“This Is What A Great Lakes Scientist Looks Like” is an article series from Michigan Sea Grant celebrating the many intersecting and unique identities embodied by Great Lakes researchers and knowledge-creators. If you’re interested in contributing your perspective to the series, contact Geneva Langeland at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out previous articles in the series featuring El Lower and Christine Kitchens.
About Donna Kashian
Dr. Donna Kashian (she/her) is the director of the Environmental Science program at Wayne State University and professor of Biology and Environmental Sciences and Geology. She maintains a visiting scientist position with NOAA/GLERL (Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory). Pre-pandemic, she enjoyed her Fridays at GLERL interacting and being surrounded by Great Lakes scientists. She received her PhD at the University of Wisconsin, her MS from Michigan State University, and her BS from Eastern Michigan University. Her work focuses on water quality issues, specifically the role of disturbance, including invasive species and contaminants, on aquatic communities. She is a strong proponent of interdisciplinary collaborations incorporating science, policy, sociology, and professionals in addressing complex environmental issues. She tries to always approach her research through the lens of environmental justice, as often there is a disproportionate exposure of minority groups to environmental pollutants.
How would you describe your current work with the Great Lakes?
Although I believe I started out as an aquatic ecotoxicologist, funding availability has driven me to define myself more broadly as an Aquatic Disturbance Ecologist. Although much of my research has a toxicology slant, I also find myself fascinated by the theory and behavior of invasive species, and thinking about similarities between the two types of disturbance events, such as the idea of the dilution effect — which is applicable in unique ways to both types of disturbances.
What got you interested in science, and how did you end up as a Great Lakes scientist?
It is hard to say what got me initially interested in science. I think really just my love of being outdoors, which almost every ecologist writes on their personal statements, but when I dig deeper, I think my story is a bit darker. In my early years, I grew up in a largely Portuguese immigrant community where my family held a lot of “marine” traditions like quahogging (digging up shellfish). I remember stories from my vovó (grandma) about being chased from the cops for quahogging in restricted areas. As kids, my siblings and I ate periwinkle snails we collected at low tide — and yes, they were delicious.
But these areas were near historic industrial and textile mills where sediment contamination is inevitable. So it is not a surprise to me that my family is plagued with all kinds of abdominal, blood, and other cancers, which I now believe came from the trophic transfer of contaminants stemming initially from contaminated sediments. Later my family moved to Michigan, and while I was in college, I took an aquatic plants class that forever changed my education path towards aquatic ecology. During a summer job working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the dioxin issues in Saginaw Bay, I started putting pieces together and decided on a career in water quality, hoping to be able to shed more light on the linkage between water quality and cancer.
What’s your favorite thing about studying the Great Lakes?
The Great Lakes are the playground of my children, where my dad resides, where ecological phenomena like succession was told by the dunes, where toxicological findings from Theo Colborn helped us understand endocrine disruption, architectural wonders of our bridges and sea ways, lessons learned from botched fisheries management and invasive species and failure to listen to the voices of the past (and present) on respecting the lakes. My favorite thing about studying the Great Lakes is simply listening to them and their stories.
Has your identity intersected with your journey as a scientist?
As a 2nd-3rd generation American (depending on which side of the family), my family is from the Azorean island of São Miguel. The roles of the women in my family were a bit “culturally traditional.” Women had children young, and the older women in my family did not drive or have a college education. My mom is the only woman in my family (besides my generation — siblings and cousin) who I know went to college, and that was after her children, my older sister and I, were already in college.
I do not feel I was aware of or had barriers. However, I just did not give thought to academic/research pathways or graduate school, etc. My parents made sure we went to college (two sisters and one brother) but even in college, I was not aware of pathways to a research career, so I did not seek out experiences and opportunities like many other “scientists” did at a younger age. I took a summer job working at a state park, just to be outside, and met someone studying forest ecology. I remember thinking, “You can do that.” I then took an aquatic plants class, and that was that. My path was clear. But without research experience, I had a hard time getting into graduate school. I sent out applications but I had no guidance on how to apply. I initially simply filled out an application and mailed it out (the kiss of death). Not surprising, I was rejected everywhere I applied. I got a summer job working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and met people that had careers in science, who gave me advice. They encouraged me to take a graduate class as a non-degree student to demonstrate I could do graduate-level work and I applied again — this time reaching out to professors and finally a door opened.
What’s a way that your coworkers or mentors have stepped up to support you? Or what’s a way that you wish they had?
I have been truly blessed to have some of the best mentors, and coworkers that have remained lifelong mentors and a support network. However, I did struggle with a mentor and almost dropped out of my PhD program. My advisor thought my inability to pronounce things stemmed from a learning disability. I blame it on a jumbled-up accent and not being raised around science — my words were book-learned and, let’s face it, contaminant names and species names are not easy. After a poor qualifying exam, I was ready to quit. Another committee member asked a basic question: “Do you like your research?” And my answer was, “Yes.” Then he asked, “Is your struggle with your mentor worth giving up your research?” And in this particular case, my response was, “No.” I went back to my advisor and after many one-on-one “working science sessions” with him — and working with a writing center — I really jumped to the next level in terms of my science and presentation of it.
I share this story because many students might read this — and every student will have their unique struggles — and I beg you to ask yourself: “Do you love what you do?” If the answer is yes, and the struggle is something you can overcome, find the path forward (it might be a different path entirely: outside of academia, outside of your lab). Don’t feel trapped on any one path, but keep moving forward. To wrap up this story, I met my PhD advisor at a conference after I started my current position and he voiced how proud he was of me — and that he believed he learned just as much from me, and grew as a person himself. I wish he would have seen “me” sooner, and I always try to “see” my students — we all come from different backgrounds and have different strengths and weaknesses.
What advice might you give students interested in a career in science?
If you are reading this, you are probably already more aware of the field than I was at this stage in your career. But as early as possible, speak with professors and get lab or field experience, or spend a summer at a biological field station. Don’t take rejection personally, and most importantly, welcome diverse voices into your research and space. You can interpret “diverse” in many ways, and that is a good thing — welcome them all.
Find previous articles in our “This Is What a Great Lakes Scientist Looks Like” series here: