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Dr. Susanne Brander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at Oregon State University. Susanne received her B.S. degree in Business Administration from Elizabethtown College, her M.S. degree in Environmental Science and Policy from Johns Hopkins University, and her PhD in Toxicology from the University of California, Davis. Susanne then conducted postdoctoral research at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. She subsequently served on the faculty at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington before joining the faculty at the University of Oregon where she remains today. In our interview, Susanne will tell us more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:11)
In her free time, Susanne enjoys hanging out with her two young daughters, hiking, and doing art and science projects at home with them. She also likes running as well as making bowls and coffee cups on her pottery wheel.
The Scientific Side (3:37)
Susanne is an ecotoxicologist who studies the effects of environmental stress on wildlife. She particularly focuses on aquatic organisms that live in coastal areas, estuaries, and marine environments. Her research examines how environmental stressors affect organisms’ ability to function, reproduce, grow, and survive. In addition, Susanne assesses the risk of chemicals (e.g. pesticides or pharmaceuticals) in wastewater in terms of how they might affect the health and survival of fish and other invertebrates.
A Dose of Motivation (4:51)
For Susanne, motivation comes from her passion for science and a dedication to protecting the environment that has been a driving force since her childhood.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (8:08)
When Susanne was about 8 years old, her family moved into a townhouse near a park. This was Susanne’s first opportunity to go off by herself and explore nature. She used to sit by a stream and take notes in her journal about the plants, bugs, and birds she saw. In addition, her family used to spend summer vacations at the Jersey Shore. The coastal and marine habitats piqued her interest, but it took Susanne a while to realize that studying these environments could become her career. Susanne didn’t know any scientists, and upon her parent’s recommendation, she majored in business in college. At first, Susanne thought she might want to go into environmental law, but she quickly realized that wasn’t a good fit. An internship with the Nature Conservancy helped her understand what some of her career options were. During her junior year, Susanne discovered she was interested in biology, and she added biology as a minor. After college, she entered a masters degree program in environmental science and worked as a research assistant on sea turtle projects around the world. Later, Susanne’s time spent working at an environmental consulting firm led to her decide to go to graduate school to advance the kinds of questions she could address with her work.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (19:39)
For Susanne, one of the challenges with being a scientist who runs her own lab is that a lot of her time is spent answering emails, making budgets, writing grants, purchasing equipment, navigating contracts, and meeting with trainees. This means she doesn’t have much time left at the end of the day to do research herself. Susanne’s students and postdocs are the ones working in the lab, collecting data, and making discoveries. She mostly manages the research projects going on in her lab. To stay connected to the science her group is doing, Susanne makes sure to go out in the field to collect data for at least a few days each summer, attend workshops to stay up-to-date with the latest advances in the field, and go to conferences to share their research with other scientists.
A Shining Success! (23:39)
Recently, Susanne’s lab completed an experiment where they looked across three generations of fish for the effects of environmentally relevant pollutants. This was a huge success. Her team managed to get through this ambitious two year long experiment where they exposed the first generation of fish to pollutants and raised subsequent generations without exposure. Through this experiment, they were the first to develop a model for testing multi-generational effects in a saltwater species. Susanne and her lab members weathered the sleepless nights spent wondering if everything was going to work, and it was exciting to see some of their hypotheses supported at the end of the study. The results showed that there were measurable changes with exposure to environmentally relevant levels of pollutants, and that these changes persisted through three generations of fish.
Book Recommendations (27:43)
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Most Treasured Travel (30:27)
About a year ago, Susanne attended a meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Rome, Italy. While she was only there for two days, it was an incredible experience. It was fantastic to catch up with colleagues and share her work in a presentation. Afterwards, Susanne hopped on a tour bus and saw some of the sights of Rome. Another wonderful conference was held in Sacramento last year. Though the destination was less exotic, Susanne enjoyed reconnecting and spending time with her amazing toxicology colleagues.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (32:39)
Though she wasn’t able to attend one of the recent meetings of the Western Society of Naturalists, Susanne enjoyed hearing about one of the entertaining activities in which attendees participated. The conference attendees had to share unusual items that they successfully used in their field research. One group talked about the plastic fencing material they use for quantifying larval fish in marine reserves. Another group explained how they used tofu to attract reef fish to the habitats they created for their experiment and how it ended up wreaking havoc on their study. Though she couldn’t present an example of her own at the conference, Susanne has previously used kitty litter buckets in an estuary to expose fish to water at different distances from a wastewater treatment plant. She drilled holes in the buckets and used foam swimming pool noodles to keep the buckets afloat. Unfortunately, when she returned a week later, the river otters and disassembled and destroyed the pool noodles and ruined the experiment. Currently, Susanne’s lab is preparing to make custom glass well plates for one of their upcoming experiments.
Advice For Us All (40:32)
Especially in difficult times, you should remind yourself that you are doing what you are doing for you. It’s not to impress others or to publish more papers. You do the work that you do because you find it important and valuable, and you shouldn’t compare yourself to others. Remember that it is possible to work in a way that aligns with your values and to have a balance in work and life.
The Brander lab’s research encompasses the fields of toxicology, endocrinology, and ecology. It integrates molecular approaches with measurements at the organism and population level. The main focus of Susanne’s lab is on the effects of stressors such as emerging pollutants, plastics, and changing climate on aquatic organisms, but her work spans the links between ecological and human health. Much of her research examines the impact of stressors on fish and aquatic invertebrates. Exposure to endocrine disrupting compounds at an early life stage can cause sex change in fishes, but little is known about how this influences population size or the overall fecundity of a population. Susanne’s research examines how masculinization or feminization of group spawners, such as Menidia species, impacts overall reproductive output. In ongoing work, silversides are being exposed to known endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) to determine effects on gene expression, DNA methylation, fecundity, and sex ratio. Outcomes are being evaluated over three generations to examine the potential for trans-generational effects. In addition, Susanne’s lab recently detected a byproduct of the insecticide fipronil in the eggs and ovaries of blue crab females sampled from regional estuaries. Follow-up studies further examine how fipronil and its byproducts affect growth, gene expression, and reproduction in juvenile crabs. New collaborative work in oysters will examine the potential effects (both positive and negative) of aquaculture in research reserves.