Dr. Valerie Brady

Senior Research Program Manager
Home state: Minnesota
Research Institution: University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute
Primary Research Topic(s): I use fish and aquatic invertebrates to assess the condition (health) of wetlands, streams, and lake shores or coasts, as well as the success of restoration work in these ecosystems.
What got you interested in science and how did you end up as a Great Lakes scientist?

My parents were very interested in nature and science and had my brother and I outside a lot, always going to nature centers and on hikes, etc.  I grew up catching bugs, playing in mud puddles, and stalking various birds and muskrats to see how they lived.  I have always loved water and things that live in water.  Eventually I figured out I could make a career out of this love; I started working in wetlands in undergrad and then moved into Great Lakes coastal wetlands in graduate school and have worked in the Great Lakes or on their coasts and streams pretty much ever since.

Describe your research related to the Great Lakes.

I work primarily along the coasts of the Great Lakes and in their coastal watersheds.  People mostly interact with the Great Lakes right at the coast, rarely venturing more than ¼ – ½ mile out into the lakes.  So the coasts are what we experience.  Coasts are also where all the runoff from everything that happens on the land enters the Great Lakes. And coasts are home to many critical habitats for Great Lakes species.  The majority of Great Lakes fish species need coastal habitats at some point in their lives, often for spawning and nursery areas.  So coastal areas are really important.  My work focuses on figuring out how to monitor these coastal areas to ensure that they are staying in good condition, or are being restored well if they are in poor condition.  I coordinate a large project called the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program (www.GreatLakesWetlands.org) that samples fish, aquatic invertebrates, aquatic vegetation, birds, amphibians, coastal habitat, and water quality to determine how well Great Lakes coastal wetlands are faring.  I also examine the streams and rivers entering the Great Lakes to determine their condition for stream fish and invertebrates.

Describe an experience you have had working with educators or the community. What was something that surprised you or that you especially enjoyed about the experience?

As a post-doc at the USEPA lab in Duluth I was asked to help teach RiverWatch teachers how to sample and identify aquatic invertebrates.  I really enjoyed helping them learn how to do this identification, but I was saddened to learn that many had been mis-identifying the critters for years because they didn’t have access to good information or help.  With the great increase in free online information since then, that situation is rapidly correcting itself, but I still enjoy instilling a love of invertebrates and an awe for all the habitats they can live in.

Why do you think it is important for scientists to share their research with educators?

Not only did I have parents who were interested in science, I also had a terrific 5th grade science teacher who encouraged my love of science because he was interested in it.  Anything we can do to keep that love of science going in teachers will help them inspire their students.  Even if those students don’t go on to become scientists, they may still retain a fondness for science and for nature.  We don’t preserve or take care of the things we don’t care about.  To ensure an intact, functioning natural world for future generations, current generations have to care about it.  In addition, science literacy among the general public seems to be at an all-time low and it is affecting people’s lives and health and leading them to make poor decisions.  We need to do anything we can to increase science literacy among the American public, and one of the easiest places to start may be with the kids.

What do you think are the most critical skills for students interested in a career in science?

Tenacity and willingness to try and fail and try again.  Science isn’t so much about being brilliant (though that’s nice, but I’m not).  A lot of science is problem-solving and we often don’t get it right the first time.  But we learn from our mistakes or mis-steps or misunderstanding about what we were working on, and we try again, and again.  And we learn and make progress along the way.  But I believe the most critical thing for a scientist is to be stubborn and tenacious and willing to work hard on problems where at the moment, all you can see is one little thing to work on  – you can’t figure out the whole solution – but you are willing to go as far as you can on that one part and see where it leads you.  As is said in one of my favorite sci-fi movies: “Never give up!”  If I had allowed myself to be easily overwhelmed by the enormity of tasks or issues confronting me and my research, or not been willing to just knuckle down and work hard, I never would have made it out of graduate school.

Contact Dr. Valerie Brady: [email protected]