Kim Ponzio:

Free time spent along the Peace River inspired wetland science

Kim Ponzio’s interest in the outdoors started as a child, when she would spend time hiking, swimming and canoeing Florida’s many natural wonders. But her career as a wetland scientist didn’t start until 1987 when she was inspired by a college class that changed the direction of her studies.

“I started attending Florida Atlantic University with the aim of becoming a doctor and went into the pre-med program. When I took plant taxonomy and plant physiology, I was bitten by the ‘botany bug’ and it changed the entire direction of my life,” she says.

Since then, she has studied and worked in many of Florida’s wetlands, including the Upper St. Johns River Basin where she spends the majority of her time. Her work is focused on large-scale, ecological studies to help the St. Johns River Water Management District better understand wetland ecosystem processes, which also serves as a basis for implementing science-based management strategies to restore and preserve wetlands. While in the office, Ponzio works with computer programs to analyze biological data that help to manage the wetlands that the district has restored or is conserving. “One powerful tool we have is using a geographic information system to map wetlands and to analyze spatial patterns of plant community change and how it relates to water, fire, and mechanical or chemical control,” she adds.

Ponzio has always enjoyed the outdoors and that love of Florida’s environment helped spur her career choice. “I grew up in Florida where the weather was pleasant year-round for spending time hiking in the pine flatwoods, swimming in lakes and springs, and canoeing the rivers and creeks. I believe the defining experiences in my life (for choosing wetland science and working with natural ecosystems) were the times I spent on the Peace River,” she says. “We spent nearly every vacation, long weekend, and most of our summers playing along the river.”

Today, through her work in the district’s Bureau of Water Resources, she still spends time working in the outdoors she loves, calling it one of the most rewarding parts of her job.

For herself and many colleagues, she believes that experiences in a person’s formative years help develop a passion in science, saying, “Not only do we work in the outdoors, but we also find great restorative powers in doing so.” For students interested in STEM, she is an advocate for gaining experience, whether it’s for school or just as a hobby. “I see experience as the conduit to finding a STEM vocation, which is also an avocation.”