Ecologist Spotlight: Katherine O’Reilly

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 Katherine O’Reilly for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

Katherine O’Reilly

Please state your current affiliation:

Katherine: I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame (@NotreDame), but also currently doing a year-long science policy fellowship in Washington, D.C. with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (@NOAA) National Sea Grant College Program (@SeaGrant) as the program’s Science Communications Specialist.

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

Katherine: I describe myself as a displaced marine biologist. After earning a B.S. in marine biology at the University of Miami (FL), I decided that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in a program where I could use my marine science background in a freshwater environment that has very ocean-like characteristics: the North American Great Lakes. I had grown up in the Great Lakes region and had first-hand experience with how dramatically humans changed the lakes. I was accepted at the University of Notre Dame for my Ph.D., and about two weeks after graduating from Miami, I found myself on a boat in Lake Michigan, starting my dissertation research on the use of coastal wetland habitats by sport fish species. Now four years later, I’ve reached the “finishing-data-analysis-and-writing stage” of my dissertation. Yay?

What led to your interest in studying coastal wetlands in Lake Michigan?

Katherine: Lake Michigan’s coastal wetlands represent a really important, yet relatively understudied part of the whole lake food web. We know a lot of the pelagic (open-water) food web of the lake, but have less understanding of how much wetland-derived energy gets incorporated into that food web.

Are there parallels between how fish use coastal wetlands in marine ecosystems and coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes?

Katherine: Absolutely! Great Lakes coastal wetlands and marine coastal wetlands such as salt marshes play very similar ecological roles: both provide really important habitats for fish, including serving as nurseries for juveniles as well as for shelter and foraging.

What first interested you in ecology?

Katherine: When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house and her seemingly endless backyard and garden. I spent countless hours exploring and coming up with questions: Why did the worms come out on the driveway after it rained? How did a tiny egg become a robin? Can I eat that leaf? (Empirically testing that last one might not have been the best idea) When the weather kept me inside, I sated my curiosity by watching National Geographic videos – especially those about the ocean.

What has inspired you in your career?

Katherine: It may sound cheesy, but honestly, I am inspired every day by the passion of others. I love hearing other scientists describe their research, which is probably how I fell into the science communication rabbit hole!

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

Katherine: My favorite moments in research have been with the people on my field crews. Long drives to get to field sites + lots of time on a boat + not always desirable weather conditions = lots of bonding time.

Katherine O’Reilly using a backpack electroshocker to survey a stream’s fish community. Credit: Whitney Conard.

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

Katherine: The late Dr. Bob Paine, who pioneered the “keystone species” concept in ecology (that is, a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, so much so that if it were removed, the ecosystem would change substantially) – I love how the concept illustrates the famous John Muir quote “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

What is a challenge that you faced as a student, young professional, or early faculty member and how did you work through it?

Katherine: Burn-out – like many academics, I don’t feel like I ever “turn off.” I’ve found it’s important to consciously step back at times and consider if what I’m working on is actually going to help me accomplish a goal.

When you become discouraged by a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?

Katherine: Taking time for self-care and having a strong support network to fall back on (e.g., family, mentors, labmates, and friends) help get me through the tough times

What do you do in your “off” time?

Katherine: Running is one thing I do in my off-time that keeps me grounded throughout grad school – getting the opportunity each day to have quiet time outside helps me destress.

You are a 2018 Sea Grant Knauss Fellow. How have you enjoyed the fellowship so far, and how do you expect it to influence your future career?

Katherine: The opportunities I have had since becoming a NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellow have been extraordinary. As the Science Communications Specialist in the National Sea Grant Office, everyday is a new adventure! I’m learning how to communicate science to a diverse range of audiences – from policymakers on Capitol Hill, to school teachers in Alaska, to fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. I’ll be returning to Notre Dame after the fellowship is over to complete my Ph.D., but the skills I have gained and the networks I have created during my time in DC will serve me well no matter where my future career path takes me.

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

Katherine: There are so many questions still to be answered about the world around us! And ecology needs everyone – you bring unique skills and perspectives that will help solve some of the biggest challenges we’re facing. In short, go for it!

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

Katherine: I’m boring – black coffee and a bagel (because carbs are the best).