Ecologist Spotlight: Anna Carter

Welcome to the Ecologist Spotlight column!

We seek out ecologists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to highlight their work and share their stories and experiences. Thank you to Anna Carter for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

Please state your current affiliation.

Anna: I’m a postdoc at Iowa State University in the Department of Ecology, Evolution & Organismal Biology and Research Scholar with the Ronin Institute.

Photographer: Rosie G. Rowe. Image provided by: Anna Carter.

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

Anna: I did my Ph.D. at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand, investigating effects of landscape and climate change on populations of tuatara with a combination of species-focused field work and biophysical modeling at the microclimate scale. That work has translated into my postdoc research in the U.S., where I’m looking at geographic variation of the temperature-dependent, sex-determining system of painted turtles, again taking a predictive-modeling approach. I use GIS and R pretty much every day. I’m starting a new project this coming summer, looking at how spatial resolution impacts our ability to model microclimate conditions and physiological responses. With drones.

Why is studying embryonic development in reptiles important?

Anna: Temperature-dependent traits like embryonic development rates and (in a lot of reptiles) gonadal differentiation allow us to directly link an abiotic variable to physiological responses that manifest at both the organismal and population levels. It’s an amazing study system that we can use to answer any one of a number of broad evolutionary and ecological questions. For me, it’s also a system that allows me to address methodological limitations. Standard methods of population sampling aren’t likely to detect shifting population sex ratios on a useful timescale. My research aims to predict the direct effects of temperature at the scale of individual nest sites (which can then be translated to populations). So my data and methods have to be spot-on.

What first interested you in ecology?

Anna: I don’t know that I’ve had any pivotal experiences (or maybe I had so many that none really stand out). I was always drawn to the ocean, even though I grew up far away from it. I think most kids are fascinated by the world around them – we just manage to un-fascinate most of them by the time they’re making decisions about what they want to do with their lives. Our society has also made curiosity a privilege, rather than a basic, necessary component of kids’ growth and development, so way too many don’t even get the chance to be fascinated. I was very fortunate, in that sense. I don’t remember ever not being interested in science and nature as a kid, and I was usually by myself and also covered in dirt. So I’ve been meeting the basic qualifications for being an ecologist most of my life.

When you’re faced with a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?

Anna: Pretty much all of ecology is a challenging problem, and I haven’t done anything yet where there wasn’t at least one unexpected issue. That being said, I think I stay motivated because solving those issues releases happy neurotransmitters. I love the satisfaction of [finally] de-bugging a bit of code, or figuring out how to create a particular plot. And I love love love coming up with new questions to answer and designing studies to tackle them. I really like writing new grant applications for new projects.

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

Anna: ‘One’ is a decidedly unfair restriction on this. During my Ph.D. research, it just so happened that I was doing field work on a protected, offshore island during a kakapo release. This particular kakapo was quite hesitant to come out of her carrier, but once she did, she high-tailed it straight into the bush and disappeared. In the first few seconds of this reasonably amusing journey, she ran over my foot. There are only around 150 of these giant, flightless parrots alive in the world. And one of them ran over my foot.

Photographer: Rosie G. Rowe. Image provided by: Anna Carter.

Who is someone that you have never met but whose research you have always admired?

Anna: Miguel Araújo

If you met a 10 year old who was interested in ecology, what would you say to encourage them?

Anna: ‘Tell me what you see.’

What do you do in your “off” time?

Anna: On a daily basis, I read a lot – I especially like memoirs and dystopic fiction. I hang out with my dogs, feed my tea addiction, cook vegan food, and go birding. This year, gardening will be attempted (thoughts and prayers). I also really enjoy bikepacking, camping, and hiking – pretty standard ‘outdoorsy’ pursuits.

Scene: *You walk into a local coffee shop* What do you order?

Anna: Soy chai, spicy. Unless they use that pre-mixed syrupy stuff, then just an English Breakfast tea with soymilk.