Liz first entered my consciousness several years ago via a band of mutual friends (The Brownchicken Browncow String Band). It wasn’t until earlier this year that I started really getting to know her when she happened to be my 500th follower on Instagram. I was really impressed by everything she finds time to do in her life (plus I have an affinity for other petite badasses). A micro-biologist studying the wetlands and earning her PhD at Tulane, an advocate for the LGBTPQIA community and for survivors of sexual abuse and assault, a washboard player, and now writer of her very first musical, Liz is taking a serious bite out of life. She’s also an extreme joy to be around with a sunny disposition and just the right amount of child-like wonder.
The wonderful Midori Tajiri-Byrd (midorimakeup.com) joined us again to do makeup for this shoot. And while this project is focused on women, I must give credit to the amazing, selfless support of my boyfriend, Patrick Quirk (also a brilliant photographer), who assisted on a mosquito-filled, semi-treacherous shoot in the swamp (he was also my assist on Volumes 1 and 2!).
LR: I know a bit about your history: Growing up in Alabama, going to school at Humboldt State, your work in the Amazon and with survivors of sexual abuse and assault. But how did you decide to live in New Orleans?
L: My sister (Traci Batchelor Paden) lived in New Orleans for most of my life. She is a beautiful artist and inspires me endlessly. I would visit her and I have loved this place ever since I was 8. I applied to several PhD programs, but when the offer came in from Tulane I had to accept. Both because I love New Orleans and because I wanted to work with my mentor professor Dr. Sunshine Van Bael. Most of my science background was in the tropics, in the rainforest, and I came here thinking I would do that, but Sunshine convinced me to help her with her work in the swamps so I could learn the techniques for the work I’m now doing. I fell so deeply in love with New Orleans that I wanted to be able to do something locally, that could potentially be of service to New Orleans.
Here on the Gulf Coast there is a lot of money being poured into restoration of swamps and wetlands and one really important species to restore is bald cypress trees. Bald cypress trees are super important both ecologically and also because they protect the city from storm damage. All plants as far as we know have microscopic fungi and bacteria that live inside the plants, much like our own gut microbiota. This whole world of microorganisms lives inside of us and helps us to deal with the environment and plants have the same thing.
LR: So in your work you are trying to study these micro-organisms to find out which are the best to preserve these trees?
L: In a nutshell, I am hoping to figure out what microbes already exists in the trees and then I am looking for endophytes (plant probiotics, if you will) that will help bald cypress trees to be more resilient to salt water inundation and other stressors.
L: A PhD program is super demanding and I feel really motivated by the work that I am doing because I feel like it isn’t just intellectual. It could have some sort of an implication for restoration and that keeps me going. I have been playing the washboard with a mix of people, but my focus at the moment is performing with the group “No Scruples” which is a French ensemble, well, we play French music from the 1920s-1980s. We have a gig coming up at the Circle Bar on Tuesday November 24 from 7-9 and will be playing a dinner at Live Oak Cafe on December 3rd (https://www.facebook.com/oaksoiree/) . I really enjoy the music and love this group of people. I also play a lot of music with my friend Katarina Boudreaux at various spots. We co-wrote a short musical, “Heartbreak: the Biological Musical” which happened this past weekend at Cafe Istanbul. It was a wonderful learning experience.
LR: And a really great musical. I saw it. It was a lot of fun, in all of its heartbreak.
L: Thank you. Yeah. It was cathartic. Definitely the best way to get over a heartbreak is to write a musical about it.
LR: When I first talked to you about Crush, you told me about the Tulane GIST program.
L: Yes, the GIST Program, Girls in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) Program. It’s an incredible program which brings in fifth through eighth grade girls from schools all around New Orleans and they spend the day being scientists and being led through activities by other women scientists. It’s a chance for them do things hands-on and to see women role models in science.
LR: So they can maybe decide that careers in those fields are something they could do or want to do?
L: I sure hope so. I have also found myself in a leadership position in the lab. We have undergraduates who work in the lab and actually most of them in our lab happen to be women. So I am surrounded this wonderful gaggle of 19-23 year old women who are very bright. So, I have a few undergrads that work with me as well as a Masters student and a high school student. But consider them equal partners. They have a lot to contribute.
L: No, our lab just seems to have more women. We do also have men, and they are fantastic and bright as well.
LR: Are you finding that you are good at leading?
L: It’s hard to say if you’re a good leader. But I think the best leaders are ones that make the people they are leading feel that they have done it themselves. I got this idea from Lao Tzu, the tao of leadership, a true leader, when the project is done the people say, ” Look what we have done. We did this ourselves.” And they did. So really encouragement and decision making, that’s what I think leadership is.
LR: Would you like to stay in New Orleans once you’ve earned your PhD?
L: I can’t imagine leaving this city. New Orleans has just opened up to me. Moving here felt like I had discovered a new lover. I spent months just smelling her and feeling her. I’m still exploring.
L: My mom has been incredible. She has a Masters degree in early childhood education and was able to take a few years off of work when I was born and I was attached to her body for those years. The word influence is interesting. I think the way she shaped me was really by stepping back and letting me unfold. She gave me the space to become. I have been really lucky to be surrounded by a strong group of women my whole life. My family is very small, but we are a mighty group of ladies.
LR: And who is your Crescent City Crush?
L: Dr. Donata Henry, Professor of the practice at Tulane. She just crushes it. You can see in her body language, she is relaxed and happy and gives off this calm, confident energy. But she is also extremely competent and good at what she does. She translates her knowledge and passion for science and for the natural world and the nature around New Orleans for everyone around her. She was a Ph.D. student at Tulane and now she is there teaching and is the driving force behind the GIST program I mentioned earlier. She is also a mom. She teaches several classes and manages the grad students that teach classes. I have had a hard time finding examples of successful female scientists who are happy and healthy and who also have happy healthy families. Unfortunately, I think it is still a rare thing. It is true that a Ph.D. consumes your life, so to be in that setting and to see someone that is so exuberant and healthy and maintains that in an atmosphere that can be really heavy is inspiring. She keeps the heart in the Ivory Tower.
L: These are not my own words, they come from Howard Thurman, but I would say, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
We need people to be awake and happy, it doesn’t really matter how they get there.
LR: Before we sign off here, are there any other crush worthy aspects of Liz you’d like to mention?
L: Yes. I definitely identify with and consider myself to be a part of the LGBTPQIA community. I am holding down the “P” being both pansexual and polyamorous. And I feel Bi-sexual and pansexual visibility is important. A lot of people don’t necessarily come out when they are in those categories.
L: For one, people will just assume you are gay or straight and sometimes it’s easier just to roll with that, but also I think there is still a lot of stigma around it. I know definitely when I first started coming out as bi, people associated that with being promiscuous or they think you haven’t “chosen” to just be gay or straight. But it is definitely a valid identity. And as soon as I learned the term, I switched to identifying as pansexual because pan includes people anywhere along the gender spectrum, not just the male and female binary.
LR: You could be attracted to someone that falls anywhere along the gender spectrum?
L: Yes. And I feel pretty fluidly gendered myself. So, I identify with this community and am trying to educate myself, to advocate and to speak about my own experiences.
L: Tulane feels very inclusive, and Ecologists are a pretty laid back bunch in general. I have been fortunate along my path to find people very accepting. But people are sometimes taken aback. It might be easier to say nothing, but I think the more people come out about their identity, whatever it may be, the less strange and alienating the whole thing will seem to people. I’m all about transparency. I want to be an open book with a lot more blank pages.