Like many scientists, Rachel Leads was fascinated by biology from a young age. A family trip to the Pacific Northwest at twelve years old introduced her to coastline tide pools and captured her fascination, inspiring a lifelong love of marine science.
These days Leads can be found pursuing her career as a research scientist, currently completing her third year of the Doctor of Philosophy in Biology program at the UNT and this year, she was selected to receive the 2020 Bill Glaze Graduate Fellowship in Environmental Sciences, opening up even more possibilities for her work to make an impact in the world of ecological conservation.
The Bill Glaze Fellowship was made possible through the generosity of Brewer Science CEO and UNT alumnus Terry Brewer and his wife Paula. Brewer studied as a graduate student for his PhD under William Glaze, who taught Chemistry classes at UNT in the 1960s and 70s. He recalls the generosity and care that Glaze showed him as a young scholar and established the fellowship with the desire to enrich the lives of young researchers and motivate students to innovate in the same way Brewer inspired him.
"When I moved from Michigan State to North Texas as an undergrad transfer, Bill Glaze and several other chemistry professors stepped up and helped me with funding and support," Brewer recalls. "I ended up working more and more with Dr. Glaze because he was the smartest and most encouraging, even allowing me to do research in his lab."
Though Glaze was a tall, soften spoken Texan, he was also known for his creativity, always inspiring his students to think outside the box. "He challenged my ideas but was also receptive to me choosing my own path. In hindsight, I believe that was because he very empathic," says Brewer. "His empathy and passion directed him toward the high impact field of environmental science, where he saw great need and knew he could (and did) make a difference in the world."
Leads was selected to carry the legacy as the first-ever fellow of the Fellowship program working in aquatic toxicology research. As a passionate and dedicated researcher, Leads works hard, knowing the discoveries she is making are crucial in understanding the effects of oil spills on fishery resources and can significantly improve oil spill response and recovery in the future.
"After being introduced to the field during my master's degree, I knew I wanted to continue pursuing this area of research because it combined my interests in marine biology, chemistry, and environmental science," says Leads. "In addition, I appreciated that toxicology research can be used to directly inform environmental and marine policy."
Aaron Roberts' aquatic toxicology laboratory in UNT's Advanced Environmental Research Institute turned out to be the perfect fit for Lead's research interests. Her dissertation is investigating the effects of crude oil exposure on marine and freshwater fishes and explores other environmental factors that can influence crude oil toxicity.
"Rachel's research is important for helping determine not only how crude oil affects ecologically and economically important fish species but also has implications for how we can better respond to future spills," says Roberts. "Her work is a great example of the real-world impact that environmental research at UNT can have."
Even with the COVID related challenges of the year, Leads persevered. With university approval, she was able to collaborate with fellow students on field sampling over the summer months and often worked overnight to ensure that she was the only student in the laboratory.
To date, Leads has presented her dissertation research at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) North America 40th Annual Meeting, the 9th SETAC Young Environmental Scientists Meeting, the 16th Annual Biology Graduate Student Research Symposium (where she received the best student oral presentation award), and most recently, at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry North America 41st Annual Meeting, which was held virtually last month.
"Moving forward with my dissertation research supported by the fellowship, I am interested in continuing my experiments involving cataract formation in fishes following co-exposure to crude oil and UV," says Leads. "I am also interested in investigating how the physiological effects I have assessed thus far may translate into population- and community-level effects. Specifically, I am interested in assessing prey capture and predator avoidance behavior in fish exposed to crude oil and UV radiation."
Ultimately, Leads hopes to fill critical knowledge gaps in the understanding of the effects of crude oil exposure on aquatic organisms. "The Bill Glaze Fellowship in Environmental Science is making these scientific and educational endeavors possible, and I am very grateful to have received this support."