As assistant professor in the Department of Biology, Anne Wright spends her days helping to disseminate scientific knowledge to the community at large. “A problem in this country is science not being accepted and digested by the general public,” she said. “The scientific community has got to do a better job of engaging the public and spreading the word about their research.”
Wright, who has a B.F.A. in sculpture from VCU, had been thinking about returning to school to pursue science, so she signed up for an ecology course with celebrated VCU professor Charles Blem, Ph.D. “When I looked through a microscope and saw stream insects,” she said, “I was hooked.” She went on to earn an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s in stream ecology at VCU while working part time as a self-described “lab rat.”
Today, Wright employs a range of efforts to try and hook the general public on science, from conducting training sessions in the field for Virginia Master Naturalists and giving VCU graduate students the chance to present their research at local high schools to offering sturgeon workshops for area teachers and putting on all-night events using black lights to attract insects and calling in owls at the VCU Rice Rivers Center.
Since 2011, one of her more visible initiatives along these lines has been the Science in the Park website, an online collection of videos, lesson plans and activities, narrated walking tours, and guides to the park’s geology, its flora and its fauna, all designed to expose the public to the riches contained within the 600-acre James River Park System. Wright has several “game cameras” set up to gather stills and videos of animals in the park, from river otters and wild turkeys to beavers and coyotes.
Wright’s outreach isn’t just limited to the general public. Another project she’s involved in, the Vernal Pool Cooperative of Virginia, aims to identify and set up monitoring of these temporary aquatic habitats on the commonwealth’s public lands and share the information with resource managers in state and federal parks, as well as the Virginia Department of Forestry. This will allow the pools to be factored into land-management decisions. Fittingly, this effort follows in the footsteps of work done by Blem, the now-retired professor who hooked Wright on science. In the 1980s, he and his wife, Leanne, identified more than 200 vernal pool sites in Virginia as they looked for species like spotted salamanders, marbled salamanders, spotted turtles and certain frogs. “We got a grant to digitize the data, revisit the sites and see if they were still there or not,” Wright said. “It took us two, three years, but that’s what got it all started.”
The ongoing project’s data has drawn interest from some resource managers, who tell Wright that they’re now looking for vernal pools when assessing the land under their care, and at least one broader group, the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, which is interested in climate change and its effect on amphibians. “These really are critical habitats,” Wright said. “The land around them is critical, too, and they are beginning to see that these pools are much more connected to our regular stream systems and hydrology than we had thought.”