Earth and Environmental Science at NYC Urban Soils Institute (feat. Anna Paltseva)
Alumni Aloud Episode 53
Anna Palsteva is a researcher at the NYC Urban Soils Institute where she studies soil contamination and remediation. She also teaches at Brooklyn College, New York University, New York Botanical Gardens, and Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. She graduated from the PhD Program in Earth and Environmental Science at the Graduate Center.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, we learn how Anna is cultivating a name for herself as a soil expert in New York City and beyond. She discusses her projects in both the community and in academia, her collaborations with colleagues in the U.S. and internationally, and how to create research connections and opportunities.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ABBIE TURNER, HOST: I’m Abby Turner. I’m a PhD candidate in the Educational Psychology program at the Graduate Center and a fellow in the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development. In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I interviewed Anna Paltseva who graduated from our program in Earth and Environmental Sciences.
Ok, today in the office I have Anna Paltseva. And she is a soil expert. And we’re going to talk to Anna about her teaching, her research, her community outreach, the events she attends, the book she’s working on, her publications, her public speaking, how she communicates with communities and what her research means to them. We have a lot of exciting stuff to talk to Anna about.
So, it’s hard to really contain your career right now, correct. So why don’t you introduce us to your work life.
ANNA PALTSEVA, GUEST: Ok, so my official title as of now is an adjunct Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College, which is my home campus where I did my undergrad and most of my research as a PhD student. But I also work at New York University as an adjunct instructor and the New York Botanical Garden and Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I teach continuing education students who want to change their careers. I also lead a research team currently in Moscow at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. It’s a university for international students. They have students from 160 countries or more. And I collaborate with them on a grant to study soils using express methods.
We tried to develop some new techniques of how we can quickly and reliably assess soil quality and particularly soil contamination. Besides that, I do outreach and I used to public workshops as a part of Brooklyn College Soil Lab or Urban Soil Institute. And now I’ve made a little bit different path. I use social media to outreach larger audiences. People who are curious about soils or plants or sustainable planet. And I do it through Instagram mostly. I started my own Youtube channel where I posted my outreach videos. And partially with LinkedIn because it’s a professional communication [platform] and there is a lot of great content to find there.
TURNER: Yeah, ok so I want to pick apart some of these things. You had mentioned very briefly you went over the Urban Soil Institute. You said this is something, this is an off-shoot of the soil program at Brooklyn?
PALTSEVA: So the Urban Soil Institute was established in 2016 and it’s a partnership between Brooklyn College, Soil Water Conservation District, US Department of Agriculture and Gaia Institute. There were five original people who came and created the institute and I was lucky enough to be a part of it from its establishment. And this is a platform on everything related to soils. People can get soil tested through the Urban Soil Institute. They can request workshops or garden assessments. We have an amazing symposium every year. This year we’re going to have our fifth symposium which is going to be probably in October. And we will send an announcement through CUNY so you can attend.
TURNER: Ok great. So then that will lead us into your public speaking about science or really public communication about your science. It sounds like something you’ve been practicing for a long time and you’ve gotten really good at it. So I want to get some of your advice about this. Let’s start with first that you participated in our dissertation showcase here at the GC and you won. So tell us what that experience was like every everybody who sees that ad in the elevator but they don’t know if they want to do.
PALTSEVA: Yeah, so I was super excited about Graduate Center opportunity because as an international student, there’s always many limitations but the GC, it’s more free, it’s more available. And they don’t really care about if you are a foreign student or what your official status is. So when I applied, I loved speaking publicly and I thought it would be a good opportunity to practice. What really was attractive to me was that they would train us on how to present like a TED Talk style using no jargon language. And it will help us on how to make a good presentation. To present it in a professional method to non-science audiences. And we were trained to do this. We practiced a couple of times including our speech and our presentations. And it was really amazing to be part of this huge CUNY community that I personally didn’t know about because you always stick with your own department and you don’t really know what’s going on around [you]. So there was amazing research presented from like the theater department, law or medical fields. And it’s now jargon so everyone can understand.
PALTSEVA: So for me it was really fascinating experience to learn how to present a TED Talk, 3 minutes talking about my dissertation to non-science audience about soil contamination.
TURNER: Great! Well if we’re talking about your public outreach and public communication, what kinds of writing have you done for the public? And can you talk about that being valuable? Or advice about it?
