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Team Cary: Elsa Anderson

Elsa Anderson is a Postdoctoral Associate at Cary, working with disease ecologist Shannon LaDeau. Here, Elsa talks about her path to ecology, overcoming early challenges, what she’s studying at Cary, and advice for early-career scientists.

Photo by Chris Anderson

Tell us about your academic path. What led you to study ecology? 

I started my bachelor’s in animal science thinking I wanted to become a vet. I loved wildlife and thought that would be the best way to pursue my interest in animals. When I was a junior in college, I took a trip to Thailand to work at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. That was my first up-close experience with wildlife conservation. The staff at the park work with local communities to conserve elephant habitat,  educate people about elephant biology and conservation issues, and guarantee that protecting elephants doesn’t come at the expense of vulnerable peoples’ survival. I had never explored the connection between people and nature in an academic sense. I finished my bachelor's in animal science, but knew that I wanted to pivot to an ecological career path.

After college, I took a part-time job with the Student Conservation Association in Chicago. In this role, I worked with youth from the city, particularly minority students from underserved neighborhoods. The program provides students with both a paying job and a way to connect with local forest preserves. The students were trained in environmental management, with activities like brush clearing, trail building, and habitat restoration. Many of the students went on to pursue careers in land management and environmental science.

This was my introduction to the way that people's lives in the city can integrate with nature. I knew from that point that I wanted to focus on urban systems, blending social and ecological perspectives. That led me to pursue a masters at DePaul University, Chicago, followed by a PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago. My PhD focused on social-ecological questions connecting vacant lots, plants, and the community perspective.

What was your next step?

When I finished my PhD, I traveled to Berlin on a Fulbright Scholarship to study questions about how human activities shape plant communities through time. Based at the Technical Institute of Berlin, I investigated plant communities on either side of the Berlin wall to explore whether you can still detect differences – even 30 years after the wall came down. (The answer is yes, particularly with regard to pine plantations that were planted on the formerly Soviet side of the wall. Those forests are still on the landscape, providing ecosystem services for people and habitat for wildlife living in the area.)

elsa anderson
Preparing insects collected in vacant lots for storage. University of Illinois at Chicago. Credit: Chris Anderson

What sparked your interest in science?

My interest in science started long ago with frequent trips to the zoo and getting outside as a kid. My mom was a big advocate for letting us explore nature. There was this teeny vacant lot behind my house and my friends and I poked around in the trees there. Looking at a map now, it was really only a quarter of an acre, but to a five-year-old, it felt enormous. Those early experiences sparked my interest in nature, though I didn’t realize I could turn that interest into a career until I was in college.

I went to a good public school, but as a kid, I didn't like science class. I didn't like its focus on coming to a foregone conclusion. When I finally realized that science is a creative endeavor – that it’s all about asking questions and figuring out a way to answer them using a broad toolbox – that's when I connected with science.

What surprises you about science?

It's a non-linear process. As a scientist, you invest a lot of time in asking good questions, revising your questions, and thinking critically about your own thinking. When you learn the scientific method in grade school, you’re taught that there’s a hypothesis, then you plan and execute methods, which give you results. But science can't be boiled down to a process that simple. Instead, science is a spiraling of ideas and creativity; it’s an iterative process. That was surprising to me at first, but it’s become my favorite part of what science is and what science can do. 

What do you enjoy most about being a scientist?

The days that I find most exciting are the ones when I’m working on one project, then find pieces that fit with another project, and lots of good ideas come together. After tunneling down that rabbit hole, then popping back up, I can look back and think, “Wow, I've put together all these complex pieces of a big puzzle.” That feels good.

What has been your biggest challenge in science?

Going into my PhD, I was really interested in understanding biodiversity patterns in vacant lots. There's all this green in cities. I wanted to know what all that green was actually made of. What species are there? As I was starting my search for a lab to join, I encountered plenty of naysayers that didn’t buy into the idea that vacant city lots could be important. People told me, “Those lots are full of weeds and garbage; it’s not useful habitat. It's not good for anybody.” But that's not true. 

One of the things that really helped me was finding an academic advisor who would listen to and entertain my ideas – and encourage me to develop them further. That’s how I ended up working with Emily Minor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. At the outset of the work, she told me, “I don't have these answers. I've never done this before. You're going to have to drive the bus on this, but I'm here as a resource.”

Having support to pursue your own ideas is critical. It was hard to keep getting up and talking to people who would tell me my idea was unfounded. I knew it wasn’t, but more than one person told me that. And if I had believed them, instead of believing in my idea and seeking support, I wouldn't be here.

What advice would you give to a student interested in a science career?

Find a fantastic mentor and explore broadly, but keep checking in with that mentorship relationship. Finding someone who respects you as a person and is willing to help you grow as a scientist is absolutely critical. There are so many options; be persistent in searching for and applying for opportunities. So much of the early career phase of science is predicated on being exposed to a lot of ideas, methods, and systems. By seeing the world and its systems through an ecological lens, you can key in on what pieces are most interesting to you, and you don’t necessarily have to venture far from home to do that.

What are you working on now at Cary?

I’m primarily working on synthesis questions, using data collected by the Baltimore Ecosystem Study. My current focus is a project looking at how the land around someone’s home influences their perception of local environmental problems. BES has a long-term dataset of telephone surveys, where they called thousands of people in Baltimore and asked them questions about their perceptions of water quality, air quality, and other environmental conditions related to where they live. We are linking those answers to green cover.

So far, findings indicate that the way people perceive water and the terrestrial environment are very different. People living in greener neighborhoods are less likely to think there’s anything wrong with their home environment, but that’s not necessarily true, and it’s also not consistent with perceptions of water quality. Insights like these are important to identify because people who are more likely to perceive a problem may be more vocal about calling for action, or perhaps they’d be more interested in volunteering or providing money for remediation.

I'm also studying changes in tree species diversity in Baltimore using iTree data, asking questions like: Are we losing or gaining trees in Baltimore? Which species are becoming more or less common? Are there consistent patterns across the city? We have this idea that gaining canopy – putting green on the landscape – is inherently a good thing, but we don’t know much about how that actually works or whether it’s always true. We know for sure that greening is not universally equitable or just. I’m investigating patterns of canopy change across the city, linking the canopy to biodiversity changes. My next step is to identify how we can use trees as a tool to improve environmental justice.

What do you enjoy doing outside of your research?

I have two little kids and I love facilitating their exploration of the world. We like to go hiking and do projects. I really like to do DIY crafts. I also loved to travel in a pre-COVID life.

Balancing field work with parenting. Anderson measures wildflowers planted as part of a project looking at native plant success in vacant lots in Chicago. Credit: Chris Anderson

When it’s safe to travel again, where do you want to go next?

When I moved to New York, I was super excited to visit New York City, Boston, and Maine, but that hasn’t been able to happen yet. When it’s safe, I’m feeling the need for an East Coast road trip.