Who inspired you to become a scientist?

We recently published a paper on a newly discovered species of diatom from South Carolina. Diatoms are a type of algae that are special because they surround themselves with a beautifully ornamented “shell” of biologically produced glass. They also produce about ¼ of the oxygen we breathe! I met our lead author, Katie Johnson, when she took our Ecology and Systematics of Diatoms class that is taught each summer at Iowa Lakeside Lab. Two years later she came back as the teaching assistant for the class and developed a research project around a new diatom species she discovered.

When we name a new species, we usually give it a Latin name that recognizes a special feature of the organism, or where you found it, or even a name that honors someone who helped in the work. Katie chose to recognize someone very special to her science life – her grandmother Mrs. Sharon Brown (née Marr). Katie describes her in the paper as someone who is a “missionary, philanthropist, patron of the arts, family matriarch, and … who encouraged and supported [her] scientific endeavours.” Katie shares that her grandmother encouraged her scientific passions at a young age and at a time in the South when not many women were encouraged to go into STEM fields. Her grandmother showed her how to have strength and never give up. The new diatom, named Gomphonema marriae, is beautiful and a fitting tribute to someone who inspired Katie.

When I look back at my science journey, I also see a handful of people who changed my life. The first was my mom. For some reason, my mom saw in me a need to collect and sort things into piles. She set me up with my first collections – insects and seeds – when I was 6, and I’ve never stopped! Next was my Aunt Mary. She was the Botany Lab Coordinator at the University of Minnesota. She would share used scientific equipment and let me visit her lab at the U to meet other scientists.

Teachers are often the inspiration in science. My influential teachers started with Mrs Peters in fourth grade. I still remember some of the “labs” we did in our science room – insect collections, estimation, mystery powders. My eighth grade biology teacher, Mr W. Fox, opened up the world of biodiversity, anatomy, and physiology using collections, dissection, and a focus on life histories of organisms like Trichinella spiralis, Fasciola hepatica, Chlonorchis sinensis – yes, I still remember their names and maybe no surprise that my first scientific paper was on the life history of a diatom. Two college profs sealed the deal for me. Dr. Ris Charvat taught Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota – her enthusiasm and a first introduction into what science really is was a game changer – and took place in the same labs where I visited my Aunt Mary. Finally, Dr. David Czarnecki, the “Czar”, taught Freshwater Phycology (that’s the study of algae) at the Lake Itasca Biological Station. Eight weeks of full immersion learning in the lab, field, and on the scope, and my path was set – I was going to study algae!

Thirty-five years later, I’m still studying algae, discovering and describing new species, working and teaching at a field station, and trying to make sense of the world’s water quality issues. I know that the scientists that Katie and I have become is in large measure because of those who came before us and freely shared their support, passion and enthusiasm for science. Who is your inspiration?!