As we begin 2018, we’d like to highlight those who often go unrecognized, particularly women who chosen to work “dirty jobs.” The long, repetitive field work in the blistering sun. The willingness to get stung by bees, mosquitoes or any other insect for research purposes. Often times this work gets little praise, but it is nonetheless just as important to Florida’s environment as environmental jobs that more frequently make headlines.
“I always end up saying to myself ‘What I’m doing is just not that interesting,’ or ‘Nobody would care about my little research project,'” said Ashlynn Smith, a University of Florida lab tech and graduate student. “It’s going to take more media outlets like The Marjorie to pull us out of our shell and force us to go public.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list, yet a beginning to showcase some of the often forgotten hard work that goes into conservation efforts.
1. Donna Kalil, python huntress
Donna Kalil is a Miami native who has been catching snakes since she was 8 years old.
Kalil catches Burmese pythons for the Python Elimination Program, spearheaded by the South Florida Water Management District. The program has tracked down nearly 800 pythons in the Everglades since March of 2017.
SFWMD received about 1,000 applications from people interested in participating in the program and selected only 25 people to work with land managers for the python hunt. Kalil is one of these few.
Though researchers are uncertain how many Burmese pythons currently inhabit the Everglades and surrounding areas, an increased number of sightings caused alarm between 2005 and 2010.
A recent study from University of Florida researcher Robert McCleery and his team tracked the pythons’ impact on indigenous food sources. Pythons killed 77 percent of 95 adult marsh rabbits released in areas where pythons were known to be located.
2. Terri Mashour, author and fire ecologist
Terri Mashour braved all things spidery-prickly-snakey-swampy to bring readers into Florida’s most off-the-beaten-path wildlands. Her new book, “Backcountry Trails of Florida: A Guide to Hiking Florida’s Water Management Districts,” draws on her years as a land management planner and land management specialist with the St. Johns River Water Management District. In it, readers can find little-known adventures over sandhills, to freshwater springs, across lakeshores and many others.
Mashour is a second-generation Floridian and fire ecologist. While seven months pregnant, she earned her Florida Certified Burner certification, and has since taken part in almost 100 burns or wildfires. If that isn’t career trial by fire, we don’t know what is.
3. Gretchen Lovewell, marine mammal and sea turtle strandings investigator
Gretchen Lovewell has been involved with animal strandings since she was a student at University of North Carolina Wilmington in 1999.
She now serves as the program manager for Mote Marine Laboratory’s Stranding Investigations Program, where she has responded to hundreds of strandings of over 40 different species of marine mammals and sea turtles.
Lovewell has served as a first responder for large whale disentanglement and also is involved in dolphin health assessments and rescues.
She has received multiple honors and awards including the Response Team Efficiency Award from FWC.
4. Ashlynn Smith, lab technician and graduate student
Ashlynn Smith, a University of Florida graduate student who currently works for the UF West Florida Research and Education Center, has, like other graduate students in her field, spent her young career doing tough work.
After finishing her bachelor’s degree, she worked for a seagrass restoration program for the Florida Department of Environmental Production.
“I was responsible for a wide range of activities including managing our micropropagation lab to salvaging seagrass from areas where it would be destroyed by dock construction and transplanting it to donor locations where seagrass beds were absent or sparse,” Smith said.
By day, you can her monitoring feral hog damage in seepage slopes, planting dune plants for restoration and conducting prescribed burns. Seepage slopes are characterized by, “unusual hydrology and frequent fires combine to create an environment that supports a variety of carnivorous and other sun-loving herbaceous plants.” They are considered one of North America’s most unique and diverse ecosystems.
Her personal research project is looking into the effects on the vegetation, soil and hydrology from titi (Cliftonia monophylla) removal in seepage slopes and wet prairies in the Panhandle, where she is from. This will involve personally installing 160 monitoring wells, collecting soil samples and launching a seed bank study.
“I would say to women who are out in the field doing the ‘dirty work’ to remember that when we feel tired or taken for granted, that the environment appreciates what we are doing, whether it can reach out and hug us or not.”
