Tamara Heartsill Scalley grew up in a hilly area outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, playing among trees that would be razed for housing developments before she hit junior high school.
After earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in her native land, then a Ph.D. in ecology from Utah State University, Heartsill Scalley returned to Puerto Rico, where she works as a USDA Forest Service scientist.
And now she’s a scientific superhero, of sorts. Heartsill Scalley has her own trading card, along with a dozen or so other USDA Forest Service Scientists.
The collectible cards are aimed at teenagers who want to learn more about nature, and possibly about careers in the field.
“I’m not sure how they got my name, but they took a pretty diverse first cut of researchers, and being chosen made me feel a little bit proud,” the USU alumna said. “One cool thing I think the cards do is help break that stereotype of who a scientist is and what a scientist looks like. A scientist is not just someone working with beakers in a lab. A scientist can work in many different fields, and can come from anywhere, and any culture.
“I’d be happy if the cards helped one kid in middle school think, ‘Well, I could be a scientist.’ Sometimes if you don’t see anybody like you working in a field, you don’t think it’s an option you have.”
The cards’ images are available through an online science journal for teens, the Natural Inquirer.
“That’s ‘Natural,’ not ‘National,’ Heartsill Scalley said, with a laugh. “There’s a big difference.”
Anyone interested can download front and back images for a card, then glue the printouts onto card-sized pieces of cardboard. The site is www.naturalinquirer.org/scientists-v-92.html.
Heartsill Scalley’s card briefly describes her education and her areas of research: “An ecologist studies the dynamics and interactions between the environment and its organisms. I conduct research on tropical forests, watersheds, and streams.”
It also lists her advice to budding scientists: “Be curious” and “Thinking of things from different perspectives is also important.”
Heartsill Scalley’s own path to a job she loves — at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico — was meandering.
She studied economics in college in her native country, then took a year off to work as a volunteer in a chemistry lab and at a forest field station. At the latter, she helped count saplings and flower species, and assisted in small ways with the work of local and visiting scientists.
Heartsill Scalley returned to her college to pursue a master’s in science, but she had to first complete all the science core courses she had avoided as an undergrad.
“I had always loved nature, but I was not going to take all those horrible classes everybody is afraid to fail,” she said, recalling her early college attitude.
“But after working in the field and seeing the questions those sciences can answer, I knew I wanted to contribute to the knowledge. So I was taking basic chemistry with 17-year-olds. I was intimidated, but I knew I needed those subjects for what I wanted to do.”
Heartsill Scalley heard from a visiting professor about the quality of USU’s ecology program, and she traveled with her husband to Logan in 2000 to earn her Ph.D.
As a native of a tropical island, she remembers any culture shock being dwarfed by her genuine alarm at sub-zero temperatures and shortened periods of daylight during winter. But Heartsill Scalley has fond memories of the Ecology Center, of collaborating with students and professors, of hearing top scientists speak and of the honors she won for her work.
She also continued field research in Puerto Rico during her USU years, working with USU faculty mentor Todd Crowl. The two continue to collaborate on research projects.
“People always say, ‘You went to Utah so you could work in the tropics,” Heartsill Scalley said, with a laugh. “But the quality of the degree you get at Utah State helps you become a professional ecologist, and that’s what matters. The tools and knowledge you gain can be applied anywhere.”