Rima LucardiWomen in Science Menu
Meet Rima Lucardi, a Research Ecologist with the Southern Research Station’s (SRS) Insects, Diseases, and Invasive Plants research unit in Athens, Ga. Her research program studies non-native, plant species invasions and their associated impacts on the ecosystems of the southern United States.
What do you do for the Southern Research Station?
I use a variety of approaches to explain the phenomena of biological invasions, identify and mitigate threats to forest health, and develop strategies to prevent on-going and future plant invasions.
When and why did you come to work for the Southern Research Station?
I started with SRS during the last year of my doctoral program at Mississippi State University. I initially planned to follow an academic career-path until I was offered an internship opportunity with SRS. Becoming a Research Ecologist has offered professional development opportunities and exposure I would not have otherwise received. I have also been provided the freedom to develop a broad and interdisciplinary research program to explore invasive species dynamics, including invasive plants, insects, and forest pathogens.
What led you to pursue this field of study?
There were several factors that led to my interest in ecology and the great outdoors. My Girl Scouts of America Troop conducted service activities along riparian areas such as litter pick-up, wildflower seeding, hiking, camping, fossil-hunting, and wilderness-ethic development. As the child of immigrant parents, I was lucky to experience the many wonders and intrinsic values of the National Park and National Forest Systems. My childhood vacations included excursions to visit as many forests, parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges time and money would allow. In college, my initial declaration was pre-med and biomed engineering, but I had also began working as an undergraduate research assistant in a plant ecology lab studying plant invasions in North Texas prairies. After spending my post-bachelor years as a professional in microbiology, tissue culture, medical, and animal research, I was sure that I wanted to be the one asking the questions and designing studies, not just executing the experiments, and I was sure that I wanted to ask these scientific questions of invasive plants, particularly grasses.
What is a typical workday like for you in the field, lab, and/or office?
I spend most days in the office, conducting data analyses or quality management, but like most scientists I would rather be out in the field. Other times, I can be found in one of my laboratories extracting DNA or potting seedlings. My students and technical-support staff work together using microscopes, genetics equipment, and even a robot to help answer our research questions. Field days for one of my most recent, research projects took me to a unique study site: the vast industrial container terminal of the Port of Savannah. It is a very different field site than the norm in which to conduct floristic surveys and seed collections. Other field days can take me to the Southern Appalachian Mountains to explore and document new threats to forestlands, or to the Gulf Coast Plains to assist with chemical management of highly invasive plant species. Some days you can find me at a conference talking about my research, meeting with stakeholders both inside and outside of the agency, or working with my many amazing collaborators across the region.
Have you had any unexpected, unusual, or exciting opportunities or experiences as a result of your work?
Definitely—since working in the field ecology, I have overcome my phobia of snakes, venomous or otherwise. I learned how to drive a standard transmission vehicle in graduate school. I learned I was terribly allergic to DEET, the primary active ingredient in bug-repellent, so I have learned how to make my own anti-bug balm. I have helped build feral hog enclosures in wetlands without waders. Thanks to SRS, I have had the opportunity to travel to many states east of the Mississippi River, and I have met colleagues working to understand biological invasions from all over the world.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I view my work, my research program, as a lifelong service to the American public. The threats and challenges non-native, invasive species pose to the ecology of our environment as well as our economic sustainability, are great and many. My satisfaction arises from the knowledge that the work I do contributes to clean water, clean air, wooded forests, and timber from which homes are constructed. I am inspired by people like Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and countless others who have helped sustain our natural resources, and now I am part of this legacy.
To reach your current position, have you had to overcome challenges or barriers that may be unique to being a woman in science?
Absolutely! However, I have had the benefit of working with some pretty amazing feminists whom I learned from and I have received lots of support from all genders. For example, my undergraduate advisor mentored me in the field of plant ecology, but also provided me a great scaffold of support and exposure to the additional roles women in science serve by simply being a woman in science. With such support from mentors and friends, I founded and mobilized feminist organizations during my education, and continue to engage actively with feminists from all over the world. Despite the unique challenges and experiences of being a woman in science, I feel confident that each of our experiences is different and challenges are opportunities from which to gain insight and learn something new. I keep in mind that some of my greatest champions have been men, while some of greatest detractors have been women, and that gender is not necessarily binary, nor is our individual experience. My goal is to avoid generalization of people’s motivations. I also try not to take what may have been a flippant comment or unnecessary mansplaining personally, but to do good work, speak the truth, and soar anyway.
What women have inspired you?
My grandmother survived the Axis occupation during World War II dressed as a boy to stay safe over a hundred miles from her home. She worked hard while under great risk and danger as an unprotected woman in her 20s, to send money home to support her widowed mother and siblings. I am the first in my family, regardless of gender, to earn a Ph.D. I keep my grandmother’s picture at my dressing table to remind me that the women of my family are fearless, determined, and fierce. For me, there is no greater daily inspiration.
What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another career in science?
Fearlessness and compassion. Find mentors. Go to and present at science fairs. Experiment in your backyard. Feed your curiosity. Join Girl Scouts of America because you will be exposed to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Find others who share your interests. Build a community. Volunteer. Do service. Learn languages. Learn to code. Math is a universal language. Travel the world. Teach. Setbacks are an opportunity to learn what you can do better next time. Rise to the challenge. Learn something new each day. Find interesting podcasts. Keep an open and flexible mind. Every journey is different-enjoy it.