Post 1 – NOAA Internship

This summer, I am working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)- a US government agency concerned with research and policy development in weather, climate, and coastal and marine management. NOAA was officially established in 1970, but grew out of many existing agencies and departments. For instance, NOAA fisheries, the department I am working for, has existed since the 1870s.

The research I am doing is based in Seattle, Washington, and is focused on the ecosystems and diets of Pacific Salmon. Pacific salmon are migratory fish which live in the ocean for much of their lives, but spawn in freshwater streams. Since their diets consist largely of aquatic (and some terrestrial) macro-invertebrates, having an abundant and diverse community of these macro-invertebrates is crucial to the survival of these fish, which are threatened by anthropogenic related activities—not to mention the critical ecosystem services stream invertebrates provide. There is also evidence that having abundant food supply can mitigate the adverse effects on Pacific salmon of rising stream temperatures. Thus, understanding what influences the stream macro-invertebrate abundance is an important step in conservation efforts. For instance, testing out different treatments and seeing the corresponding invertebrate abundance, this can ultimately help shape policy to help conserve and restore stream habitats favorable to invertebrate drift.  

My mentor, Peter Kiffney, is a NOAA researcher investigating the processes that influence invertebrate drift in stream ecosystems. So far, I have been helping him by analyzing and visualizing data using RStudio. This includes aggregating data and creating graphs such as histograms and boxplots. 

I worked remotely for the first few weeks of June so that I could spend some time with my family, and then flew out to Seattle last week to work in person. Unfortunately, I encountered a snafu with my security paperwork being delayed, which means I’m still working remotely for now. However, I’m trying to make the most out of the experience by really engaging with the material I’m learning, as well as getting out and exploring a new city. 

Today I went to see the Ballard Locks, which connects Lake Union and the Puget Sound. There’s an indoor viewing gallery where you can see the salmon swimming up the fish ladder!

Next week I’m going to a lab a bit north of Seattle to dissect fish (to get a very direct glimpse of their diets). I’m looking forward to this, as well as starting to do fieldwork and lab work once I can work in person. I have also gotten a bit more confident with my data analysis skills, so I hope to keep improving them.

Overall, I’ve learned so much in a short period of time—whether it be the life cycles of Pacific Salmon, running a linear regression analysis in R, or how to pronounce the word “ephemeroptera” (commonly known as mayflies), and I’m excited to continue learning more.

The Complexity and Interconnectedness of Nature

The opportunity to work at The Caterpillar Lab has given me new perspectives in the subject of conservation and ecology. While I understood the basic important roles of arthropods in an ecosystem as consumers and resources for other animals, the complexity of these species interactions are incomprehensible. 

My favorite example to demonstrate this complexity is in the subject of parasitoids. Parasitoids are insects that live and feed in/on another insect as a larva and once they further their development, they eventually eclose as adults killing and leaving the host insect. The majority of the parasitoids are wasps, which are extremely diverse and arguably the most diverse order of animals. These interactions range from generalists that lay in many host species to parasitoids that are specialized and only have a single species they can target. While this interaction is complicated enough, we can further observe hyperparasitoids. Hyperparasitoids are parasitoids for parasitoids and these are often specific to a species, genus or a group of genera.

Parasitoid wasp cocoons on a spiny oak-slug caterpillar.

When I finally thought this could not get any more complicated, I was informed that this has been observed to the sixth level. Therefore, it is possible that a single insect can have a parasitoid with a hyperparasitoid that has another hyperparasitoid that has another hyperparasitoid that has another hyperparasitoid. This is only one of many amazing examples of how evolution has crafted the natural world. Best of all, we do not need to go far to uncover parasitoid and hyperparasitoid interactions, as they can be found right in our backyards. 

By listening to my peers talk about these fascinating animals, I find that this internship has taught me far more specific details in ecology than any course at Brandeis. Our education at Brandeis is much more limited in time and tends to focus from a broader perspective, but in this position, I am constantly able to learn from others that are outstandingly knowledgeable in their narrow studies of entomology. With all the new information, I can begin to connect these overlooked interactions to Brandeis’ broader studies of ecology and comprehend the value of the forgettable species. All these animals, even the smallest hyperparasitoid wasps that we can barely see, play key roles in their environment and are vulnerable to our destructive actions towards wildlife and are in dire need of conservation. 

Parasitoid wasps that eclosed from a smartweed dagger caterpillar.

After this internship concludes, I would like to continue sharing what I have learned with the greater Brandeis community. I am hopeful to introduce mothing and other programs that highlight local biodiversity with the support from Brandeis Sustainability and the Environmental Studies Department. As part of Brandeis Sustainability Ambassadors, I would like to lead and organize these programs that bring the untaught animals to the forefront and highlight their value to their ecosystems as well as to us. Professor Colleen Hitchcock and Mary Fischer have provided me with tremendous amounts of support in finding the love for arthropods, and I hope to continue working with them to bring native entomology to our campus and classrooms.

Beyond Brandeis, This internship has taught me to learn the importance of the overlooked species and continue expanding my horizon. From a conservation standpoint, only focusing on protecting the flagship species can lead to conservation failures. Ecosystems are deeply intertwined, and to care for one species means caring for all the other species in the environment. 

