Meet Brooke Penaluna
Brooke Penaluna is a research fisheries biologist at the USDA Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station. Growing up in the Midwest, Brooke loved to swim and did so competitively from age six through college. At the height of her high school swimming career, she was both an All-American swimmer as well as a member of the National Honor Society. In time what began as swimming like a fish evolved into an aspiration to study fish. Her early curiosity about aquatic environments ultimately catalyzed a desire to build a career focusing on the linkages between water, land, and people.
What do you like to do for fun on your free time?
I enjoy reading books, kayaking, bikram yoga, or walking on trails with our chocolate lab. My daughters and I are currently reading the entire series of Harry Potter. I also am easily tempted by a good binge on Netflix.
What do you do in the Forest Service and when did you start working here?
I’m a research fisheries biologist in the Research and Development branch of the Forest Service. I’ve been in my current position over five years. Wow, has it been five years already?! I study fishand the habitats they occupy to better understand those relationships and their importance to aquatic ecosystems. Professionally, I hope to offer inspired intellectual leadership that crosses political and language as well as science boundaries. I’d like to generate new knowledge that meets critical management needs and helps shape future solutions.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I love that I’m able to build a career around being outside near fresh water. When I’m in or near water, it makes me happy. I like to hear the sound of water, in particular when it babbles as it flows. It’s a blib blib smooth pitter patter sound.
How have your education, background, or personal experiences prepared you for the work that you do now?
Although it may appear as though everything was obvious and clear, looking back there were changes in directions, missteps, rejections, and paths that didn’t have clear outcomes or connections to where I am now. Maybe it is those perceived failures that helped me realize that I have to define who I am more by my character and interpersonal relationships, and less by my career.
Describe a recent, current, or upcoming project that you’re currently working on.
With partners and collaborators, we are taking water samples from streams throughout the Pacific Northwest to identify what aquatic species have been there. We use environmental DNA, or eDNA, which is DNA from the feces, urine, or skin cells left behind in the environment. We target multiple aquatic taxa, including fish, amphibians, mollusks, crayfish, macroinvertebrates, and pathogens from one water sample. It is cutting-edge research, and I’m excited to be discovering better approaches to sample species in aquatic ecosystems.
Why do you think your field is important?
Fisheries and aquatic sciences are important for ecological, social, economic, and cultural values. Think of salmon in the Pacific Northwest; the connection they have not only to their native ecosystems but also to people is profound and complex. Also, the aquatic ecosystems that fish depend upon can represent both wild and urban places on landscapes that provide us with drinking water, food, recreation areas, and areas for solitude. Aquatic ecosystems are also among the most biologically diverse ecosystems, supporting up to one-third of all vertebrates on the planet.
What are some of the greatest challenges confronting your field?
I think that the greatest challenge facing fisheries is the lack of diversity and inclusion. Progress has been slow toward changing the face of the fisheries workforce at large so that it more closely reflects all those who use and depend on fisheries resources. A recent study shows that only 26 percent of federal fisheries scientist/manager positions and less than 30 percent of tenure-track professor positions are currently occupied by women.
In addition, nonwhite fisheries scientist/managers and tenure-track professors occupy less than 12 percent of positions in federal agencies and universities. Ultimately, the benefits of increasing the diversity in fisheries depends on each of us taking action to include more women and underrepresented groups and to provide an inclusive environment for everyone.