Earth Angels
Six young scientists explain the work they’re doing to take care of our planet, from studying tigers to chasing storms.
Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist

As told to Ben Dandridge-Lemco, Nazuk Kochhar, Leah Mandel, Ruth Saxelby, and Lakin Starling.

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Jessie Kaplan-Bie, 27
research scientist at Ecovative, a biomaterials company

"I spent a lot of time outdoors when I was younger, running around in the woods and in the fields. The more time you spend outside, with just a little bit of curiosity, you start to wonder why. The more you wonder why, the more you want to understand.

I am the lead researcher in the development of the mesh material platform for Ecovative. Ecovative is a material technologies company, and we work with mycelium — the root system of fungi. What I work on is a material that is composed purely of mycelium, so it’s pure mushroom tissue. We’re working to develop this for the purpose of textile applications. It has quite a few unique attributes. The backbone of mycelium is chitin, which is actually one of the strongest materials on the planet. Mycelium is made up of these little strands called hyphae, and they weave in and out around each other. In growing a pure mycelial mat, we’re getting results comparable to other textiles that are currently available.

Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist

It’s not a plastic, it’s not a leather — it’s its own thing. It only takes nine days to grow, so it really reduces the amount of time that is necessary to produce the material. Leather is made as a byproduct of the meat industry, and there’s a huge amount of greenhouse gas that’s produced in that process. The mycelium textile is compostable and not going to pollute the environment. When it’s thrown away, it is going to be broken down and go back into the ecosystem, whereas plastics are going to be sticking around for many more years than that.

I came from a background of conservation, where a lot of times we’re trying to clean up messes. It’s reactive, while the work here [at Ecovative] is proactive. It’s trying to get ahead of the issues and change the paradigm. The health of our planet affects everyone. People working in the space for biomaterials are trying to create materials that don’t have a lasting negative impact on our planet, but also allow people to live and function, and, if luck has it, even thrive.

As I became more acquainted with the fungi kingdom, it was like my head exploded. Right now we’re focusing on the apparel sector because it’s a nice entry point, but ultimately we’d love to be able to move from apparel to upholstery, and even, eventually, on to shoes. These organisms are so complex and have such amazing abilities and adaptability — the possibilities, as far as I see, are endless."

Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist
Wai-Ming Wong, 34
assistant director of field programs at Panthera, a wildcat conservation organization

"Growing up in London, the idea of studying animals seemed very exotic to me, and very far away. My PhD research was about conserving large mammals in Southeast Asia, where the two biggest issues are direct poaching and the loss of prey through deforestation. Now I’ve seen that firsthand. Six months ago, I came across this tiger snare that had a tapir in it. I’ve seen sun bears that have been cut open for their gallbladders and their claws. I’ve also seen huge amounts of forest areas being cleared for agriculture — palm oil, for example, and also pulp and paper. I’ve now dedicated my life to mitigating these threats.

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Panthera is a relatively small but growing not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to the conservation of the world’s wild cat species. We have seven core programs: tigers, lions, jaguars, snow leopards, leopards, pumas, and cheetahs. We also support a lot of small cat work through one of our grant programs. We have teams of law enforcement specialists, biological monitoring survey specialists, and wildlife conflict specialists.

Camera traps are one of the main tools in conservation. They’re these motion sensor cameras that we can put on trees or in rocks. They take pictures of the passing animals. Working in rainforests is a grueling job. You don’t get to see wildlife. You get to hear them and you get to see signs, but you never get to enjoy the nature. We spend 10-15 days in survival mode putting up these cameras. The greatest joy for me is when you retrieve the data from the cameras and you’re seeing tigers, you’re seeing sun bears, you’re seeing clouded leopards, all these magnificent, endangered large mammals. You were sharing the space with them.

For me, getting the backing of the local communities will always mean that the conservation project’s going to win. It’s about empowering them to be able to manage their back garden, as it were. These are the guys who’ve grown up with national parks as their backyard. They depend very heavily on it. Once a forest is cleared, you can see that it affects the entire ecosystem: it affects the weather, climate, all these aspects. It has long-term effects on communities."

Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist
Gitanjali Rao, 11
winner of the Young Scientist Challenge

"I’ve always loved science. When I was in 2nd grade, I created an automated space-saving chair that can help with the growing population and space issues in countries like Japan. And I learned about levees and started to incorporate different science materials into my devices. I would ask my teacher what we’d be learning the next day and I’d go home, research it all, come back ready the next day, and I’d tell the class about what I’d learned.

In 3rd grade, me and my friend wanted to create multiple devices for the blind, deaf, and mute for a competition. One of them was this speaker that would take all the words that the teacher was writing on the board and turn it into speech. We didn’t win, but it was a great opportunity.

I’ve always been concerned with environmental problems, and I was shocked when I found out that all these people in Flint were drinking contaminated water and that some people didn’t have the transportation or money to go and buy bottled water. So they were forced to drink the lead contaminated water. I knew I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes but I hadn’t thought about creating a solution until my parents were testing for lead in our water at home. We just moved to Colorado and we got a flyer in the mail saying that we had to test our water for lead contamination, but they didn’t provide us with any kits or anything. That’s when I realized that this was a big problem, so I started doing avid research and started my experimentation.

Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist
Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist

It takes a long time but it also requires a lot of effort, and I put my best into it. It would’ve taken even longer had I not. For the device itself, it took five months to create it. It was two months of researching, coming up with the idea and what technologies would be a part of it, and another three months to create it.

My device tests for lead contamination and comes with a core device and a disposable cartridge. You attach the disposable cartridge to the core device and dip that into the water you want to test. You pull out your phone, open up the Tethys app, and connect to Bluetooth to see if the water is slightly contaminated or critical. It gives you results in about 10 seconds. I worked with my mentor Dr. Katherine Cambridge and a couple of experts at MIT to learn more about what technologies to use. I plan to release it next year. I want to make it commercially available.

