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Science Notebook

Science Notebook: Interview with Janet Lamberson

Paco and Otis assisting Janet Lamberson in a beach cleanup.

EPA Science Notebook Coordinator Dr. Dale Haroski recently interviewed Janet Lamberson an environmental scientist with EPA's Pacific Coast Ecology Branch in Newport, Oregon. Get ready to get jealous reading about all of Janet's previous tropical research locations and find out whether Paco and Otis are EPA employees!

DMH: Tell me about your science and educational background.

JL: I am a research aquatic biologist and I received my bachelors degree in New Jersey at a liberal arts college. My master's degree was from the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia in marine science. Then I went to the University of Hawaii for some post masters work.

DMH: What brought you to EPA?

JL: Well, after we left Hawaii my husband and I worked out in the Marshall Islands for awhile on a coral reef atoll. Then, since he was from Oregon, he wanted to come back to the real world and live back in Oregon for awhile and I had always wanted to live in the Pacific Northwest. We looked for jobs here and there and an entry level job at EPA was available. I've worked my way up from there.

DMH: What other types of jobs did you have before you came to EPA?

JL: I worked at VIMS - Virginia Institute of Marine Science - as a research technician while getting my masters in jellyfish research in Chesapeake Bay. Before that I worked at Solomon'sIsland, Maryland on striped bass biology. After that I worked on white rats at the University of Maryland. Then while I was at the University of Hawaii as a Ph.D. candidate the job in the Marshall Islands came up and sounded like a better option at the time.

DMH: So you worked with jellyfish and fish and white rats so what are you are working with now?

JL: Well, I have mostly been working with marine invertebrates since then. Out on the Marshall Islands my husband and I managed the University of Hawaii Mid-Pacific Marine Laboratory which was a coral atoll. People would come out there and do a variety of observations on coral reef ecology, mostly radioisotope cycling and habitat research.

I learned to appreciate all aspects of the environment and to look at it from many different points of view because people there were working on so many different things: a little bit of fish biology and a little bit of coral reef biology and a little it of nutrient chemistry and some hydrology. It was kind of an eclectic view of the coral system, so when I came back to Oregon I was ready for anything, which has served me well because the lab has looked at the local estuarine ecosystem from a variety of perspectives as well.

Some people here at the lab are looking at nutrient chemistry, others are looking at invertebrates, others are looking at fish, some are looking at plants and I am now looking at birds using intertidal estuarine habitats. For awhile we were researching sediment toxicology to infaunal benthic communities. So it is kind of a multi perspective view of the ecology of the estuary as well, which is similar to what we were doing out on the atoll. I like working with a team of people and having that total perspective.

DMH: So if you had to explain what you do in just a few sentences to you 8-year old nephew, what would you tell him?

JL: We are looking at the ecology of the estuary which is the total habitat. The ecology of the estuary is how all of the systems work together like the water, the mud, the marsh plants and all of the animals that live out here; including birds, invertebrates and people. We're studying how everything fits together and works together as a total system where one part cannot be separated from the other parts because they all work together.

DMH: You mentioned working with jellyfish. Because of my research background people always asked me what purpose jellyfish serve. Do you have a good answer?

JL: Hmmm... let me think back to a long time ago during my master's research. Jellyfish have their role, like everything else in the ecosystem. They eat some of the little fish and invertebrates that live in the water, they absorb nutrients through their skin and when they die they contribute those nutrients back to the system, they just kind of carry them around for awhile.

DMH: So jellyfish are sort of like bees, sharks and other useful critters that aren't cuddly favorites but serve their purpose!

DMH: What do you do for fun?

JL: Oh, for fun?! Well, we go hiking, camping, kayaking, bird watching and lots of outdoor activities. We are pretty much outdoor oriented. We have a nice nature trail around the science center here that looks out over the estuary and a lot of people use that recreationally. They come here to look at birds, dig for clams, go fishing etc., and so do we.

DMH: So you have certainly lived in a number of different and exciting places! If you had to pick up and move, and could not stay where you are now; where would you go?

JL: How far would I have to move, because I wouldn't want to move too far from right here? Maybe up to Vancouver Island or Alaska, it would still be on the west coast in the Pacific Northwest though.

DMH: Not Hawaii or around there?

JL: Been there, done that! I like to visit Hawaii, but the people there are overwhelming the islands. Between the tourist industry and the number of people that live there have overwhelmed the ability of the islands to support that many. So, we feel like we are part of the problem out there and not part of the solution.

DMH: Ok, a more serious work question. What do you feel is the most important thing that you have worked on at EPA?

JL: Probably the sediment toxicology program because it has had a major impact on cleaning up toxic sediments in the environment. We developed the sediment toxicity testing protocol out here at EPA years ago using amphipods, basically little aquatic bugs, to evaluate the toxicity of sediments to the benthic infaunal community. It is a standard protocol now and we helped to write it.