PALTSEVA: Yeah so as a scientist it’s a little bit challenging to start to write more creatively. You know, especially for a foreigner, like English is not your first language. So it might be challenging but I always collaborate with people, with my professors and fellows who are native speakers and can help me and advise me and aid in my language. So I had a piece last year in Gotham Gazette about my dissertation research. It was co-authored with one of my colleagues. So I wrote about findings through my five years at Brooklyn College about soil contamination in vegetables. And what to do if you find lead in your soil. How to ready soils. And it’s written in plain language so anyone can understand. We try to avoid any jargon. I try to have sometimes a post about it, like mostly on Instagram. I get some feedback because they like my post because it brings sounds to the like level that anyone can understand and its more or less short and entertaining. So yeah that’s a way to communicate with the public.
TURNER: Yeah it’s very 2020 of you to make it, to communicate your science through Instagram. I think that’s a genius idea. But you’re still publishing in scholarly journals as well?
PALTSEVA: Yes, it was always my goal to publish as much as I can. I know it is important. And I have a strong team from CUNY and like from Moscow, Russian University of People’s Friendship and Italy, University of Molise. Big teams who help me with my research. And yeah as of now I have several articles published and a few on the way. And it’s always in collaborations with other scientists. And yeah, even from Chile. So I recently started collaborating with scientists from Chile.
TURNER: So how are you making these international connections?
PALTSEVA: Yeah that’s a great question. It’s also advice to anyone. I always tell my students to invest in conferences and symposia, any professional travels, professional development they can do. Even if they cannot cover it through their university, they should always find a way to get to the conference to connect with people. And it’s actually how I met people because with Moscow, professors who I met in Mexico five years ago were in the soil conference and we started to talk Russian and then it eventually led us to a joint research and joint projects like they co-organize our urban soil symposium in New York City and we co-organize the summer school every summer. This year we’re going to have 4th year of the summer school which will be in Moscow and then we will travel across Europe and part of Russia.
TURNER: Oh wow.
PALTSEVA: With students. Yeah so, with this professor from Chile, we actually met in Brazil a couple of years ago during the soil congress. And it’s how you get to know. And when I, couple years ago went to Moscow, I met Chinese professor from the University of Wanzhou. And I met him later here in Brazil and he invited me to go to China to participate and present at the French-Chinese workshop that only French and Chinese were invited but her invited me to join and I had an amazing experience learning about this really state-of-the-art science in China. So yeah, these collaborations happened because I traveled, and that’s always what I advise people to do. Take a chance, take a time and even if you don’t present, just go there to make connections.
TURNER: Do you have advice about what types of conferences are best though. Probably the more niche ones for you guys?
PALTSEVA: So that’s, yeah, very good question. Definitely more niche with professional. So I typically go to soil conferences, soil congresses, or geology conferences that have a focus on soil. However, if you want to step outside of academia, it’s also, and be more creative and think differently. Go to the events or conferences outside of your field. So I sometimes get invited to go to events for like plant-lovers, which is like, I don’t know, like a potluck. Last weekend I went to this event by my student from the New York Botanical Garden. Who is a part time farmer. So he invited his friends and we had potluck with like sixty people talking about plants and sustainable earth. That was really amazing to see who else needs my help.
And it’s not just the soil and seeds but the actual soil in the apartments. Urban ag is a big thing and those inside or rooftop. Or I was like also invited to a design week a couple years ago. It’s for designers and you know, I was like you know I’m a scientist and this is design week. I have nothing to do with designs. They were like, “Yep that’s why we want you. We want you to talk something different to our audience.” I said, “Ok, I can talk about landscape design for contaminated soil.” So I linked it to how we properly design gardens to prevent contamination.
TURNER: Oh that is so cool.
PALTSEVA: Yeah and I showed different cases. So I took photos from Russa, Brazil, and in America. Like what practices exist and how we can make better backyards and safer backyards. And the people liked it a lot. It was like oh my god, I never thought about this before.
TURNER: Yes, I feel like that is a reaction you get a lot, right. Like, “I never thought about soil this way!” You just are going around the city, teaching people the gospel of soil. Gotcha. Ok, think we can make our way around to teaching now. Tell us about your teaching commitments, your classes, what that workload is like?
PALTSEVA: Yeah so I teach a lot. It’s hard to meet another person with such a teaching load in four different institutions across three boroughs. I sometimes, some semesters have up to 160 students in four places. But I love it. I love my students, I love spending my energy on them because I see how they succeed. Especially when I see them like graduate and what they’re doing and then someone will tell me, “Oh, I met your former student, he mentioned he took your class.” And that makes me smile. So I currently teach at Brooklyn College, a statistics course, an environmental science course. At the NYU, I teach biogeochemistry, I’ll be teaching environmental systems summer 1. I teach soil classes at the botanical gardens. And every semester the schedule is maybe a little different but it is mostly earth and environmental sciences or soil classes.
