Véronique LaCapra has gone to great lengths for her career, both literally and figuratively.
The UCSB Ph.D. alum traveled for days — catching three flights, hopping on a ferry and riding in a pickup — to reach the Galapagos Islands, where she followed two field scientists who captured birds and trapped mosquitoes for their research into avian malaria. She toured a "honeymoon resort" for slimy salamanders built at the St. Louis Zoo to help them breed. And she donned hospital scrubs to witness kidney-pancreas transplant surgery on a Type 1 diabetic.
Whether she’s in a field, a zoo or an operating room, Dr. LaCapra — a 1992 Towbes fellow recipient who earned her Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology from UCSB in 2000 — gets to tell compelling stories in her “never boring” career as a science, environment and health reporter for St. Louis Public Radio, a local NPR affiliate station.
It was the environment, not journalism, that first captivated LaCapra during her childhood years in Cambridge, Mass., and abroad.
“We spent many summers visiting my mother’s family in (Auxerre) France,” said LaCapra, who grew up bicultural and bilingual. “My mother loved being out in nature, and we spent a lot of time outdoors. I loved hiking, swimming and being around wildlife.”
An inquisitive LaCapra “brought my mom home tadpoles, caterpillars, earthworms — and eventually a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution,” she wrote in her Galapagos piece.
There were several factors that played into her decision to pursue that Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara.
LaCapra had earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental policy and biology from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1991 and knew she wanted to study ecology in graduate school.
“But I wasn’t sure how I wanted to specialize within that field, so I applied to quite a few different graduate schools,” LaCapra said. “I was interested in marine biology and aquatic ecology in general, and I hoped to do fieldwork overseas. As someone who had grown up in Boston and gone to undergrad at Cornell, I wanted to try living on the West Coast for a while, so most of the schools I applied to were in California, Oregon or Washington state.”
She chose UCSB, first and foremost, she said, because of its attractive financial package that included a Towbes fellowship, which is marking 25 years of assistance to graduate students here.
Another lure for LaCapra was the opportunity to do fieldwork in Brazil under Professor John Melack, one of two UCSB professors who invited her to work with them. And, of course, a third reason to leave Cornell for California, she said, was that “Santa Barbara is a beautiful place!”
LaCapra’s dissertation involved research into floodplain water chemistry in burned and unburned areas of the Pantanal wetland of Brazil. This research fed into her love of exploring different parts of the world.
When nearing the end of her graduate studies, LaCapra thought she might want to work for a big environmental organization such as the World Wildlife Fund or Conservation International.
But when offered a position as a pesticide regulator at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., she took it, figuring she might move from there to one of those big non-governmental organizations.
But she stayed a while, until she “eventually got burned out on the politics of working for a regulatory agency,” she said. “And I also realized I wanted to put my lifelong love of writing toward something more creative than government reports!”
She considered pursuing environmental writing.
“Almost by accident,” she said, “I ended up taking a writing for radio class taught by a former NPR host. I loved the class, and went from there to a couple of audio documentary production workshops at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. After those, I was hooked!”
Her supervisor at the EPA allowed her to spend four months working as a radio reporter at the Voice of America. There, she covered health and environmental research of interest to VOA’s developing-country audience. This led to her going part time at the EPA in order to keep freelancing at Voice of America, which in turn led to her landing the job she has now, as a radio science journalist in St. Louis. In addition to airing on St. Louis Public Radio, LaCapra's work regularly airs nationally on NPR.
What LaCapra enjoys most about the job she has held since February 2010 is the variety of assignments she undertakes: “I like that I get to cover a wide range of topics — everything from new science research, to health and environmental policy, to agriculture and biotechnology. Every day is different, and it’s never boring. I love the craft of radio — taking first-person interviews and weaving them together with ambient sound, music, or other elements, to create compelling stories.”
Her storytelling work has taken her all over the map to interview people from all walks of life — surgeons to sewer district supervisors. And she attributes her graduate education at UCSB for helping to prepare her for this role.
“Having a background in science has helped me earn the respect and trust of both the scientists I interview and of listeners,” she said. “I think I approach journalism like a scientist, in a way — I do my research and strive to be as accurate in my reporting as I possibly can be.”
For LaCapra, the rewards of the job come from feedback she receives from both her interview subjects and listeners: “I love when someone tells me: ‘You know, I didn’t think I’d be interested in that topic, but your story made me keep listening!’”
For more on LaCapra’s own interesting story, keep reading. The science journalist discusses what she enjoyed most about her graduate studies here at UCSB; shares the experience she had in her two field seasons of research in the Pantanal wetland in Brazil; offers advice on how to better prepare UCSB grad students for careers; among other topics.
Q: Please tell us about your UCSB dissertation and research.
A: The title was “The Biogeochemistry of Floodplain Waters in Burned and Unburned Areas of the Pantanal Wetland of Brazil.”
