When National Geographic backs your research, you know you’ve made it!
And Dana Bunnell-Young should know…
Dana is an environmental scientist (more on that in a minute) living and working along the Chesapeake Bay – an outdoor wonderland for fishing, swimming, kayaking, boating, bird-watching, and research.
Dana is on a mission to investigate the cause of dead zones (areas with no oxygen) in bodies of water. She even earned a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant to help fund her research!
Learn more about environmental science, how it impacts travel, and Dana’s work along the Chesapeake Bay in this eco-friendly interview…
Interview with Dana Bunnell-Young
What is environmental science and can you tell us about your work?
Environmental science is a broad term to describe any studies involving the environment (air, land, or water).
My primary interests are: the cause of dead zones (areas with no oxygen) in bodies of water such as the Chesapeake Bay and the production and release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
I approach environmental questions as a biogeochemist, meaning that I mostly use chemistry to understand the biology (mostly of microbes) and geology (what minerals are available).
When did you first discover your passion for environmental science?
I was pretty young. I grew up in southern Delaware and was surrounded by the Nanticoke River, the Delaware Bay, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. I would often kayak on the river and feel so at peace amidst the osprey, turtles, and even gar fish.
In college, I learned more about environmental science and realized that it was the only field that was a true fit for me. I could devote my time to studying, protecting, and educating others on the world that I love.
How did you earn the National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee?
One of the unfortunate truths about any scientific research is that it often requires funding.
My first year in graduate school, I had been advised by a fellow student to apply to many research grants to fund my thesis research. Soon after, I came across the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant online. I was very fortunate that I made it through the pre-proposal and proposal stages and was awarded a grant to help fund my field work in the Chesapeake Bay area.
What projects are you working on now?
The dead zone in the Chesapeake is due to there being too many nutrients (particularly nitrogen) in the water.
One project that I am working on is to evaluate the practices that farmers use to reduce how much nutrients are lost from their fields after they fertilize. Currently, the recommended practices are not well studied on a large scale and farmers are not always confident that the practices that they spend money to implement are working. This goal of this project is to identify which practices farmers should focus on since they are the most cost and ecologically effective.
Another project that I am working on involves investigating the fate of methane (a greenhouse gas) after it has been created by microbes in wet soils. I am interested in one microbial process to converts methane into the less strong greenhouse gas of CO2 while converting dissolved nitrogen into nitrogen gas that is then released harmlessly to the atmosphere. This natural process is essentially ‘killing 2 birds with 1 stone,’ but we know very little about it. I hope to understand it better so that in the future this could be used to remove methane and dissolved nitrogen from water and soils.
How has your work on environmental science changed you?
Environmental science has changed my awareness. I think of my world differently now that I know what impact my actions have. I also find that I am more outspoken. I have several family members that like to ‘argue’ with me over climate change.
How can women travel more environmentally friendly?
Its the little things that really add up.
- Bring reusable water bottles instead of buying new water bottles.
- Use mass transit, such as a bus versus a taxi.
- Consider your food choices. Eating local cuisine is a great way to learn about the culture and is good for the environment. If you go to Florida and eat a Maine lobster, there is an added environmental cost of transporting that lobster across the country.
Where do you live along the Chesapeake Bay?
I live in a small town on the Eastern Shore called Cambridge. This area is known for its farmers, watermen (oysters in winter, Maryland blue crabs in summer), and world-class sunsets.
Its a great place to live with amazing natural areas, such as the Choptank River and Blackwater Wildlife Refuge.
Can you tell us a little about the Bay?
The Chesapeake is a large estuary that receives water from New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, DC, West Virginia, and Virginia.
The Chesapeake is famous for its blue crabs, oysters, and rock fish (striped bass). The Bay is a part of the culture for the people that live around it.
It is a major attraction for recreation such as fishing, swimming, kayaking, boating, etc. Like many large bodies of water, the Chesapeake is suffering from pollution problems. There is a large reoccurring dead zone (area with no oxygen) in the Bay that is caused by there being too many nutrients.
Some of the fish populations are also suffering due to poor water quality and over-harvesting.
What’s the best time to visit Chesapeake Bay?
In my opinion, every season on the Chesapeake is special. We enjoy a pretty moderate climate.
In the winter, we get some snow, but we rarely get horrible blizzards. Although it is cold, there are few tourists around in the winter so it is quiet and the bird populations are different than in the warm months. For hunters, we have a lot of areas with good hunting as well.
Spring and Fall are probably my favorite times of year since the temperatures are usually nice (60s to 80s). The spring is when the Ospreys come back to the Shore (usually around St. Patty’s day). In the fall, we get some color change on our trees (not as dramatic and pretty was western Maryland or Pennsylvania), and there are always good fall festivals.
What the best way to explore the Chesapeake Bay?
By boat! My favorite is by kayak or canoe. Its quiet and you can get close to Eagles, Osprey, turtles, otters, and many others.
Where is the best place to stay along the Chesapeake Bay?
I would recommend some of the small towns along the Eastern Shore, such as St. Michael’s or Oxford. These are tiny towns on the water that have a lot of charm and have active boating (especially sailing) communities.
For people that would like a little more of a city-feel, Annapolis is a great town that is on the Bay and has a lot of attractions.
How is human behavior changing the Chesapeake Bay?
Anything that we apply to land will eventually flow into the Bay (through groundwater or runoff).
Currently, the big concerns are with applying fertilizers, septic systems, and sewage treatment. The nutrients that enter the water from these practices cause algal blooms that can eventually lead to drops in oxygen levels (dead zones).
Harvesting fish and shellfish in an unsustainable way also changes the Bay. A good example is that when John Smith first arrived at the Bay, he wrote about there being enough giant Atlantic sturgeons that someone could practically walk across the bay on their backs. These fish, though, are prized for their eggs (caviar) and they were nearly fished to extinction in the bay in the early 1900s.
Today, the sturgeon are protected but they are a long lived fish (up to 60 years old and take 10 to 12 years to reach maturity) so their recovery may take a long time.
What’s something unexpected you can share about yourself?
In college I was a ‘caver.’
I have explored many different caves from Pennsylvania to Virginia, including one that we had to repel 100 feet into. Another memorable cave I explored was called Aqua Cave (I believe it is in WV). Like the name suggests, this cave has an underwater stream running through it. The first time I went into Aqua Cave, we had to completely submerge ourselves to get into the opening of the cave and onto the ‘beach’ inside. This was probably not the smartest move since there was snow on the ground at the time. We did return the next year in warmer weather so that we could actually explore and enjoy the cave.
Any other thoughts or advice for our women readers?
Keep exploring the world! Please just remember that in order to enjoy the world around us, we have to take care of it.
What did you think about this interview?
Join the discussion and leave your comments, tips, and personal experiences in the comments below.
Dana Bunnell-Young was born and raised in Seaford, Delaware. She attended Mount St. Mary’s University, where she got a B.S. in environmental science. After graduating from the Mount, Dana started her graduate work at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, Maryland. She is now a PhD candidate working on a thesis investigating nitrogen and methane in agricultural groundwater. Dana has spent a lot of time exploring the local rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. You can learn more about Dana at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, National Geographic, and Facebook.