uses like agricultural fields, downtown, campus, neighborhoods with big lawns, forests and more. It's challenging to pin down where certain chemicals we see in streams originate in heterogeneous landscapes, but this is information we need in order to identify more sustainable solutions for pollution issues in the future.
It goes back to the complexity of ecology. We have data on how roads are salted in winter, and we can see a signal of road salting as the stream gets saltier, but then we also see salt signals at other times of the year that we still can't explain. Some may be from other human activities that add salt to landscapes like using fertilizer or water softeners, but some may be legacies of winter road salts that take a long time to travel from soils to streams. Issues of changing water chemistry and pollutant legacies in complex landscapes remain one of our biggest challenges to understanding and managing issues like fresh water getting saltier or becoming more enriched with nutrients and emerging pollutants.
Q: What is the most promising?
We're in an era of data-rich science. We have sensors and satellites everywhere, and even though some of our data science capabilities and current models aren't quite ready to handle the amount of data we're collecting, we're getting there. The promising part of this is that we can combine our old and new tools to test questions in ways we never could before.
On a broader note, I have been excited to see the scientific community step up in terms of the types of scientific questions that are valued, both fundamental and applied issues in ecology. I've also been thrilled to see STEM transition to more inclusive perspectives of who can be a scientist and the types of careers we include as those who can provide valid perspectives in science. If we limit who we call a scientist to just academic positions, or to people with specific higher-ed degrees, I think we'll miss a lot of what's going on in different environments. I see collaborations expanding from that perspective, people reaching out and collaborating with folks who maybe wouldn't have traditionally been in their science bubble, and I'm really looking forward to seeing more of that in the future.