Q&A Blog | World Wetland Day

Becka Downard

Check out this World Wetland Day Q&A blog with Dr. Becka Downard, a researcher with a doctorate in ecology studying the various aspects of wetland policy and ecology!

Q&A Blog

Published February 2, 2022

All images provided courtesy of Becka Downard.

Take a look at this video by Dr. Downard on phragmites around Great Salt Lake!

Check out this free guide to plants of Great Salt Lake wetlands Dr. Downard authored!


You have spent the last 10 years researching the different aspects of wetland ecology. Your current research project involves observing the impact of impoundment and water management on wetlands of the great salt lake. How do you stay motivated?

Getting to learn about new aspects of wetland ecology really helps me stay motivated. I’ve been able to do projects that helped me learn about environmental policy, ecosystem management, botany, water quality, and now macroinvertebrates! Wetlands are endlessly interesting and there will always be something new for me to learn about. I grew up very near Great Salt Lake (GSL) and the love I have for that ecosystem also helps me stay motivated. I want to do whatever I can to make sure that the lake and its wetlands remain healthy. 

What challenges did you encounter throughout your years of researching wetlands?

Public perception of wetlands and GSL has been consistently challenging. Many people still view wetlands as waste places and the lake as a stinky puddle, but I think the tide is turning and more people are learning about how great wetland are. Phragmites australis, an invasive grass in GSL wetlands, is also challenging. It grows up to 10-feet tall and makes field work especially difficult.  

Growing up, who were your biggest influences/role models? How do/did they help you in the research you are doing now? 

Growing up, my parents took us out to national parks every summer and we went on bike rides around Antelope Island and that exposure to nature made me passionate about science and environmental policy. However, I didn’t realize I could be a scientist until I was in college, where I had professors that encouraged me to pursue projects in the interdisciplinary subjects I was most interested in. 

What advice would you give to the youth wanting to follow a similar path as you?

I would encourage anyone that wants to work in ecology to spend time out in their local wetlands. Being in the mud can help anyone get curious about plants, birds, bugs, or whatever else tickles their fancy. Wetlands, especially within conservation areas, can be a great place to encounter other wetland enthusiasts and ask them questions about what they’re passionate about and how they got there. 

While researching, observing, and analyzing wetlands, interdisciplinary work is very important to you. You like to interview wetland experts around the lake to record the changes they’ve noticed. Why is interdisciplinary work so important to you? 

Interdisciplinary work, especially work that includes some aspect of social science, is important to me because I think it’s the only way to solve the complex environmental problems we face. Humans have had huge impacts on natural ecosystems and fixing the problems we’ve created will require solutions involving people. Interviewing people and understanding the policies we operate under has also helped me develop more relevant research projects that address questions ecosystem managers have. Speaking with people who have spent a lot of time in the systems I study is also really interesting, they have noticed things that are special or things that have changed that I might not ever notice. 

Any success stories of community based wetlands management and conservation ?

Phragmites and drought are the biggest threats to GSL wetlands and there have been some great successes in those areas in the last few years. Several graduate students and wetland managers have developed strategies to more effectively remove phragmites from wetlands and encourage native plant species to grow back. Advocates, scientists, and politicians have also had some luck recently securing legal rights to water for GSL, which will hopefully result soon in more water in the wetlands and the lake. 

During your years of researching wetlands, can you recall an incident you’ve experienced that you’ll never forget?

Watching Canada geese land in front of me while I was doing field work was the most memorable experience I’ve had. A wetland manager who was helping me gather data told me that if we crouched down in the bulrushes the geese might land in the pond in front of us, and they did! It’s hard to describe how cool it is to watch waterfowl prepare for landing, it’s very exciting. And getting to see geese up close helped remind me of why GSL wetlands are so special.