What do you do?
I study predator-prey interactions large mammal communities, focusing on how to successful restore large carnivores like lions and wolves to places where they have been driven extinct by humans.
Why did you choose this field?
I've always wanted to be some kind of biologist. It really started from when I was a kid, reading stories about Jane Goodall, George Schaller - these people who went on exciting adventures and lived in the wilderness and developed this amazing insight into the lives of animals. As I grew older, into high school, I read more books about science itself: I adore the works of David Quamman, Stephen Gould, Carl Zimmer - there's something about people who can spin a really fascinating story about research and why it's important. I went on to do my bachelor's degree in Zoology from a small liberal arts college. But I didn't go straight to graduate school - I took about two years after I completed undergrad to work as a field assistant on a bunch of different ecology projects around the world. It was an absolutely fascinating experience: I got to catch guppies in the Caribbean, study mice in Africa, and catch snakes in the South Pacific. Not only a lot of adventure, but a lot of practical hands-on learning about the process of science that has been enormously beneficial to me in graduate school and as a scientist.
Working on all of these different projects also helped me to understand what questions I thought were genuinely fascinating in ecology that I wanted to study, and these turned out to be puzzling through how species were connected to each other in wildlife communities. Armed with this knowledge, I applied to graduate school to study predator-prey interactions, and have since gone from working to understand how the relationship between predators and prey helps to structure ‘intact’ wildlife communities to figuring out how to successfully restore the functional ecological relationships when trying to conserve and rebuild protected areas.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
When I was a kid, I used to read about the Serengeti in my encyclopedias and see pictures of the rolling savannah in books and on TV. My grandmother spent time in Africa when she was a young woman and used to regale us with stories about her incredible wildlife encounters in these wonderful-sounding places called Botswana and Zanzibar. When I was in high school and college, I used to take part in online citizen science programs, helping researchers in Tanzania classify camera trap photos of giraffes and lions and rhinoceroses.
Now, I have tracked lions in the Serengeti and helped release endangered rhinos back into the Tanzanian savanna. I’ve led student groups through Botswana and taught in Zanzibar, sharing with young people how to study the amazing wildlife of these exotic locations. I even now manage the very citizen science programs that I loved so many years ago! And have added many new authentic research experiences for the next generation of conservationists to take part in.
Why do you love working in STEM?
There’s so many things I love about my job. I live for the field work – not only the incredible opportunities to truly live and understand some of the world’s most amazing ecosystems, but also the chance to be resourceful and resilient in difficult places and situations. When I’m not in the field, I love solving puzzles. There’s nothing better than the aha! moment when a pattern pops out from the chaotic mess of data and all of the sudden you understand something out our world that no one has ever known before. I’m also all about sharing the joy of science with others, whether it’s by teaching and capacity-building in Africa, providing authentic research experiences with students around the world, or inspiring the next generation of young scientists, particularly women, to rise up and continue to take their place in the STEM sphere.
Best advice for next generation?
I think girls and other under-represented groups in STEM need to know that it’s going to be hard – but that we’re all in this together. Science and STEM field are amazing, inspiring: you stand on the shoulders of giants to discover marvelous new things that humankind has never known before. You derive theories, solve equations, save wildlife, develop technology, and make Earth a better place. However, it’s a struggle, and we struggle more than most. But there are people out there who are looking out for you and for each other. Women in STEM lift each other up and support each other and slowly but surely, we’re making this field better for everyone.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
“Science is not a heartless pursuit of objective information. It is a creative human activity, its geniuses acting more as artists than as information processors.” ~ Stephen Jay Gould