Women's History Month: Talking with Renee Mercaldo-Allen

March 05, 2020

During Women’s History Month, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center talks to five women scientists. We ask them to share a little about their science journey, what hurdles or obstacles they’ve experienced, how they overcame them, and what advice they might have for the next generation of women scientists. Featured this week is Renee, a research fishery biologist with the Aquaculture Systems and Ecology Branch, Ecosystems and Aquaculture Division.

Renee Mercaldo-Allen canoeing on a river.

Can you tell us about your science journey, your career in science? 

When I was a kid, my Dad took us fishing and crabbing on the Connecticut shores of Long Island Sound. I remember digging sandworms for flounder bait, breathing in the salt air, and being surrounded by the natural beauty of the local salt pond. These family trips instilled in me a love of coastal environments and led me on the path toward a career in marine science. 

I first visited the Milford Laboratory during high school with a friend, Diane Rusanowsky—who also became a NOAA scientist—to help her with a school project. Soon after, I began to volunteer at Milford Lab, cleaning my share of glassware and shellfish tanks! Ed Rhodes, my first mentor and a Milford Lab researcher, encouraged me to conduct experiments on how low salinity affects bay scallops. Always one to support student enthusiasm, Ed helped me with the experiments and encouraged me to pursue a career in science. The mentoring and hands-on research experiences I had at the Milford Lab helped me get into college and to pursue a biology degree.

I went on to attend Connecticut College because of the opportunities for student fieldwork. Many classes involved trips to local salt marshes and the school arboretum. While in college, I was hired as a biological aid. I worked summers and school vacations as part of the now-decommissioned Junior Federal Fellowship Program. 

Renee examines planktonic lobster larvae in a lab room.

Renee examines planktonic lobsters to determine larval stage as part of a Milford Lab research study in the late 1980s. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in field biology, I began working full time at the Milford Lab as a technician. Later, I pursued a master’s degree at Southern Connecticut State University. I studied changes in the blood chemistry of American lobsters over the molting cycle, and after several years became a research fishery biologist for the Milford Lab. During my early career, I benefited from many wonderful mentors. Their guidance enriched my experience at NOAA, encouraged my growth as a scientist, and now, inspires me to share what I have learned by mentoring others.

Most of my recent work relates to studying aquaculture in the environment, including effects of shellfish harvesting on benthic communities in Long Island Sound. Currently, I am part of a research team using GoPro cameras to document fish interactions with oyster cages. The goal of this study is to better understand ecosystem services provided to fish by aquaculture gear—do fish use oyster cages as a food source? shelter from predation? refuge from currents?, and so on. The results will help inform regulators and managers who make decisions about aquaculture practices. Video from our underwater cameras provides a window into how aquaculture cages provide habitat for fish, and may provide the public with a better understanding of shellfish aquaculture practices.

Could you share an example of a hurdle or obstacle you experienced during your science journey? How did you overcome it?

Science doesn't always go as planned! Experimental systems sometimes fail, and field gear can be lost to storms. Learning to be resilient is key to success as a research scientist. Sometimes success is beginning again. I’ve also learned the importance of partnering with colleagues who have other skill sets. None of us can be good at everything. Some of the best science comes out of projects where a team of individuals with diverse skills comes together for a common goal. One of the most satisfying aspects of my job is working with others to bring an experiment or field study from concept to completion. 

In my almost 40 years with NOAA, the focus of my research has changed many times, sometimes abruptly! I’ve learned to shift gears and move in new directions in response to changing research needs and priorities. Although it can be difficult to start something completely new, that’s part of what keeps the job of a research scientist interesting. Being self-motivated and enjoying the learning curve are important qualities to cultivate for a successful research career.

Burnout happens in the sciences. How have you and/or your employer, supervisor, or organization helped to prevent it?

I think burnout is an ongoing struggle for scientists, especially women. A career in research is a moving target, there is always the next question to pursue and little time to rest on your laurels! The science center and Milford Lab help prevent burnout in their staff in a variety of ways, including flexible work hours and teleworking. The single best choice I’ve made was switching from full time to part time after my daughter Morgan was born. Working 4 days a week significantly improved my ability to balance career with raising children and kept me in the workforce during those challenging years. Telework has also been an effective strategy that helps me be my best. Skipping the commute and enjoying quiet time for writing projects helps me to recharge. 

Exercise and time in nature also helps me to destress. Heading outdoors for a lunchtime walk provides a great change of scenery and some fresh air. My colleague Judy Li and I started a tradition of walking together every Monday to encourage one another to make exercise a habit. Spending time outdoors with my family on weekends, taking hikes, and canoeing, help me feel more peaceful and restored. Learning to self-advocate and to communicate regularly with my supervisor and teammates has also been crucial to better managing my workload. Being grateful for the opportunity I have been given and looking to my colleagues for advice and support are strategies that help when I feel stressed. Maintaining a sense of balance between career and home life is an ongoing challenge and for most of us, always a work in progress!  

What are some new exciting areas in your field or research that you think the next generation of women scientists should pay attention to?

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is an emerging tool that can be used to detect fish and other organisms using traces of their DNA left behind in the water. Yuan Liu, a member of our GoPro project team, has been collecting seawater samples near oyster cage farms and other habitats for eDNA analysis. Yuan uses metabarcoding of eDNA to detect fish that are present near cages but may not be observed in our GoPro videos because they are active only at night or swim just out of camera range. Fish identifications using eDNA may be particularly important in hard to sample habitats, like rocky reefs or shellfish farms, where bottom structure limits the use of traditional sampling methods like trawl nets. Collecting seawater for eDNA analysis is a less labor intensive way of sampling the marine environment and can improve detection of rare and hard to capture species. In our study, eDNA data is supplementing the camera video to provide a more complete accounting of the local fish community. 

What advice do you have for the next generation of women scientists about a science career?

Renee Mercaldo-Allen & Hollings Scholars.jpg

Renee (far left) works with and helps mentor Hollings Scholars Eileen Bates and Allie Grusky to quickly process fish traps used as part of the GoPro project. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Take advantage of opportunities to gain hands-on experience in marine science through internships, volunteer work, or field experiences like Sea Semester or study abroad programs. Discover if you enjoy doing fieldwork at sea or are more comfortable in a laboratory setting. One student intern expressed an interest in fieldwork but was surprised to find out she might get wet and dirty on the back deck of a research vessel! Knowing your own interests, abilities and skills is key to making good decisions about a career path and where to invest time, energy and resources. 

Exposure to a variety of marine-related experiences and developing unique skills will make you a more competitive candidate when applying for science jobs. Participating in internships and field-based learning while in college is a great way to get your feet wet! Developing a skill like GIS mapping or learning how to run a scientific instrument are two examples of specialties that may aid you in getting that first research job. 

Cultivating strong scientific writing and public speaking skills will help you communicate your science effectively to stakeholders and the public. Sometimes science majors forget that English and communication classes are just as important as biology and oceanography courses. Conveying our research results to scientists and non-scientists alike is an important part of what we do at NOAA. For example, we hope the video footage collected during our GoPro project will visually demonstrate how oyster cages are being used by fish and invertebrates for habitat—as refuge from predators, a source of food, and more. We use other outreach opportunities such as the Milford Oyster Festival and our Milford Lab’s annual open house in October to talk about our work and how this project will generate the data needed for making decisions about aquaculture practices.

For more information, please contact Heather Soulen.

 

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on March 09, 2020