MJ Farruggia

Just add water--the desert, water, and the making of a scientist

When I first meet Mary Jade Farruggia–MJ, as she prefers to be called–she takes me to the “blue room” on the first floor of Derring Hall, a space where graduate students and professors from different labs meet to discuss their respective research projects. Here, she and other students–collectively called the “Stream Team”–help each other develop their ideas and ensure that their work is relevant outside of the lab. “We’re able to figure out where the big ideas are in water science, basically,” MJ tells me.

MJ, a first year Ph.D. student in biological sciences in Dr. Meryl Mims’ lab, and an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow, takes the notion of relevance seriously in thinking about her own research, which revolves around the effects that human-made water systems have on the diversity and survival of amphibians and insects in the Arizona deserts. 

The native species that she observes now inhabit these human-made water systems as a result of massive changes in land use, which has led to the gradual but persistent disappearance of natural water systems. While her work is necessary to better understand how these native species will survive as global climate change progresses, MJ also believes that her work is relevant for humanity en masse to understand “the big picture of how we as humans are going to continue to live sustainably on the earth.”

When listening to MJ discuss her research, and witnessing the bright smile that continues to grow as she discusses her work, it is plain to see that studying these organisms in Arizona must be as fun and exciting as it is relevant. This work keeps MJ stationed in two places throughout the year: Virginia during the school year and Arizona in the summer. 

While here in Virginia, MJ is in the lab conducting data analysis. For her, this is mapping, or analyzing satellite imagery of desert landscapes to detect changes in water availability over a span of 33 years. MJ uses special algorithms to detect a particular signature that water reflects off the surface of the earth to figure out historically when these ponds have held water over time, if these amounts are changing, and how global climate change may further affect these amounts.  

mountain range
Huachuca Mountains, Arizona. Photo courtesy of MJ Farruggia.

While in Arizona, MJ is busy camping out in the desert, actually observing amphibians and collecting her data. Working in the Arizona deserts from June to August every year is convenient, for this timeframe coincides with the school calendar as well as with the monsoon rain seasons in Arizona–the only time when there is actually water in the desert and “all those species come alive and start breeding,” she says. There, MJ makes the most of her three months by spending most days and nights collecting as many samples of select amphibians and insects as possible.

“It’s a lot of super hard work, but it’s different than computer work,” MJ said.  “Here [in Virginia] it’s very intellectually difficult, and in the field it’s very physically difficult.”

Despite these intellectual and physical challenges, MJ cherishes the time she gets to spend out in the field collecting data. 

“It’s hard to be inside when the whole point is to study the outdoors,” she tells me, “but keeping the bigger picture in mind is always important.” 

Though the time she spends in each locale might seem disproportionate, MJ makes the point that while collecting data is vital to the process of doing research, “more important is having a good context for your research: reading about your species, and doing maps to better understand how these species have lived in the past and how they might change in the future.”

One species in particular that MJ studies is Spea multiplicata, or the Mexican spadefoot toad. Just like the seemingly barren desert that comes alive with breeding animals and blooming plants during the monsoon rain seasons, so too does MJ come alive with excitement and passion when discussing this organism. After enthusiastically describing the toad’s ability to use spade-like formations on its feet to dig and stay underground until it rains–which it can detect through vibrations on the soil above–MJ feels compelled to ask, “Can I keep going?” She then launches into a description of how this organism, when a tadpole, can physically change its fish mouth into the shape of a beak (the better to eat its siblings and metamorphose faster).

frog in a hand (is worth two in the bush ;)
Spea multiplicata, or the Mexican Spadefoot toad. Photo courtesy of MJ Farruggia.

This seemingly otherworldly organism is common enough to MJ, who has always been interested in amphibians and reptiles. MJ has also always had a certain affinity for water. From swimming as a child to rowing on her high school crew team to studying tidepools as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, MJ says that “just being on the water is when I’ve always been happiest.”  

After earning her bachelor’s degree in ecology, behavior, and evolution, and with water serving as a guiding principle, MJ gained experience working in fisheries and researching frogs in freshwater systems before applying to graduate school. She soon noticed that “one of the central themes in ecology that I kept addressing over and over again in different aquatic systems was ‘how do these species interact with each other? How does that relate to what the water is doing?’” 

In her search for a program that would best support her own research interests, MJ eventually found her home at Virginia Tech–specifically in Dr. Mims’ lab. Here, MJ has the freedom to design her own research project, on the condition that it fits into the general interests of the lab, which concern the ecology and conservation of freshwater systems and the organisms living in them.  

As a first year professor, Dr. Mims has flexibility in terms of funding, which allows MJ and her fellow students to contribute their ideas in terms of individual research projects, the direction and theme of the lab, and how the lab culture is going to be built. Working under Dr. Mims’ guidance has been refreshing for MJ, as Dr. Mims encourages not only the freedom to pursue individual interests but the freedom to express one’s self as well. 

“She is a lot more open to discussing how I am feeling about something, rather than only ideas,” MJ tells me.  

This discussion of feelings and ideas is of particular interest to MJ, who believes that scientists as a whole could do better to communicate the feelings and ideas they have regarding their own work to the wider, general public. She says that within the field of science, “we get so focused communicating with each other, we forget that the importance of our work is to advance science not only as a field but as a society.” 

When I ask her about the ways in which she communicates her own science, she says that she is still figuring out which medium best suits her, having tried Twitter and a blog. She is interested in the prospect of one day writing science books for children, or even writing a field guide for tourists visiting her area of study. Either way, for MJ, it all comes back to the notion of relevance: “The end goal for me is contributing to a greater understanding of our natural world and how we fit into that.”  

lady bending down beside water
MJ with a dip net looking for tadpoles of the Mexican spadefoot toad. Photo courtesy of MJ Farruggia.

Article written by Hayley Oliver in ​ENGL 4824​: Science Writing in Spring 2018 ​as part of a collaborative project between Fralin, the Department of English, the Center for Communicating Science, and Technology-enhanced Learning and Online ​Strategies (TLOS). Learn more.