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Team Cary: Marissa Matsler

Political ecologist Marissa Matsler tells us about her urban field work, her experiences with collaboration, and advice for young scientists.

Matsler teaching students about sailing on Long Island Sound as a crew member on the schooner SoundWaters. Credit: SoundWaters.

Political ecologist Marissa Matsler is a Postdoctoral Associate at Cary, working with Peter Groffman. Marissa’s research focuses on who green infrastructure affects, and how. Matsler draws from urban ecology, sociology, political ecology, and science and technology studies theory to understand how water can be sustainably and equitably managed in cities. 

Marissa came to Cary after completing her PhD in urban studies at Portland State University. She received a master’s degree in urban ecology from Yale and a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from Oregon State University.

What does an average day look like for you?

As a social scientist, interviews are my main data. This means I talk to a lot of people – primarily city staff. I also read city plans, with a focus on areas concerning the environment and an eye toward understanding how plans are implemented and what the outcomes look like on the ground.

How did you come to study urban ecology?

Water is the thread that links all my work together. I’ve always been fascinated by it. I grew up near the coast of Oregon and went ‘tidepooling’ every chance I got. I was so excited about all the squishy little things in the tide pools – especially sea anemones. Marine biology was my first degree, and it sparked my thinking about natural systems. There are so many things harming marine ecosystems, and I couldn’t ignore the role that people play in that harm. 

I became increasingly interested in how people were impacting my precious sea anemones and what I could do to save them. That’s when I began to realize that I could protect the oceans through environmental policy. I now study stormwater and green infrastructure. But this connection remains: cities all drain into the ocean.

When did you realize you wanted to pursue the ‘people’ side of science?

After my undergrad in marine biology, I did some environmental education work. I moved to the Long Island Sound and lived on an education boat. We’d take kids out for the day and pull up horseshoe crabs. I began to notice social disparities among the kids coming on the boat. I saw how socioeconomics influenced the quality of students’ education. I realized that teaching marine biology is a political act. I wanted to learn more about that, so I went back to school to study social science and those dynamics. 

As an intern with the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) Lab at Oregon State University, Matsler conducted monthly fieldwork that involved measuring sea stars, counting barnacles, and taking algae samples for various ongoing intertidal experiments. Credit: PISCO Lab, Oregon State University.

Is there someone who inspired you in science?

When I was at Oregon State, I got to work in the PISCO Lab for Bruce Menge and Jane Lubchenco. Dr. Lubchenco is very interested in bringing science to policy. It was empowering to hear someone in the science community saying: “We need to talk to people; we need to learn how science interacts with the policy process.” 

Any favorite memories from Baltimore? Or the field?

It’s really fun to be doing urban field work. When I was working on the Oregon Coast as a field ecologist, we’d go out early in the morning to count barnacles on rocks. We rarely saw other people. With urban field work, there are more people around and they ask questions about why you’re there and what you’re studying. I’ve always enjoyed talking to people about my projects. 

Once in Baltimore, someone asked us about the bioswale we were sampling and we told him that it filters pollution. The man said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen it. It’s collecting the trash. That’s great!” By ‘pollution’, we actually meant water quality, as in water chemistry, but his observations held true. He saw how the water was flowing down the street and into the bioswale, and that the trash was collecting there. I had not thought about stormwater facilities like that before and it was a useful insight. It is important to hear different perceptions of pollution, and understand how people are thinking about how nature works in the city to better plan municipal infrastructure systems.

What was your biggest surprise when you began working in the city?

I used to think it was hard work to put on my pack and hike three miles up the beach – and it is. But that was nothing compared to trying to haul our gear around in an urban environment. Trying to get your soil corer on and off a city bus is really something. 

What are the most rewarding and difficult parts of your job?

It’s rewarding to be able to talk with people, and to hear about their experiences and their lives. I like that people can be part of my research process and that I can respond to and advocate for their needs. 

It is also very difficult because the further I go down the rabbit hole of my research, I’m constantly realizing new levels of complexity. As an undergrad looking at my sea anemones, I thought, “I’ll just go to the city council and tell them to stop polluting and then everything will get better.” Digging deeper, I continue to learn that politics and ecology are inextricable. It can be discouraging.

What keeps you going?

Collaborating with other researchers. Talking something out with someone is restorative for me. I love that moment when I don’t know what to do or don’t know what to make of a problem, then they say something from a different perspective and it all clicks. 

A lot of science tends to be ego-driven and competitive. That energy helps some, but it does not work for me. I feel like I have benefitted so much from my friends and collaborators. Strengthening those ties with colleagues and friends, so you can have them throughout your research journey, is so important. It’s what keeps me going. 

Mastsler conducting fieldwork in Baltimore 2016. This work involved measuring various aspects of curb-side bioswales including infiltration rates, soil composition, plant species, and human interactions. Credit: Erin Rivers.  

Any advice to young scientists?

I am an interdisciplinary scientist so I think it’s important to look outside your discipline. Even if you’re very focused on your field, try to make friends across disciplines and broaden the scope of what you’re thinking about. It will improve your science. 

If you had unlimited funding for a project, what would it be?

I would talk to many more people. One of the challenges in my research is that I need to talk to as many people as I can – the more interviews, the better the research – but with time and funding constraints, I can only include a fraction of the voices I’d like to engage. With funds and a bigger team, we’d be able to talk to hundreds of people, instead of tens, and develop a rich qualitative data set that would allow us to really dig into tricky issues. 

I would also love to talk to people about how they think about the plants in their front yard and the habitats they see on the side of the road, and ask how they interact with those things. We have a lot of data on water quality and problems on the ground. But it’s hard to parse the role that people play in fixing or exacerbating these problems. I would love to better understand why people do what they do in nature. That comes from asking and listening.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

I have always loved creative writing. When I started college, I was torn between studying literature and creative writing, and biology. I tried to do both at the same time, but it didn’t quite work. I’d love to be a novelist if I wasn’t a scientist. My writing comes and goes, and I get to write and read fiction a bit more now that my PhD is done. It’s relaxing for me.

Where can we find you when you’re not in the lab or doing research?

I really enjoy being outside – hiking and cross country skiing. I am also a big knitter. What I really like about knitting is that if there’s a problem, you have a pattern and can follow steps to correct it. It’s very therapeutic for me to be able to work on problems that have answers and to finish a project with my hands when so much of my job is digging into complex problems without any clear answers.