Stat-Chat with Krti Tallam: Importance of mentorships and creating opportunities

Krti Tallam: former undergraduate student in statistics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Earlier this year, we had an opportunity to catch up with Illinois alumna, Krti Tallam for a virtual Stat Chat. After graduating from Illinois in 2018, earning a bachelor degrees in statistics and natural resources and environmental sciences with a concentration in fish, wildlife, and conservation biology, Tallam has continued her journey pursing a PhD in Biology at Stanford University. Tallam is part of the Rising Environmental Leaders Program (RELP) with the Stanford Woods Institute and is part of the Hadley Lab at Stanford University. Tallam’s research delves into the transmission dynamics of environmental diseases as they relate to climate and anthropogenic stressors. Tallam also serves as a trans-disciplinary expert for planetary health ecology via machine learning, data science, environmental policy, and science communication. Tallam is not only a first generation woman of color breaking down boundaries, but is in all rights, a STEM innovator. Currently, Tallam works with Stanford University to understand the role of schistosomiasis in environmental reservoirs, and leads the pursuit of a computational-based based analysis of eelgrass wasting disease dynamics. In addition to her work at Stanford, Tallam has released multiple podcasts delving into her research interests as well as survival guides to succeeding in graduate school. And, as if that was not enough, she is a contributing author to Oceanbites, a science blog site with the goal of sharing scientific information in a way that non-experts can digest and understand the implications of the cutting edge research.

Before her work at Stanford, Tallam was awarded a Fulbright Scholar research grant to travel to India to study how climate change and urbanization have affected zoonotic disease ecology trends. This would not be Tallam’s first instance of traveling to India in the name of science as she spent part of her eleventh grade in high school in India studying the symbiotic relationship between humans and Asian elephants as they co-existed in rural areas. In what she calls her “self-exploration” Tallam has had a knack for self-creating opportunities to achieve her goals. In 2017, Tallam was selected as one of 50 Udall Scholars from across the U.S. The Udall Foundation awards scholarships to college sophomores and juniors for leadership, public service, and commitment to issues related to Native American nations or to the environment.

All of this to say, Krti Tallam is a very busy person and we are grateful to have been given an opportunity to speak to one of Illinois’ very accomplished alumna.

Stat-Chat: You grew up in the Bay Area of California, traveled the world to conduct research in India while still in high school, what brought you to Illinois?

Tallam: When I was an undergrad, I was fueled by the fact that I am a first generation student. I did not know much about how to approach the field of environmental studies. All I knew was that I wanted to do this. I did not really know the best approach, but I knew I really liked veterinary medicine, so that is how I started out. When I applied to Illinois, it was because it has one of the top vet med schools in the country. I started at Illinois in animal sciences, but then my career took a turn. I decided ecology was the better option for me.

I felt so supported by Illinois in general. But, specifically by the statistics department. I met [Statistics Professor] Jeff Douglas early on in some of my statistics courses and he really supported me in terms of understanding the different things that I had a chance to do and helped me overcome massive barriers I had with statistics. Honestly, Illinois is my favorite place because I actually felt like I was able to leap from there to where I am now. Illinois was the place where that energy was fostered.

You started in Animal Sciences, ultimately switched to Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences, and then found yourself pursuing statistics. What inspired you to pursue statistics as a double major?

I started out thinking that ecology and what I would call fundamental or applied sciences in our area was what I wanted to do. However, what I started to realize was that, especially with being with other ecologists a lot, was we actually code and do math and statistics much more than we realize, but we do not act as if we do. A lot of us are very fearful of math and stats. I know I had a massive fear of math and statistics. I could not look at a line of code without feeling overwhelmed. Statistics plays a massive role in how we actually analyze environmental data all around us. You cannot take data on birds and not use statistics; you cannot analyze that without that knowledge. I quickly kind of realized that the quantitative side of things was where I had to get really deep. It is ironic because now I am heavy in that space, in fact people mostly will come to me when there is a computational biology question versus just an ecology or biology question. I think the initial headspace was ‘Ok, let me try to get familiar with this space that I’m not very familiar with.” A second part of that motivation was in computer science, in statistics, in math, there were not always a whole lot of ecology examples. So, I wondered if I could be a bridge to bring some of these ecological examples into statistics and vice versa. Show people how complex statistics can be applied to a lot of these complex ecology questions. It ended up being very fitting.

