Women in Science: Connecting with the Future
Aleshia Kenney built in LEGO. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS.
Fish and Wildlife Biologist
Rock Island Ecological Services Field Office
How long have you been working with the Service?
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I have known that I wanted to be a biologist since I was 8 years old. I grew up with the Mississippi River literally in my backyard. My dad is a commercial fisherman on the river. He sets nets to catch mostly carp, buffalo, catfish and drum to sell to fish markets around the state.
I would often go out with him and just observe everything that the river had to offer - the sounds, the smells, and the sights! I would scoop up a bucket of water, and was fascinated by all of the tiny living things moving around in it. I loved watching the eagles soar behind the boat as we were pulling in net loads of fish, and I loved seeing all the different kinds of fish that the river hid beneath its shiny surface. I remember asking my dad why certain kinds of fish were only found in certain places on the river.
One day he had a couple of state fisheries biologists in his boat taking scale samples from some of the fish he caught. My dad asked me to pose that question to them. Their faces lit up and one of them said you should be a biologist! From that moment I was completely hooked, and knew what I wanted to be when I grew up!
What does a typical work day look like for you?
My typical work day is spent working with private landowners to develop habitat restoration plans for their property. I meet with them on the site that they want to restore back to natural habitat. We talk about what type of project would best benefit our trust species, while also meeting their vision. The projects that I design are mostly wetlands, but also include prairie plantings and tree plantings. My specialty is designing oxbow wetland restorations which serve as nursery habitat for young fish, specifically the federally endangered Topeka shiner.
What is your favorite part about your job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
The best part about working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is that I actually feel like I am making a difference in the world around me. My favorite part of my job is when I get to go out and sample the oxbow wetlands that I built to see what fish have moved into them. There is no way to describe the sheer excitement that happens when I find a Topeka shiner living in one of those oxbows, and then even more excitement when I discover that it has reproduced in there! I feel like I have made a positive impact on that species. Hopefully, someday all of the oxbows that I helped build will provide enough habitat to allow for that fish to be removed from the endangered species list.
What is the coolest plant or animal that you protect, conserve, restore or educate about?
The Topeka shiner is a federally endangered fish in the minnow family that is found in some prairie streams in Iowa. Part of the reason it is endangered is loss of habitat. It is a fish that prefers slow moving pools found within meandering streams. When Iowa was covered in prairie those streams were very prevalent. Now with Iowa being agriculture-based, a lot of those streams have been straightened and those slow moving pools are no longer present. I work with private landowners to re-create the pool-like habitats that Topeka shiners prefer. The oxbow wetland restorations that I build are old meander scars that I dig out and reconnect with the floodplain. Topeka shiners and lots of other types of fish are able to enter the restored oxbow during a flood where they remain until the next flood event allows them to leave. While in the oxbow they reproduce and their young are able to grow. When the next flood comes those young fish either repopulate the stream or enter another oxbow where the cycle continues.
What advice would you give a young girl who dreams of working in a science field?
You can do anything that you set your mind to. If you want something bad enough, and are willing to work for it, you can most definitely achieve it. Also, it is okay for girls to like fish, wildlife, snakes, bugs, and to get dirty! We can pull a seine, walk up a creek bank, carry buckets of fish, get splashed with mud, and smile all the while because we love what we do!
This article is part of our Women in Science: Connecting with the Future series, inspired by LEGO’s recent “Research Institute” set featuring female scientists at work. Our goal is to connect future female scientists with real employees who make up our diverse science-based agency, inspiring them to follow their dreams.
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