Estuary News

June 2022
June 2022

Finding Her Way to Fish: Denise Colombano

The path into a career is not always a straightforward one.

“I hated school. I mean, hated school,” says Denise Colombano, a postdoctoral fellow and Delta Science Fellow working on fisheries research at UC Berkeley. Today, Colombano feels that it is important to talk about her story as a way of encouraging inclusiveness and opportunity within her field — and in the sciences in general. 

“I actually flunked ninth grade, and was attending a continuation school, when my science teacher asked if anyone was interested in skipping classes for the day.”

Colombano jumped at the chance, and found herself at Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline in Oakland, helping the Audubon Society train schoolchildren in birdwatching. “We were supposed to be teaching these kids, but I was learning the entire time because I didn’t know a thing about what we were doing,” she recalls. “And I got completely into it. It was the first time I realized that I actually liked science.”

After that, she returned to volunteer at every event that she could, eventually became an intern at the Audubon Society, and then went on to study environmental science and policy at UC Davis — where she also discovered her interest in fisheries through hands-on experience, this time in an elective class. 

“I didn’t really have an expectation for how much I was going to like it,” she says. “But I got completely hooked on fish, all things fish.” By the end of the semester, she once again had signed up for an internship.

Colombano holding fish

Today, Colombano is part of the Berkeley Freshwater Group, which studies watersheds throughout California. She describes her work on the San Francisco Bay-Delta as having a holistic “one Estuary, one science” perspective. She uses time-series modeling to investigate how climate change effects on weather and freshwater flows will likely impact future habitat suitability and fish communities from the San Francisco Bay to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. 

Colombano is also helping to develop a web-based Shiny app that will allow users to click around and look at how different marine organisms such as fish and plankton respond under different climate change scenarios “This will be more of an interactive tool that lets people engage with the data and visualize different outcomes,” she says.

Facilitating engagement with science is important to Colombano on many different levels. Her own experience of overcoming challenges in the classroom, and surprising even herself with her passion for science — once she got outside in nature — has made her keenly aware of how many other skilled fish and wildlife scientists might be falling through the cracks of society’s expectations for them. While she says being a woman in a field traditionally dominated by white males has not always been easy (difficulties have included not having her ideas credited properly, or being expected to be pleasant or to act as a peacemaker in challenging situations), she is at the same time aware of the challenges that she has been spared because, though female, she is also white and privileged. 

“One of the things I’ve learned about fisheries is that there is very little representation in leadership from different backgrounds,” Colombano says. “As much as I would like to pat myself on the back for being a woman in science, I really have to be aware of the fact that I’m not part of a minority group, I’m part of the majority group. So I want to focus on creating an inclusive space for others, to welcome people and use my privilege to make sure that anyone who wants to study science feels like they belong and are given equal opportunity.”

This episode of Science-in-Short was produced by Jacoba Charles in collaboration with Kathleen Wong. 

Music by Peter Rubissow. 

Support for Science-in-Short is provided by the Delta Stewardship Council

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About the author

Jacoba Charles is a naturalist and science writer. Her first article, at age eight, was about the behavior of ducks as observed from the roof of her family’s barn. It went unpublished. She later graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism (2007). In addition to writing for Estuary News, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, and Modern Farmer, Bay Nature, Marin Magazine, and various literary publications. Her botany blog can be found at and her website is She lives in Petaluma with her family.