Fashioning the Future With: Tracy Fanara
Growling Gatorade, we have Superhero Scientist Dr. Tracy Fanara on the blog today! Also known as Inspector Planet, Tracy is an environmental engineer, research scientist, TV presenter, scicomm luminary, advocate for saving our planet, and a proponent of citizen science. Speaking of, Tracy co-developed the Citizen Science Information Collaboration (CSIC) app which allows people to report local water conditions—and you can download it today!
Along with her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Florida, Tracy has a Ph.D. from UF in Environmental Engineering (Go Gators!). Tracy currently works at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida as Staff Scientist and Program Manager. She's a frequent guest on TV shows such as the awesome and often adorable Animal Outtakes, and she was also a contestant on MythBusters: The Search! Tracy's contributions to #scicomm vary from her television work to her own cool content. Just check out the Inspector Planet video for " Polar Ice Baby" to see what we mean!
Tracy's awesome alter egos go beyond even Inspector Planet and Dr. Tre! Tracy is also one of the two Superhero Scientist stars in the new comic book series Seekers of Science which is all about rad women in STEM and empowering citizen scientists. We could go on and on about Dr. Fanara's impressive CV and invaluable contributions to STEM advocacy, citizen science, and saving our planet, but we want to get right to the Q&A!
We asked Tracy all about her work as a scientist, how we can start saving the planet today, what her favorite animal is, her incredible advice for people wanting to go into environmental engineering, and more. Meet Inspector Planet: Dr. Tracy Fanara.
What drew you to environmental engineering/environmental health?
When I was in 4th grade, I learned of a site by my hometown of Buffalo, where industries were dumping hazardous waste into a canal. Toxins leached into the soil and groundwater and migrated. People built houses and schools near this site and the community saw high rates of birth defects and cancer. Love Canal was the incident that initiated the EPA Superfund program, and my understanding of how everything in this world is connected.
Later in life, I learned that unsafe drinking water is the leading killer among children worldwide. That fact lit a fire—I wanted to help...I needed to. And that’s when I realized that you know you’ve found your passion when it brings you to action, whether you are paid for it or not. So when I heard about a field of study where you got to design ways to provide clean water and air, make sure there is enough food, protect people from natural and manmade disasters, and invent the world you wanted to see, I said, “Sign me up. I want to be a superhero. I want to be an Environmental Engineer.”
How did you come up with the name ‘Inspector Planet’?
Although true sustainability may never be achieved, innovative strategies may bring us closer. This is the mission of Inspector Planet: Inspector Gadget meets Captain Planet: Innovation meets sustainability. I hope to use this platform as a way to bridge the gap between scientists and the public by making science fun and by showing the connection between humans and environment, while inspiring young girls to go out of their comfort zone, build, create, innovate, and change the world!
What are some of the biggest issues humanity needs to fix for the sake of our planet?
LACK OF ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION! Throughout grad school I noticed friends throwing trash out car windows, and I asked them where they thought that trash would end up? Either they didn’t know, or they thought storm sewers went to a wastewater treatment plant, when every drop of rain that falls in the state of Florida goes directly to a natural waterbody. Upon telling them, I noticed their behaviors change—I saw how education can change behavior to make the world a better place.
Promoting an understanding of how the world works and how each of us is connected to environment is key to change! Whether it’s air pollution, water pollution, declining biodiversity, climate change, harmful algae, drought, natural disasters—all of it is connected, and we all play a role. Having a clear understanding of how each of our individual motivations is impacted and impacts the state of the environment will lead to change. Even someone who is solely motivated by economics will realize why sustainability is crucial to achieve their long-term goals.
What steps can people take right now to help the environment?
Learn as much as you can about the products you are buying and the natural resources you are depending on—we all take part in shifting markets and if we make responsible purchases with food, personal care, lawn chemicals, laundry detergent, cars, etc. we will change how our natural resources are used. You have a voice- in your vote, in your social media, in your choices- tell the world that you want to live longer, healthier, and allow for the same quality of life for your kids and grandkids.
We have covered the earth with concrete, strived to manipulate the water cycle, polluted and depleted natural resources; but my research shows that we can attempt to retrofit damage that has been done through low impact development. At our own homes we can reduce our hydrologic and nutrient impact by disconnecting impervious surfaces with techniques that strive to mimic the water cycle; treating water at the source by allowing for biological, chemical, and physical degradation of through designs that promote infiltration and groundwater recharge. Examples are cisterns, raingardens, infiltration trenches, pervious pavement, green roofs, and many more.
Be mindful of your contribution to climate change—your choices in transportation, manufacturing and transport of products, energy use, etc., and work hard to lessen your impact.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if we don’t change our current path on increasing emissions, quality of life will decrease—more for some than others, and millions of people may be displaced from their homes. The solution is working together as a species to protect the natural resources we need to survive.
What’s your favorite part about using your celebrity to promote science advocacy?
I would never use the word “celebrity”, but I use the opportunities given to me by media, Mote Marine Lab, teachers, universities, and scientific conferences to communicate my passion and hopefully something different than what people expect.
What does being an advocate for citizen science mean to you?
It means educating as many people as possible through action and community.
What inspired the very rad educational comic Seekers of Science?
We got lucky with this one—a comic writer wrote myself and my friend I met on the set of MythBusters, Tamara Robertson, to create a comic. It was perfect—the premise would basically follow the tag line of Inspector Planet—we go out into the world, find problems, and solve them through principles of science!
For me, the most important part is that the heroes didn’t have superpowers—I wanted kids to understand that they have everything they need to make an impact on this world and be superheroes themselves. Every issue involves real citizen scientists and a real expert so that the reader can see themselves in the story, but also can see that these heroes really exist, connecting them to future possibilities.
