Talk NERRdy to Me: Dr. Sylvia Yang

Oct 20, 2022

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-on-the-loose Nik Charov chatted with Dr. Sylvia Yang, research coordinator at the Padilla Bay Reserve. They talked about the complexities of science, why estuaries are more cheese than crab, and what mysteries await NERRds traveling to the Annual Meeting in Seattle, October 23-27.

Nik: Welcome to Talk NERRdy, Dr. Sylvia Yang! I’m sorry this is your seventh Zoom today, we’ll try and make it painless. I think the last time we saw each other in person was November 2019 at the Charleston Annual Meeting where you and I were stuck on a bus in the rain coming back from North Inlet-Winyah Bay. Now 300 NERRds are coming your way in October to do it all again. Are you ready for us?

Sylvia: I’m looking forward to seeing everyone in three dimensions. 

Nik: I’m done with ‘the boxes’ too. What do you have planned for us? How much fun are we going to have?

Sylvia: A lot of fun, of course! But I don’t know how much I should reveal, Nik.

Nik: Keep us wanting to come. How far is Seattle from Padilla Bay?

Sylvia: About two hours, depending on traffic.

Nik: Is there ever traffic in Seattle? (sarcastically)

Sylvia: Oh, never! (even more sarcastically)

Nik: We haven’t been out to the West Coast for an annual meeting in a long time. It seems like every day I read that you’re either on fire or you’re boiling. What’s going on out there? Are you ok?

Sylvia: There’s a lot going on in the news but maybe it’s just to hide the fact that the West Coast is the best coast.

Nik: It rhymes, so it must be true. Are you on fire over there at all? The big news was the heat dome.

Sylvia: That was last year; this summer there were heat advisory days for several weeks. We do have a little bit of smoke on some days from forest fires. [Editor’s note: This piece talks about drought, heat waves, and wildfires, but if you’re wondering what to pack for the Annual Meeting, it’s going to be rainy and cold. Folks who want to participate in the outdoor parts of the PBNERR tour should bring rain gear and warm layers to experience the Pineapple Express!]

Nik: We’re all System Wide Monitoring connoisseurs. How are things changing in your estuary?

Sylvia: There are a lot of things that are happening and it varies from year to year. I don’t know if there’s a consistent trend. Maybe nature is getting more variable—it’s definitely time to synthesize our SWMP data!

Nik: It’s been the summer of extreme rain events and heat waves around the world. Are you seeing any climate or species change in the Pacific Northwest? 

Sylvia: That also seems to vary. 

Nik: Argh! Just say “yes,” damn it. I always want science to have instant answers and clear connections. You’re a teacher. Do your students, unlike me, understand that science isn’t really like that?

Sylvia: One of my favorite things is when students experience that the scientific process is complex and nonlinear.

Nik: But it should be 1+1=2 all the time! Why is it so complicated?

Sylvia: That’s a really good question that we don’t ask. We’re just trying to figure out how it is. 

Nik: How complicated is it, really?

Sylvia: I think of science in the estuary like Swiss cheese. 

Nik: Huh?

Sylvia: It’s Swiss because our knowledge about it has holes in it. Science is taking one step at a time to figure out what kind of cheese it is, how big it is, how it’s shaped, and how it works. 

Nik: If it were Swiss, the holes would have to remain. Maybe you’re looking for a cheese without holes?

Sylvia: So maybe the hypothesis is that the cheese isn’t actually Swiss.

Nik: Does your, um, cheese have green crabs in it?

Sylvia: This year it does. Maybe there will be some impromptu green crab trapping at the Annual Meeting this year.

Nik: The Northeast reserves will be all over it. We love green crabs. We can’t get enough of them.

Sylvia: What do you all do with your green crabs?

Nik: We smash them. 

Sylvia: And turn them into whiskey? 

