Spotlight Series: Anna Wassel & the Pawpaw Patrol at Tyson Research Center, USA FDP
Anna Wassel (she/they) is a Ph.D. candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She got her start with ForestGEO on the field team at the Tyson Research Center, USA FDP in 2019, and last summer they led a team of four undergraduates and to two high school students on their research. Anna loves working in temperate plots. Also, Anna enjoys eating potatoes.
We are so glad to feature Anna in our Spotlight Series! She was nominated by her advisor, Jonathan Myers (PI of the Tyson Research Center, USA, FDP). Want to nominate a colleague for a future interview? Reach out to Lauren: KrizelL@si.edu.
When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist/work in forest ecology? How did you decide to go down this career path?
I distinctly remember the moment when my world opened up to the possibility of me being a scientist: it was freshman year of college at Emory University’s Oxford College campus. We were on Arabia Mountain outside Atlanta, Georgia for my intro to environmental science class with Theodosia Wade. Our lab assignment for that afternoon was categorizing the “islands” of vegetation that were growing as primary successional communities from the impressive granite outcrop. My professor was a sweet, energetic, southern woman – my only professor with a southern accent despite going to school in the South. When we arrived at the outcrop she knelt down at one of the island gardens and moved her hand in a sweeping motion just inches over the sandy soil. It looked like she was sensing the energy of the mountain or giving it a blessing or something. The class watched in tickled confusion. “There was diamorpha here!” she finally explained. She was feeling for the small, dried stems of the endemic succulent species, Sedum smallii. She knew how to ask the mountain to tell her its secrets.
That day I realized that science could be done outdoors, that it could be done with wild plants, and that I didn’t have to change any part of my creative, goofy, spiritual self to be a scientist just like Professor Wade. Later that year, my Field Botany professor, Dr. M. Eloise Carter, solidified my love for science and my drive to go to graduate school.
What led you down the path to your current job?
In summer of 2017 (after my sophomore year of college), I didn’t receive the funding I needed to participate in the study abroad program to Africa that I had applied to. I was crushed at the time, but looking back on it, it was a huge blessing. At the last minute I scrambled for other summer opportunities, and I found the Research Experience for Undergraduates at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. After about two days I knew I wanted to live in St. Louis after graduation. The historic architecture, free zoo, humble midwest attitude, and a huge network of local plant scientists charmed me right away. During that summer I was able to attend the Tyson Seminar Series at Washington University’s Tyson Research Center. I was so enamored with the environment and the kinds of research they did that WashU became my dream school for graduate school, the hope being to become a staff scientist at a botanical garden or field station after completing my Ph.D.
Lucky enough for me, after graduation, a technician position opened up for the lab of Jonathan Myers at Tyson Research Center. I was accepted, and I got to live out my dream of living in St. Louis. That was my first exposure to the ForestGEO network. My job was to help conduct the 2019 Tyson census. After my 6-month contract was up, I hadn’t had enough of the forest, nor the research that was happening in the Myers Lab. I applied to be a graduate student with Jonathan Myers, and the rest is history.
What has been your biggest challenge in getting to this point in your career?
Conducting research in an area riddled with disease-carrying ticks is tough, as was starting graduate school in 2020 during the dawn of the pandemic, but to be quite frank, the biggest challenge in my career has been confronting and healing from trauma. Rocky family dynamics, harmful experiences during previous jobs in male-dominated environments, and struggles during my undergraduate education left me with a variety of hidden triggers that directly conflicted with my ability to focus and perform in graduate school. There have been times when I was the only non-male in the room, and even though I cognitively knew all the men were kind, respectful, and trustworthy people, it was indescribably draining. My body was always on alert for threats to my emotional or physical safety instead of on alert for new papers, fascinating collaborations, or bugs in my code. People with marginalized identities and associated trauma (myself included) allot so much energy to feeling safe in triggering environments while the people lacking those negative experiences can direct that energy towards just doing science; it puts us at a sneaky disadvantage. Without the access to multi-modal mental health care provided by my graduate program; my amazingly patient, conscientious, kind, and reliable advisor; and the “eco-feminist oasis” that is Tyson Research Center, it is very likely I would have ended up in a different career by now. I am very grateful.
What is the most interesting or unique aspect of your site?
I love working at a temperate site! The tropics are beautiful and exciting and jam-packed with biodiversity, but I love how temperate areas really make you work to find the exciting nuggets. I’ve seen huge rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, frogs, baby owls, turtles, armadillos, baby raccoons, multiple species of orchids, edible mushrooms, threatened medicinal plants, sparkly geodes, and fun fossils in our ForestGEO site. My impression is that people don’t know temperate forests can be full of all of those things. Spending every day for months at a time in the same 20-hectare spot allows for such an intimate knowledge of a place, and that experience in itself is always unique. The ticks at Tyson are spectacularly bad, which I suppose is also unique, but not in a fun way. Ha!
What questions are you currently addressing in your research/site?
I get to study Pawpaw trees! Pawpaws, Asimina triloba, are funny little trees that grow in clonal colonies in valleys and mesic hillsides from the family Annonaceae, an otherwise tropical family. During my time as a technician, our team noticed that pawpaw patches seemed to exclude other trees and herbaceous species. I am investigating how this locally dominant species affects herbaceous community assembly. Beyond just the biodiversity patterns caused by A. triloba, we are testing specific hypotheses on the ecological processes driving these patterns. Does the presence of pawpaw increase determinism or stochasticity? If so, what is the specific process?
To answer this question, my team and I have tracked down pawpaw patches within the Tyson ForestGEO site and surveyed dozens of quadrats in the herbaceous layer, identifying all vascular plants. Additionally, I looked at pawpaw patches within controlled burn sites to include how fire shifts patterns and processes. I have taken 90 canopy photos to analyze for light availability and am currently taking temperature data at every sampling site. These more specific abiotic variables and the biodiversity of the herbaceous layer will help us tease apart this species’ impact on forest, and better elucidate how dominant species in general affect ecosystems.
What kind of capacity building opportunities does your site provide for students, early-career researchers, and the local community?
This past summer I led a team of four undergraduates and two high school students on my research. We called ourselves the Pawpaw Patrol. Every day for 10 weeks, they helped me with everything from collecting the data to troubleshooting methods, data entry, determining unknown species, and more. On top of that, all students were part of the broader Tyson Research Center summer program, where they got to attend professional development workshops, meet with seminar speakers, and conduct independent projects. Leading both my own research and helping students develop and complete their own independent projects was a really rewarding challenge. I feel great knowing that those students all gained practical plant identification skills, as well as stamina for field work, creative problem solving, and experience developing a project.
What is your favorite part about your work?
My favorite part of my work is that I get to fully indulge my curiosity. It feels so luxurious to have a job that is essentially “be excited about nature,” and “hike around and find out.” Even on miserably hot days, I love the heat-induced delirious laughter with other nature nerds on my team. During the “off” season, I love obsessing over my code and producing figures that either confirm or challenge the “hunches” I developed in the field. How great is it that I have a job where being wrong can be just as exciting as being right?
What do you like to do when you’re not studying forest dynamics?
I love jigsaw puzzles, photography, listening to music from all around the world, cuddling with my miraculously fluffy angel of a cat named Tarot, eating potatoes, and playing board games with friends (Evolution is my favorite!).
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