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Team Cary: Megan Fork

Cary postdoc Megan Fork discusses her path to ecology, challenges and rewards of a career in science, and what she’s working on now at Cary.

Scouting field sites in Arctic lakes in Sweden to study changes in algal production. Photo by Megan Fork.

Megan Fork came to Cary from Umeå University in Sweden, where she worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the Climate Impacts Research Centre. Fork now works with Cary scientist Emma Rosi studying effects of pharmaceuticals on Baltimore streams, and synthesizing data collected by the Baltimore Ecosystem Study

Fork received a PhD in Environmental Science at Duke University, an MS in Biology from Florida International University, and a BS in Zoology; Biological Aspects of Conservation; and Theatre & Drama at University of Wisconsin, Madison.

When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in science?

As an undergrad, I spent a summer in Wyoming doing fieldwork in Rocky Mountain forests. I worked alongside early career scientists, exploring interactions between fire and other disturbances, like the invasive pine beetle. The fieldwork brought us deep into the wilderness, and it was exciting to feel like we were exploring something new. Plus, it was fun getting dirty and covered in ash while collecting data. This was when it hit me that I could pursue a similar career path – one that let me study the natural world by asking questions and working outdoors. What could be better?

Collecting data on the effects of storms on water quality in an urbanized section of the Ft. Laudon Reservoir in Knoxville, TN. Credit: Megan Fork.

What came next?

After undergrad, I went to New Zealand to work in the Freshwater Ecology Research Group at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. There, I supported a project investigating how dairy farming impacts stream water quality. I loved the dynamics of the lab group and the opportunity to collaborate and learn new things from people that I liked and looked up to. 

Next, I returned to the US to work as a lab tech at Florida International University. After a year, I joined the master's program, where I studied rivers in north and central Florida – waterbodies that make up the largest freshwater spring complex in the world. That research introduced me to the complexity of interactions among nutrients in water. I mainly focused on carbon and nitrogen cycling, how these cycles affect each other, and implications for aquatic plants at the base of the river food web. There are so many moving parts and all impact river health. I loved it. When my advisor James Heffernan moved to Duke, he asked if I wanted to come with him to pursue a PhD; it was a lucky break at the perfect time. 

What are you working on now at Cary?

I’m working with the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES), a long-term research collaboration started by Cary’s Steward Pickett. For more than 20 years, BES researchers have been investigating Baltimore, Maryland through the lens of urban ecology, paying special attention to interactions between natural systems and people. BES projects have generated a tremendous amount of data, and until now, some research areas have tended to stay in their own lanes. Now, there’s a push to synthesize decades of data and marry datasets from the natural and social sciences. This is what I’m working on, together with a team of other Cary and BES-affiliated scientists. I’m looking at data on land cover, population demographics, and water quality. By braiding these datasets together, we can begin to understand how they interact and impact the health of the environment and residents’ wellbeing. 

Our first effort is looking at the relationship between land cover around people’s homes and how likely they are to perceive problems in their environment. We’re finding that the more vegetation people are surrounded by, the less likely they are to perceive local environmental problems involving things like park availability, quality, and safety, air pollution, and water quality. 

Independently, I’m working on a project using long term stream chemistry data from Baltimore’s Gwynns Falls watershed to study pharmaceutical loads and downstream implications. I’m calculating estimates of the quantity of pharmaceuticals entering the watershed, how much is accumulating, and how much travels downstream. These estimates will help us understand risks to downstream ecosystems, in this case, the Chesapeake Bay, as well as sources and pathways by which pharmaceuticals enter streams. We hope to expand this type of analysis to other cities. 

What have you found so far? 

Although concentrations of pharmaceuticals in the Gwynns Falls watershed are usually low, concentrations vary considerably over the course of the year. When we calculated the quantity of compounds delivered in a year, we found large annual loads – tens of thousands of doses worth – flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. The drugs in this stream are coming mainly from leaks and raw sewage overflows. Effluent from the wastewater treatment is a major source of pharmaceutical contamination to the Chesapeake Bay.

What made you want to come to Cary? 

