True Life with Dr. Bernhardt

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It seems Dr. Bernhardt was destined to be a scientist. Growing up next to a retired biology teacher gave Dr. Bernhardt the opportunity to go next door and ask questions. She frequently went on camping trips with her family and played in the streams behind her home. She grew up with a deep love for the outdoors and was pleased to discover in high school that you could make a living studying it!

In her college application essay, Miss Bernhardt wrote that she wanted to be a wetlands ecologist. Dr. Bernhardt now mostly focuses on streams. Except for a brief moment of doubt after an enormous(ly boring) introductory science class, Dr. Bernhardt has continued down that path outlined in her admissions essay. (How many people can say that?)

To become a Primary Investigator (PI) is a long and difficult process. Dr. Bernhardt said you have to really want it. You have to endure project failures and rejected proposals and experiments going awry. But for her, the benefits dwarf the negatives. She loves being able to ask questions that matter and to spend her time answering them. As an ecosystem scientist, it’s nearly impossible to study a complex environmental problem by herself. She enjoys interacting with people who know a whole lot more about one aspect than she does. Collaboration is not only enjoyable for her but it also provides a more holistic understanding of the environments she is studying. However, her favorite part of the job is mentoring students. She seemed honored that brilliant people wanted to spend years of their life working with her. Dr. Bernhardt described it as a truly mutually beneficial environment – she is able to learn so much through her students.

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Dr. Bernhardt remarked that most science classes are basically science history lessons. The science she loves is not focused on memorizing facts and regurgitating them for exams. As for any college student who is facing an introductory science course and slowly losing interest in the field, Dr. Bernhardt says it gets better. Real science is about making observations, asking questions, finding answers, and then starting all over again. Which is what she gets to do for a living. 

In our brief interview, I was struck by how passionate Dr. Bernhardt is about her work. It seems that truly enjoys what she does, and it is a sentiment shared by her lab members. I look forward to getting to know the rest of the Bernhardt Lab a little better!

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