A question & answer session to get to know the 2020 GG Scholar Madi Polera, 2nd year graduate student in the Biology Graduate Program. She is a part of the Cope Lab in the Applied Ecology Department.

What aspect of genetics and/or genomics most interests you?

I live at the intersection of toxicology and ecology. I am most interested in using gene by environment interactions to study the impact of environmental pollutants on sensitive populations. I’m also interested in quantifying changes in gene expression and methylation at the individual level. I’m hoping to learn more about genetics and genomics tools to help guide better interdisciplinary management practices of threatened and endangered species.

What (or Who) influenced you to go into your field of study?

I grew up in a household that empowered my sister and me to explore and investigate. Both of my parents are scientists; my father is a physicist and meteorologist and my mother was a dental hygienist and now works in healthcare operations. They let me fall into as many creeks as possible and took us to swim with whale sharks while growing up in Germany and then Western Australia. This developed into a deep curiosity of the natural world, particularly of aquatic ecosystems. I was fortunate to have early instructors who knew how to guide that curiosity. I specifically remember and am grateful for Ms. Antonia Tinti, who first exposed us to critical thinking exercises in second grade; Mrs. Barbara H. Walker, my eighth grade science teacher who worked relentlessly to enroll me in my first science summer camp; and Mrs. Bebe Tarleton, my tenth grade genetics teacher who encouraged me to reapply to a program for which I was initially waitlisted. I have worked to find (and sometimes build my own) positions and opportunities that combine science, advocacy, and conservation, always with the added benefit of playing in a kayak and calling it work.

Who or what do you hope benefits from your research?

I hope to improve natural resource management so that aquatic systems become safe and sustainable for all. I want to bring interdisciplinary approaches to improve drinking water source protection, wildlife restoration, and ecosystem resiliency. I also enjoy working with students, apprentice scientists, and the general public and hope to motivate others to explore science and the environment.

How can your research be used to inform decision makers (e.g. policy makers, resource managers, health practitioners, K12 educators, etc etc)?

My research currently informs on how per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances affect wildlife health and reproduction. This can influence fish stocking programs, point source regulation, hunting and fishing laws, fish consumption advisories, and personal choices about how individuals interact with wildlife.

What do you think is the most pressing issue or problem in your field of study?

Broadly, environmental management and chemical risk assessment paradigms should incorporate more proactive, holistic approaches to environmental conservation. We are often caught responding to threats or perturbations as they arise rather than working to prevent further environmental degradation.

Specifically, regulating emerging contaminants of concern such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as a class would more efficiently protect the health of ecosystems and affected communities.

How do you expect the GG Scholars program to impact your work?

Application of the cutting-edge genetics and genomics approaches available through the Genetics and Genomics Scholars program will be paradigm shifting when applied to management of threatened and endangered species and development of science-driven policy decisions. Through the GGI, I’m already learning more about literature critique and method application tools essential for incorporating concepts of gene by environment interactions into my studies of interactions between contaminated environments and genetically mismanaged populations.

How would you describe your research interests to a 3rd grader?

I’m interested in learning how things that we put into the environment hurt the animals, rivers, and people. I want to know how to help all the animals have a lot of healthy babies that will live for a long time, even if there are only a few parents left.

What’s your dream job?

I am searching for opportunities to work in coalitions of scientists with diverse perspectives to solve critical problems related to species population resiliency in response to unpredictable environmental changes. I also enjoy science communication, grant writing, and education. Any position would need to have an active field component so that I can be paddling, hiking, boating, fishing, or SCUBA diving. My dream job would be to serve as a senior scientist and advisor for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. I can also envision working in an agency like NOAA, EPA, USGS, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or with a nonprofit such as the Waterkeeper Alliance or Environmental Working Group.