Discovering the Diversity of New England’s Caterpillars

My summer internship is with a non-profit organization called The Caterpillar Lab in Marlborough, New Hampshire. The mission of the lab is to educate communities about the unique and diverse native Lepidopteran (moths and butterflies) species with a focus on their caterpillars via educational programs, photography and research; showcasing native species is a strong emphasis as it creates awareness and care for the local habitats that need more attention.

My role largely focuses on assisting with species care (the wrangle) and educational outreach. Each day, the caterpillars must be cared for and fresh host plants collected. The wrangle includes cleaning out frass, supplying the caterpillars with fresh hosts and checking the animals’ overall health and wellbeing. The lab cares for hundreds of Lepidopteran species and developing a general understanding of their varying host plants is important. The list of needed hosts extends from the most commonly used plants of black cherry and red oaks to supplying food for specialists that rely on some unusual hosts such as pitcher plants and even aphids.

Wrangling the beloved woolly bears.

For educational outreach, we travel throughout New England to lead programs by partnering with other organizations such as museums, schools, public gardens, etc. At these programs, we set up numerous plant displays, each with caterpillars on them. I provide support by addressing questions and talking to the visitors. We foster conversations that go beyond simply looking at the caterpillars and present our knowledge and narratives for each species on display. Our engagement creates rare opportunities for newfound appreciations of the complex mechanisms of natural selection and natural history that depicts the interconnectedness of nature. 

Mothing is one interactive program that highlights our immense local biodiversity.

The displays are made to highlight each Lepidoptera’s evolutionary traits relating to concepts such as species interactions, camouflage, mimicry, aposematism and physical and chemical defenses. We emphasize how these characteristics fulfill ecological niches and are overall more complex than many typically understand. Just within camouflage and mimicry, further diversification can be observed. Some blend in as twig mimics, thorn mimics, leaf edge mimic, bark mimics, bird dropping mimics and some even use plant materials to conceal themselves, such as the bagworms and decorator caterpillars. These adaptations are so well evolved that if you do not know what to look for, they are easily overlooked. Because of this, we often hear visitors conclude, “we must pass so many without even noticing!”. This speaks to a greater overarching theme for our local wildlife; many of the unique native species are hidden and unknown yet essential for ecosystems and ecosystem services, therefore it is vital to promote connections to a person’s local wildlife and inspire them to want to protect the biodiversity right in their backyards for the wellbeing of nature and people alike.

This is an Abbott’s sphinx which demonstrates an incredible snake mimic with its false eye. A great demonstration of evolution.

By diving deeper into these topics, I would like to continue learning about New England’s native caterpillars and plants. In the field of conservation biology, understanding a native ecosystem’s flora and fauna along with its species interactions is crucial, so developing my knowledge in these topics will be imperative for my future. Furthering my own learning will allow me to translate it to the audience, and continue my development as an educator to inspire others in the subject of ecology and entomology. Finally, I intend to add to this goal by improving my photography and applying it as a tool for engagement, awareness and education.

Mid-Summer Check In

The last time I wrote I was finishing my work with the “Health Professionals Declaration” and wanting to transition my focus to the Retail/Fashion industry to making their operations more sustainable. I am happy to say that I was able to do just that, by working alongside the new BCL sector dedicated to Retail and Fashion known as the Fashion Industry Action Team “FIAT”.

Similar to the “Health Professional Declaration”, the FIAT group is dedicated to connecting with corporate leaders within the fashion industry, such as Chief Sustainability Officers, Governance, etc, to encourage their overall industry to mitigate climate change by accountably incentivizing sustainable business practices through signing a declaration. Ultimately, doing so will urge members of Congress to enact climate solutions in an effective, bipartisan, economically supportive, and equitable way by the end of 2021. I worked alongside this group predominantly within the declaration’s outreach. With this, I researched a list of clothing companies that were leading in sustainable fashion and operations. My strategy was to connect with the people who were in charge of their organization’s sustainability efforts, as I assumed they would be the most knowledgeable about climate issues, and the most willing to sign up. I cultivated a spreadsheet that specified over 25 retail companies, each person in charge of the company’s sustainability efforts, and their email address contact. Furthermore, I utilized LinkedIn to additionally message and get in contact with these key players in effort to set up a meeting with them and discuss their companies’ efforts to become more sustainable through signing the declaration.

Since beginning my work in this area, I will say that while it has been challenging getting in touch with retail sustainability stakeholders, I have made smaller accomplishments that I realize upon reflection. One example of this is creating my own research database of companies and scoring sustainable initiatives that I can refer to in the future and share with others. The hope is for me to one day simulate these initiatives within smaller mid-sized retail companies and integrate them into other industry practices as well. The FIAT “Fashion Industry Climate and Carbon Pricing Declaration” is now live and it has gotten great traction and coverage! Here is an article by ECOCULT that mentioned the fantastic work that this team is doing. You can find the declaration here. Please share this initiative with others.