Nik: Funny you should ask. You can bid on a bottle of Crab Trapper whiskey from Tamworth Distillery at the NERRA auction this year. It’s crabalicious … I’m a little behind on my West Coast green crabs. Did you NOT have them before?

Sylvia: Padilla Bay was one of the earliest places they were found in this area. Our education coordinator was turning over rocks with an education group and picked up a green crab. It inspired prospecting and the development of some monitoring sites around the Bay.

Nik: These are the same species as the ones that have been on the East Coast for a couple hundred years? Probably came over in ballast on your side too?

Sylvia: I think they got established down south first and the currents brought the larvae north.

Nik: Are they after your eelgrass? 

Sylvia: I don’t know, but that’s why it’s important to keep doing our seagrass monitoring to see if there are changes. 

Nik: On the East Coast, we thought the crabs were hanging out in the eelgrass beds and snipping the grass. Have you seen that?

Sylvia: We don’t have the numbers of green crabs in Padilla Bay.

Nik: We can send you some!

Sylvia: Thank you for the offer but don’t bring any to the Annual Meeting. 

Nik: We even have a cookbook. We’ve made crab risotto and soft shell fried crabs.

Sylvia: Are they good?

Nik: They’re green crabs. They’re disgusting. Once you sex and measure 14,000 of them, you never want to see one again. Don’t you get snow crabs out there?

Sylvia: We have Dungeness.

Nik: Mmmm … I should probably eat lunch before I do these interviews. OK, before we go any further: why is it Padilla (pah-DILL-ah) Bay but San Juan (wahn) Island? Are you speaking Spanish up there only on odd days?

Sylvia: We used to have a whole web page on how to pronounce Padilla (Pah-dee-ya) Bay.

Nik: So it IS Pah-dee-ya? 

Sylvia: Sure. And you can ask if it’s pah-dill-ah, and we’ll say sure. You might ask if it’s pah-dee-jah? and we’ll say sure. Spanish explorers in 1791 named the bay but didn’t settle here. The first European settlers were English-speaking, and pronounced the name Pa-dill-a. The part of Spain where they came from pronounced the double L’s with a J sound not a Y sound so maybe it should be pah-dee-jah. But then nobody would know where that was. 

Nik: There was definitely some Spanish exploration up there. How far back does Padilla Bay history go?

Sylvia: The area was originally settled by Nu-wha-ha and Coast Salish speaking peoples, who are still in the area today, and then the area was dyked by European settlers in the late 1800s. A lot of the uplands changed from wetlands into farmlands. In the 1900’s, there were plans to develop Padilla Bay. 

Nik: Isn’t there a refinery right across the bay?

Sylvia: That actually came to fruition, but there were a number of folks in the area who worked to conserve a lot of the area. We became a Reserve in the 1980s … don’t ask me exactly when. I started working here right before the pandemic, so the annual meeting in South Carolina was my first. I’m looking forward to seeing everybody again. 

Nik: You’re still teaching too, right? How are the kids doing? What are they thinking about?

Sylvia: They’re all interested in science, but they really want it to inform action and policy. They don’t want to just understand how an organism works, but why we care. We’ve been bringing in high school and college students. After the pandemic, students are particularly inspired by being at a Reserve. It makes what they’ve been learning feel real. Many of them are interested in science and policy. Getting to do hands-on research and learn about a place is really impactful for them. 

Nik: We are where science meets place. 

Sylvia: Yes! Our issues today are so big that no one entity can do it by themselves. The Reserve is where these people come together. It’s an exciting place to work and a great team of people to work with. I feel really lucky. 

Nik: Where did you grow up, and how did you get into this?

Sylvia: I grew up outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Maybe I wanted to move away as far as I could without moving to Alaska or Hawai’i, although those sound good too.

Nik: Not even coastal or anything!

Sylvia: I actually just learned how to swim last year.

Nik: Probably a good field season survival skill. 

Sylvia: I’d been doing mostly intertidal work so being able to SCUBA dive, see things at high tide, and do subtidal work will be great.