What does a typical day over at the MOTE marine Laboratory & Aquarium look like for you?
Every day, I wake up with excitement and drive to make the world a better place. No two days are alike, but what remains consistent is the amazing team of caring and intelligent researchers I have the opportunity to work with at Mote.
As program manager, I ensure that reports are written, and time/funds are spent efficiently and effectively. As a creative, I am constantly brainstorming next projects and advances to existing ones. As an engineer, I am building and designing experiments and prototypes for implementation; and as a researcher, I strive to learn more than I did before—to use the efforts of those that came before me as stepping stones to advance science; and as a project manager, I become a mentor, motivator, teacher, and friend to my employees, interns, and students.
Prior to working at Mote, most of my project engineering work was modeling hydraulic and hydrologic systems, developing models to encourage sustainable design for land developers, and stormwater field work and water treatment laboratory experience I had throughout school.
At Mote, I have been able to use those skills to integrate biological systems—for example to model transport of endocrine disrupting compounds from pesticides to determine impacts to coral reefs, modeling nutrient loading to coastal waters to understand possible impact to algae blooms, developing apps for environmental reporting and public education on harmful algae, and determining impacts of herbicides to monarch butterflies (with USGS).
A focus of my program is Florida red tide, the common name for a bloom of the harmful algae species, Karenia brevis, which causes wildlife fatalities and public health threats along the Florida Gulf Coast. A controversial topic impacting humans, wildlife, and economy, Florida red tide research requires careful communication of complex systems to the public, resulting in hundreds of public presentations, media interviews, and film projects. To protect public health and economy, my team and I develop [and use existing] technology to deploy citizen scientists to collect environmental data while educating the public.
Examples are the Beach Conditions Reporting System (website and smartphone app) allowing trained beach sentinels from 37 Gulf Coast beaches to report beach conditions; CSIC, a citizen science smartphone environmental reporting app; biofiltration, water treatment media, and HABscope (NASA funded, contracted project with NOAA and GCOOS), a cellphone microscope which allows trained volunteers to place a water sample under a microscope with an attached smartphone—an app on the phone calculates the concentration of red tide by recognizing shape, size, and movement.
Animal Outtakes, what an amazing/fun show! What’s been your favorite thing about being a personality/expert on the show?
My favorite part about this show is that it’s geared towards kids…and that sometimes I get to meet amazing animals! Animal Outtakes has allowed me to experiment and grow as a communicator and as an entertainer. The people I work with on that show (Shannon Welling, Michelle Rieg, and Marcha Panuce) are absolutely incredible people—they have become good friends, and I love days that I get to film with them!
Speaking of critters, do you have a favorite animal?
The octopus…for so many reasons! They are smart, creative, innovative, versatile, mysterious, and playful.
What advice do you have for younger folks who want to go into Environmental Engineering?
Break stereotypes, go out of your comfort zone, do not fear the path less taken, and know that you can do anything you work towards. You will hit many obstacles along the way to your goal, and if you don’t do well in a class, or it seems hard—realize that it’s all part of it; focus on the goal and get over those obstacles no matter how awkward the journey. If you work to accomplish your goal despite adversity and by never giving up, you learn to be resourceful, resilient, strong—and, in the end, whether you realize it or not—you become the person you’ve always looked up to or wanted to be.
Do something different with the field—it is an extremely important field, and this will be recognized more and more with time. The challenges are growing; protecting water, land, and air is harder than ever before, so you must do things no one has done before. Don’t let fear of the unknown stop you from changing the world.
I do have advice for graduate students:
1. I was glad that I worked first, because upon graduation, I wanted to genetically engineer microbes for wastewater treatment, and [my understanding] changed when I saw what I thought was needed. That being said—either way—graduate school is a good idea IF it is a milestone on the path to the job you want.
2. Do your best to bring in your own funding.
3. Always ask other students about a professor before deciding to join a research group.
How have your past professional and academic experiences and lessons prepared you for the work you do today? How have they not prepared you?
The challenges I accepted along my path resulted in a diverse background professionally and socially—from selling cellphones, to cleaning sea lion snot, to working in a toxicology lab, to making smoothies, and even to designing cities. These experiences have made me a versatile, team-oriented researcher with a wholistic approach to problem solving.
What are some of your hobbies you enjoy in your free time?
Since I got incredibly lucky to find a career I am so passionate about that it is my hobby as well, I use my “free time” to communicate my work, explore nature, and do experiments on a kids TV show on ABC, among other film projects. I try to get outside in nature as much as possible to remind myself of what I’m working so hard for.
Who (modern day or historical) inspires you?
Dr. Silvia Earle—and there are so many others, but I admire her ability to seek innovation when faced with limitations. She formed an integrated team and created things that never existed to overcome those limitations. She took robotics to deep sea research in the 1980s as a biologist with her team of engineers.
In addition, she was the first female chief scientist at NOAA, and she used her platform to inspire young girls while achieving incredible scientific advances. She did it all, and I hope to follow her lead—anytime someone tells me to, “Pick one direction, you can’t possibly do it all,” I reply, “Watch me.”
Do you have any favorite fictional STEM characters in books/movies/other art forms?
Penny from Inspector Gadget, MacGyver, Indiana Jones, and Lara Croft.
If you were a superhero (in addition to being one in Seekers of Science!), what would your go-to wearable tech device be?
We are all superheroes to someone in some way. For me, I would take a really good GPS watch— my downfalls are that I have a poor sense of direction and that I lose track of time.