I am so happy to have begun working toward my career passion, engaging and consulting with the fashion industry to better the practices within sustainability. I have learned so many new methods and ways this specific industry can find better alternative operational practices, which has inspired me to think about how other sectors can additionally integrate similar practices into their industry as well. In relation to personal growth, I have become more proficient and confident in my ability to reach out and network with people surrounding a cause. Before I was hesitant to ever do something such as sending a message to someone on LinkedIn, now I do it with a breeze. Additionally, within networking with an array of different people I have been able to strengthen my storytelling skills. What used to take me 10 minutes to explain, regarding my work for the summer and purpose, now takes me 2 minutes. This ability to pitch something quickly is a skill I know I will need for my career journey but most importantly is a universal skill that can be applied to life. My goal for the remainder of my time is to continue outreach work alongside the FIAT group and begin recruiting other students of color within the BCL internship program. 


Intern Wrap Up

While concluding my work with the FIAT group it was heavily on my mind to pass along this opportunity to someone else. As a Black American Environmental Major, I have noticed that there are not a lot of people of color within this field, so I felt it to be imperative that I made a more long-lasting impact, within this important area increasing inclusive perspectives and experiences, by connecting other Black and other POC students, interested in environmental studies, to join the Business Climate Leaders. With the additional encouragement of my mentor, I went to action utilizing my research, network, and outreach skills to compile a list of the top 30 Historically Black Colleges and Universities “HBCU” environmental programs in the country. I then found each school’s Department Head of Natural Sciences,  collected email addresses and sent out outreach emails with the opportunity enclosed. For each school that I did not get a reply to, within a week and a half, I sent a follow-up email. I  am so happy that I took on this initiative as a whole, because the response and support from the amazing Black and other POC faculty were amazing, who essentially all told me they would “most definitely” encourage their students to join. I was even additionally able to pass along the BCL internship opportunity to an amazing student of color here on the Brandeis campus, which made me even more proud of my impact. Currently, I am drafting a blog, that speaks to the impact of the fashion industry on the environment, as the #1 leading contributor to global pollution. You will soon be able to find my post on the BCL page.  

 Since the age of sixteen, I have always known that I wanted to help businesses become more sustainable through investment in eco-friendly innovations. My time throughout college has been a journey to figure out just where exactly I start in this unpaved career field, at the time. Upon finding Business Climate Leaders and working with this inventive organization of pioneers, I must say that I have begun to find the pavement on the road headed to my career goal. I have had an amazing opportunity to be mentored, connected, and well-in touch with sustainable leaders that I have always dreamed about in their position. I have been able to become a fearless leader in engaging large Health Professionals and retail business leaders on the importance of climate change and advocacy for carbon price dividend legislation in order to increase their contribution to making a healthier environment across the nation. I would have never thought that this opportunity was one that would help me toward the initial steps of my career journey ahead.

My time at Business Climate Leaders has been an amazing experience, which has strengthened leadership skills in research, outreach, communication, and networking, while also enabling me to affirm my desire in working corporate sustainability. Ultimately, I know I want to become a Chief Sustainability Officer of a retail company, to help lead the way of adopting sustainable innovations and substitutes within operative practices.

Just Getting Started

My name is Sonali Anderson. I am a rising senior at Brandeis University majoring in Business and Environmental Studies, and I am working with an organization called Business Climate Leaders “BCL”. BCL is a non-profit syndicate group that mobilizes large American businesses to take climate action through nonpartisan climate advocacy. I have the amazing opportunity to help this organization further its efforts within climate justice through engagement within different business sectors. Our shared goal is to help large industries recognize their own contribution to climate change and the importance of advocating for carbon price dividend legislation. In return, we all can make a healthier environment across the nation.

During my time with BCL, I have been tasked with helping this organization within the health sector launch their “Health Professionals Declaration”. This is a document for medical professionals (doctors, veterinarians, nurses, etc.) that brings awareness to this particular industry’s contribution to carbon emissions along with how they individually can make a change by advocating for carbon price dividend legislation within their very own practice. I have learned that this is BCL’s standard first step approach when beginning to engage with a new sector. My responsibilities have been meeting/engaging with as many nurses, dentists, public health professionals, etc that are within the BCL network to sign HCP Declaration. Also, I have been strategizing ways in which this Declaration publication and messaging can be viewed by larger groups who have connections within this specific sector via social media platforms such as (LinkedIn and Facebook) as well. Specifically, in helping with social media outreach, I devised a plan in which it highlights different approaches BCL can implement to increase the amount of recognition of their efforts. This plan is flexible so it can be applied to any other new sector BCL takes on! From my work in completing this initial project, I have helped BCL amass over 1000 Health Professional signatories to the “Health Professionals Declaration”. Ultimately, this has allowed the awareness of BCL in regards to carbon legislation advocacy to increase within this sector.

There are many different sectors in this work ranging from energy and power to food and beverage. As a double major in Business and Environmental Studies, I hope to have a specific focus on the Retail/Fashion industry in relation to making their operations more sustainable. By engaging with this specific sector, through an approach I can begin to further the impact of my work by additionally learning and suggesting ways in which these large companies can reduce their carbon footprint within manufacturing, production, and distribution.