News: Careers don’t always STEM from childhood dreams
Story by Pamela Spaugy
NORFOLK, Va. - Meet Kristen Donofrio - a biological scientist here since 2009. Her passion is ecology - the study of environmental systems, or as it is sometimes called, the economy of nature.
On sunny days, Kristen Donofrio’s long strides carry her toward her beloved sport bike.
The biologist reaches the parking spot and swings a leg over her cobalt blue motorcycle, slides a slick, made-for-speed helmet over her dark brown bob, and turns the engine over.
Her pianist fingers play over the bike’s grips, and she launches herself into Norfolk’s afternoon traffic.
On the ride home, shorelines and wetlands churning with life blur past her – ecosystems that, as a biologist, she is committed to saving.
History in the making
The passenger pigeon was dead.
The bird, once the most abundant bird in North America, became extinct in 1914.
Then, the whooping crane, the rarest of the world’s 15 cranes species, achieved unprecedented fame in the 1940s when conservationists put their population, once in the tens of thousands, at 21.
It took more than 20 years, but Washington addressed the issue and, in 1966, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act.
“At a time when Americans are more concerned than ever with conserving our natural resources, this legislation provides the federal government with needed authority to protect an irreplaceable part of our national heritage – threatened wildlife,” Nixon said.
The act – signed an entire 20 years before Donofrio was born – gives the government the authority to save an endangered species from extinction and Donofrio’s role is working with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, to do her job. “NEPA increases appreciation for the environment, and growing concerns about ecological and wildlife well-being – all of these are a passion of mine,” she said.
At the Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a pair of steel toe boots sit in the corner of Donofrio’s cubicle.
“What I do reflect on is the growing concerns of our environment,” she said.
The pace of work, technical documents to complete, and work sites to visit are perfect for Donofrio, who prefers to go at things full-tilt.
What dreams may come
At the age of 14, Donofrio believed she was on the path to becoming a renowned pianist.
From the walnut upright piano’s bench in the kitchen, she could “picture myself on stage playing the 1822 rendition of Franz Shubert’s ‘Wanderer Fantasie’ on a baby grand piano.”
Two things stand out about “Wanderer Fantasie:” its rhythms are punctuated and stomping – and through many measures, it’s quite fast.
And Donofrio likes things fast: her sport bike, her music, her work.
So, the perpetual motion at work is welcome: she said it requires planning, which is parallel to her favorite German composer, Beethoven, who is renowned for some of his works being “impossibly fast.”
But Donofrio had never imagined becoming a biologist.
“I hated biology in high school,” she said. “Hated it.”
It was an unexpected suitor who wooed Donofrio: submerged aquatic vegetation.
While Donofrio attended Old Dominion University, she worked at a jet-ski rental store in Nags Head, N.C. The store she worked at wanted to install a bulkhead to slow shoreline erosion but couldn’t because of nearby submerged aquatic vegetation.
Donofrio was intrigued.
She began researching how bulkheads prevented erosion and their effect on aquatic life, including aquatic vegetation. To have the bulkhead installed required environmental studies and actions where permits from a federal agency are required. Permits needed the Corps. And, as it turned out, the Corps needed Donofrio.
On the road to discovery
A 2010 report to the president from his council of advisers on science and technology included what it called “Troubling signs:”
“… the United States now lags behind other nations in STEM education at the elementary and secondary levels … It is important to note that the problem is not just a lack of proficiency among American students; there is also a lack of interest in STEM fields among many students.”
The same year the report was published, Donofrio helped launch a STEM program at the Norfolk District.
Today, Donofrio is the lead for the district’s STEM team, partnered with volunteers from the district in the construction, maintenance, and monitoring of a sanctuary oyster reef in the waters behind the building where she works.
At Fort Norfolk, seven floating oyster cages cradle thousands of baby oysters, or spat, near the end of a pier. Each month, local elementary students, STEM members and district volunteers pull the algae-covered mesh bags from the floats, scrub them and measure randomly picked oysters for maturity and water salinity before being placed back into the floats.
Donofrio believes that providing STEM opportunities to K-12 students is important because experiences at that age can impact their college choice and career path.
“The oyster reef discussion and hands-on experience show students why multiple STEM careers need to work together for successful results. The whole experience is fun and encourages students to study STEM courses, and ultimately choose a STEM career,” Donofrio said as she brushed her hair from her face.
“That’s what STEM education is all about – not just professionally but on a personal level as well,” she said.
On a more personal level: while working hard in the field, Donofrio, the reluctant biologist, fell in love.
She will say, “I do” in April at the Renaissance Court of Norfolk’s Botanical Gardens, as she is surrounded by close friends and family – the ceremony will be fringed by the garden’s wetlands and budding flowers.
Donofrio checks off the days until the wedding – but in the meantime, she said, “there’s work to do.”