Veronica Frans: Seeking Answers Around the World
Veronica's research has taken her all over the world learning about species and how humans impact ecosystems. She shares how her faith impacts her work, and how we can all be more environmentally aware.
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Veronica Frans is a PhD candidate in both Fisheries & Wildlife and Ecology, Evolution & Behavior. Her studies focus on human influence on species’ distributions. For her research, she has lived, studied and worked around the world, focusing on marine environments, community engagement, and conservation.
What sparked your passion for nature, and when did you know you wanted to be a scientist?
My first inspiration came from watching TV. I grew up in Spanish Harlem, New York City, and even though Central Park was nearby, we didn’t go there much. But every time I watched nature shows, time felt slower, colors seemed brighter, and life seemed more exciting than in the big city. It was a world I wished I could see in person. My imagination revolved around nature, and I borrowed every book I could from school that had pictures of animals in it. I desired something I had yet to experience myself, but it felt so right and I didn’t want to let it go.
I’m really blessed that my family picked up on my interests and nourished them. My uncle would watch documentaries with me and comment along the way, and I don’t even know how many of New York City’s museums I’ve been to, thanks to my mom. When I was old enough, my mom also put me into science outreach programs. I got to leave the city and see nature with my own eyes. I must have been 12 or 13 when I met scientists for the first time. I learned so much about plants, ecology, and how to quietly sit and observe nature. My couple of summers with them made my dreams so real. I started to believe it was possible for a city girl like me to become a scientist, too.
Did you experience any science and faith conflict growing up?
Yes I did, actually. My dream to become a scientist was challenged when my high school youth group started talking about “creation vs. evolution.” As a high schooler, I didn’t have a strong enough foundation in biology or Christianity to even know what questions to ask or what to believe, and my biggest conflict about science and faith was not about the technical details, but what it would mean for me: how could God give me a calling in something that supposedly wasn’t true to His word?
By the time I graduated high school, I hadn’t settled on any view, because this supposed contradiction with my passion for science was still hard to grasp. Nevertheless, my resolve while growing up was this: it’s okay to be conflicted, but we need to keep seeking (Luke 11:9-10). When we’re conflicted in life’s circumstances, don’t we constantly seek understanding in them, too? Jesus said, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The more you listen, the more understanding you will be given—and you will receive even more” (Mark 4:24). I found comfort in those promising words, so I kept seeking and went to college to find answers.
Being environmental stewards is not just something local anymore—it’s global, and that’s very exciting!
What was it like studying biology at a Christian college?
I got my bachelor’s at Messiah College (now Messiah University). I went to Messiah already feeling conflicted, but I found that other students felt the same way, too. We were students from all kinds of denominations and cultural backgrounds, yet on the first day of biology class, we all knew the “elephant in the room.” To our relief, our professor brought up the creation/evolution conflict that same day. However, he didn’t tell us his take on it. Instead, he assigned a classic biology textbook and Richard T. Wright’s book, Biology through the Eyes of Faith.
That first course in my first semester gave me a chance to simultaneously learn biology and reflect on Christianity. Wright’s book explains a range of existing perspectives on Genesis and other topics relating to biology, such as ethics and stewardship. It made me aware of how important it was to constantly consider faith as a scientist. It was my first chance to think for myself with both biological evidence and the Bible in hand.
For all four years of my undergraduate education, Messiah was like that. My perspectives kept evolving the more I understood; the promise of Mark 4:24 was being fulfilled for me. Sadly, at secular colleges and universities, it can feel taboo to have such discussions. The topic deeply mattered to me, so I’m grateful to all the science, theology, and religious studies professors who engaged with us students with such openness and honesty.
In what ways do your faith and work interact with each other?
My faith and work interact every day! Being a scientist is part of my purpose, after all. One example interaction is with patience. We all struggle with that, right? Doing research takes a lot of patience. To discover something new, come up with new solutions to old problems, or to just find an interesting pattern somewhere, is far from instantaneous. And sometimes it feels like work is going nowhere. Will I actually find what I’m looking for? Am I even doing this right? Some studies take years or feel overwhelming to complete, but having faith in my calling as a scientist is what keeps me going. I still lack patience sometimes, but I’m instead blessed with endurance and joy. I’m so eager to know where my research is headed and what God will reveal through it. I’m grateful for my unwavering passion to continue, which is fueled by my faith in Christ. It’s also my responsibility (Luke 12:48b).
Why do you feel it has been important for you to be a Christian in pursuing your graduate education?
