Meet new faculty member Jessica Brandt

Jessica Brandt
Jessica Brandt

Jessica Brandt is a new assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE) with a joint appointment in the Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Her research investigates contaminant transport, cycling, and consequences in aquatic ecosystems and corresponding public health risks. This fall, she will offer an ecotoxicology course for both undergraduate and graduate students that uses case studies to explore how environmental pollution results in adverse effects for animals and people. Here is what she told us in an interview.

Where did you get your degrees?

I received my BA in public health studies from Johns Hopkins University (2011) and my MHS in environmental health from The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (2012). In 2018, I completed my doctoral work on the coal ash waste stream’s impacts on recipient freshwater food webs in the Nicholas School at Duke University.

What did you do before coming to UConn?

I came to UConn from a postdoctoral research position with the US Geological Survey (USGS; Fort Collins, CO and Columbia, MO). There, I took on two projects related to the mechanisms of contaminant movement through aquatic food webs. The first centers on selenium biogeochemistry in the lower Gunnison River Basin in western Colorado. This area is affected by selenium from the Cretaceous Mancos Shale that is mobilized by hydrologic processes including natural weathering of shale outcrops and irrigation of the region’s high-selenium soils. Working with a dataset of samples collected over two years and along 60 river miles of the Basin, my collaborators and I asked questions about how the food web responds to changing water selenium concentrations and the risks posed to two critically endangered fish species in the Basin – the Colorado Pikeminnow and the Razorback Sucker.

The second project focuses on the biotransport of contaminants by Pacific salmon species as they migrate from the marine environment, where they do most of their growing, to the freshwater ecosystems that they return to at the end of their lives. Contaminants that build up in fish tissues go along for this ride, making salmon migration an important route of contaminant transport. We are comparing salmon biotransport to other routes of contaminant entry in freshwater systems and investigating the tradeoffs between contaminant and beneficial subsidy loading by these animals.

I’m continuing to work on both of these projects now that I’m at UConn. They’ve generated many additional questions that I look forward to working on with incoming undergraduate and graduate lab members.

What will your work here at UConn focus on?

My lab group is pursuing two broad research topics that fit under the overarching theme of contaminant movement within, and consequences for, aquatic food webs. The first focuses on developing a more holistic understanding of the factors that mediate contaminant distribution among ecosystems and ecosystem compartments (in other words, the water column, sediment, primary producers, and higher trophic levels), and what that means for exposure in sensitive consumers. Factors of current interest include hydrologic mobilization, animal biotransport, and co-occurring chemical interactions. For example, collaborators and I have a new paper out that reviews the evidence related to selenium’s influence on mercury biogeochemical cycling in freshwater systems. This work is in response to the ongoing discussions about revising mercury consumption advisories to co-consider selenium concentrations in fish tissues and whether we can remediate mercury-contaminated systems by adding selenium to them; long story short – there are some big gaps in current understanding that need to be addressed before we can approach either idea responsibly. Mercury-selenium interactions has emerged as an early focal point of research in the lab.

Jessica Brandt holds two bass at Lake Adger in North Carolina, where she conducted dissertation research on the coal ash waste stream.
Jessica Brandt holds two bass at Lake Adger in North Carolina, where she conducted dissertation research on the coal ash waste stream.

A second research area will explore how persistent contamination problems constrain fish conservation efforts. Contaminants work in tandem with other environmental threats like increasing stream temperatures to impact species’ ecological fitness. These questions are important for most ecosystems, including those in CT, as they experience both anthropogenic and climate change. This summer, we are starting to work with Ashley Helton’s group (NRE) and Martin Briggs (USGS Hydrogeophysics Branch) on their NSF-funded project about the release of legacy nitrogen from groundwater discharges to rivers and streams in the Farmington River watershed. My group is interested in the contaminants released by these discharges and the potential for them to adversely affect native fish species like wild Brook Trout that use groundwater discharges as thermal refugia.

Name one aspect of your work that you really like.

I really enjoy working with the interdisciplinary collaborator groups that are inherent to projects where we need to understand contaminant loading, fate, and transport at the scale of ecosystems—and even across ecosystem boundaries. For current projects, I’m working on teams that include ecotoxicologists, biogeochemists, ecologists, hydrologists, and fisheries and watershed scientists. Not only do we get to ask broader questions by working across scientific fields this way, but I find that the opportunity to continuously teach and learn from each other keeps the job exciting. There’s rarely a dull moment.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

I love to travel but haven’t spent much time in the Northeast outside of the big cities. Once it’s safe to be moving around again, I’m looking forward to exploring all that this region has to offer. Please send your favorite places to visit and your restaurant and hiking recommendations my way!

By Jason M. Sheldon