TURNER: Now your botanical garden teaching, you’re teaching like adults. This is continuing education you said?
PALTSEVA: Yes it is. So it’s mostly career change people who are tired to be lawyers or journalists or psychologists. And they want to do something else, open businesses or they want to garden. Just improve their garden skills and know how to save their plants. Or just for fun, like they’re hobbyists. So they get certificates and I’m glad to share my knowledge about soils.
TURNER: You mentioned right before we recorded that you are also going to be a U Penn coming up?
PALTSEVA: Yes, I will be teaching at the arboretum. Landscape architects. The whole day, they invited me to join them and share my knowledge on soils and how to test the soils on their own.
TURNER: So I’m definitely hearing a lot of ‘people are inviting you to things.’ Which not only speaks to [the fact that] you’re very likeable but that you’ve gotten your name out there in some way. How are people finding you? What do you think the secret is? Because you know we have a lot of students who are experts in their fields. And so how do you make a name for yourself in this way?
PALTSEVA: That’s a good point. I’m trying to make my personal brand I develop as a scientist and bring science outside of academia. And I had to work on it myself, to understand that I have to share knowledge. And I think just talking with many different people and working in many places. So lots of people get to know me through science in academia or like in the botanical gardens, those are professionals. But they’re not academics, they’re in the field and they’re curious. And also people who go to those events who are just passionate about sustainability or our Earth. So they get to know me through that point of view. So I guess it’s through the network like that and yeah.
Even the reason I started my little Instagram on soil education is because quite a few students told me, “Oh you should do soil Instagram.” I was like, “Who is going to look at soil Instagram? Who cares?” Like I would. People are watching this and that, definitely people would. It’s been successful and I think if I do even more investment in this I will have even more of a high impact. Just try to use different channels and put yourself on the market as much as you can. Use different platforms, like social media. I feel more comfortable using Instagram other than Facebook. So LinkedIn is a professional, it’s not a way to connect. Personal outreach is probably the best. I think people tend to remember you and people tend to remember you…I get three ways how people remember me, what they tell me. The way I present, they remember what I say about soil contamination. They remember my presentation. Some are like, “Oh I remember your accent.” Or it’s just like, “Oh I remember the color of your dress.” Because people have different types of memories.
TURNER: So this is your brand!
PALTSEVA: I guess it is. *laughs*
TURNER: Bright dresses, good accent, lots of knowledge!
PALTSEVA: Yeah so I guess it is. I just always try to, you know, have it so that…sometimes even the color of my dress.
TURNER: Sure, that’s so funny. Good, so I have noticed…Because I found you, I googled you and found that you were definitely developing a voice as an expert online which is how you need to be present in the world today. Why don’t you tell us about, something I think is really exciting, you’re also developing a book! Look at all these projects you can do on your own.
PALTSEVA: Yes, this is something useful for young scientists. Especially if they want to go to academia, but also if they want to have a future in the businesses. As I learned through developing this book, there are other ways, outside of academia. Because people sometimes write books and then establish their consultancies or some sort of business or service or product based on that. So it’s not a venue for people to follow. I did it because when I started to teach at botanical gardens, I struggled to find simple labs to teach my adult students. Who are not interested so much in the science or mathematics or chemistry. But they want to know how they can test soil for their own gardening activities. So I started pulling many pieces together and eventually as I like wanted to publish a book. Working title now is Urban Soil Lab Manual. Which I will change as I figure out how to…
TURNER: Juuj it up.
PALTSEVA: Yeah, how to publish it. But yeah right now it’s a collection of twenty different activities that people can do on their own or with instructors. Instructors can teach students, even high school or freshman, like introductory level science classes. Or botanical gardens, or really just anyone who is interested in soils and wants to do on their own. I call it a mature soil scientist. So it’s really intro- level information because what I see on the market, the textbooks are typically more complex. Like for senior students. Quite technical, that need laboratory equipment. So I tried to bring it down as much as I could with this emphasis on urban agriculture and contamination. Because we all eat food. Urban soils is still quite a new direction in soil science world and contamination is the focus of my dissertation and my passion.
TURNER: And it seems like you were in the perfect spot to realize the need was there. What about, you’ve also got stuff in here about speaking in parks with community people? Neighbors and things?