I did urban ecology work for my PhD, focusing on storm water in cities. I find urban ecology questions super interesting. It’s a clear intersection – where human institutions and decision-making meet the natural environment. Many people don't see the nature in and of cities, but these are important ecosystems. Before coming to Cary, I did a postdoc where I was studying lakes and streams in northern Sweden. The setting was the opposite of urban, which made for beautiful fieldwork, but my heart was in the ecology of cities. Cary has such a great reputation for ecosystem science, and I was excited to interact with the scientists doing that work.

Has anyone been a particular inspiration for you?

I'm inspired by all of my colleagues. Part of the reason that I love doing this job is because I get to work with so many awesome, inspiring people all the time. Everyone has something that they're really smart about, or really insightful about, or really good at. I don't have one hero because I have many heroes. Everyone has something that is worth emulating or looking up to. I love being in this field and I love my colleagues.

Fieldwork for an experiment looking at impacts of changing dissolved organic matter concentrations on algal production in a boreal lake in Västerbotten, Sweden. Credit: Ryan Sponseller.

What keeps you motivated during challenging times?

Because everyone is so awesome, I don't want to let them down. That’s a big motivator. So much of the work is highly collaborative. If I was answering only to myself, it might be easy to give up, but because I'm answering to a bunch of other people all the time, and I know they're putting in the work, I want to keep putting in the work too because we're a team.

What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of what you do?

One of the most challenging things is staying motivated in the face of rejection. Even if there's a good idea or a good piece of work that you believe has merit, it can be hard to stay motivated to find the right place for it. But continuing to believe in the work or idea, despite rejection or criticism, can also be tremendously rewarding.

One of my friends describes working on a paper or a proposal as a tightening spiral. You start with this big, nebulous circle of a concept, then you spiral tighter and tighter, with ideas and findings that are more and more precise, until you have a final draft. Taking a broad idea and turning it into a finished product is something you can be proud of. Producing a piece of knowledge that you mold into a final communication is so rewarding. 

I think the process of science is probably similar to making a movie. It takes a whole bunch of people to create, and everyone receives different levels of recognition. Much of it ends up on the cutting room floor. There are so many figures and analyses that take time and careful effort, but everything can’t appear in the publication. However, you need to make all those pieces to understand the whole story. Distilling is always a challenge. 

Given unlimited funding, what research question would you study?

Right now, I’m working on a project with my advisor Emma Rosi on pharmaceuticals and emerging contaminants in freshwaters. The dataset that we’re working with is, to our knowledge, the most comprehensive dataset on pharmaceuticals in rivers that exists. I would love to be able to broaden this dataset even further to determine how much of these emerging contaminants are in our waterways, how they are entering, and how they are interacting. I’d also love to know how the concentrations change through time. There are so many chemical compounds, pathways, and waterbodies – and every compound has the potential to interact with living organisms in so many ways. The project I’m imagining is enormous, but very much in line with what I’m working on now. 

I would also like to investigate how long these compounds remain in the environment under different conditions. We know that microbial communities and various environmental factors determine how long pharmaceuticals and personal care products can stick around; this persistence directly affects exposure and risk for plants and animals. 

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

The advice that I would give my younger self is to learn to be comfortable not knowing and admitting you don't know earlier. Asking questions, and asking them early, is so important. It’s easy to want to quietly sit on a question and assume you’ll be able to figure it out later, but asking right away is much better in the long run.

You have lots of experience with teaching and mentoring. What is the most rewarding thing about mentoring students?

Some of the most satisfying work is when you can help a student learn new tools and then watch them use those tools to discover something. Last summer, I led data analysis workshops with the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) students. I loved helping them build an analysis toolbox. I also led one-on-one help sessions, and one student in particular was such a joy to work with. She’d tell me about her problem, and we’d try tackling it together. Then a week would go by and she would come back and tell me she’d figured out how to apply the tool and extend it to another question. As she found new answers, she also found new sticking points, which we’d work through. It was so satisfying to watch that process.

What do you do when you're not in the lab?

I love getting outside, especially now that I'm not doing any fieldwork. I really enjoy gardening, as well as hiking around the Hudson Valley. I recently moved to the Cary property, and I'm enjoying exploring, skiing, and hiking on Cary’s trails and grounds.