Science can be confusing. There I said it. I know it’s Earth Week and a time to celebrate Earth as well as re-double our efforts to protect it (though, of course, every week ought to be Earth Week). All of which means tipping the proverbial cap to the knowledge (and questions) science has provided. However, that doesn’t stop science, the science that began alerting us to the dangers of climate change way back in the 1960s and 1970s, from itself being confusing, at least to me. (It’s worth mentioning how media coverage of the issue, or lack of it, for many years has waylaid progress and understanding in the public’s mind.)
With a breezy, insightful tone, Dr. Tanya Hoerer, Professor of Organismal Biology and Marine Science at Coastline, cleared up some of my confusion, as I’m sure she does with her students. She also made it clear the life-saving strategies and remedies science has developed over the years, delving into neuroscience, ecology, biology, botany (to name only a few). Dr. Hoerer has worked in all those fields and others and offered great insight into the value of science. It turns out science can be fun. You just need the right teacher.
Dr. Hoerer is originally from California, but lived all over the world as the child of a military parent. “Growing up, I always wanted to do something in the biology or medical field,” Dr. Hoerer told me. She considered going to veterinary or medical school, though she ended up choosing a different direction. While in her undergraduate years at the University of Mary Washington, she became interested in ecology, the interaction between living things (i.e. plants and plants, animals and humans, plants and animals, the works). “I fell in love with my botany class and my field ecology class,” Dr. Hoerer said.
All this arose from a love of being outdoors and engaging in the natural world—“I still love it,” added Dr. Hoerer. She “coupled that to a natural affinity and talent to be able to understand biology”: “I would read books about animals and plants and to me it was just like reading a novel.” The appreciation for plant life extended into her graduate studies at Syracuse University where she examined grasslands in Yellowstone National Park. “There, I was looking at interactions between cooperative fungus,” a symbiont, “and the roots of a plant.”
After writing her dissertation, Dr. Hoerer moved back to California and started teaching, specifically anatomy. Soon enough, though, her long-time interest in the more medical aspects of biology took root again: “I really fell in love with neuroscience,” Dr. Hoerer said and “did some work with a neuroscience research institute.” Her job was to help develop educational materials for pharmaceutical companies, doctors and psychiatrists “and direct them on the newest research,” mostly with regard to behavioral health. “We distilled the current research on how different medications were being used and how they actually influenced the neurobiology of the patient.”
At this point in the interview, I asked what could be termed (somewhat ironically and definitely pun intended) a rather mindless question: “what’s important about the brain? (hence my sub-heading above). Rather than make me feel bad, however, Dr. Hoerer took the question entirely seriously, offering an astute answer: that the brain is so tied to everything our body does, controlling our responses, conscious and un-, and yet behaves differently than every other organ. “We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what we know about how our brains work,” Dr. Hoerer added. “The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.”
The beginnings of a nascent environmental movement as well as some of the first regulatory measures passed (like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act) was a huge inspiration for Dr. Hoerer growing up in the 1970s. As she continued her learning, she was part of a wave of young environmentalists who started recycling clubs in high school. “Our parents would get so frustrated with us because we would make them separate the trash,” Dr. Hoerer said, with a laugh. “We were motivated and we wanted to influence something we could.” As climate change has worsened, Dr. Hoerer has been heartened to meet students who are becoming involved in the sciences in order to study and untangle the various impacts and solutions that exist or may exist. She mentioned that the numbers of students she has that are aware of the problem and looking to help has grown since she started teaching.
As we spoke, Dr. Hoerer was in fact looking for a plant simulation online that she could use as material for students. “My end goal was actually to work in a community college,” she told me. “I felt that I was pretty good at helping others comprehend the science and the material and I really like working with other people and sharing my enthusiasm and interest.” Ultimately, Dr. Hoerer wants to help students “care about these things that are really important in our planet, whether it’s human pathologies or taking care of our environment and learning how to live better ad use our resources better.”
Dr. Hoerer made it clear that pursuing the sciences is not easy. You may literally be walking in the park (i.e. studying grasslands in Yellowstone), but that doesn’t make it a metaphorical walk in the park too. There is a lot of trial and error and patience is required. The learning itself can present problems too: “Oh man, it’s a lot of work. I would look at people in other majors and think ‘what have I done to myself?’ ‘Why did I choose this? This is an incredible amount of work.’” Her daughter, who’s pursuing biotech, mentioned that perhaps she wasn’t cut out for it when she encountered the tremendous workload day in and day out. Dr. Hoerer told her: “‘Oh no, you’re doing it perfectly right.' That’s exactly what you have to do.”
But Dr. Hoerer also noted how fun the hands-on and theoretical work can be; it gives opportunities to students they may not otherwise have; for example, traveling Yellowstone not as regular tourists, but as knowledge seekers, explorers. As Dr. Hoerer and I discussed, all great things, all things worth doing—for whatever reason, across all disciplines and walks of life—come with challenges, obstacles, hurdles. “Anything you do, the more you do it, the better you’ll be at it.” And as Dr. Hoerer pointed out, when it comes to remedying the climate crisis, the work of scientists is not just worth it, it's essential.