Sit-Downs with Standouts: Patricia “Trish” Holden

Professor Patricia “Trish” Holden conducts research that bridges the fields of civil & environmental engineering and environmental microbiology from within UCSB’s Bren School for Environmental Science & Management, where Trish has taught courses in microbial processes in the environment, bioremediation, and biogeochemistry for many years. She looks closely at the interactive effects of soil, water, and nutrients on deep-soil bacterial processes; bacterial interactions with engineered nanomaterials in soil and water; and microbiological coastal water quality in urban environments. With her research team, she has applied her work to disaster issues, including sediment disposal following the tragic Montecito debris flow in 2018 and, more recently, contributing to understanding how, and why, SARS-CoV-2 can be monitored in wastewater including centralized collection and septic systems. 

From her UCSB perch, Professor Holden peers UC-wide, representing the UCSB Natural Reserve System within the UC Natural Reserve System (NRS) in various capacities – including as Chair of its University-wide Advisory Committee. The UC NRS’ expansive operations across the UC are realized thanks to a constellation of 41 sites (Reserves) that together serve California as a unique powerhouse of applied-research and conservation venues. 

Given her experience leading critical research from her home campus and her UC-wide perspective and leadership, it isn’t surprising that Professor and Chair Patricia Holden’s insights proved central to realizing UC DRN’s vision…so one of UC DRN’s Inaugural Disaster-Resilience Fellows, UCSB senior Tiffany Deng, sat down with Dr. Holden to learn more about her work and insights into the UC system – including the critical social challenges our unparalleled capacities are uniquely geared to address.

Q_What is your favorite aspect of the work you are doing?  Figuring out where the boundary of knowledge lies and how answering questions can also help others solve problems.

Q_What kind of responses have you had from the UC community towards your work? Positive, including many productive collaborations that benefit my research team including students, postdocs and staff scientists. The UC System is a powerful reservoir of expertise and collaborative will. 

Q_From your research experience, what was the most impactful? Sometimes something you learn from your own research causes you to think about the world in a different way. Our work with bioaccumulation and biomagnification of nanoparticles caused me to think about microbes, the base of many food webs, as entry points into higher organisms not only for essential nutrients but also for pollutants. I had not thought about algae, for example, like that, and reading older literature about DDT caused me to reset my thinking, while doing our own research.

Q_Is there an intersection between the various reserves? In how research is conducted, and who is interacting with the land on each of the Reserves? Users apply through the Reserve Application Management System (RAMS).; that is to say there is a diverse type of research projects performed. Each Reserve has its own Director, with many of them living onsite at the Reserve. At UCSB, Dr. Marion Wittmann is the Executive Director overseeing all 7 of UCSB ‘s NRS Reserves. For more information, the UCSB NRS has a great website:

Q_What future do you see for the NRS – in five, ten years and beyond? We have a new UC NRS Executive Director, Dr. Steven Monfort, and I am excited to see his vision and how it manifests. There is bound to be more and more education and research within an increasingly diverse NRS, that is highly relevant to solving the great environmental and social issues facing Californians.

Q_Is there any legislation that you would like to see implemented or changed that could help you improve how science in your field is conducted? I am thinking that change lies more at the grassroots, with individuals taking action, these days.

Q_How did you first get interested in UC DRN, and how did your experience across the UC system’s operations towards environmental restoration, protection, and research help prime the pump for you to connect?  I met Nico Pascal (UC DRN Founder) and was taken by the idea once I read the vision statement he shared. Plus, his enthusiasm for the project was palpable and resonated with my disaster response-related research at the time. Further, we shared a belief in the power of the UC as a system. 

Q_Where do you see the UC DRN and UCSB NRS partnership going?  The first step is to showcase the strengths of each, through funded projects and working together to achieve good. Then good ideas will flow as needs come into focus. The Reserves and associated expertise are tremendous resources that the UC DRN can leverage. The UC NRS is a great example of how the UC can work as a system over decades and, while doing so, provide great benefit to students, and to fundamental and translational understanding.

What are the main goals you are hoping the collaboration achieves? Each organization benefits: the UC DRN shows how it can bring researchers, agencies, problems and funding together in the disaster resilience space to accomplish translational research; the UCSB NRS shows how it can support such research–as it typically does–but also use the partnership to enhance its data science capabilities via hardware and software innovations and improvements, and through augmenting personnel in these areas since they represent rapidly evolving and growing needs of the UC NRS user base.

Q_What is the ceiling for UC DRN across the UC?  I don’t see one.