The start of a new year brings with it the setting of new goals and making new year’s resolutions. Perhaps your new year’s resolution is to eat more healthily and lose some pounds, or maybe it’s to quit smoking, or maybe get more active. Standard things to be honest, which got me thinking about some resolutions that aren’t the stereotypical options. For example, have you ever thought about reducing your plastic waste? Or even going as far as to transition to a zero-waste lifestyle? Me neither! This combined with being inspired by Blue Planet II with David Attenborough made me want to know a little bit more about our oceans and coastlines, but specifically the people who are working in those areas, which led me to my first Scientist in the Spotlight for 2018 – the beautiful Blonde Biologist – Rachel S.
I’ve been following Rachel on social media for a while now and absolutely love seeing her photos of her day job and life. Photos of gorgeous white sand beaches and clear blue waters! Working as an environmental scientist in Hawaii sounds idyllic! So, I was thrilled when I reached out to Rachel and she agreed to answer a few of my questions.
But it’s not just about the sea, the sand and the science with this girl, no! Its all about the stilettos too with her slight shoe obsession and being a proud STEMinist. This dedicated and adventurous biologist lives by Oscar Wilde’s saying ‘You can never be overdressed or overeducated’ even though her friends might tell you she can overdress for an occasion. But by the beach is where she belongs living her passion for marine life and the ocean. So, I am thrilled to introduce you to The Blonde Biologist, Rachel S.
Tell us a little bit more about your work as an environmental scientist.
Rachel: As an environmental scientist, I work specifically with regulation of solid waste for the State of Hawaii to protect human health and the environment. The types of solid waste management facilities that I oversee are transfer stations, convenience centers, composting facilities, and many recycling facilities. This week, I have been planning a tentative schedule of facility inspections for the year. (I’m sorry I can’t share anything exciting going on because of confidentiality reasons!). My boyfriend affectionately calls me the garbage police! But my favourite part of my job is being in the field and watching firsthand how facilities operate so efficiently and continue to divert more recyclable materials from the waste stream.
So, why did you choose to study science?
Rachel: I chose science because I found it incredibly interesting ever since junior high school. I love a good challenge and it amazes me that we are constantly learning more about the world around us and the cells within us. I was lucky to have wonderful teachers in high school that went above and beyond in specialized science classes to teach us and prepare us for our futures. I didn’t realise how many options there were in the science field. I thought my options were a doctor, a pharmaceutical sales rep, or a teacher, so I started my freshman year of college thinking I would go the medical route and become a physician’s assistant. I quickly realised that I did not want to be stuck in a hospital all day, so then I switched my focus to becoming a science teacher in a secondary school and even took the majority of the required classes to prepare for my teaching license. Then a wonderful thing happened during my junior year and I discovered that I could take my love for ecology and vertebrate biology and actually apply it in a huge variety of careers. I am so thankful for the wonderful university faculty that opened my eyes to all of my career options and supported me as I continued my journey in biology and chemistry. I specifically remember discovering a different type of career almost weekly during my senior year and the thrill of all the opportunities that my biology degree would afford me had me on an academic, science-fueled high.
You fell in love with marine life and the ocean at a young age, so what was it like moving from your home in Southern Indiana to Hawaii?
Rachel: Moving from Indiana to Hawaii was a dramatic change for me. When I flew to Hawaii for job interviews, I fell in love with every aspect of it. The people are friendly, the weather is perfect, the coral reefs and marine life are breathtaking, and the hiking in the mountains is unbelievably gorgeous. It felt like home. My family, friends, and partner were all living on the mainland US. I didn’t know anyone in Hawaii and it was over 4,000 miles away; this was the biggest drawback. But I was fresh out of college, unmarried, with no kids… when else do you get an opportunity like this with a million “pros” and only have long distance relationships with loved ones as your “con”? So I made the move and it was the best decision ever!
What aspect of the marine environment and life are you most passionate about?
Rachel: If I had to choose one category of marine animals to devote my time and resources to study, advocate for and educate others about, it would be the apex predators. Specifically, I am passionate about sharks and dolphins. Apex predators are the top predators in a food chain, and without them, the majority of other players in the food chain would cease to exist. These top predators’ survival is so important to our ecosystems and researchers still have so much to learn about the behavioral ecology of sharks and dolphins.
Have you got any top tips for beginners that might want to start leading an environmentally friendly lifestyle and help with this?
Rachel: I posted an article on my blog last week on the three essentials you should purchase in order to start living an eco-friendly lifestyle. The easiest way to begin really comes down to ditching your plastic water bottles for a reusable cup and bringing reusable bags when you shop instead of accepting plastic bags at the stores. These two changes will dramatically reduce the amount of plastic waste that you produce and they’re not hard at all!
Outside work, what do you like to do?
Rachel: In my free time, I like to snorkel, relax at the beach, hike, and go out with friends in Waikiki. I also do beach cleanups throughout the island.
We’ve mentioned your blog and Instagram The Blonde Biologist which I love, but why is science communication important to you?
Rachel: Science communication is more important now than ever because of my country’s current political situation. It is up to scientists to relay accurate information to the public, and it’s even more important right now, in my opinion, for climate scientists and environmentalists to speak up about the environment. I feel personally responsible to relay honest and accurate science knowledge and new findings to friends, family, and anyone else who will listen. I think the biggest impact you could possibly have in scicomm is during a conversation with one person or a small group of people. I hope to have opportunities in the future to speak with large audiences, but for now I’m trying to make an impact one person at a time, whether that be as a mentor at a STEM camp for high school girls or through a casual conversation with a peer at a local bar.
This is partially why I started my blog and Instagram. I wanted to share my science knowledge and things I was continuing to learn with others. But more importantly, I wanted to show that female scientists who live “normal lives” outside of a lab are not unicorns. This is how the “Blonde Biologist” name was born. Yes, I am a blonde girl in stilettos. Yes, I am also a scientist.
What makes you so passionate about being an advocate for women in STEM and showing the world that you can be a blonde girl in stilettos and also be a scientist?
Rachel: Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, I was not aware as a young girl that I had so many opportunities in the STEM field. When I was in college, I was repeatedly given odd stares as I entered a classroom on the first day and even told once that I had the wrong lecture hall and another time that I was purchasing the wrong textbook. It’s time to end the pop culture idea of a scientist as a white male in a lab coat and bring awareness to the diversity of the bright minds in the STEM field. I want to make sure that our next generation of girls is able to live up to their full potential and realize their dreams with a career that fits their skills and interests perfectly. I want girls to know that they can have a successful career as a scientist and also be a successful wife and mother.
And finally, where in the world should be my next travel destination?
Rachel: You should travel to Ambergris Caye in Belize before you die! You thought I was going to say Hawaii, didn’t you? 😉 I traveled to Belize to study and research the tropical biology and it was an amazing experience. The coral is incredibly diverse throughout the large barrier reef that borders Ambergris Caye, and this means you’ll also find different marine life at each dive site. It’s an experience of a lifetime.
Huge thank you to Rachel for taking the time to answer my questions. If you want to know more about her work or marine life or eco-friendly living then follow her blog and check out her Instagram page. What more do you want to know? Is your resolution this year to start living a zero waste life? Let me know in the comments below.
I’m also starting to book up Scientist in the Spotlight interviews for the rest of the year. But if there is a particular field you want to learn about or a particular scientist that you love that we should put under the spotlight then let me know via social media or in the comments too 🙂
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