Sandra Fly: Following Her Passion from Plants to Public Service
Meet Sandra, a police officer and naturalist, pursuing her passion for the environment and justice. She reflects on her journey into science, offers advice to young scientists and shares how she's learned that faith and science don't have to be in conflict.
Sandra is a police officer and naturalist. She just completed her Masters from Lipscomb University in Biomolecular Science and hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in the near future.
What sparked your initial interest in science, and when did you know you wanted to become a scientist?
I have always been fascinated by the natural world and wanted to know more about the things around me. I spent many years teaching myself how to identify birds, plants, and insects. In fact, the first book I saved money for and purchased when I was 10 years old was the field guide, Birds of Prey.
I remember when I was a child, when people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always say that I wanted to be a bird. In retrospect, I think this desire was mostly attributed to the fact that I grew up in foster care. I found myself wanting to escape some of the trauma I experienced.
My initial interest in birds and fascination with nature later evolved into a love for botany. My favorite habitat to explore for wildflowers are the limestone cedar glades scattered around the Central Basin region of Tennessee. I fell in love with this habitat while in high school. While hiking in the woods near my childhood home, I found myself surrounded by cedar trees, tall grasses, and a rocky substrate. This ecosystem was surrounded by hickories, tulip poplars, and hidden amongst the larger trees that make up the typical eastern deciduous forest. When I was young, I did not know the name for this type of ecosystem, but I knew that being in a glade was where I felt the happiest.
Did you have any role-models in science growing up?
My mom and I used to watch nature shows every Sunday. The host or narrator at that time was George Page. I wanted to be like him and go out on expeditions, exploring and talking about all these different things in the natural world. He was my first role model.
Another one for me was Roger Tory Peterson. He is the author of many bird field guides. I had a huge collection of his field guides and can remember spending hours and hours reading them and trying to use them to identify birds.
What are your current research interests?
My interests have been very broad over the years, so it’s been hard for me to try and narrow in on one particular area. I initially went to college wanting to study birds. I wanted to travel and become an ornithologist. But I ended up having my daughter while I was an undergrad, and I saw that a lot of field work positions were seasonal and would require me to travel. That was not something that I was able to do as a parent, so I had to shift what I wanted to do.
Recently, I started to become interested in plant biology. I have conducted research for the American Chestnut Foundation which was published in the foundation’s journal. I have also been offered a volunteer position with Tennessee State Parks to assist with monitoring rare plants in one of the protected cedar glade areas because of my knowledge of the plants. It is my hope to eventually pursue a Ph.D. and do work in plant genetics for conservation reasons.
Sandra working in a lab.
In addition to being a scientist, you are also a police officer. How did you get into law enforcement?
When I was in eighth grade I participated in Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.). It was a program for youth that were in high risk areas for gang violence. For some reason my interest was immediately piqued, and I always kept this experience in the back of my mind. Thankfully, I never had any negative interactions with the police as well.
At one point, I found myself working for a Fortune 500 company as a protein scientist, but I didn’t feel that what I was doing was having an impact on anyone but the company itself. I realized that it was very important for me that my work was connected to something that I found meaningful. So I decided to give law enforcement a shot.
When I joined the police academy, I was one of only three other women and one of six persons of color. It was very demanding, but I graduated and managed to complete my Masters while working as a full time police officer. I absolutely love what I do.
Representation matters…I just want to pave the way for others, especially young people. They need to see different people in positions that they want in order to open up the possibilities for them.
What have you learned from working in both law enforcement and science?
Representation matters. When I was young, I never considered a career in law enforcement until I saw someone who looked like me working as a police officer. My G.R.E.A.T. instructor in middle school was an African American, and he was one of the kindest persons I had met. But other than him, I really didn’t have any role models. I don’t remember seeing a lot of female officers, definitely not Black female officers.
Even in the sciences, I was the only Black female in one of the graduate programs I was in. I just want to pave the way for others, especially young people. They need to see different people in positions that they want in order to open up the possibilities for them.
What advice would you give to fellow students who are just beginning their own journey into science? Anything you’ve learned along the way of your own journey that you think might be particularly helpful to share?
I strongly believe that people should follow their passions. Sometimes, other responsibilities may cause you to have to take an alternate or extended route to get to where you want to go, but as I have learned, do not let these things discourage you from obtaining your goals. People that have had to take different, non-traditional paths, can bring new insight and ideas to their field or profession because they offer unique perspectives from their experiences.
Also, if you are able to, try and take time to build connections with others who have similar interests and goals. I wish when I was younger that I was more proactive about networking and building these types of connections.
What role did faith have in your journey to science? Did you ever feel that there was tension or conflict?
I used to think that there was an inherent conflict between faith and science. Most of this stemmed from my experience growing up in a church setting that shut down my questions and used them against me. I was made to feel as though I wasn’t Godly enough because I had all these questions that I wanted answers to. I finally got to the point where I stopped trying to ask questions any more, and stopped believing in Christianity.
I recently attended a Christian school for my Master’s degree, and it was surprisingly refreshing. I admit that I was initially concerned that some of the science would be muddled down because it was a Christian institution, but it was rigorous and turned out to be one of the most positive experiences in an academic setting I’ve ever had. It was a very eye opening experience for me.
I used to think that there was an inherent conflict between faith and science…I’m starting to realize that this doesn’t have to be the case.
I definitely went in with this preconceived notion that you’re either a scientist or person of faith, but not both. I’m starting to realize that this doesn’t have to be the case.
You had a beautiful spiritual encounter in nature that has redeemed some of your negative experiences growing up in church. Can you share that with us?
When I was about 12 years old or so, I would always explore the woods around my home. I didn’t know at the time that my backyard was a cedar glade. As I was walking one day, I came upon an opening with a huge rock covered in moss, surrounded by a circle of red cedars, and it was so beautiful! I had never seen anything like that, and I still haven’t to this day.
When I stepped inside of this circle, feelings of warmth and positive emotions started flooding over me, and I felt as though I had lost track of time. That’s probably the best that I can do to explain this encounter, because it’s really hard to verbalize.
But that’s been one of the only reasons why I have not completely shut my back on religion. I had a real experience outside of myself that I don’t have an explanation for, and that’s why I’m open to the idea of something greater than myself.
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