Graduate school is a challenging world. Mentally and emotionally, it can be so draining. Failure never feels good, but when you’re failing at something you’ve dedicated your life to, it feels so much worse. A fear of failure or being inadequate lingers in many of us students’ hearts and minds. It’s not even about the finish line (graduation), but every step of the way (classes, research, publishing, meetings, speaking up for ourselves). As a Christian, though, whenever I’m down, all I have to do is remember to look up. And it’s crazy; even the smallest struggles that I’ll one day look back on and laugh at or shake my head about, I know they matter to God because I matter to God. Check out Psalm 27:13, Luke 12:6-7, or Psalm 139 sometime; they’re reminders for me. It’s a delight to know that I have eternal support, and I try to pay forward that attitude as I help and encourage my peers to succeed, too.
Can you describe a little bit about your research on species and their relationships to humans and what it means for everyone?
When we learn classical ecology, humans’ roles in it tend to be pretty obvious. Ecological studies on human influence tend to cover topics such as disturbance, conservation, resource management, exploitation, invasions, disease, human-wildlife conflict, and so on. In short, humans either affect species or species affect humans. This sounds straightforward. But one of the challenges with these studies is that if human influence is not obvious or directly identifiable in a given space, ecologists will tend to focus on only the natural features (such as climate, terrain, soil type, etc.), and completely exclude human influence. In my research, I’m hoping to encourage more ecologists to consider human influence—even if we don’t directly see it. I’m currently looking at the factors ecologists have identified as human influence so far, and how they’ve used it to study species. Human influence can be described as many things, such as noise or light pollution, human population growth, demand for a certain product, or even income. Ecologists have spent decades considering climate change, and are constantly monitoring biodiversity loss, so my work will help us think ahead and look for more indirect clues to help species persist as human populations grow and countries continue to develop.
Your research experience is a great example for people who love both nature and travel! What has been your favorite location you worked in, and what were you working on there?
Can I pick two? Alaska and the Falkland Islands have special places in my heart because of many great adventures, unforgettable moments, beautiful sights, and fun people.
In Alaska, I spent over 800 days at sea, and it was an experience I never expected. I worked on commercial fishing boats out in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, monitoring and reporting on catch for the National Marine Fisheries Service. I worked on deck, alongside fishermen as they brought fish on board. I counted, weighed, and took samples from fish to help assess the status of fish populations to ensure the fisheries remained sustainable. I also recorded sightings of rare seabirds such as short-tailed albatross, and watched killer whales compete with captains for the catch. It was the busiest, roughest, and most dangerous job I ever had, but I enjoyed it.
The Falkland Islands was also a great place and a unique experience. So many penguins and sheep! I really loved it there. I worked in the Falklands for a year, and traveled all over the Islands to interview locals and learn from them. I was gathering local ecological knowledge on whales. For decades, baleen whales had disappeared from the Falklands due to overexploitation from commercial whaling, but now they’re returning. I had the awesome opportunity to capture this story and map where whales could be found, which is helping more research take place there now.
How can Christians be better cognizant of the environment around them? What are some of the most practical ways we can work to decrease our impact on species?
It’s easy for us to observe the plants, animals and water around us, but we may miss out on seeing the indirect ways humans and the environment affect each other—especially for problems that seem so far away from us. For example, when we see in the news that elephants are being poached, we instinctively think that the source of the problem is within the area where it’s happening (e.g., poachers, lack of enforcement). Yet, the demand driving this poaching—the demand for ivory—comes from all over the world. As another example, how about tourism? Some countries financially rely on it, and tourism can directly or indirectly protect species. If there is a drop in tourists coming from countries far away, it could cause locals to lose their income (as tour guides, restaurant or shop owners, rangers, etc.) and encroach on reserves to keep their families fed. Such complexities are becoming more evident, especially as our world becomes more connected.
As Christians, the first thing we can do is become aware of such connections, even if we don’t know how everything is linked. Being environmental stewards is not just something local anymore—it’s global, and that’s very exciting! We now have access to fruits, fish, grains, technology, and so much more from around the world that our parents and grandparents didn’t have access to when they were growing up. Did you know that some Alaskan fish get sent to other countries to be processed before coming back to the US for sales? When you’re shopping at the grocery store or online, you’re making a global impact, too. Where was it made? Where was it shipped from? Get curious! Every origin label on every product carries evidence of these increasing global connections, and they all have an impact on people and our environment. We can make a difference when we buy coffee, mangos, or hamburgers. As Christians, we should think beyond what’s in front of us when it comes to stewardship. We can make a tremendous difference in our own homes and the homes of our global neighbors.
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