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Humans of the U: Katya Podkovyroff Lewis

Growing up as a military kid, my family moved a lot and friendships seldom lasted. My French mother—a teacher and musician—encouraged reading and creativity while my American father —a soldier working in field artillery—encouraged tinkering and what he called “real world skills.” My curiosity was often left free to roam, and led me to have plenty of imaginary friends and daydreams that would occupy my time. As I grew older, this imagination mainly translated to creative writing.

Moving to the United States felt like a culture shock even as an American citizen, and high school was an even harder adjustment. When my senior year rolled around, I felt like a first-generation student in many ways with a father who had never been to college and a mother who wasn’t familiar with the American college system. Thanks to military educational benefits, I was able to attend American University in Washington, DC – my dream school and “reach school” due to my family’s financial situation. I took on double major in journalism and international studies, with a concentration in environmental sustainability and global health, intending to focus my career on science writing or science communication.

After graduation, I began a communications internship in January 2020 writing stories about climate change and ended up writing articles on COVID-19, specifically regarding resources for journalists and the toll of reporting on the pandemic. The pandemic changed a lot of people’s plans, including mine—when I was laid off from my restaurant job in March of 2020 and had the impending end of my internship that June, I scrambled for journalistic freelancing opportunities. But I wasn’t content with just writing about topics I was so interested in—I realized that I wanted to do the work. I decided to go back to college for a second bachelors in biology with a minor in Earth science at the University of Utah, where my passions have since flourished.

Photo of a woman at the Great Salt Lake wearing a graduation hat and thing around shoulders and white dress.

Katya Podkovyroff Lewis

My first semester I began working with Dr. Diego Fernandez in the Earth Core-ICP-MS laboratory where I learned how to process strontium isotope analysis on bone, enamel, ivory and plant material samples. I got my first taste of lab work and fell in love. The humming sound in the clean labs became my new comfort and I would find every excuse to come in on the weekends to work on projects. Learning the stories behind the samples was my favorite part, as the journalist in me asked questions about the fossils from a body found at the bottom of a lake, the ivory confiscated at the border for illegal poaching or the enamel of fossilized teeth from Africa. The simple actions of pulling my hair back and putting on my lab coat made me feel like a professional scientist, a feeling I have been obsessed with ever since.

During the summer of 2022, I joined my first field research experience with the Dr. William Anderegg’s lab and realized that I could get paid to camp in the forest and do science at the same time. Doing field work in Uncompahgre National Forest in Colorado and Uinta National Forest in Utah, I learned to take collections of tree cores and leaf samples, some of which had to be cleaned and photographed in real time. My favorite memories from the summer have been from our field work adventures; navigating how to get to our remote field sites without cell reception, figuring out ways to get past fallen trees in the middle of the forest without a trail, and remembering to laugh when trying to pitch a tent in the pouring rain. It gave me the same feeling of exuberance as when I was a kid exploring my new neighborhoods; the horse stables behind our apartment in Germany, the apple orchards down the road from my grandmother’s house in Greece, the patch of forest at the end of our cul-de-sac in Tennessee. Exploring the outdoors and daydreaming of how everything was connected was what fueled my childhood. Learning that I could do the same thing as a job was euphoric.

I’m often asked if I plan to incorporate my journalism degree into my future career path and my answer to this is that I’ve been doing it ever since I started. I believe part of being a scientist is sharing and disseminating information; however, more work needs to be done to highlight the importance of cross-institutional and country communication and collaboration. I have been lucky enough to have mentors that not only value diversity and inclusion, but also prioritize these sentiments in day-to-day lab work, as well as mental health. As someone in the LGBTQ community, a woman in STEM and someone who faces both mental and physical disabilities, I have strived to hear and amplify the voices of others who may not have the opportunity to speak up previously. I hope to enact transformative change and break the norms of underrepresentation in the scientific community.

My next steps are to attend University of Oregon as an NSF graduate research fellow, earning my PhD in biology at the Institute of Ecology and Evolution. I hope to expand not only on my research capabilities but also my outreach work and science communication, as well as teach. Becoming a professor would allow me to teach students to think like scientists while emphasizing that it is an inclusive space for everyone. I intend to use my scientific career to support the next generation of scientists while incorporating ways to provide fulfilling research opportunities to students who may be at a financial disadvantage or historically underrepresented in STEM careers. Ultimately, I wish to provide students with a chance to explore the natural world, believe in their abilities, and build strong connections between science and their communities.

—Katya Podkovyroff Lewis, ’23, B.S. biology, emphasis in ecology, evolution and environment, minor in Earth science