Richelle Tanner received her PhD from UC Berkeley in 2018, and is currently a marine ecophysiology postdoctoral associate at Washington State University. She is interested in rapid adaptation to climate change, particularly with seasonal extremes and their effects on inter-individual variation in physiological plasticity. Her current research focuses on linking individual responses to environmental variation across levels of biological organization, using gene and protein expression data in the intertidal mussel (Mytilus californianus). In addition to her research, Richelle is passionate about public science education, working primarily with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation.
Briefly describe your current work and your research.
Currently I am a postdoctoral scholar at Washington State University, where I work on intertidal mussel thermal physiology under Dr. Wes Dowd. I am looking at intraspecific variation in physiological traits like gene and protein expression, oxidative damage after heat stress, and antioxidant response to heat stress. I am trying to tie together these traits that span many levels of biological organization to understand stress responses to climate change, and whether particular responses make certain mussel phenotypes more susceptible to future warming. Since the intertidal zone is incredibly heterogenous in microclimate, we may expect that mussels even a few feet away from each other have drastically different fates. Previously during my PhD I investigated similar questions in thermal physiology in sea hares and nudibranchs living in inter- and subtidal estuaries and rocky intertidal zones. While I used to spend more time in the field picking up the animals myself and raising them in the lab, I currently employ more bioinformatics techniques to answer my questions. In the future I’d like to get back to a balance between the two!
What do you love the most about your job?
I love being in charge of my own research goals and asking the questions that I find interesting. I feel like I’m always discovering something new! In my day-to-day, my favorite thing is being out in the field. I find that I have the most fun and the best ideas when I’m connecting with the environment. Second to that, seeing the results from a long experiment is very rewarding. As I’m progressing through my career, I’m also finding teaching and mentoring to be important for not burning out on research. I love to see my students succeed! I also work with developing techniques for communicating climate change with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, although depending on who you ask, this is a hobby not part of my job. Future goal: academics will make things like this part of their job!
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
I first want to acknowledge that my path through my academic career thus far has been smooth sailing compared to a lot of my peers. I advanced from my undergraduate straight to PhD, spent only three years doing my PhD (in the US, where normative time is double that), and found a postdoctoral position immediately after I decided to leave my PhD program. I worked extremely hard to achieve this, but I had both support and stressors that contributed to this unusually straight path. Since you asked about the difficulties, I’ll focus on those (although let’s be clear – I would not have been able to overcome them without support from past mentors). In my PhD program, there was a series of very unfortunate events that led to the closing of my wet lab space and my advisor’s decision to leave the country, without his lab members. This meant I ended up with only a few days to decide whether I was 1. able to graduate that semester and 2. had a place to go afterwards. Combined with some personal hardships that coincided with these events (when it rains, it pours), I had an overwhelming decision to make last January about the best thing to do with my career and my life. Since I’m still in the game, I’d say it worked out – but there was a lot of stress associated with 2017 in my career. I can only imagine future obstacles!
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?
The biggest obstacle I have had and continue to have is that people don’t always take me seriously. I’ve had explicit comments on my perceived inexperience, been shut out of conversations that I had every right to a seat in, and experienced virtually every stereotypical bias against young women in science there is. But, I have an awesome mentor that continues to remind me to just do me – it doesn’t matter what someone says about you personally, even though it may sting (a lot). What matters is your work. You’ll find that the same superior that puts you down seems to ask for a lot of your time and effort on important tasks, and you’ll realize that your work is incredibly valuable to them. Sure, it is really hard to swallow that you may have to wait many years to hear words of validation. But if you give up, then there’s one less future mentor (you) that can encourage a new generation of respectful, empathetic scientists that you get to share your community with. So, I guess there is no overcoming the academic glass ceiling in the short term – but the comforting and hopeful solution is to become part of this community so that you can change it.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
I am looking forward to a better connection between scientists and the public. Through this, we will be able to build a more diverse community of scientists and make the field more accessible. In the current US political climate, I am most hopeful about the communication side of marine science. I have no doubt that high-quality research will continue to come out of this field, but the most important future I see is in effectively garnering public support for our research. Through organizations like the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, I am confident that the marine sciences will be able to bridge the growing divide between scientists and the general public. I am super excited to keep growing the NNOCCI community to include more scientists so that we can participate in changing the societal conversation on marine science and climate change.
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
Marine science is already one of the more female-strong biological fields, but a disproportionate number of advanced faculty members are still men. For this to change soon, we need to support each other within our field. In addition to introducing more women to the field, I feel we need to invest more in supporting advanced and advancing women in science. It is extremely important for men in these higher positions to advocate for their female peers and support younger female scientists in their pursuit of career advancement. As women, we can continue to be mentors for female scientists aspiring to higher positions. It isn’t just getting more women involved within marine science, it’s promoting equality of genders at all career levels.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
I don’t think there’s a way to answer this without being cliché, but it’s really worth taking these kitschy inspirational messages seriously sometimes. Working hard towards something that you are really passionate about is never a waste of time. It may be a difficult and sometimes unexpected route towards your goals, but it is worth all of your effort. This kind of job isn’t a 9-5, but it shouldn’t feel like a job either. Don’t worry about what some of your advisors and even peers may say, you can achieve a career in this field if it is truly what you love to do. Finding a mentor that can identify with what you’re feeling can be a way to mitigate any negative feelings you may be having about your journey, and they can help to shape your career and support you personally, not just professionally.
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
We are making concrete strides towards understanding how our actions impact the environment of the majority of Earth’s organisms: how can you pass up an opportunity to do what you love and make a positive impact on our society?
Social Media Links
Twitter – @richelletanner
Website – https://www.richelletanner.com/
I would like to give a massive thank you to Dr. Richelle Li Tanner for participating in this interview. I cannot wait to share more of your stories and I hope that you find inspiration in learning of other journeys within marine science.
Are you a woman working within marine science? Would you like to share your story and inspire the next generation? Please get in contact with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be involved with the Leading Women in Marine Science Interview Series.
Disclaimer: All responses to the interview questions and the biography belong to Dr. Richelle Li Tanner. All photographs have been used with the permission of Dr. Richelle Li Tanner.