You spent three years on the Illinois campus, what was your fondest memory or experience while on campus?

This might sound weird, but most of the people I was friends with while at Illinois were faculty or staff, or graduate students. I think one of the fondest things about the experience was more the people that supported my growth at a very pivotal point in my life. Once you leave that undergraduate bubble, you experience the real world in different ways and it gives you more context to what you experienced as an undergrad. For me that was a heightened awareness of how compassionate people were to the things I wanted to do. I was trying to triple major I had like 25 credits at any given time, I was working different jobs, and I still had people in both ecology and statistics who were willing to help me work to get those two degrees. I think getting those two degrees as a student who never thought I could do that in the first place was a massive confidence boost. Even today, I will constantly just check in with folks at Illinois. It was a collective experience, and I think I just really thrive in that.

Can you describe your research interests and explain what inspired you to tackle such an important but often overlooked subject?

I always had a fond interest in coastlines in particular. I was very fortunate to have grown up by a coast. I was not very connected to it; I just knew that it was nearby. When I started learning, and a lot of the edge habitat work I did at Illinois was what ironically brought me here [Stanford], but I learned that coastlines are going to be highly affected by climate change. More so than many other ecosystems. So it perked my interests like, “Oh, this is actually a much more vulnerable system than I thought it was”.

Part of the reason I have chosen the work that I do is because we only really study human diseases, but about 80% of diseases come from the environment. Most of the diseases that we encounter originate from environments, animals, or plants. I was working with disease ecologists at Illinois and they were the reason that I became interested in this. I research the implications for marine diseases, because we know a lot more about terrestrial diseases than we do marine diseases. This is a quantifiable way to study ecosystem, coastal health, marine health, and really be able to say these disease outbreaks happened over the course of these years, and what that means for future predictions. A lot of my work is around this interface of disease ecology. Part of the reason I think I am very lucky is because this has a lot of federal policy implications. We want to know how to fund and prevent stuff like this. Our environmental health has everything to do with human health and our planet is becoming more and more crowded. There is a lot more progress happening more rapidly and we need some way to be able to sustain that, not just through business and economic related initiatives.

It is about ecological health in general. Like to be able to go to a park and actually enjoy the park and not find some runoff of sewage coming into that park. It might be small, but it is going to make a difference at some point. So, that's some of these implications. It is the policy implications and that is where I found myself being really interested in the computational policy side of things. So where data science, machine learning, and policy kind of merge to be able to communicate to policymakers with new models. This is how they can translate and this is what future predictions kind of state especially with something like machine learning that goes beyond a forecast model.

You have been quoted as saying your motivation is inspired by “self-exploration” and what some might say are self-created opportunities to get you to where you want to be. For instance, the story of you making your way to India in high school to study the co-habitation between Asian elephants and field workers is based on you simply deciding to pursue a self-created opportunity. Can you explain how that came about?

I feel really humbled to receive so much support because it came from standing on so many people’s shoulders in the best sense of the phrase. I was very, very fortunate to have people see that I was keen about what I wanted to do, and help create those opportunities with me. So what happened was, I was 13 or 14, too young to work in this country but I knew that I wanted to do wildlife vet work. That is how I thought I would get into the conservation space. But I knew I was too young to get my hands on any animals. Legally, you are not allowed to until you are 18 in this country. So I am like, “Okay, I'll go to another country.” It taught me a lot about international conservation, meaning the complexities of just working in another place. You cannot do that unless you live there for a long time and you have skin in the game. There is all kinds of complexities there. The motivation for going to India was I was trying to understand is how can we co-exist with other species? A lot of what our problems arise from is just not understanding that it's not about driving one species out, or making humans feel inferior. It is about figuring out how to coexist in some way.

What I was trying to understand there was the coexistence between the elephants and the people. In these coffee and tea fields there’s these little paths between crops. During colonization times, the British who came in turned a lot of areas into a tea and coffee fields. So the elephants live where these people work and live so you will literally see elephants sometimes walking while there's a farmer working. It is insane. So what are we talking about? We are talking about literal coexistence there. So, I went there because it was an example of the thing I was trying to learn more about, which is human animal conflict mitigation, or just coexistence from our positives. Right? These elephants were interesting too. They would never stomp on the tea petals, they would walk these tiny little paths between and sometimes there were people or something that would scare them and then they freak out. And elephants could kill you if they wanted to.

