Richelle Tanner

A study of a marsh ecosystem grows into a consideration of what science can be

By embracing complexity and nuance, Chapman University’s Richelle Tanner is searching for a more inclusive and effective approach to biology
Boyce Upholt

The idea started as a joke.

Richelle Tanner, who leads the Socio-Ecological Adaptation and Climate Resilience Lab at Chapman University, works with her students to keep up a TikTok account, showcasing their life as researchers. Out of curiosity, Tanner examined the videos’ reach. The results were humbling. 

“I calculated our impact on TikTok alone is like 100 times or more than the impact of all the scientific literature that I’ve published this year,” Tanner says. “We get like 500,000 hits a year.” So, tongue in cheek, she asked her dean if she could include the TikTok in her tenure portfolio. To her surprise, he said yes. 

Perhaps she should not be surprised. Tanner’s PhD suggests she is a biologist, but her work is just as much about how science and society connect — and how the culture of university science might grow to include new ways of thinking.

Rethinking an “Invader” 

Over the past several decades, the common reed, or Phragmites australis, has often been portrayed as a villain besieging California’s marshes. It grows in such dense stands and to such great heights that other species are denied sunlight. Since Phragmites is salt tolerant, the reed quickly establishes a monoculture at restoration sites where weirs and levees are removed to allow tides to return to once-separate marshes. Native species don’t stand a chance.

Tanner, though, has found that Phragmites is not pure evil. In 2020, with the support of a Delta Science Fellowship, she embarked on a study in Suisun Marsh, North America’s largest brackish marsh, which sits just northeast of Oakland. She found that while invertebrate abundance is slightly lower amid Phragmites stands than amid native vegetation, the reed still supports a diverse population, offering food for species further up the food chain. As the climate changes, Phragmites will also provide refuge from extreme heat. So this seeming weed can contribute essential ecological functions.

Given that it’s extraordinarily expensive to remove Phragmites, Tanner thinks that trying to eradicate this reed would be a fool’s errand. Better to break apart large monocultural stands, allowing native plants space to return. We’ve changed this marsh too much to go entirely back to the way things used to be; we have to rethink what’s considered a weed.

This rethinking of old orthodoxies is one key theme of Tanner’s work. But her reports from the marsh include a lot more than just data on Phragmites.  

Richelle Tanner and Susie Landa at work in Suisan Marsh. Courtesy of Richelle Tanner.
Richelle Tanner and Susie Landa at work in Suisan Marsh. Courtesy of Richelle Tanner.


Creating inclusivity in science

Tanner always knew she wanted to be a scientist — and that she wanted the science she studied to matter. At the University of Southern California, she majored in environmental studies rather than biology so that she could be trained in policy alongside scientific theory. For graduate school, though, she figured she had to narrow her focus. Her PhD dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, focused on how climate change will impact the eelgrass sea hare, a sea slug that lives along the Pacific Coast.

To continue her focus on policy and public outreach, Tanner joined the board of the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, which develops research-backed strategies for talking about climate change in formal and informal settings. Tanner also taught science to secondary students and developed curricula that helped young students improve their environmental literacy. It was enough work to feel like a separate job. Eventually, she began to wonder if she might be able to twine the interests together. It was her research in Suisun Marsh that confirmed the combination could work.

One small epiphany came as she began to recruit undergraduate research assistants. Tanner’s policy is to accept anyone who shows an interest. “I don’t look at their grades,” she said. “I don’t look at their resume. I don’t really care, as long as they show up.” As it happened, the students wound up representing a diverse range of identities, with five of the six identifying as belonging to a minoritized group through gender, race or sexual identity.

“As I was recruiting all these undergrads, I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be great to understand what they’re getting out of this and how we can structure this experience to be beneficial for their sense of belonging in science?’” Tanner says. The resulting study — which included not just her research assistants, but students from other universities along the Pacific coast — revealed that research experience, whether virtual or hands-on, helped students think of themselves as scientists. But hands-on experience in the laboratory, like processing samples from the marsh, helped students feel more satisfied with science as a discipline. 

Tanner also launched a survey that examined what messaging worked best for local stakeholders. Values like “protection” and “responsible management” and “stewardship” seemed to consistently resonate. A focus on “expert knowledge,” whether drawn from Indigenous people or scientists fared less well.

Tanner believed her main task — the task she’d been hired for — was analyzing the effects of Phragmites. But when she attended meetings held by the agencies that oversee the marsh to present her findings, she found people were as interested, if not more interested, in these “communications things” she was doing. That helped her realize that her vision of studying science and society at once had a future. 

Searching for what works

While working in the laboratory, photographing invertebrates from the field staples, Tanner told one of her students that she was doing graduate level work — that she was herself up for a career like Tanner’s. The student, Susie Landa, asked, wonderingly, if this was something she could do forever.

“It’s a job,” Tanner replied. “It’s my job.”

Yes, in other words.

As she began to interview for faculty jobs, Tanner presented her idea of an institution like the SEACR Lab, which combines fundamental biology with social research. Chapman University was the one university that said yes. So, halfway through the Delta Science Fellowship, Tanner packed her bags and moved south from Davis to Orange County. Landa came, too: she’s now the SEACR Lab’s technician and plans to work for a governmental agency one day.

Tanner sometimes encounters simplistic viewpoints about the marsh: that hunters must be bad for its wildlife, or that farmers are stealing all of the water. “But then when you go out there and you meet some of these people, they’re just trying to make their own livelihood,” Tanner says. “It’s a lot harder to see the political sides in black and white when you’ve met people from all these different perspectives.” 

Seeing all those perspectives is essential to her work. “It’s a hallmark of the Phragmites project — we’re looking for this common solution,” she says, “and I don’t really care whether it aligns with our historic management practices. I’m just looking for what works for most people. And the same can be said for my lab, I guess: I’m looking for what works for most people.”

One of Tanner’s concerns has become how to retain women and people of color within the sciences. It’s clear that people from all backgrounds are interested in becoming scientists; she notes that there are plenty of students of color matriculating into graduate schools, and plenty of women, too. But many leave the field before becoming assistant professors. 

One of her central aims is to change the culture of research so that people stay. One answer, perhaps, is to change our notions of who a scientist is and what kind of work they do. A cheeky TikTok showing that science is appealing can become as important as a prestigious publication.


About California Sea Grant

NOAA’s California Sea Grant College Program funds marine research, education and outreach throughout California. Headquartered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, California Sea Grant is one of 34 Sea Grant programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.