Susie AdamsWomen in Science Menu
Meet Susie Adams, a Research Aquatic Ecologist and Team Leader with the Southern Research Station’s Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research Unit in Oxford, Mississippi. Astacology—the study of crayfish—has been one of her specialties since the early 2000s when she realized how little was known about these freshwater crustaceans, despite how frequently research teams encountered them while studying fishes in Mississippi streams. “The southeastern U.S. is the global epicenter of crayfish diversity,” she says. “Mississippi alone has over 60 crayfish species that live in habitats ranging from lakes and streams to roadside ditches and suburban lawns.” Adams’ expertise extends well beyond the Southeast: she now serves as immediate Past-President of the International Association of Astacology and is the only the sixth scientist from the United States—and the first U.S. woman—to have served as president of the professional society since it was founded 45 years ago.
What do you do for the Southern Research Station?
“As a Research Aquatic Ecologist, I study fish and crayfish ecology in the Southeast. I conduct studies to understand relationships among habitat, fishes, and crayfishes; learn about the life histories, distributions, and behaviors of the animals; and clarify crayfish taxonomy. My work sometimes includes describing new crayfish species or even determining that two or more species should be considered a single species. I enjoy educating other scientists, land managers, and the public about the high aquatic animal diversity in the southeast. Finally, I am the Team Leader for my unit’s Ecology of Aquatic and Terrestrial Fauna Team. In this role, I have many supervisory responsibilities and am responsible for ensuring that my team produces high quality, useful science.”
When and why did you come to work for the Southern Research Station?
“I came to SRS from Montana in January, 2000, after completing my Ph.D. and a short post-doc at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station. I was delighted to be offered a Forest Service research position that would allow me to focus on research without having to balance a teaching load. Although my dislike for hot weather made me hesitant about moving to Mississippi, I found a biological treasure trove here.”
What led you to pursue this field of study?
“I took a haphazard path to find my career. Upon graduating from college, I knew I wanted to be a biologist and loved rivers and streams, but I really didn’t have a specific career vision. After working on Forest Service trail and helitack fire crews in Idaho, I landed a series of summer positions on fisheries crews for the Payette National Forest and the Intermountain Research Station (now Rocky Mountain Research Station). I enjoyed research because of the variety of work, the intellectual challenge, and the fun of discovering new knowledge. Those summer positions led me to funding for an M.S. and a Ph.D. in fisheries and aquatic ecology.”
What is a typical workday like for you in the field, lab, and/or office?
“Although I spend more days in the office, field days are much more fun to talk about! I work with a crew of fantastic technicians who usually have the field gear prepared and loaded in the truck by the time I’m ready to go. Once at a site, we put on our chest waders and boots and lug our gear to the study site – a stream or pitcher plant bog or lake. Sampling goes on all day and may include backpack electrofishing, seining, setting traps, or digging crayfish out of burrows. We often take water quality measurements and assess habitat at a site. Careful data recording, though not glamorous, is essential. Depending on the project, we may identify and measure the animals we catch and release them on site, or we may collect them and bring them back to the lab for further study. We eat lunch at the truck or by the stream, taking some critical time for cooling off and rehydrating during the summer. We often visit several sites per day. At the end of the day, we either return to the lab, where we clean the gear and safely store the day’s data and collections, or for more distant projects, we stay overnight closer to the sites. When studying larger water bodies, we often work from boats, including using an electrofishing boat to sample fishes.”
Have you had any unexpected, unusual, or exciting opportunities or experiences as a result of your work?
“Many, but two main categories come to mind. The first includes unexpected wildlife encounters, such as being stalked by a mountain lion in Idaho, and moments of exceptional beauty I have witnessed. My job leads me to many memorable places and situations that I would never experience if I had an indoor job. The second is the international work I’ve done – I never imagined that a Forest Service job would take me to three other continents. Working with people from all over the world has not only broadened my science but has greatly enriched my life in many ways, both professionally and personally. The most surprising opportunity was working with a small team in Nepal to recommend direction for a US Agency for International Development program on watershed management and aquatic biodiversity.”
What do you enjoy most about your work?
“The variety, the independence, and the feeling that my work makes a difference in conservation and land management. I love having the freedom to identify an important area of research and then to pursue it to the extent that I can obtain funding to do so.”
To reach your current position, have you had to overcome challenges or barriers that may be unique to being a woman in science?
“Certainly, although I didn’t recognize many of them as such at the time. It has been an odd feeling to look back on some of the challenges I faced and realize they were created by gender bias, often unintentional – the realization brings both relief and frustration. That said, being female has also provided some great career opportunities, for which I’m grateful to the women who came before me. Having kids while in grad school and working as a field scientist has also been a challenge – one made infinitely easier by a supportive husband.”
What women have inspired you?
“My mom, by instilling a love of nature and always telling me I can do anything I set my mind to, and numerous female professors, colleagues, and friends. Many of these women are not scientists, but each excels at what she does, holds herself and others to high standards, works hard, maintains perspective, and knows how to laugh. And I’m sure that as a youngster I was inspired by Jane Goodall, as I have been again recently.”
What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another career in science?
“Try it out, if you can manage, before investing years in graduate school. Find mentors and ask questions. Be brave – don’t run from opportunities, including classes, that are outside of your comfort zone or are not particularly welcoming to you in some way. Take those statistics classes even if they frighten you – they will come in handy. Look for the big picture while attending to detail. Nurture your creativity. Be collaborative. Hang out with some people who believe in you. Check for ticks.”