It is terrible for them. It is terrible for the people. People die, elephants die. But that coexistence is why I went there. I was like, all right, this is my first debut, so to speak into the work that I am doing. I thought, why don't I take a real world example, put myself in a situation and see if I really want to do this work because it's like it's great to theorize about it right? But you show up and if you can't stand the fact that there are tarantulas everywhere well then you have to consider that.

You do not know a lot of the dangers because you're living in what's called a base camp. It is a rugged place where you bring your sleeping bag and that is what you got. I realized then, we do not need so much to thrive as people and that sort of makes me think about just being how my existence affects the planet. There is actually this, beautiful quote by Tony Foster. I just came across it this is like the crux of everything. I think ecologists sometimes have this connotation of like, “Oh, humans are bad, humans are the problem. We're ruining the planet.” You know what though, that is not true. But, Tony Foster says: “no life can be lived without environmental impact. all any of us can strive for, though, is to pay attention to tread carefully and to leave the world better than we found it.

You have successfully been charting your own path for some time through drive and motivation. What is some advice you would give to students who are not sure where to go or seem lost in trying to find their own way?

I love mentoring students because mentors are the only reason I got here. If there is one thing that can help drive motivation, it is the role models that you have around you. I would say find good mentors around you, even if you were not sure what you want to do. If you see someone doing something interesting, go talk to them. Go meet with them. Networking gives a lot of context. Networking is helpful but can be a little overwhelming. You do not have to network with every single person you meet, but if you find what they do interesting, go talk to them. I never thought I would do disease ecology. I did not care about diseases, but because I kept meeting with people, I was exposed to new ways to think as a scientist and as a researcher.  I think that is what we need to develop as an undergrad. It is not just what we do it is also how we think. The second thing and I do not think I have never said this before, but it is take long walks. I think in our education system, there is a lot of emphasis on to just go and do. But, if we can pause, take a walk and think and ask ourselves what do I want to say I did when I'm 50? What do I want to look back on be like, this is what I contributed? I never spent enough time just thinking about these things. I got lucky that I had people to support me but I did not always spend that time asking those questions. So honestly, I feel like I took a little longer to get to where I am than I could have taken.

You are a first generation woman of color in STEM, can you go into the significance of that and how you overcame the hurdles normally associated with being a woman or person of color in the world of STEM?

I think this is another reason why mentorship matters. Students do not have to be first generation to be lost in what they are doing. It can literally happen to anyone. People sometimes will say to me, “Well, you're a scientist first. Don't worry Krti, I see you as a scientist first.” I love that that is great, but, I also have to acknowledge that I am a Person of Color, a woman of color in this field. In environmental science, I really do not see a whole lot of people like myself. It motivates me to continue helping incredibly brilliant people from marginalized groups and to be a part of that movement and continue to show students of all backgrounds that it is possible to shape the direction of your future if you are actively thinking about it.

And if you show people how much you want to do something, even if you don't know what that is, if they see how passionate you are about trying to figure that out, people will help you. I think a lot of what people saw in me was that I was passionate about the planet in some way and they wanted to help me.

I think for me, I did not have a whole lot of guidance in this realm. It was actually someone in the environmental program and someone in the statistics department who said that I could do a Ph.D. That is actually why I thought I could do a PhD. I was randomly sitting down with these two different people and over the span of two days, both of them said the same thing. They said that you seem like you are highly qualified for a Ph.D. program. I did not know I could do that, but that is why I applied to Ph.D. programs.

Finally, what is the one question that you want people to ask you that they do not normally ask or what is your final thought that you want people to consider after reading this interview?

I want people to think about the environmental implications of their work, no matter what field they are in. Because the environment plays a role in absolutely anything. You name it, and I will find a reason for how the environment is going to connect to what you do. Everyone should take an environmental studies course in their undergrad. Not just if you are an environmental student, but everyone. So that we can all start to think about how younger generations are going into a future where the planet is going to look very different. What that means has to happen in the work that we do, which means we have to be thinking about it no matter what we are in.