PALTSEVA: Yeah, I have done quite a few workshops when we just came out. Yeah it was through Brooklyn College urban soil lab or the Urban Soil Institute. We would come to like McCarren Park or we had like workshops at Brooklyn Bloom or Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Even like soil shop events or soil kitchen events outside of New York City. Where we just come to community places and people would come because their soils. We’d test the soils for heavy metals and would advise what to do and what not to do. And to ask questions. It was all free and we volunteered our time for that. And it’s very rewarding, because at the end of the day, you feel good about doing something.
TURNER: Your science is getting literally on the ground.
PALTSEVA: Yes on the ground, definitely. Right so I want to it available to the public and see what people can do. Because sometimes they get scared and they start listening and reading literature and it becomes very overwhelming for them to figure out and then they like give up. So I want to break it down and explain in simple ways, there are solutions to the problem. And that’s what we try to do, bring it to the public.
TURNER: That’s amazing! Ok so in comparison to when you entered the program or when you graduated last year or now…can you speak a little bit about your career goals. Have they changed? What are you they? What are you thinking?
PALTSEVA: Yeah so my passion was always in academia. I wanted to be a professor since I was probably a teenager because my uncle is a professor and I always look up to him. And I wanted to be like him. He’s a mechanical engineer but I wanted to be in ecology. It was my first major in Russia. So when I moved to America nine years ago, I wanted to be a professor still. And first I learned English and then I went to Brooklyn College, I transferred. And then I went straight to PhD. And my goal was always to be a professor. But the last couple years of my doctorate program, I realized there are other ways. And I think it’s because I talked to different people.
Some of my fellow senior fellows who are…I have a friend whose an engineer who graduated from City College like a year earlier. Who brought her PhD work into a different world. She created a product device. Based on that she developed her company. Now she got her grant and she develops it like a big company and tries to work with farmers to use this device. So that opened my eyes like, “Oh there are some other options.” And then some other people do other kinds of services. They consult people and what they know. So now I realized there is not just an academia path but also you can bring it in different ways. So potentially I do want to stay in academia but I do want to broaden up and have applied science.
TURNER: And you have all these projects going on.
PALTSEVA: Right. So I want eventually, hopefully in like ten years from now, I will be CEO of my own company, like Paltseva International Research Consultancy. But still be connected to university to have a solid background in science. Because this is where the expertise is growing and not just be like commercial or like for-profit.
TURNER: Sounds like you want it all!
PALTSEVA: Yes I do, but I want to combine the academia with hopefully something else in the future.
TURNER: Yeah well it sounds like you’re preparing yourself really nicely. So with all of this said, what kinds of advice do you have for our current students, whether they’re scientists, non-scientists, environmentalists, non-environmentalists. What do you think? What do you have to pass on to them?
TURNER: Ok great!
PALTSEVA: So, where to start… Probably think what you want to do a little bit in advance. Like a year before you want to graduate.
TURNER: A lot bit in advance maybe!
PALTSEVA: Yeah so, because application projects will take time and it may take time, up to a full year or longer, to find a full-time position. Especially if it’s for academia. Because everyone will need to apply in the fall to get the position the next fall. So that’s something to take into account if you don’t want to have this gap. Always use resources that are available. Like here at the Graduate Center we have a career center that was extremely useful to me because they helped me tremendously with my CV. And whenever I had interviews or applications I would come in and they would give me advice and already had material prepared for me as a resource. So that’s definitely something that anyone should use.
I would also recommend to do your homework before going to any kinds of interviews, academic or non-academic. Because you need to show that you’re interested, that you know the goal, you know the mission of the company or department. So you can link and target your speech or your pitch towards that and see how you can be useful to them. Don’t mention that you want to learn from them, say that you want to share with them. Because you’ll be positioning yourself as an expert and not a student anymore. So it’s a collaboration and sharing knowledge and expertise. I think it’s important to always look presentable, especially because…coming from different backgrounds, different countries, different nationalities. It’s important to look professionally and appealing. And that’s advice I got from my senior colleagues. Don’t underdress, don’t look too fancy, but just right in the middle. Make yourself memorable in a good way.
Yeah and I think it’s super helpful to talk to people in your network and mention that you’re looking for a job. Because they may have something for you or they know more resources and they could send you to those resources. And sometimes it’s easier for them to hire someone they already know. So if they know you and you tell them that you are looking for a job, they’re like, “Oh I know him or her.” So it’s really, spread the word about yourself and that you’re looking for a job.
TURNER: Ok, great. So for international students, you have a lot of experience with that, do you have any advice on finding jobs for them? And how should they go about their job search process?
