Work It!

Brenda Moraska LaFrancois is one of the most brainy ladies I know, AND one of the coolest.  I met Brenda when I first started graduate school at Colorado State University, where we shared an "office" (actually, it was a small aisle between two lab benches in a basement storage room in the bowels of Wagar Hall).  Brenda is one of my best friends, and after you read this interview, you'll see why I think she is so incredible!  Her work involves plenty of CYCLES, perfect for this month's Brainy Girls issue.  Plus, she writes a mean haiku.  So, meet Brenda! 

Brainy Girls:
  Hi Brenda!  I'm so happy that you're available for an interview.  To start off, what's your job title?  What do you do, and who you work for? Any other relevant tidbits? 

Brenda Moraska LaFrancois:  I’m an aquatic ecologist with the National Park Service.  Lucky for an aquatics person like me, I’m stationed in the very watery upper Great Lakes region.  There are so many different kinds of water here, from little ponds and streams to some of the biggest lakes in the world, and the parks here are affected by a range of interesting issues, some local, some global.  Mostly I help park staff develop research and management projects related to water pollution, invasive species, climate change, etc., but sometimes I’m involved in regional or national things.  For example right now I’m coordinating some projects for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federally funded effort to clean up and restore Great Lakes ecosystems.

BG:  What are some projects have you been involved with?  

BML:  Yes, it’s all about cycling – one of my professors said biogeochemistry is what makes the world go around!  And so it is.  Many of my projects involve cycles of one sort or another.  In grad school we looked at how nitrogen from fossil fuel combustion and fertilizer application makes its way into the atmosphere, comes down on mountain ecosystems as rain or snow, trickles into mountain streams and lakes, and ultimately ends up changing water clarity and algal communities.

I’ve since been involved in similar work in boreal lakes at Isle Royale National Park.  There we’re investigating how climate change (in particular, changes in snow cover) is causing changes in how the watersheds cycle nutrients and carbon, which are sort of keystone elements.  We’re looking at how those changes relate to what’s going on in the lakes, including a sudden increase in harmful algal blooms.

Another one of our projects investigates similar kinds of nutrient cycles, but in a much different context.  In that one, we’re looking at how nitrogen cycles work in a large river system like the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.  This work is showing that a substantial amount of excess nitrogen (mostly from things like leaky septic tanks and fertilizer applications) is recycled back to a gaseous form in riverine side channels and backwaters.  So those types of muddy, mucky habitats are important not just for fish and wildlife but also for helping the river get rid of excess nutrients from human activities.

On a totally different topic, one of the things I’m working on right now is figuring out how seasonal hydrologic cycles are being affected by climate change.  Stream gage data from some of our parks, including Grand Portage National Monument near the Canadian border, are showing that there’s been a shift in the timing of spring snowmelt - recently snowmelt is happening much earlier than it used to.  And changes in the seasonal hydrologic cycle mean changes in the life cycles of aquatic and snow-adapted organisms, including things like the anadromous coaster brook trout and moose.  We’re trying to figure out how widespread these hydrologic changes are and what they mean for these organisms.

BG:  What project that you’ve worked on has been your favorite, or the one you are most proud of?  Why did you enjoy it so much?

BML:  I think my favorite (and also most challenging) project is one that I’m working on right now, involving avian botulism in the Great Lakes.  We’re trying to figure out how the botulinum toxin, which causes poisoning and mass die-offs of waterfowl, is being produced and cycled through the food web from the lake bottom to birds.  It looks like the toxin is produced on the lake bottom under certain conditions and is cycled through the ecosystem via invasive fish, which then become attractive prey for fish-eating birds.  The poisoned fish and birds can then die, in some cases sinking to the lake bottom and starting the cycle all over again.  We’re finding that botulism outbreaks in the Great Lakes are linked to cycles in climate, with big outbreaks occurring during warm periods with low lake levels, and also to cycles in invasive fish species, with big outbreaks occurring when a new fish species gets introduced and goes gangbusters in the Great Lakes. 

This project involves just about every type of cycle I’ve ever learned about and requires tons of interdisciplinary thinking.  It’s sort of the quintessential ecology project, which is why it’s so interesting to me scientifically.  It’s like playing detective.  Also, because it intersects with all kinds of big issues (climate change, hydrologic modifications, invasive species, fisheries management) it’s very interesting from a policy and public interest perspective.  This issue involves nature’s most potent neurotoxin affecting some of the region’s most charismatic birds, so people really relate to it – and because of that interest we’ve been able to have some broader discussions about human impacts on Great Lakes ecosystems.

BG:  What kind of education did you get that put you where you are?  What did you enjoy most about your education?

BML:  In undergrad I double majored in Spanish and Biology (with a minor in Chemistry and concentrations in Aquatic and Environmental Sciences).  You’d think it was the Biology degree that got me into this field, but I think the Spanish degree was just as important in terms of exercising my mind and helping me cross disciplines.  I worked for a state natural resources department for a year or so after graduating, and spent the next several years working on a Ph.D. in Ecology.  I loved graduate school; I think that’s where I really became a scientist.  I liked the independence of working on my own research questions, but the best part was being surrounded by interesting people and learning from their projects and experiences. The sense of community was great.

