Have you ever heard the saying “don’t reinvent the wheel?” Dr. Tracy Fanara asked the audience at a recent CPS event at Eckerd College.

“It’s my least favorite saying, because the wheel has been reinvented more times than anything else. Reinvention is the only way to really grow science,” Fanara said.

Fanara was the guest speaker at the March 13 event sponsored by the Women in STEM Club. “Understanding the Experience of a Woman in STEM” drew more than 100 students—a near capacity crowd—to the auditorium in the Environmental Studies building.

Fanara spoke about her education, career, and overall experience as a woman in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). She began the speech by explaining how her curiosity and love for animals led her to where she is today. 

Frogs were Fanara’s favorite animals as a child and her curiosity about their life cycle led to her collecting tadpoles to observe them. She collected tadpoles in a cup and left it on a desk in her room.

“Mom,” Fanara remembered saying, “you drank my pets.” 

Unfortunately for her mother, she unknowingly drank water that contained tiny tadpoles. Shortly afterward, her mother got sick and was in and out of hospitals, though she did recover eventually, Fanara claimed. Eventually, they learned that a chemical company had been dumping toxic waste into a nearby canal way for decades, which affected various other people in her life as well. So it wasn’t the tadpoles at all. 

This series of events sparked Fanara’s environmental interests and she went on to earn bachelor's, master’s and doctoral degrees in Environmental Engineering Sciences from the University of Florida. Fanara is now the Coastal Modeling Manager for NOAA, and in the past she’s had various other jobs such as a staff scientist and environmental health programs manager position at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, according to the USA Science Festival website.

Throughout Fanara’s professional career, she’s come to learn the importance of communication for improvement of the public’s scientific literacy. Fanara said she’s been able to communicate through TV networks, podcasts, and public speaking. She has been featured on Disney Plus, CBS, National Geographic, Marvel’s Unstoppable Wasp, and more.

Fanara explained that the public’s knowledge of scientific information, or scientific literacy, is too low to wait until a crisis to communicate with each other. She has been able to communicate with groups of various ages and get people involved in hands-on ways.

Fanara teamed up with NOAA and utilized a NASA-funded program with the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System to create a cellphone microscope. She and her team created a microscope, she explained, where volunteers collected water samples to look at underneath it, and then upload a video of it into an app. The app calculates concentration of red tide by shape, size, and movement, providing real time results, Fanara said.

“They were empowered because they were contributing to scientific research,” Fanara said.

Fanara explained that she is an introvert, but this communication is critical. She said that people need to know what’s going on, or they at least need to care.

“You’ve got to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

Though public speaking can make her nervous, she said that fear pushes her to do things that make her uncomfortable for what she is passionate about. This idea resonated with some audience members.

Simone Ruckman, a sophomore marine biology major, attended the CPS event and got more out of it than she expected, she said.

“It covered not just what it is to be a woman in science but kind of how to go about starting a career and how to overcome failures and difficulties,” Ruckman said. “If you don’t push yourself outside of your comfort zone, you’re not going to grow.”

Fanara emphasized the concept of pushing boundaries, however, she added, that it is important to know what battles are worth fighting. She explained that arguing over social media is pointless. She said that she will type one paragraph that states facts and her position and that is it—no back-and-forth arguments.

“There are a lot of minds you can’t change,” Fanara said.

Toward the end of the event, Fanara addressed being a woman in STEM. She touched on social norms expecting women to prioritize marriage and children, leading to the idea that women who prioritize careers and education are selfish. Fanara suggested that women should surround themselves with supportive friends and pursue what they are passionate about.

Fanara’s curiosity and work ethic was sparked at a young age, she said, and pushing herself do what makes her uncomfortable has been critical to her success. She urged the audience to understand that we need more people–a diverse group of people—who maintain these qualities not only to further research and scientific knowledge, but also to communicate and increase public scientific literacy. 

“Every time we ignore an inaccuracy or don’t stand up for the truth,” Fanara said., “We lose out.”

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