We Need You
Dr. Amy Shields, PhD
Marine and Environmental Scientist
Q: Did you have any specific experience or inspiration as a child or young adult that led you to pursue this field of study?
Science and Engineering is in my blood! My journey to be a scientist was always based out of my love for the environment. Even before I went to KU, I already knew I loved doing environmental work and that was what I was going to do. Both of my siblings are also scientists. My father is a network engineer and my mother is a nurse. When I was growing up, my father would take me on hikes along the Blue River in Kansas City. I would explore the river and use binoculars he gave me to observe eagles and birds. When I went into high school at Shawnee Mission South in Overland Park, Kansas, we had a very strong science program that included an outdoor laboratory. I was exposed to words like "ecosystem" and became more passionate about environmental causes. I eventually became president of the environmental club. As I transitioned to the University of Kansas for my Bachelor of Science, I wanted to continue exploring my love for the water and the environment. I began an honors thesis and because I was a vegetarian I wanted to study aquatic plants instead of animals where I would have to do dissections. I began to study phytoplankton, which are microscopic plants in the lakes (and other waters). That's something that I'm very passionate about, water, whether it's salty or fresh. I never would have thought as a young child walking along the river with my dad, that one day I would be studying that same river.
Q: In what field of science do you work and what is your role or position in that field?
My current position is the acting Regional Science Liaison for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a role in which I have worked for 10 years.
My job is building research partnerships between the regional office of EPA located in Lenexa, Kansas, and the Office of Research and Development. In order to influence high priority regional policies and regulatory actions, I work with ORD scientists on environmental decision making and communicate state-of-the-art EPA science to the region. I also help coordinate our regional harmful algal blooms work group and research projects. I really enjoy working on HABs because I get to apply my research knowledge from my undergraduate and doctoral projects. My PhD is in Marine Science from the College of William and Mary, and my doctoral research was on phytoplankton and biogeochemistry in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. During my undergraduate honors project, I also worked on phytoplankton ecology in a reservoir in Kansas.
I really enjoy my position as the Regional Science Liaison because I get to work with researchers from all over the country working on protecting human health and the environment. I'm really passionate about it, so it's great to learn more about the amazing research that our scientists are doing, and how I can apply them in the place I grew up. I enjoy living in Kansas City where I get to see my family every week and see my nieces and nephews grow up. I am proud to be a public servant, and I believe all the life experiences I have had to this date prepared me to be the Regional Science Liaison for a region where I grew up.
Q: When did you know that this was a field you wanted to pursue?
One winter day during my undergraduate studies, I was watching a science special on a sailing school vessel that sailed the Atlantic with the capabilities to do oceanographic research. I had never been out on the ocean on a boat, however, I knew I wanted to learn more about aquatic plants living in the oceans. So I reached out to the program, Woods Hole Sea Education Association, and learned that I was the first person from Kansas to ever apply to the program. Months later, I was on a tall ship leaving from Boston, Massachusetts, and I could no longer see the shore. As we left the dock, I knew that this was going to be a huge step toward my goal to be a scientist studying the oceans. For the next year, I sailed for many weeks all over the North Atlantic and the Caribbean. As I began graduate school at the College of William and Mary, I was lucky to get to continue my passion for studying oceanography in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. As we sailed on U.S. Coast Guard Icebreakers from Hobart, Tasmania, for days, I saw the continent of Antarctica, and the scenery — including Orcas and penguins — took my breath away. As I peered into the microscope, I saw images of some of the most beautiful yet microscopic creatures in the world.
My role was a graduate research assistant for the principal investigator for a National Science Foundation research project. On the icebreakers I was usually collecting biological and chemical samples from the ocean in order to study phytoplankton ecology and biogeochemical cycling in the Ross Sea. As you're moving up in the ranks, there are things that you do that end up being really big learning experiences, like how to do research at the bottom of the world. It's important to take advantage of these opportunities that may not seem ideal — one of them is being away from your family for three months while in Antarctica. All of this is what prepared me in the future for pretty much anything. You should take advantage of those kinds of experiences when you can while you're in graduate school. Be willing to take risks and go to places you have never been. If I can do it, anyone can.
Q: Were there any roadblocks along the way that tried to push you in a different direction?
I was right in the middle of my career, just hitting 34 years old. I had received my PhD at 29. I learned after my aunt's ovarian cancer returned that I also carried a hereditary cancer gene mutation called the BRCA1. I had a more than 87% chance of getting breast cancer and about a 40% chance of getting ovarian cancer. When I was told there was a cancer train coming at me, I had to make a very hard choice to get a prophylactic mastectomy and hysterectomy. It was very hard to stop working and take leave to recover. It was very stressful on me emotionally because I was having to make a decision not to have a family after I had spent all that time working and not focusing on that part of my life — and then all of a sudden I'm being told, "You either need to have a family now, or ..."
It was a roadblock just because it was a huge turn in my life where I just had no idea where to go next. I went from someone who was strong to someone who was in a hospital bed going through surgery and taking off six weeks to recover from a major surgery. I looked back at my career and was really thankful that I had all the opportunities to do research in Antarctica and travel to New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, and France. I was just living life all to its fullest.
My twin sister was diagnosed with cancer last year. I was so thankful that I was back in Kansas City to be there for her. I felt like I made the right choice to be home. I could not have made it without my family and close childhood friends through all of this.
Q: What is your advice for women who would want to enter into the sciences?
My advice for girls is to follow your passion and don't let anyone hold you back. If you love math and science, make sure that you work really hard. Getting a PhD is extremely academically rigorous and it requires a lot of dedication, so make sure that's what you want to do in life. It takes a heavy toll on you emotionally, financially, and physically, so you have to be very strong and you can't have anybody hold you back. And because of that you really have to reach out to people who have gone through the same journey and find strong mentors, both women and men. Some of the strongest mentors I've had have been men, and it's because they saw me as a peer. That's one thing that I think is often missed when it comes to STEM. You can't just decide you're going to be a scientist; you've got to be dedicated. You've got to show up to class, and you've got to go talk to professors after class. I made a lot of sacrifices. If you want to make a difference in the world, there are so many ways as a scientist. I feel like I make a difference being a public servant and working for the citizens of our country. The last thing I would say is that WE NEED YOU! Reach out to your teachers and STEM organizations in your communities.
Q: What kind of struggles or obstacles have you faced as you pursued this field of study?
My biggest struggle for me is that I love my hometown in Kansas but sometimes I feel like my soul wants to be out at sea. My biggest obstacle isn't the science or my peers. It is my struggle with sacrificing my love for the ocean to be near the people who are most important to me in this world.
Q: What is one of the ideas in your field you want to explore?
I think water quality and water quantity is going to be one of the biggest environmental issues of my generation. Harmful algal blooms have huge impacts on local drinking water supplies and recreational areas all over the world. I really think a critical part in my field is understanding why harmful algal blooms produce toxins and how to mitigate their impacts. Is climate change causing the increase in these blooms?
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr. Shields and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the United States Environmental Protection Agency or United States Government, and shall not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes.
Dr. Amy Shields resides in Fairway, Kansas. She received her Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies from the University of Kansas and her PhD in Marine Science from the College of William and Mary. Her research background is in biogeochemistry and polar oceanography. Her PhD research was in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, which led her to travel to Antarctica about three months a year from 2001-2007.
Words: Dr. Amy Shields