“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” 
― Sheryl Sandberg

BABE #243: DR. TRACY FANARA - Program Manager, Environmental Engineer, MOTE Marine Laboratory, Inc.

BABE #243: DR. TRACY FANARA - Program Manager, Environmental Engineer, MOTE Marine Laboratory, Inc.


Dr. Tracy Fanara works passionately and tirelessly towards a cleaner and more sustainable planet Earth. As the Program Manager of the Environmental Health Program at MOTE Marine Laboratory, she investigates, designs and implements strategies to alleviate adverse impacts on the environment and human health. Tracy uses her various social media, TV and off-screen platforms to bring progress to a mission that is near and dear to her heart — bridging the gap between science and the public by making science fun and showing the connection between humans and environment. She inspires young girls to go out of their comfort zones, build, create, innovate and change the world. And when she’s not out there saving the world, she’s rapping about it.

The Basics:

Hometown: Buffalo, New York
Current city: Gainesville, Florida
Alma mater: University of Florida
Degree: B.S., M.E, PhD, Environmental Engineering
Very first job: Selling rocks at 8; Babysitting at 11; Selling cell phones at 14
Hustle: Program Manager of the Environmental Health Program at Mote Marine Laboratory; Research Scientist/Engineer

The Interests:

Babe you admire and why?
Dr. Silvia Earle. There are so many others, but I admire her ability to seek innovation when faced with limitations by forming an integrated team and creating 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 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.”

helicopter to find red tide patch.jpeg

How do you spend your free time?
Since I got incredibly lucky to find a career I’m so passionate about that it’s also my hobby, 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.

Favorite fictional female character?
Wonder Woman. She is powerful but driven by compassion for the public.

What’s something you want to learn or master?
Parkour, blue hole diving, guitar

What’s something most don’t know about you?
I played ice hockey on a boys hockey team in high school, and I rap (but soon it won’t be such a secret).

The Hustle:

Tell us about your hustle.
I earned a Ph.D., M.E., and BS in environmental engineering from the University of Florida through storm chasing, sustainable design/hydrologic restoration research and winning two national EPA stormwater design competitions. As a project engineer for almost a decade, I worked on civil and environmental design projects all over the world. Currently I am the program manager of the Environmental Health Research Program at Mote Marine Laboratory, where I investigate, design and implement strategies to alleviate adverse impacts to the environment and human health. 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.

What does your typical workday look like?
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. I do wear many hats every day. As program manager, I ensure reports are written and time/funds are spent efficiently and effectively. As a creative I’m constantly brainstorming next projects and advances to existing ones. As an engineer I’m building and designing experiments and prototypes for implementation. As a researcher, I strive to learn more than I did before—to use the efforts of those who came before me as stepping stones to advance science. As a project manager, I become a mentor, motivator, teacher and friend to my employees, interns and students.

Can you tell us more about your research and where it’s taking you?
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), which is a cell phone microscope that allows trained volunteers to place a water sample under a microscope with an attached smartphone, while an app on the phone calculates the concentration of red tide by recognizing shape, size and movement. My next project will bring my team and I back to storm chasing, with a goal of identifying pollutant sources and proposing retrofit designs to improve surface and groundwater quality. Bridging the gap between scientists and the public is a passion of mine, which has resulted in opportunities in film including “Mythbusters the Search” (Science and Discovery), a regular segment on “Animal Outtakes” (ABC) and “Xploration Awesome Planet” (FOX), in addition to being an expert guest on AMHQ and “Weekend Recharge” on The Weather Channel and local news stations. Between research, science communication and teaching graduate level courses, my schedule is always full—but when your passion is your paycheck, working is not work.

Have you always had a passion for science + the environment? Where do you think this stems from?
When I was in fourth 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 build 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. Although this happened before I was born, it affected my friends’ parents. This is when I first saw the connection between our actions and the environment, and then, how those actions come back to affect our health. A few years later, 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. That’s when I realized you know you’ve found your passion when it brings you to action, whether you’re paid for it or not. 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 want to see, I said: “Sign me up. I want to be a superhero. I want to be an environmental engineer.”

photo by conner goulding.JPG

What inspired “Inspector Planet”?
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 thought storm sewers went to a wastewater treatment plant; in reality, every drop of rain that falls 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. We have covered the earth with concrete, strived to manipulate the water cycle, polluted and depleted natural resources; but there is always hope. 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 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.

