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Science Notebook

Science Notebook: Interview with Tracie Nadeau

Dr. Tracie Nadeau

Science Notebook Coordinator Dr. Dale Haroski recently sat down with Dr. Tracie Nadeau, an environmental scientist in EPA's Region 10 Oregon Operations Office in Portland. Discover why science policy is a true passion for this aquatic ecologist and learn about the new superhero at EPA - Transparency Woman!

DMH: Tell me a little bit about your science or educational background.

TN: You bet! I have a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan, my home state, in English literature. I have a Master's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Center for Great Lakes studies in biological sciences. I did my Ph.D. at the University of Oregon in the Ecology and Evolution program. Really I am an aquatic microbial ecologist.

DMH: What brought you to EPA?

TD: My trip to EPA was interesting. When I left the University of Oregon I was a post-doc at the US Geological Survey (USGS) national lab in Reston, Virginia. I went out to Reston for one year; while I was a graduate student here in Oregon I was very interested in applied ecology and along with some other grad students and faculty mentors ran the Public Interest Science Conference at the University of Oregon. All this got me interested in public policy or public interest science.

When I finished my traditional research post-doc at USGS, because I was already in Washington D.C. I realized I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get policy experience. So I actually did a six month post-doc in EPA's Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds (OWOW), in the Wetlands Division specifically, and the main project that I worked on during that six months was helping to provide litigation support for a Supreme Court case about Clean Water Act jurisdiction—that is, what waters are covered by the Federal Clean Water Act.

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

TN: One of the coolest things I've ever done as a scientist is I worked for the Sea Education Association (SEA) out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

DMH: Oh my gosh! I did that program as an undergraduate! What a small world!

TN: Wow! Well, when I was in Wisconsin I really studied limnology. Then, working with SEA, I did Oceanography and here in Oregon I was out at our Oregon Institute of Marine Biology for a time. I do all aquatic work--that's my real passion and love and when I started at EPA working on these issues I was working on so-called isolated wetlands. What happened for me is that I became really devoted to these water policy issues and a position opened up in OWOW and I took it and started at EPA permanently in 2001.

DMH: What do you think is the most important thing that you've worked on at EPA?

TN: Consistently the most important thing I've worked on is providing information to inform the scientific underpinning of what is jurisdictional under the Clean Water Act. In particular, I worked on a special issue of the Wetlands Journal in 2003 focused on the scientific and ecological issues of isolated wetlands, because those were the resources we thought most at risk after we lost the Supreme Court case. For that, my Office of Research and Development (ORD) colleague Scott Leibowitz and I were awarded the Level One Scientific and Technological Achievement Award (STAA) here at EPA.

As I continued to work on that issue, it became clear that headwaters streams—the small streams and creeks that join together to form larger stream and river systems—were also at risk. A related project was organizing a symposium on the contribution of headwater streams to downstream waters, and putting together a special issue of the Journal of the American Resources Association on the connectivity of headwater and intermittent streams to larger downstream waters. This connectivity is related to some wetlands being protected under the Clean Water Act, since their proximity to streams may determine whether they are covered. I published the issue in 2007, and am very honored to say that I was again awarded the Level One STAA for that project, along with my colleague Mark Rains from the University of South Florida.

DMH: That's fantastic. Congratulations!

TN: Thank you! I'm actually working on a project here in Oregon with some of our agency partners and ORD colleagues called the Oregon Streamflow Duration Assessment Method, which helps us distinguish between ephemeral, intermittent and perennial streams. Why that is important, Dale, is that we, we being the federal government, have been greatly affected by federal court rulings as to what water resources we can protect under the Clean Water Act.

 This, in turn, affects states, tribes, and local governments in their water resource management and protection efforts. So overall, the large umbrella for why I have stayed at EPA is the very direct need for scientific information to inform policy and decisions with national reverberations over what is jurisdictional under the Clean Water Act, and the implementation of Clean Water Act programs. I think it's important that we as scientists in the Agency work very hard at the science-policy interface, and that's what I try to do.

DMH: I think the one nice thing about science policy work here at EPA is that you can continue to experience the real science that's being done out there and you don't have to abandon your background or interest in research just because you're working on the policy side of things. Have you ever felt removed from the scientific community at all in doing science policy work?

TN: That's an interesting question but no, I've never felt separated from the scientific community. Many of my science colleagues often say, and I take this as the greatest compliment, "I'm glad you're working on science policy." The difficulty with science is that there is a lot of great information out there, but it's often not presented in a way that makes it accessible in the kind of timeframe that's necessary to either decision-makers or the public, or presented in such a way that it's actually useful to inform those immediate decisions or policies.

DMH: Ok, a non-work question. What do you do for fun?

TN: I love the outdoors more than anything, so what I do for fun is anything outside. I hike, I backpack, I paddle... anything outside. I'm also a traveler. I work like a fiend so when I cut lose I like to do big trips, like a month long or several weeks. I also love to read, I love to cook and I love to eat!

