New faculty profile: Jessica Hua specializes in aquatic ecotoxicology

Jessica Hua joined the UW–Madison faculty in August 2022 as an assistant professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Austin, Texas.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I received my bachelor’s in biology and kinesiology at Southwestern University and my PhD at the University of Pittsburgh in ecology and evolution. I did my post doc at Purdue University in disease ecology. I was then an assistant and associate professor at SUNY Binghamton where I served as the director for the Center for Watershed Studies. I was at SUNY for 7 years before moving to UW–Madison. 

How did you get into your field of research?
I played college basketball and one of my teammates was in a research lab and suggested that it was a good experience for my then goal of pursuing medical school. By the time I applied for research opportunities the only option still available was to work on amphibians. I was a little nervous as I was afraid of amphibians at the time but, looking back, this was such a formative experience. I was so fortunate to end up in this lab because the PI’s mentorship led me to my PhD program in amphibian ecotoxicology which catalyzed my current career. 

What are the main goals of your current research and outreach programs?
Research in the Hua lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison utilizes an interdisciplinary approach to address two main goals: (1) to understand ecological interactions, evolutionary processes, and eco-evo feedbacks in human modified environments and (2) to evaluate the role of outreach and citizen science in shaping community perception and understanding of science.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
I was really attracted to the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, which has a longstanding commitment to supporting faculty in both research and the integration of research and education. I describe it below in more detail but I was also very much drawn to the department and university’s commitment to making a difference beyond the university. This describes exactly my vision for the lab. I am excited to take my training in basic ecology and evolution and translate it to solving real-world challenges. 

What was your first visit to campus like?
I only had the chance to visit campus one time at the end of December. Despite being incredibly cold, the energy and pride of students and people I interacted with was contagious. It was clear – this is a place people want to be. 

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I come from a refugee family where the focus early in my life was often on “just making it” through the day to day. I only came to an appreciation for the importance of wildlife and protecting our natural ecosystems later as an adult. I hope that in my classes I can both teach students about why we need to care about protecting our natural resources as well as encourage them that they themselves have all the tools necessary to engage in protecting wildlife and the ecosystems they live in. 

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I do! My lab uses instagram primarily @hua_lab_uw and Twitter: @jhua13. We also use my webpage to distribute free resources for educators:

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Absolutely. This was one of the main reasons I was so attracted to UW. Many many people played instrumental roles in helping me to arrive where I am today – from my parents who made the very difficult decision to leave their home country to give me the chance at a better life, to my mentors and advisors who took a chance on someone with limited experience and guided me through the winding path of research and academia. My past shapes my personal work philosophy in that I am determined to pay it forward. We have had many conversations within my lab group and while we have incredibly different backgrounds, one thing that drives us all is the notion that what we do must have a larger purpose. Whether that means translating our work to reach broader audiences or developing tools that allow community members to be a part of the science or providing opportunities to people from traditionally underrepresented groups, we are committed to doing what we can through our research, outreach, and community engagement efforts to ensure that our efforts go beyond our lab/classroom. 

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
My lab group is currently really interested in understanding: Why are some communities more susceptible to disease than others? Towards this end, one of our projects aims to sample ponds throughout Wisconsin to assess how pollutants influence amphibian community susceptibility to disease. Given the large number of ponds in the state, it is not possible for us to feasibly assess every single pond so we plan to involve citizen scientists. Our citizen scientist are 5th graders! To train our 5th graders, we use resources put together by an interdiciplinary team of undergraduates. Resources have included: lesson plans, art shows, graphic novels, children’s books, card games, and a mobile app. Learn more about this effort here.  

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I love sports. I played basketball in college but these days I mostly am involved in disc sports like ultimate frisbee and disc golf. When not in the lab, I am a professional disc golfer and hope to compete for as long as I am able.