For my dissertation research, I spent two field seasons living in the small Brazilian town of Corumbá, on the border of Bolivia, in huge wetland called the Pantanal. It’s a seasonally flooded savanna, crisscrossed by several major rivers (the largest of which is the Paraguay River), all of which flood during the rainy season. It’s also an area that has a long history of free-range cattle ranching. At the start of the dry season, the ranchers burn large areas to get rid of the dry, dead vegetation left over from the previous flood season, and to get new grass to sprout for their cattle.
After particularly bad dry seasons, there are sometimes large fish kills. I was interested in trying to understand what might be causing those. To do that, I compared floodplain water chemistry in burned and unburned areas of the wetland. My research supported previous work carried out by students in Melack’s lab, suggesting that the fish kills are a natural phenomenon caused by the flooding of large areas of dry vegetation. When that vegetation breaks down, the process of decomposition consumes oxygen and produces carbon dioxide, asphyxiating the fish that can’t get to faster flowing, more oxygen-rich waters.
Q: What was graduate school like for you?
A: I loved my time living and working in the Pantanal. I also learned a lot from some of the older, more experienced students in Melack’s lab, several of whom were Brazilian themselves.
Since I was essentially fresh out of undergrad (I took only one year “off” to teach environmental education in between undergrad and grad school), it was great to have the benefit of their experience in figuring out how to conduct my own research. I also got really wonderful support from the Brazilian researchers I worked with in the Pantanal. I am still in touch with several of the friends I had when I lived there, and I have been back to Brazil several times to visit since then.
Q: Is there anything you didn’t know about graduate school then that you wish you had known before you began?
A: Well, when I was in grad school at UCSB, the EEMB program was very unstructured (I believe it has changed a lot since then). There were really no required classes, or even deadlines for completing written or oral exams. Although I enjoy working independently, back then I would have had an easier time with a more structured program, and with more guidance from my advisor (and other professors) along the way.
Q: What were your career goals while you were a grad student at UCSB?
A: I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do after graduate school for most of the time I was at UCSB. I knew I loved being out in nature, doing the fieldwork. And I also loved living in Brazil, learning and adapting to a new culture and language. In my last year or two, back in Santa Barbara, I realized I probably didn’t want to become a professor. But at the time, there was really no guidance available for Ph.D. students (at least in ecology) who wanted to pursue a career outside of academia.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for universities on how to better prepare grad students for careers?
A: That’s a tough question. I think (hope?) most graduate schools are doing a better job of recognizing that many Ph.D. students will not become professors, and of providing more guidance about alternative careers. Just this past week, I spoke with graduate students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis about my career trajectory — that graduate seminar was all about exposing students to alternative science careers — in industry, government, non-profits, etc.
I also think financial counseling for students is critical, in this age of ever-increasing educational costs.
Q: What strengths do you think a grad student would bring to an employer?
A: I think graduate school gives students strong analytical skills, and the ability to work and think independently.
Q: Who has been and/or is a hero, mentor, role model, or inspiration to you?
A: My parents ... several wonderful high school teachers ... and so many people that I’ve had the opportunity to meet as a science reporter, who are passionate about their work and beliefs. At UCSB, Dr. Oliver Chadwick, without whose support (both moral and financial) I might not have completed my doctorate.
In public radio, there are so many! But (public radio journalist) Alex Chadwick; (former NPR field producer, host, and reporter) Katie Davis; John Biewen of the Center for Documentary Studies; (NPR multimedia engineer and journalist) Flawn Williams; and (NPR science editor) Alison Richards, just to name a few!
Q: What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?
A: I hope that’s still to come!
Q: What’s on your bucket list of things to do that you haven’t done?
A: I want to travel as much as I can and see as much of the world as I can.
Q: What is something that very few people know about you or that would surprise people to learn about you?
A: People who know me know this, but it might be a surprise to the people I’ve interviewed — I’m very much of an introvert. So it takes a lot of “gearing up” for me to approach people I don’t know, and get them to talk to me on tape!
Q: You do a lot of traveling for your job. What do you do for fun and/or relaxation when not working?
A: Yup, traveling! As much as I can. And I also love to sing. I’ve been in choral groups for most of my life — although sadly, not since becoming a full-time reporter — the schedule is just too unpredictable.
Q: What did receiving fellowship assistance mean to you?
A: It meant a lot. The financial package I was offered was one of the main factors that made me choose UCSB over the other graduate programs I was accepted into. Thanks to the fellowship, and subsequent research and teaching assistant positions, I was able to get my graduate degree without incurring any debt at all — which has given me an enormous amount of freedom in choosing what career to pursue after graduate school.
Here are links to some of LaCapra's work:
» Two Young Women Scientists From UMSL Forge Their Futures in the Galapagos
» Investigation: Missouri's Execution Drug Source Raises Legal, Ethical Questions
» "Shake-and-Bake" Meth Causes Uptick in Burn Victims
» Ancient Suburb Near St. Louis Could Be Lost Forever
» Trumpeter Swans Flock in Record Numbers to St. Louis-Area Bird Sanctuary
You can see and hear more of LaCapra’s work at stlpublicradio.org.