DMH: And you can do all of those while traveling!

TN: I can do all of those all the time so those are all great joys.

DMH: Out of the trips that you've taken does one stand out as a favorite?

TN: I guess two things. When I did my dissertation work my field work was in Antarctica and that is still one of the most amazing places I've ever been. Just for the shear magnitude of difference. Places I love... I love Oregon, but other amazing trips have been to Central America. I go as often as I can. My next big trip, though, will have to be Africa because it's the only continent I haven't been to!

DMH: We've talked a lot about jobs so what other profession than your own would you choose and why?

TN: Well, I did get into medical school but I decided I would rather be a scientist. Let me put it this way: I don't think that my being a scientist stands in the way of my making any other career choices. For instance, I have a huge respect for teaching and education but I can do that as a scientist. In some ways, I always have a different career because being an environmental scientist is incredibly interdisciplinary and requires so many different skills that there are vast opportunities out there. You can be a communicator, an educator, a writer... you can apply all of your skills, which is one of the things that I love about being a scientist.

DMH: What profession would you not like to do?

TN: I don't know if you can put this down because I work with so many lawyers, but law.

DMH: Oh believe me that one definitely comes up quite a bit when I ask this question!

TN: I think I could maybe play a lawyer on TV at this point, because a great amount of the work I've done has been side by side with lawyers, and a few of my very dearest colleagues at EPA are lawyers. What could I absolutely not do? I could never be an engineer--I think science and engineering are two different things. I love chemistry, and even like math, physics so I need to be clear about that but I would never be an engineer! Although I'm very glad we have good lawyers and engineers.

DMH: If you could be a superhero what would you want your superpowers to be?

TN: Oh my gosh! I've thought about this a lot. If I could be a superhero I would want my superpower to be that I could cure ignorance and make everyone see all the information. I would be the Transparency Superhero! I really believe that everybody deserves to have all of the information. I would be the Super Transparency Superhero!

DMH: Hmmmm... you might have to compete with the Invisible Man.

TD: Well, I would also love to be the superhero that could take a river, a wetland, a lake etc. and put it back into a state where it is highly functional again. I would be... hmmm... what would that be as a superhero?

DMH: Water Woman?

TN: That could be it!

DMH: It's funny, but as you say that, when you really think about it so many of the people here at EPA are so dedicated to the environment we already have a lot of superheroes here at the Agency. They might not wear capes but we have a lot of superheroes at EPA.

TN: It's the commitment to the mission of the Agency and the fact that at EPA there are a lot of passionate, bright and committed people that is the great thing about EPA. If people knew the heart of EPA I think people would have a different sense of EPA.

DMH: Any advice for students considering a career in science?

TN: Absolutely. I think that you should let your passion be your driver. If you love something or you're interested in it, a scientific education can only open up many doors and won't close any doors. I think that the sky is the limit and the need is great. There are so many different arenas where you can work, especially in earth science or environmental science. Bring your sense of wonder. My other bit of advice is if you're working on something you really care about, experiential immersion is really important. If there is any opportunity available, like doing a sea semester or spending a summer at a marine laboratory, do it. Also, find someone who knows about and cares about some of the natural resources or issues you care about to serve as a mentor.

DMH: If you were written about in a newspaper what would the headline say?

TN: Ha ha ha! Oh it depends on who is writing it, Dale!

DMH: Do you have a favorite wetland animal/critter/bug?

TN: Can I have more than one answer, and it's important and I'll tell you why. It depends on what part of the country I'm in but for me, I love the amphibians. They just bring me great joy. I love wetland plants too but again it depends on where I am. One of my favorite creatures, and this is going to sound weird, in the whole wide world is the red-winged blackbird. The reason why is when I hear a red-winged blackbird calling, no matter where I am, it pretty much means that I am close to a wetland or water. People think it's one of the most mundane birds in the world, but when I hear that bird it means I'm someplace I want to be, which is by a wetland.

DMH: What are you reading or what was the last book that you read?

TN: Oh that's really interesting. Right now, and I went to bed with it last night, it's called Stream Ecology: Structure and Function of Running Waters (laughing). That's what I'm reading right now. That's not quite fair, though because I'm a big reader and am also reading A Perfect Red, which is about the history and development of red dye and the quest for the color red. I read a lot of fiction, as well. If you asked me to pick what I love more ecology or literature, it would be tough for me to decide!

DMH: A few final questions. PC or Mac?

TN: Mac.

DMH: Matchbox or Hot Wheels?

TN: Hot Wheels?

DMH: Saturdays or Sundays?

TN: Oh that's tough. They're different pleasures. I can't even begin to answer that!

DMH: And the last one, chocolate or vanilla.

TN: Oh chocolate. But wait, let me be clear because I'm a purist! Chocolate when we're talking dark chocolate but I think the best and only ice cream flavor worth eating is vanilla!

DMH: That's it for me for questions Tracie. I've really enjoyed our chat today!

TN: This was fun – thank you!

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