5. Barbara Heineken, co-founder of Recycle Florida Today
In 1990, Barbara Heineken partnered with three other women–Mary Cummings, Kathy Kelley and Teresa Shiflett–to form Recycle Florida Today. Their motivation was to establish an organization that turned the focus to recycling and environmental sustainability instead of only issues of solid and hazardous waste.
The organization, which celebrated it’s 25th anniversary in 2015, now emphasizes education and engagement. Heineken has been particularly involved in engagement with key stakeholders for projects such as the Carton Council–an industry association that aims to grow carton recycling to over 60% of households in the U.S.
Heineken said one of the most difficult parts of her job, especially when she worked for 18 years at the City of Tampa as recycling coordinator, is working with men who don’t view women as qualified to be in the collection aspect of recycling or garbage.
“I’ve felt discrimination from men in my field and a lot of times felt like they wanted to pat me on my back and say, ‘Go home, little girl,'” she said. “Happily, I don’t experience that currently even when I go to visit recycling facilities always run by men.”
6. Samantha Wisely, conservation geneticist and disease ecologist
University of Florida’s Samantha Wisely is on the lookout for what many of us try to avoid: ticks.
Her training as a conservation geneticist and disease ecologist informs her work studying ticks, their pathogens, how they spread and potential management strategies. In 2016 she was part of a team awarded $10 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study tick-borne diseases like Lyme and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
“With the arrival of Zika Virus and the continued threat of tick-borne diseases in Florida, there has been a renewed interest in arthropods and the diseases that they vector in the state,” Wisely said. “They can have huge economic and public health impacts on the state.”
Wisely is associate professor with the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation and director of the Cervidae Health Research Initiative (CHeRI). Follow the goings-on in her lab at wiselylab.com.
7. Karen Henschen, coordinator of the Red Tide Monitoring Program at FWC
Karen Henschen is a biologist who coordinates the Red Tide Offshore/Inshore Monitoring Program for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Part of her job is organize efforts from both volunteers and partners for event response efforts and routine sampling across the state. Another part is to work in the lab: Henschen oversees the microscopic analysis of water samples and scientifically classifies algal communities.
Red tide refers to the bloom of the Florida red tide organism, Karenia brevis, which produces neurotoxins that can sicken and kill fish, seabirds, turtles and marine mammals. The toxins can also affect humans, causing respiratory irritation or shellfish poisoning if consumed.
The blooms typically happen in late summer or early fall, developing offshore and then carried inshore by currents and winds. The blooms are not caused by human pollution, but they can be exacerbated by nutrient sources like sewage and runoff.
Henschen also serves as the primary source of information for volunteers, writing and distributing the program’s Volunteer Newsletter, which she also makes available for the public.
8. Grace Howell, land manager, Alachua Conservation Trust
Grace Howell, a natural resource manager for the Alachua Conservation Trust deals with tough decisions daily. Especially when the public doesn’t understand her reasoning.
It’s not always easy to explain in a brief news story why trees must be removed or a forest needs fire.
“The end goal of the land manager may be to remove invasive plants, protect habitat for threatened or endangered species, or help restore balance to the ecosystem,” said Howell, who also leads the “Women in the Woods” internship program for those interested in the natural resources field.
“When a piece of land is designated for conservation, I take note of the natural plant and animal communities that exist and see what measures should be taken to keep them healthy,” she said. “This is done by observing topography, soils, hydrological features and, most importantly, indicative plant species that occur in the landscape.”
Her best days? Those when she gets to plan and execute a prescribed burn, a common management technique used to open the canopy and mid-story of a forest, allowing sunshine to reach plants down below. This results in blooming grasses and wildflowers in the fall.
However she says most of her time post Hurricane Irma has been spent clearing downed trees and debris from preserve trails.
“I’ve become very well acquainted with chainsaw use and maintenance,” she said.
Her most heart-stopping moment in the field? Stepping on a rattlesnake while lighting a few palmettos on fire, though she’s sure the snake felt the same way.
She says her advice to overworked, underpaid field biologists is this:
“Sometimes the work is hot, exhausting and thankless. But my advice is to zoom out and remember the big picture when it feels tedious and overwhelming. Each little piece of habitat that we can conserve and care for is important to the larger contiguous landscape and it truly matters that we continue to work smart and care deeply.”