Amazing Kids! Magazine

Amazing Mentor! Spotlight Interview with Karen McDonald

By Mindy Yang, Editor in Chief


Have you ever wondered where to go to learn more about the ecology of our coastal areas, that special place where the land meets the water? The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), located in Edgewater, Maryland, is a great place to start!  SERC conducts ongoing, leading research into many areas concerning our perpetually-changing environment, including the effects that weather may have on our beaches and coastal zones.

To help answer some of our questions about their work and their discoveries of how “Wacky Weather,” may affect on our coastal areas, Amazing Kids! took some time to speak with Karen McDonald, the Outreach Coordinator of SERC.

AK: What is the main mission or goal of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center?

KM: SERC is a research branch of the Smithsonian, so we have 18 different laboratories here that research the Chesapeake Bay. However, there are also researchers that call this “home” while doing work all around the world.  Our mission is simple: We want to understand what happens where the land meets the water, and we want to help people better understand the environment, so we’re ready for the challenges our planet will face over the next 100 years.

AK:  Why do you believe it is important to study the ecology of the coastal zones?

KM: Coastal zones are the places where the land meets the sea. They are important because the plants of coastal zones have roots that act like fingers and hold soil in place to protect the land; their roots also act like water filters and purify water as it flows off the land. Additionally coastal zones act as buffers against storms and tides, and they are also nursery habitat for crabs, fish, and other animals to live and grow up in.

AK: What types of research does the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center conduct?  What have they discovered specifically relating to weather and its effects on our coastal zones?

KM: SERC has 18 different research labs that study many different topics ranging from water quality, plankton, oysters, jellyfish, blue crabs, deer, native orchids, earthworms, CO2 and climate change, and aquatic invasive species. Climate is just one part of the picture of all these different studies. But climate clearly affects things like earlier springs, hotter summers, higher rainfall, fiercer storms and more extreme weather events in general along the coasts – all of which we’ve seen this year. The cooler, wetter springs also wash more nutrients from crop planting into the Bay, fueling large algal blooms that cloud the water and affect our shorelines.

AK: How do the scientists at SERC collect data and analyze it? Can you provide a specific example on how SERC collects data related to weather’s effects on the coastal zones?

KM: SERC scientists collect long-term data using weather instruments that record temperature, salinity (saltiness) of the water, turbidity (cloudiness of the water), wind speed, UV light, rainfall, solar spectrum, and more.

We have a 12-story meteorological tower and special instruments that hang on and off our docks. Our solar radiation laboratory specifically looks at the effect of UV light (a part of sunlight) on plankton, the tiny plants that live in the water that are at the base of the food web. Plankton, like you, can get sunburns from UV light, but unlike you, because they are tiny they may die, leaving little to no food for animals that rely upon them. Sunlight intensity and weather play important roles in the lives of these tiny plants that so many creatures in our oceans rely upon. This is especially true in places like the Arctic where sunlight is especially intense.

AK: What goals does the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have for the future?

KM: SERC’s goals are to continue researching environmental issues that relate to human impacts on nature and the environment, to increase environmental literacy, and to encourage stewardship of the environment.

AK:  How do you believe SERC’s work can help the world?

KM: As a research institution, we provide the data and research that lawmakers, decision makers, and even everyday people need to make healthy decisions about the environment. This information is critical to understanding human relationships with nature.

AK:  How does the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center hope its newfound discoveries are applied in our everyday lives?

KM: We hope to increase environmental awareness and literacy. As an Outdoor Educator here at SERC, I work with thousands of adults and children in hands-on learning to help them appreciate and understand nature. I hope they will carry with them what they learn so that they all become good stewards of the environment.

AK: What is the best part of your job?

KM: Every day is different, and every day I get to be outside sharing the wonders of nature with others. One day I may be teaching about earthworms, releasing a rehabilitated heron, or working with blue crabs on the docks, while on another I may be leading a canoe trip or guided hike.

AK: Have you had any mentors who helped you follow your career path to become spokesperson of  SERC?

KM: I’ve had many mentors and teachers along this path. Most of them encouraged me to have the courage to try different things I was interested in, from bat research to predatory birds, until I found my true interest, sharing nature with others.

AK: What advice do you have for our readers that hope to pursue a career related to environmental research?

KM: I would suggest trying many different jobs and experiences before settling on one path or course of study. That way you’ll truly know what you do and don’t like. It’s important to love what you do and find a career that makes you happy. Start by volunteering and working during the summers trying different and new things until you find what you’re really interested in.