When visitors enter the nature center and see a snake around my neck or a tarantula on my arm, they often quip “have you always been like this?” The short answer is yes. The longer answer has many chapters, locations and prominent species.
Growing Up Natural
Our family property in Cherokee County is where many of my fondest outdoor memories took place. I can still remember having baby teeth and planting seedlings with my dad. It was probably spring break and we were restoring pasture to riparian forest. Back at school, my friends and classmates would question me on what an acre was, and I was so proud to explain by comparing it to the size of our school’s ballfield.
Dirt, big machinery and time spent drifting in canoes is any kid’s dream, but that was my reality. I spent my childhood watching a permanent wetland be constructed after receiving grants from The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) and United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The family even helped stock the pond. Fast forward 15 years, and I am conducting nestbox surveys, swabbing frogs for chytrid fungus and dodging bear scat in that same wetland.
Developing Conservation Leadership
I learned about the Oklahoma Conservation Leadership Academy (OCLA) from a former supervisor who had given me a foot in the door for field research. I read the requirements and thought, “but I’m young, new to the workforce—surely not a leader.”
I forwarded the application to my dad who is a Ph.D Professor in Biology with decades of research and teaching experience. He was enthralled and giddy to apply. I helped read over his application and in the final hours before the deadline I thought to myself “there’s no way I can watch him do this and not even try to get in myself.” I pulled my application together and we were so pleased to learn that we were both accepted.
Here we were, my dad the biology professor and me, now classmates in a room full of new faces who would turn into colleagues and friends (and one who ended up being a cousin, but that’s another story). Our class was made up of people younger than me, retirees, oil and gas employees, zoo workers and tribal members. Through this experience, we learned many things, both quantifiable and more intangible. We learned that there’s always an opportunity to grow and absorb more, no matter your background or life stage.
For me, the biggest takeaway from participating in OCLA is how I communicate conservation-based ideas to others. While growing up around nature and being taught everything by a biology professor was wonderful, it masked my sense of how others grew up.
Watching my classmates learn and ask questions through our year of OCLA has helped me to better approach these topics with people I interact with—whether it’s the cashier when I’m pulling out my reusable bags, visitors at the nature center or friends asking on social media how they can be more environmentally conscious. My classmates who don’t have a biology background or don’t work in this field but took it upon themselves to join this class and learn more about conservation are truly inspiring.
Beginning a Career in Conservation and Science
Starting with my college adviser and through my first three jobs out of college, I had a series of amazing female role models. These women were sharp, dedicated and well-rounded. I never thought to feel less than as a woman in science or to ask about work/life balance as a mom. Just as importantly, I had incredible male professors and mentors who never questioned my abilities, intelligence or drive.
The first time I ever gave much thought, quickly followed by annoyance, about being a female field biologist was when I was working on beaches off a Massachusetts Island. I was building a temporary fence around a newly found piping plover nest. A man came out of his house to berate me about ruining his daughter’s vacation and said that I couldn’t be a real scientist since I was a girl wearing shorts. Other times, I had people stop me on the beach to ask if I was a Girl Scout and what project I was doing.
Working in field research and having interactions with the public that were usually confrontational about breaking the rules led me directly to where I am today. I loved the work I was doing on the ground with protected birds, but I wanted to share that information beyond the people I stumbled into on the beach. I needed an outlet for my passion, and the perfect place was parks.
Naturally a Naturalist
One of my favorite things to point out on guided hikes at the park is scat. This is a huge clue into an animal’s life and proof that it was there without being seen. What animal is it? What was it eating? Where was it frequenting? At 10-years-old, my family was exploring a mountainside in northern Utah, and I disagreed with my aunt about her scat identification. I proudly boasted, “I know my scat!” Did I ever have a choice not to go into the science and biology field?
The coolest places I’ve ever been to (and lived in!) in my life are parks or TNC sites—whether Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Springs or Goose Island’s Big Tree or Virginia’s barrier islands—and I want to show others how cool these places are too.
I want to make being a girl and being excited about science the norm. I ended up in this field because I saw women who I looked up to not only doing this work, but excelling in it.
The most important thing I do every day is helping to shed light on how amazing our natural world is. There is only so much I can do or you can do, but it will take a whole lot of us understanding that undisturbed tallgrass prairies, barrier islands and mountaintops are not only beautiful, but intrinsically importantly to our planet.