Nik: But how did you become interested in coasts?

Sylvia: I would have never guessed that I would go into ecology, even. I did like science but I thought of it as a hobby, not a career. As a little kid, I wanted to be a tree climber. I loved nature. I’m pretty sure I went on a field trip to Sapelo Island in middle school, though. The only things I remember are losing my shoes in the mud … and seeing a sawtooth palmetto! I got so excited and couldn’t articulate why.

I ended up getting into biology in college but still never saw it as a career. I was always taking things apart and trying to understand them, but I worked at my parent’s laundry and dry cleaning business—I never had a chance to see what biology looked like as a job. In college, one of my professors suggested doing a research project, and he mentored me. I realized that science was cool, but just like my mentor saw potential in me, I wanted to do that for others. Then I went to graduate school because my mentor suggested it. 

Nik: I like this guy already. What was the research project?

Sylvia: I researched Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) and its fidelity to its mycorrhizal fungi species. I’ve always loved organisms that people don’t pay attention to. 

Nik: That’s soooo estuaries! And young girls working in laundromats, for that matter!

Sylvia: I ended up going to graduate school for biomechanics because I still didn’t have any marine experience. I took a class called “Marine Botany” that talked about seagrasses. It was this mystery world. I had no idea what tides were.

Nik: You really were coming in fresh to coastal science!

Sylvia: This entire world opened up to me and it kept going from there. I switched into a lab with Jennifer Ruesink, who was studying seagrass. She had a project in Puget Sound and asked me to work on it. I developed a relationship with the then research coordinator at Padilla Bay when I asked for land access permission for our Puget Sound wide survey. That was my first interaction with the Reserve.

Nik: Why is seagrass important?

Sylvia: It’s an important habitat for a lot of organisms. In estuaries where saltwater meets fresh, seagrass serves as an important linkage between the human environment and the rest of the ecology. [Editor’s note: Great Lakes colleagues, save your emails—we know estuaries are also places where rivers meet the Great Lakes. And that all submerged aquatic vegetation is important, not just seagrasses.]

Nik: Will we get to see seagrasses at the Annual Meeting? 

Sylvia: After the equinox, our low tides happen at night. We would still love it if people wanted to go out for a night-time low tide. We wish we could control the tides …

Nik: We’re pretty dependent on them here, too. I was just trying to sneakily find out more about the trip. My guess is that you guys haven’t completely planned it out yet. 

Sylvia: The bus tour will have a few stops to showcase the land and seascapes. If we can get it arranged, we’ll learn about Indigenous science and traditional knowledge. At the Reserve, we’ll have stations where folks can learn about the different sectors and projects we’re working on. There will also be a tour of the Reserve. We’re looking forward to it!

Nik: I’ve been promised that [former Padilla Bay manager and water buffalo impersonator] Terry Stevens is going to be wheeled on stage so we can all hit him like a piñata and see what comes out. Last question: what should we be sure to see in your region, and what should we stay away from?

Sylvia: Maybe I’m too cheerful but I don’t think there’s anything to avoid!

Nik: Starbucks?

Sylvia: If you’re a coffee drinker, go to Starbucks.

Nik: Isn’t there better coffee than Starbucks?!

Sylvia: I can’t tell you because I’m not a coffee drinker. But when I moved from the East Coast I asked about historical things to do and people told me to go see the first Starbucks. It was established in the 1970s. I was like, “This isn’t old.”

Nik: That’s as old as I am and I’m not historic. OK then, the first Starbucks it is. See you at the Annual Meeting, Sylvia. Fill in the holes in the cheese and we’ll have a meal!

Sylvia: It will be a great meal.

NERRA is proud to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Coastal Zone Management Act—the legislation that led to the creation of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Want more Reserve stories delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter.

ReservesPadilla Bay, WashingtonTalk NERRdy to Me: Dr. Sylvia Yang