Sustainable Urban Landscapes A Florida Scientist’s Determination to Improve Community Soil and Water Quality

Science, Family, and Curveballs

Women scientists often hold many roles in life that may include: daughter, sister, wife, mother, researcher, teacher, and more. One role that is often overlooked is that of elder caregiver.

When Dr. Mary Lusk began her faculty position at the University of Florida (UF) in 2015, she remembers the stress of not only starting her new career, but also traveling home to North Carolina to move her elderly parents to Florida to care for them.

“Life gives you curveballs.” Lusk said, “Some of those curveballs will just be annoyances, but some of them will downright overwhelm you, bring you to your knees, and just whack you upside the head.”

Lusk is an assistant professor with research and extension appointments in the Soil and Water Sciences Department (SWSD) working at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, Florida.

Her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, a disorder that can cause problems with thinking and loss of memory. Lusk recalled the mental, emotional, and physical stress of moving her parents, as well as caring for her mother 24/7 for two years, while also working full-time and parenting her sons. “I was in a dark place, lost my mind, and I still pay the emotional price,” said Lusk.

“My mom was completely out of her mind. She had no understanding of what was taking place. She could not feed herself. She could not go to the bathroom by herself. She could not dress herself. Didn’t know who she was. She didn’t know what her name was, where she lived, or how to be safe,” Lusk explained.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor estimated that in 2017-2018 at least 40 million people in the country provided eldercare to individuals who were 65 years or older and suffered from various conditions due to aging. The bureau also determined 58% of eldercare givers were women who spent approximately three hours each day providing unpaid care services.

Lusk with her husband and sons.

“The Baby Boomer generation is aging right now. The statistics are that there's going to be an additional 9 million cases of a need for caregiving in our country in the next few decades. And I think about millions of people like my mother – that is heartbreaking to me,” Lusk said.

Lusk’s father also recently passed away in December 2020. She has fond childhood memories of her father encouraging her to be curious about the outdoors and the natural world around her.

Lusk hopes that her experience will shed light on the demands of caregiving for both men and women in STEM careers and start more open and honest conversations about the impacts and toll caregiving roles can take on scientists.

Striving to Improve Urban Landscapes, Water Quality, and Trust in Science

Lusk is a water and soil scientist and UF/IFAS Extension specialist who researches urban landscapes and water quality in the Tampa Bay area. It’s the kind of work that takes her out on neighborhood streets with a set of small test tubes on a rainy day.

“I’m always getting people stopping their cars to ask if I need help, or what am I doing,” she said. Her answer is simple – “I’m just collecting the storm water.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019, Florida’s population was estimated at 21.5 million people. The Demographic Estimating Conference of Florida approximated the state’s population will climb to 22.9 million by 2025. The demographers calculated that approximately 743 new residents will join Florida each day from 2019-2025.

Florida’s land use is a delicate balance of residential, business, agricultural, and protected environmental spaces. Along with more people, comes more development and use of available land. Urbanization occurs when concentrated populations of people in cities move into and develop rural areas with homes and businesses. According to a report from Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS), University of Florida Geoplan Center, and 1000 Friends of Florida, the current 18% of developed land in Florida will increase to almost 34% developed land by the year 2070, if no action is taken to adjust growth, land use, and environmental protection patterns.

“As development continues, there's just so much more impervious surfaces such as sidewalks, streets, and asphalt parking lots,” described Lusk.

Lusk and fellow soil and water scientists examine how water flows throughout urban environments from places like forests, lawns and golf courses to ponds, creeks, springs, and ultimately, the ocean.

She examines what nutrient pollutants, such as nitrogen, show up in urban water run-off. All living things need nitrogen, but when there is too much of it in the environment, it can be detrimental to water quality and potentially lead to harmful algal growth in the oceans.

Scientists have found that human activity has greatly impacted the amount of nutrient pollutants found in the environment. Nitrogen can enter urban landscapes and ultimately water ecosystems from a variety of points such as fertilizer application, the atmosphere, pet waste, organic debris such as grass clippings, reclaimed water for irrigation, and compost.

In a recent study, Lusk and her colleagues monitored ten residential lawns for run-off. They found that while homeowners intended to follow environmentally-friendly practices, such as not using fertilizer, it was pet waste left in a lawn that contributed to local water pollution. There are many competing interests, usages, and overall human decision-making about land development, agriculture, and homeowners’ lawncare practices that can impact water quality.

As part of her role in UF/IFAS Extension, Lusk often speaks to community stakeholders and recommends they work together to critically evaluate urban ecosystems and identify ways to reduce water contaminants.