BG:  What are some other skills that you have that help you do your job (e.g., SCUBA, organizational skills, a beguiling smile, whatever!)?

BML:  Let’s see, special skills.  My job requires a lot of coordination and cooperation – among park units and with scientists and managers from other agencies and universities.  Being able to communicate with these various types of people and pull off a coordinated research program is sometimes difficult but often rewarding, and this part of my skill set has come pretty naturally.  Other types of skills didn’t come as naturally to me (for example, I have to do a lot of advance planning related to projects and budgets, and I occasionally have to build equipment from scratch) but I’ve developed those skills along the way.  On the more technical side of things, SCUBA diving has been a really handy addition to my skill set.  Being underwater has totally changed my perspective on aquatic ecosystems; it’s led to some interesting research insights as well as some collaborations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

BG:  What is the most awesome part of your job?

BML:  I would have to say field work is the most awesome part, and the more remote or challenging, the better!  Directly interacting with these ecosystems is what inspires me.  I love carrying ridiculous amounts of gear into the mountains, portaging a canoe into a quiet northwoods lake, diving to the bottom of Lake Michigan on a stormy day, schlunking around in bogs or backwaters.  Anything for the right water sample.  Being in these places makes the whole picture snap together and reminds me what it means to be an ecologist.  Also, field work also involves a lot of funny situations, improvisation, and team work.  I love those aspects too.

BG:  What is the most challenging part of your job?

The part that happens at my desk.  Actually, that’s not fair; a lot of things happen at my desk and some of them are really fun!  Like analyzing data (which is really a process of discovery) or writing.  The hardest things involve managing project budgets, dealing with changes in agency rules, or, lately, fielding questions about project funding, jobs, and so on.

BG:  You have a husband and small child at home – can you talk a little bit about balancing home and work (i.e., “having it all”)?

BML:  Sure.  I think “having it all” is possible, depending on what you think “it all” is and as long as you don’t consider sleep or a personal life an important component.   I’m only partly kidding.   My priorities have definitely shifted since becoming a mother, and it’s a daily challenge to fit everything in.  My husband and I both work and we share care of our 3-year-old daughter.  In general I feel very lucky – my husband I both work flexible hours and mostly from home, which enables us to take turns easily and often, and he’s cut back on his work to take on a bigger share of the child care duties while I work full time.  We both get to work and we both get to spend time with our daughter.  We let the chips fall where they may when it comes to everything else. 

As an aside, I’ve noticed at least one unexpected side benefit of our particular work-life arrangement.  Kids interrupt, ask questions, and force you to shift gears mentally.  This can be distracting, but also lets your working brain rest so you can chew on scientific problems in another way.   It seems like playing with puzzles, building with blocks, or engaging in toddler chitchat can clear the mental cobwebs and open up new ways of looking at scientific problems.

BG:  If you were going to have a dance party, what three famous people (any genre, field) would you be sure to have over, and what would be playing on the jukebox?

BML:  Dance party?  Famous people?  I’m terrible at these.  The famous people I most admire tend to be driven, idealistic types who aren’t obvious party material.  Nonetheless, I love dance parties so Wangari Maathai, Michelle Obama, and Amelia Earhart, you’re invited, and I’ll have Rodrigo y Gabriela on the juke box for you.  You don’t even have to dance; you can just admire Gabriela’s peppy artistry while I ply you with questions.  But in case you don’t show up on time, I’ll extend the invite to Dolly Parton and Anne Hathaway, and we’ll be dancing to Hot Chip and Prince when you get here.  [comment from Marci - oooooh - lots of fun people to google!]

BG:  What advice do you have for girls and young women who are hoping to pursue a career in science?
  1. Ask questions.  Curiosity is extremely cool.
  2. Do science. Learning about science is interesting, but actually doing it and realizing that you can discover things yourself is awesome.
  3. Keep an eye out for opportunities.  Extra-curricular science groups, internship programs and short-term jobs are fun and will give you the experience you need to choose your path.  
  4. Don’t be afraid to explore other fields.  Those experiences will broaden your perspective and keep the creative wheels spinning – and might just make your science stronger too. 
BG:  Thanks so much, Brenda!  Your excitement for science is super-inspiring, and I hope that all of our readers take your advice to heart.  You rock!  :o)


  1. Most interesting and engaging interview I have EVER read! I absolutely adored the way you recognized how teaching your child gave you the 'step-back' necessary to work on intense intellectual problems. Brilliant, brainy chicks -- we need more of you!

    1. Thanks so much for your praise, Eva! I have a whole new appreciation for Brenda's work after doing this interview, and agree that she is One Brainy Chick! :o)

  2. Brenda is our daughter-in-law and we are so proud of her! Thank you, Marci, for including her in your awesome publication.

    1. Thank you! Brenda and Toben are two of the most amazing people I know, and I am so happy to count them among my friends. :o)

  3. Wonderful blog post! Thank you so much for sharing this outstanding piece of work with us!

    1. Thank you for stopping by, and for your feedback! :o)


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