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We can use science to fix these real-world problems — you can pretty much do anything with science as long as you know what to do. Scientists are superheroes if you think about it."

Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist
Mussie Kebede, 24
atmospheric sciences master’s student at Howard University

"I’m at Howard University in the last semester of my third year, getting my master’s degree in atmospheric sciences. I’m focusing on how we forecast extratropical cyclones, and how we can improve the models that forecast weather during those specific events. Extratropical cyclones are almost the same as tropical cyclones, except they occur outside of what we know as the tropics, and they have different physical features as far as the kind of weather they produce or how they’re formed. They impact the east coast a lot, especially the big urban hubs. They can cost the United States on average, annually, billions of dollars.

I went severe weather chasing a few years back in 2014, and that experience helped me understand the effects of severe weather in the Great Plains, and how people react to them. Severe weather occurs most prominently in the central United States, and people can lose their whole livelihoods — livestock, crops, for example — from tornados and such. We started out in Virginia and traveled between 13 different states in a caravan of three minivans, with 18 total people. The vans were equipped with computers for tracking storms on the go. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see a tornado, which was my main objective, but it was a great experience for a weather enthusiast because of the other aspects.

Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist

We would get up everyday around 7 a.m. and look at satellite observations, current weather observations on the ground, and forecasts to determine where we plotted our course. Then we’d load up and head out in whichever direction was primed for storm activities. On one occasion— it might have been in Colorado or New Mexico — we expected a storm, parked out adjacent to an open field, and hung around. Eventually one started to form, and we were so captivated by it — the wind was flowing up our backs, and you could feel the pressure fall — that we forgot it was moving towards us, got carried away, and were almost destroyed by the storm.

Toward the end of our trip, we drove through Vilonia, Arkansas, a town that was obliterated by a tornado a few months before. It was really eye-opening to see the gravity and implications of severe weather. Something that people with experience in the field of meteorology will tell you is: Don’t get too sucked into the science. Look at the societal impacts of what you’re studying and what you enjoy. I love looking at forecasting weather, and it’s really awesome to look at satellite images of cyclones, or look at GIFs of hurricanes — that’s pretty cool! But once severe weather hits land, you have to actually think about the people it is effecting. Seeing all of this first-hand helped me understand the impact. It enhanced my love for weather, and what meteorologists can offer to people everyday: saving lives with their forecasts."

Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist
Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist
Gail Schwieterman, 27
PhD student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science

"If you would like to keep eating fish, or anything that came from the ocean, a river, or an estuary 50 years from now, we need to understand the resource and manage it sustainably. For the research component of my studies, I’m looking at how human actions cause stress to different species of coastal fish. For instance, how climate change is impacting an individual fish’s metabolism, and the mechanisms that big fish, like sharks and kopia, might [use] to help prevent damage after they’re caught and released in recreational fisheries.

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Fish are considered one of the few remaining common pool resources. Trying to figure out how to use this resource that half of the world’s population relies on for their primary source of protein, in a way that’s fair and equitable and sustainable, is really hard. Catch-and-release fishery managers, for example, need an estimate of how many fish die in order to create fishing regulations. Part of my work is trying to understand how stress that humans cause is linked to actual fish death.

But some of the research is hopeful. In my work, we’re finding some species of fish are more resilient than we originally thought. When I was working at a shark fishery in Florida, we found over 90% of the sharks are pretty much fine after you release them. That means that management strategy is effective, and we don’t need to worry about catching that species of shark. Part of my PhD was looking at how a clearnose skate’s metabolism changes under simulated climate change. They’re pretty common here in Virginia, and are possibly the most tolerant, resilient species of shark in the world. We don’t need to worry about them.

There’s only so much time and energy in the world, so trying to make sure that we’re using our resources for conservation in the most effective and efficient way is really important. That’s where I see my work landing, in trying to determine which species are going to be the winners and losers of climate change. Then we can devote our conservation efforts towards the ones who are going to be more vulnerable."

Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist
Henry Reich, 30
founder of the YouTube channels MinuteEarth and MinutePhysics

"My parents and grandparents were biologists and ecologists. That was always part of my life growing up. I would go help my dad do field work or do his research. I was always interested in filmmaking as a hobby, and I decided started making my own science videos while I was working for a YouTube channel called RocketJump. I didn’t expect any audience at all for them, but it became clear pretty quickly that there was a group of people interested in these short clips on Schrodinger’s Cat and particle physics.

My father and my brother, who does work in sustainable food systems, looked at this and said, “Hey, let’s do something with this that’s literally more down to earth.” The inspiration for the MinuteEarth channel was to do earth science for its own sake, but also for the sake of getting people to care more about the planet that we live on and how our actions impact the planet. We have a constant internal battle: If we’re trying to get people to change their minds about these things, do we express an overt opinion or just lay out the scientific facts? We tend to talk about potential solutions to these problems, like climate change. Science can inform our decisions and the ramifications of our actions, but it doesn’t tell which option to choose — we have to use our collective values to decide.

We’re hoping to get people of all ages, but in particular younger people, excited about science — and also about a scientific way of thinking about the world. One of the core ideas in scientific thinking is to question beliefs when there’s evidence that suggests they’re wrong. I think that’s something that’s often missed. Most people in the modern world don’t have time to be diving deeply into every scientific field. There are people on both sides of the political spectrum who hold beliefs that aren’t supported by science, but if they don’t agree with the truth that science tells, then they ignore it. There’s a possibility that if we talk about the process, then there’s a dialogue that can create change."

Here’s what it’s like to be a young scientist