“We try to address the fact that there are multiple, multiple pieces of the pie. We all have something to contribute to that pie chart of sources. We, as a land grant institution, have an obligation to serve all of our clientele, and that includes agriculture, that includes the urban turf grass, that includes the water quality and the natural resources, and we do the best we can to make recommendations that will be optimal for everybody,” said Lusk.

Some potential methods to improve urban water quality include increasing street sweeping services, efficient fertilizer use, removing pet waste, and checking on the flow of storm water ponds, among others.

Lusk also studies whether or not storm water ponds in residential and commercial areas are functioning correctly to remove pollution. Storm water ponds are often created in residential and commercial areas to give urban water a place to collect and prevent flooding after storms. “In some cases, the ponds may do pretty good at preventing flooding but may make matters worse in terms of nutrients,” she said. Lusk and fellow researchers have found that nitrogen from lawn fertilizer, grass clippings, and the atmosphere that travels to the ponds does not always break down before moving to larger water bodies. Urban communities can monitor urban run-off in the ponds and make decisions and recommendations for best management practices of fertilizers and other practices of minimizing pollution.

As part of Lusk’s extension appointment, she speaks with stakeholder and homeowner groups and aims to ultimately adjust fertilizer practices to improve water quality. She encourages her students to keep up with hot button environmental issues and be prepared to share their research with a variety of audiences. She tells her graduate students, “You have to have confidence in it. Believe in the research you've done. This is what the data shows you, and you've gotten it through publication and peer review, and have faith in it.” Lusk also hopes public audiences will remember to listen to all sides of environmental issues and trust scientists and their research.

Scientist Portrayals and Women’s Voices

Over the past two decades, the number of women and underrepresented minorities working in science and engineering jobs has steadily increased. However, according to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators, women accounted for only 29% of science and engineering employment in 2017.

Research has shown girls often lose interest in STEM during their middle school years, due to perceptions that science is boring, hard, and boys are better at science than girls. Portrayals in educational materials, television, movies, and other media often depict scientists as white males, working in laboratories, with wild hair, mixing test tubes, and conducting dangerous experiments.

Years of giving children the Draw-A-Scientist Test have shown that oftentimes, when youth are asked to draw a picture of a scientist, they will draw a stereotypical male scientist in a white lab coat and lab setting. Women scientists such as Lusk working in outdoor settings buck traditional scientist stereotypes.

Several programs and efforts are underway all over the world to encourage the underrepresented groups to pursue science and related careers, including the International Day for Women and Girls in STEM typically held on February 11 of each year. Lusk humbly and nervously shared her story in a presentation to university students and colleagues last February 2020, as part of UF events in recognition of the day.

As women scientists continue to work to share their voices and stories, Lusk shared that she is a deep thinker who sometimes needs time and space to feel confident sharing her thoughts in professional settings.

“I think there are some cultural tendencies for men to be very, very vocal and very assertive and maybe not so much for women. For right or wrong. It’s important for men to be aware of this and encourage women to speak up and offer their voice and for women to be aware of this, too, and speak up and offer your voice,” she explained. Fortunately, Lusk cannot recall a time in her career when she felt male colleagues did not listen to her, but as she has advanced in her work, she feels more comfortable entering challenging conversations.

You Do You

Lusk wrapped up her seminar on the International Day for Women and Girls in STEM in 2020 with a key reminder:

“Do what is right for you, and nobody knows what that is, but you,” Lusk said.

She gave some additional advice that women in STEM should make their own decisions about balancing family and career goals, set boundaries about work tasks and home life, say no to projects that are outside of the scope of work and required job duties, be prepared to someday have additional caretaking responsibilities for other generations, and have a network of mentors, mentees, and family as a support system to get through the tough times and celebrate successes.

Lusk said, “I really believe in the power that all people have, women and men, to do good in our own lives, our families, our communities, and our nation.”

While Lusk humbly does not believe her story is anything special or out of the ordinary, she is certainly an inspiration and example of an amazing Florida woman striving in STEM.

Photo essay written and created by:

Dr. Jamie Loizzo, University of Florida, Department of Agricultural Education and Communication

Photos within the story provided by:

  • Dr. Mary Lusk
  • UF/IFAS Photo Database and photographer Tyler Jones

For more photo essays, visit: www.streamingscience.com

For more information about Dr. Mary Lusk: https://soils.ifas.ufl.edu/people/faculty/mary-lusk/

Created By
Jamie Loizzo


Dr. Mary Lusk UF/IFAS Tyler Jones