PALTSEVA: Yeah so, it had been difficult. Not very simple to be international student. And maybe it’s a little bit more…outside of academia, outside of the PhD, it’s a little bit more advantageous for STEM scientists rather than non-STEM scientists because right now I’m on an optional practice training. As a STEM scientist I can apply up to three years, but non-STEM experts, professionals, only have one-year opportunity. So this is something to consider and to know in the future. Also, it’s easier for academia to hire an international student rather than companies, when they graduate, when they try to find a job. Because companies may not always want to sponsor H-1 visas but for academia it doesn’t matter.
Although it is probably harder to find positions in academia because it’s very, very competitive and you really need to apply in advance before you graduate. Although it is possible to find an offer before you defend, but yeah it will take quite some time. Be prepared for like a second job, because it’s really a fulltime job to apply. And my professors, my senior colleagues have been super helpful to give me feedback on my teaching statements, my research statements, give me ideas about projects. So always run by some fellows and senior professors. They’re extremely valuable. And even when you go to interview, do a mock interview with someone who is maybe a senior and has seen some interviews. But also like maybe assistant professors, if we’re talking about academia, what was there recent practice. Or just here in the career center. Mock interviews. Because it helps to release stress, once you know what to expect.
TURNER: Yes, definitely. Great recommendations. There’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. Any outside-academia collaborations that you’ve done?
PALTSEVA: Yeah, so I’ve been always collaborating with artists. It’s my now friend, former student from New York Botanical Garden who is an artist. And he is an artist and a professor at Rutgers now. Who asked me to collaborate on an art project on Governor’s Island last year in June. We exhibited our joint work on soil and art because he created the compost using invasive fish species in Illinois river and he composted it in a very artistic way. And you can go to my link and read my article on that. Soil and art. And this compost can be used to remediate soil from lead. And lead is the focus of my research. Lead and arsenic. So the compost is rich in phosphorous and can remediate contaminated soil with lead.
So that’s basically, he had the solution, one of the solutions that I have been researching in my science. So we had a room full of our like items, maps, pictures, and some installations. Different presentations. Ways that soil can be remediated in Governor’s Island, which is really interesting because it made me think through my research in a different perspective. And now, since he’s teaching at Rutgers, we’re thinking about how to collaborate and include his students and some of my research findings that can be their final projects and they can do the installations as well.
TURNER: So he’s an art professor?
TURNER: Ahh. Ok that’s great. Nice collaborations. And you got to explain to us what your actual research was. So remediating lead and arsenic in soils.
PALTSEVA: Yeah so it’s mostly in the urban soils that are quite contaminated in New York City and some parts of like in the Northeast, some farms or agricultural fields, they’ve been exposed to some lead and arsenic in the past. Because of the pesticide use. Here it’s a lot from traffic from gasoline, lead that is used with paint, some industrial emissions. It’s all legacy, so staying in the soil. So my research was focused on first-how we assess it. What numbers do we get? How can it affect human health whether through ingestion or inhalation? Or through urban agriculture, how it can be taken up by plants, how it can get into the food chain. And my case studies were New York City and New Jersey, an agricultural field. And then we did additional testing. Actually we developed new methodology for how to test for lead in Italy. And now my next step is to develop more new techniques with Russian University of People’s Friendship.
TURNER: You said express techniques, is that what you’re talking about?
PALTSEVA: Yes. Some quick and reliable ways to test it. Within minutes or hours not days or months as what typical labwork would take.
TURNER: Oh wow, really? That’s impressive and useful. Ok, alright. Well Anna, thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. It was super interesting to hear about your work and your research. And I want to thank you for coming in and maybe we’ll hear from you in the future.
PALTSEVA: Thank you so much for having me, it is my great pleasure.
TURNER, VOICE-OVER: First, I want to thank Anna for coming to the GC back in March to do an interview and share her personal career journey with us. If you want to explore your options, visit our site at cuny.is/careerplan or follow us on Twitter for more updates.
And finally, I want to give a formal sign off as my time at the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development has come to an end. It’s for a good reason though, I’m graduating. I really enjoyed producing this podcast and bringing you all of the words of encouragement and advice from our gracious alumni. I hope all the Graduate Center students listening to this podcast know that they can contact our office to have these conversations with really wonderful and helpful advisors who have been my colleagues for three years. And you can look forward to hearing new episodes in the fall, as I hand off these responsibilities to a very capable team of Sarah, Joseph and Carly. I hope everyone has a healthy and safe summer and remember to take care of yourself! Bye!
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