By using that test, sediments all over the nation, and by extension, all over the world have been tested for toxicity and that has contributed to cleaning up the most contaminated areas in harbors and rivers and even in freshwater systems.

This work actually personally impacted my family because they were fishing in one of the most toxic places in Puget Sound and were consuming those fish. So the testing we did with the amphipods directly impacted their decision not to fish there. After it was cleaned up they could see that things were starting to come back.

DMH: If someone wrote a biography about you what do you think the title should be?

JL: From A to Z; Amphipods to Zostera which is the seagrass I'm now studying!

DMH: What profession, other than your own, would you choose and why?

JL: Well, let's see. I guess I would be a terrestrial biologist. Towards the end of my career here I have started studying birds and have developed an interest in them. So if I had to do it over again I would probably work for Fish and Wildlife Service on a bird related project.

DMH: Ok, so what profession would you not like to do?

JL: Oh, let's see... probably something that involved a lot of interaction with the public, or something where I could not use creative thinking and innovative methods, especially if there were no windows!

DMH: You mentioned birds earlier, what is your favorite wetland bird?

JL: Right now probably the Sora as we are applying protocols that are developed for monitoring secretive marsh birds in estuaries. These are protocols that have been used by Fish and Wildlife Service, USGS and Audubon but we haven't used them yet at EPA so we are going to try to apply those protocols to some EPA marsh work that we are doing and that we will do in the future. One of those secretive marsh birds is the Sora which is a Rail, like the Virginia Rail. They make the weirdest sounds; they whinny, they coo, they click and make all kinds of sounds.

DMH: So what is a secretive marsh bird?

JL: One that you don't see very often but one that you can detect by sound sometimes. They do make some weird sounds; the Bitterns make this "galump" sound kind of like water going a hose. The Sora makes a whinny and a cooing sound and the Rail makes a sound like two stones being rapped together. They are very shy. So if you are doing a survey of marsh birds you could easily miss them even though they are there.

DMH: Another more serious question, any advice for students considering a career in science?

JL: There are many summer job opportunities that they should consider; go to scientific meeting where they can make presentations and meet people. Get interested in a lot of different areas, don't just focus on one area and say you want to work with marine mammals but keep in mind that is only one of the options. There are many things out there that they should look into and keep there options open, get lots of experience and meet lots of people.

I like to use the word facets when talking about this. The more facets you see the more brilliant the diamond. So if you look at the total system, the total estuary, and you look at all of the different facets you see a much more brilliant picture than if you only look at one thing and focus on that. Same goes for careers in science.

DMH: You have certainly lived in a lot of places that people like to visit, but where has been your best vacation thus far?

JL: Oh, wow! I think I would say going to Alaska, I felt right at home up there, it was so beautiful. You get just three feet off the highway and you are in wilderness. Probably one of the reasons I got into marine science and the EPA was to protect these beautiful places and to keep the world clean. The amphipod toxicity testing that we developed contributed, I think, to the cleaning up of the waterways and the estuaries.

DMH: If you could trade places with any other scientist for a week, famous or not famous, living or dead, real or fictional, with whom would it be and why?

JL: Well I think I would like to go back as someone working on coral atolls and be scuba diving because I can't really do that any more. It was a nice job while I had it. We walked on sandy beaches and picked up shells and put them in the reference collection, we went diving every day on the coral atoll to support the research that was going on there. I wouldn't mind doing more of that.

DMH: What are you reading currently?

JL: I am reading a book about a shipwreck, called "Ship of Gold"; it is about a ship that was wrecked carrying gold from the gold rush days. It is a two part book; first they tell the story of the shipwreck and then they go on to tell the story, years later in the 1980s and 90s of how the ship was salvaged using underwater technology that was developed for undersea research.

DMH: What would I find in refrigerator right now?

JL: Cheese! We used to have dairy goats and we would milk the doe and make goat cheese out of it. We got into different kinds of international cheeses because I have a daughter that lives in France. So when I went to visit her I really enjoyed trying all of the different types of cheeses and we developed that into our goat cheese hobby.

DMH: So do you still make your own cheese?

JL: We don't have the doe anymore so we stopped making cheese, but we do still have two male goats that we use as pack goats. When we go backpacking they carry the gear and they also assist us in our beach cleanups out here, when we go out there and pick up flotsam and jetsam and bring is back for disposal. One goat is named Paco and the other is Otis.

DMH: So I obviously have to ask if we have any goats on staff at EPA?

JL: (laughing): None that I know of!

DMH: Ok, two more quick questions. PC or Mac?


DMH: Vanilla or chocolate?

JL: Vanilla, because you can put all kinds of things on it!

DMH: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me Janet and make sure to send me some pictures of the goats!

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