Tell us about your experience on “Mythbusters.”
Upon seeing [the first] “Inspector Planet” video, Mythbusters called, so I took a chance with explosions, ejection seats and cardboard boats. I knew this was way out of my comfort zone (and explosions aren’t the most environmentally friendly hobby), but it’s the only way you grow. I thought about how impressed my [late] dad, who could barely work a toaster, would be. Applying a scientific approach to hypotheses is my passion; it’s what I do at Mote and it’s what “Mythbusters” is all about. I believe change and growth are inspired by education, and having the opportunity to spark scientific interest, especially on national television, has the potential to be powerful. I saw this opportunity as a chance to show women, young and old, that there is no stereotype to smart, that science is cool and that anyone can be a scientist or engineer with some passion and hard work. We need as many women-in-science role models as possible, and I hope to use the mainstream media platform to show women—and really anyone—they can be whatever they want to be if they put their mind to it. I hope that my successes will show women they can excel in science, and that my challenges will show anyone the path to every dream will come with obstacles, closed doors and people who will tell you “no.” But those obstacles are just challenges, those closed doors give you opportunity to build a way to the window and those people telling you “no” will make you even better in the long run.

How would you describe your leadership style? How has it contributed to the success of your team?
Well, unknowingly, my interns over the summer called me Michael Scott from The Office, to which I was completely insulted. Then I watched the show, realized that although ridiculous, Michal was led the top sales team and never lost an employee. Although I am always politically correct, and probably not as funny, we are both ENFPs and envision success through teamwork, a fun environment, and motivating by inspiring a passion for work and each other.

Photo by Gainesville Sun (5).JPG

How have your past professional and academic experiences prepared you for the work you do today?
Whether you’re writing a thesis or PhD, starting a job out of your comfort zone, joining a team where you don’t feel like you fit in or taking a required class you have no interest in — when you challenge yourself, you allow yourself to grow. You may feel at times that your work is too hard or that it’s not important; you may get tired of the subject or material; you will hit obstacles. But if you work to accomplish your goal despite adversity, never giving up, you learn to be resourceful, resilient and strong. In the end, whether you realize it or not, you become the person you’ve always looked up to. The challenges I accepted along my path resulted in a diverse background professionally and socially, from selling cell phones, to cleaning sea lion snot, working in a toxicology lab, making smoothies and even designing cities. These experiences have made me a versatile, team-oriented researcher with a holistic approach to problem-solving.

What’s the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving?
When I was a project engineer, I was the only female on my team at my first firm. After that, I would estimate a 70 percent male, 30 percent female ratio. At Mote Marine Laboratory, a research institute founded by a woman, we have more female than male researchers. I do see an increase of females in engineering through teaching. Although still male-dominated, I do see that ratio gap closing slowly.

What steps are necessary to get more women to pursue careers in STEM?
Introduce them to LEGOs and blocks early, give them the confidence to know they can do it and give them role models.

Photo by Gainesville Sun (1).JPG

Are you involved with any other careers, side projects or organizations?
I was subcontracting for the United States Geological Survey researching the impact of pesticides on monarch butterflies, and now I am still a volunteer. I also teach a graduate school course on applied sustainability. In addition, I have film projects including a segment on a kids animal show and a morning segment on a news station. I also spend time working with conservation groups and animal experts, answer scientific questions from the public and I have my first rap concert in April where I will perform my unreleased single, “Polar Ice Ice Baby.”

Who are some women in your field you look to for inspiration?
Dr. Dana Wetzel, Dr. Silvia Earle and my weather women: Stephanie Abrams, Meredith Garofalo and Jen Carfagno.

Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Break stereotypes, go out of your comfort zone, do not fear the path less taken and know you can do anything you work towards. Tell me about your hero—now, be “that.”

Connect with Tracy:

Facebook / Instagram / YouTube / Twitter / Email

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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