Rachel Villani backpacking in an area with relatively short vegetation and steep ravines. Photo provided by Rachel Villani
Rachel Villani backpacking in an area with relatively short vegetation and steep ravines. Photo provided by Rachel Villani

Rachel is a coastal wetlands ecologist with the Coastwide Reference Monitoring System (CRMS) Project studying wetland restoration in Louisiana for the last 9 years. She graduated from LSU with a MS in Wildlife Ecology, is a triathlete and beginning ultra runner, and when she’s not in the field she can be found with her dog going on adventures.

1 Are you an early bird or night owl?

Early bird

2 Are you pro- or anti-pun?

Anti-pun

3 Do you have any pets?

Yes!! My lab/Dane mix Nova, who I usually call Nova The Space Dog. She’s the best friend a woman can have.

4 Do you have any science-themed home decor?

I have some wildlife prints / paintings, and since I have degrees in wildlife ecology that counts as science-themed! I have a great egret my grandmother painted, a swallow-tailed kite my good friend painted for me, and a few Audubon prints as well.

5 Do you prefer cooking or baking?

Cooking

6 Do you prefer sweet or savory?

Sweet

7 Do you speak any other languages?

No

8 If you could switch professions, what would you do?

A writer, probably, though I guess I could do that concurrently with being a scientist. I love the history of a place and people, so some kind of history related profession, final answer.

9 If you could switch science fields, what field would you want to work in?

Probably geology. It’s just so cool!!

10 If you got a plane ticket right now, where would it go?

To New Zealand! I went in 2015 but unlucky weather caused us to miss out on a few key things. I want to go back to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, drink more NZ beers, hike as much as possible in all of NZ’s wonderful parks, have some more lemon bitters, and explore the South Island a bit more than I did last time. New Zealand is such a wonderful place!

11 If you had one superpower, what would it be?

Teleportation. It would greatly reduce commutes, time spent in traffic, and travel time for field work, I could be home every night, and I could spend as much time with my dog as possible!

12 Is there anything you strongly recommend we watch and/or read and/or listen to?

I have been reading quite a few books lately and a few of my recent favorites are The Gulf by Jack E Davis (history/nonfiction), End of the Earth by Peter Matthiessen (travel/nonfiction), and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman (fiction).
Music I’m currently addicted to include The Revivalists, Turnpike Troubadours, and Sturgill Simpson!

13 It’s your day off. What do you want to do?

My main priority on off days is some kind of physical activity + adventures with my dog! If it’s a comfortable weather day (85F or less), Nova and I will go for a run, play some fetch in the yard to wear ourselves out, followed by sofa snuggles while reading a book or watching baseball. If it’s a miserable weather day (85F+) which is most of the time, we play fetch in the yard and then hide from the heat the rest of the day like a hermit crab! I’m always training for whatever my next race is, so I often do some kind of training on my off days, but it depends on temperature and what race is next.

14 What are three things you can’t live without?

1) Sleepy dog snuggles. 2) Sunglasses. Seriously. 3) Books. As many books as possible.

15 What beverage gives you life?

A nice cuppa English breakfast tea with a dash of milk

16 What book did you read in school that positively shaped you?

I read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson my senior year of high school, because it was the only book I knew of that was considered a must-read for a biologist. So I read it and it really opened my eyes to the whole complexity of the world and the problems we face as environmental scientists and humans. It motivated me then to do my best to make change for the better and not give up, and I re-read it every few years to remind myself of that.

17 What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to do something biology related, because biology was the only word I knew of for “works with animals and does science and knows stuff about the environment”. But later I learned that really that meant a biologist/ecologist/environmental scientist, so that’s what I ended up doing! I guess I always knew except didn’t always know the name for it.

18 What drives you and keeps you going?

The idea of becoming “stuck” – in a way of life, place, career, whatever – terrifies me and motivates me to be constantly growing, learning, evolving, and trying new things. I want to be interesting, to live a broad experiential life, and to always grow as a person. So I do everything my power to not be “stuck”.

19 What got you excited in science?

I remember hiding in the shrubs at our house and spying on the birds. I thought they were so pretty and wanted to know all about them. I’m 34 now and I still feel that way. Birds are like the gateway into ecology – they’re ubiquitous, handsome, and interesting – and they definitely got me interested!

20 What excites you about science now?

I still love the process of asking a question, then systematically figuring out the answer. But on top of that, we have such cool technology at our disposal to do some really great work with. There’s high resolution satellite imagery more readily available, advanced field sensors, and things like drone usages do all kinds of work that we would have only dreamed of years ago! There’s lots of great ways to achieve great science in easier ways, which makes the answers to our big questions feel a bit more attainable every year.

21 What is a guilty pleasure of yours?

Frozen yogurt, it’s just so darn good

22 What is a secret talent of yours?

I’m particularly stubborn, but really just stubborn with myself and how I operate my life. I set these high goals for myself and stubbornly chug along until I meet them without letting myself quit. That’s why I like endurance events (like ultra running & long triathlons) – it allows me to push myself and just myself along to see just how far I can really keep pushing myself. It’s secret because it doesn’t really impact anyone else! There might be a better word for this than “stubborn” but I’m not sure what it is.

23 What is your favorite game?

Catan or Dominion

24 What is the last book you read?

The Gulf by Jack E Davis. I finished it last night. It’s one of my favorite books in recent years and about the Gulf Coast, with many sections about Louisiana.

25 What is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve received?

After high school, many of my close friends were scattered around the country. My uncle told me to have fun and travel while they were in different places. It made travel cheaper and easier, and of course I’d get to spend time with my friends. Since then my friends are nearly nomadic and I make a point to go visit them or travel with them as much as possible! I’m glad he told me that, because traveling around the world has really blown apart the little south Louisiana bubble I had previously lived in, and there’s so many cool experiences to be had out in the world.

26 What is something you’ve always wanted to try but you’ve been too scared to do?

Sky diving. I want to try it, or at least I want to want to try it, but the idea of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane seems insane. It also seems exhilarating! But insane. So we’ll see I guess!

27 What is the best advice for your 18 year old self?

I really don’t wish I had done anything differently (so far anyway) so I’d like to tell myself to trust myself and make sure I travel and to stay in touch with the people I care about the most.

28 What is the best way to de-stress?

I take my dog for a walk, and we mull all my stress causing problems while she sniffs all the shrubs and stares down all the squirrels. After 2-3 miles we’re feeling much better!

29 What is the last thing you watched?

An episode of Scrubs. It’s nice to watch a silly sitcom after a long field day and to decompress and just enjoy the ridiculousness.

30 What is the weirdest thing you’ve had in your bag?

I don’t think I have anything weird in my bag this week. Except field weird and regular weird might not be the same thing. Right now I have a mostly empty jar of expired applesauce in my bag because it expired, but I can recycle the jar at home but not at the hotel, so I’ve been carting it around until I can get home to recycle it. It’s a little weird to have a mostly empty jar of applesauce floating around, but there’s a reason!

31 What is your favorite animal?

Swallow-tailed kite! I love it so much I have a tattoo of it. When a summer field day has gone sideways, I can often find a swallow-tailed kite showing up at the worst moment to say hi and wish me good luck (or so it seems) and everything goes better from then on! They’re just so graceful and beautiful and strong, and I love the way they soar.

32 What is your favorite book?

I don’t know if I can pick just one! How about a top 5, High Fidelity style?
1) Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
2) Dune, Frank Hebert
3) Beartown, Fredrik Backman
4) Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
5) The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

33 What is your favorite comfort food?

I’m not really a foodie or anything, but when I am having a tough time or I’m stressed and want to treat myself, I usually opt for sushi from my favorite local restaurant.

34 What is your favorite day of the year?

The first day around fall when it’s actually comfortable outside at 3pm and the wind feels crisp and the sky is clear and blue. It’s the point when summer starts to feel like it’s finally over!

35 What is your favorite plant?

I’m pretty partial to Spartina alterniflora

36 What is your favorite science fact?

There are birds that fly thousands of miles for spring and fall migration to crazy far flung places. Red Knots nest way up in the Arctic, and then migrate south to winter at the bottom of South America. It’s one of the longest bird migrations we know of!

37 What is your favorite season?

Fall

38 What is your favorite smell?

Lemongrass incense

39 What is your favorite sound?

My dog Nova’s tail thumping happily against anything when I say her name and tell her how cute she is

40 What is your favorite thing about yourself?

I’m pretty good at recognizing my own weaknesses and working to be better, and I like that I’m aware of myself enough now to see and recognize that.

41 What is your favorite word (in any language)?

Hygge – It’s a Danish word that means the comfortable cozy safeness of something. Like when you’re sitting at home with candles lit and it’s cozy. Or spending time with friends with a cuppa and some string lighting. I also enjoy “lagom” – a Swedish word that means something is just enough or adequate. I don’t use either in daily life but I love the ideas these words reflect and that I try to have in my everyday life.

42 What is your proudest moment?

Graduating college! I was so excited to finally make it and be done with school! But then I turned around and jumped right back in for grad school

43 What kind of tree would you be?

A baldcypress – tall, strong, and can weather any storm.

44 What’s the best thing about where you live?

I don’t love the city I live in but I love my big backyard for shade, hammock time, and playing fetch with my dog. Baton Rouge is okay – there’s decent food and good people, so that’s pretty nice.

45 Tell us something we probably don’t know.

I almost always have at least one travel adventure planned or in planning so that I always have something to look forward to! It’s a little crazy, but I love to be out and about – travel doesn’t always mean a big international trip. It could be a camping weekend, a reunion with friends, a concert somewhere different, anything really. I like to have things to look forward to so I always have some kind of adventure coming up!

46 Who would you like to see 46 Questions interview next?

I don’t know if she’d be interested but maybe my friend Dr Kelsey McCune, she studies grackle behaviors. Twitter: @kbrenmc