I never thought I could be a scientist and grew up in a family that didn’t even camp.
How did I then end up as a wildlife biologist traveling to remote corners of the globe?
My parents are not scientists and didn’t even go to college. I wasn’t the smartest person in my class and I didn’t have any strong mentors to show me the way. My family was not outdoorsy, and we even “camped” by staying in hotels overnight at state parks. I’ve experienced many ups and downs throughout my life and the path to my career in wildlife biology was not expected, linear, or easy by any means. I hope my story encourages you to go after what you are passionate about and realize that you can achieve things you never knew you were capable of.
Passion for Animals
I grew up loving animals. Some of the best memories of my life are looking for animals with my family. These weren’t extraordinary or unusual animals, just animals we saw in our every day lives in Buffalo, NY. My family was not outdoorsy. My mom would take me to the library and we would watch ducks in the creek behind before we went in. We would look for snakes and frogs on our dog walks; I can still remember where I would find the most snakes sunning. My absolute favorite experiences were in Allegheny State Park. We would drive around the park at night looking for animals with a spotlight.
My parents taught me to love ALL the animals – the ugly ones, the common ones, the forgotten ones, even the ones that annoy you or cause problems in your yard or home. They also taught me to have compassion for them. Through this compassion, I developed innate curiosity. What were they thinking? What were they doing? Animal behavior is still my favorite aspect of research, and it all started with common species.
I grew up caring about conservation mostly through my dad, and largely because he grew up poor. My grandfather died before I knew him, when my dad was only 18 years old. He had to grow up fast and needed to make money to take care of his three younger brothers. He never forgot this feeling of worrying about money, and worked hard throughout his life as a small business owner (jewelry store) so that we would never have to worry. He taught us to never take advantage of what we have and to save money wherever we could, even though at many times during my life we didn’t have to.
When I was 11 years old, I got a brochure in the mail on becoming a student ambassador through the People-to-People program. It was on Australia and New Zealand. I didn’t know anything about these countries; I just knew that I wanted to go. I asked my dad, applied for the program, and was accepted. My parents and I had never been out of the country (except for Canada which was 30 min away by car from Buffalo). At the time, a lot of my family members criticized my (and my dad’s) decision. They thought that I was too young and that I couldn’t really appreciate it or understand it, but in retrospect, I know this trip played a deep role in who I am today.
For almost a year, my parents and I went to meetings with the other students and chaperones to prepare for this trip. After many months, I flew across the world with a group of strangers for three weeks. Looking back, I can’t believe I did this at such a young age. I stayed with multiple host families in cities and rural areas throughout both countries and got to experience completely new ways of life.
Me holding a lamb during one of my homestays in Australia.
Before sixth grade, I moved ~20 minutes within Buffalo. Although it didn’t seem far, it was a world away from my friends and the neighborhood I grew up in. I never felt at home at this new school and was made fun of for my strong opinions about animals. I was a vegetarian and the other children teased me relentlessly for this decision . As a result, I became shy, which is a great contrast to who I was before I moved and who I am now.
During high school, I was also diagnosed with hypothyroidism. This is something that has impacted me my whole life. I’ve always felt slow physically, but later also mentally at times, and was prone to depression. Your thyroid controls your metabolism, regulating the amount of energy you have. Hypothyroid meant that I wasn’t getting enough of the hormones I needed. Despite going on treatment, I struggled with fatigue, depression, and weight gain my entire life.
Lost in College
I hardly regret anything in my life, but for a long time, I regretted my decision on college. I didn’t know what I wanted to be or where I wanted to go, and how to search for a good school (these were the days before the Internet was useful for things like this). The guidance counselors were not much help and I was left looking at schools that I knew of, which included local schools or Ivy league schools. The schools I got into were one that was 15 minutes away and one that was three hours away. I decided to stay local because I had a scholarship to this university and even commuted from home because it didn’t make sense to me to spend thousands of dollars to live 15 minutes away. While I had absolutely no student debt, I made almost no friends during this time and I didn’t have any traditional, college fun. I did study hard though and maintained good grades.
I also didn’t know what I wanted to be when I finished. I thought I wanted to be an actress because I loved good film and television (and still do to this day), but was insecure and struggled with body image issues. In high school, I was never cast in any speaking roles and I didn’t even make the cut for productions in college. I still pursued acting, but had biology as a backup career so that I could be a medical doctor if acting failed. During this time, I spent a summer with my brother living in New York City to take acting classes. Living with my brother in NYC was one of the most fun and best experiences of my life.
Kenya Changed My Life
My brother recommended that I study abroad in college. I really admired him and decided it was a good idea, and it also just sounded like fun. As this was before the Internet really took off, I visited the Study Abroad office at my university. I collected dozens of pamphlets, spread them over my bed, and agonized over which program I should pursue. All the programs were all in Europe to study theater or film, except for one of them. That one was for the School for Field Studies in Kenya (SFS) on wildlife management. I had no real reason to go to Kenya, and in fact, give my career goals in acting, it didn’t make sense for me to go. But just like I had for Australia and New Zealand, I felt compelled to go and thought that I would never be brave enough to go to Africa alone later in life.
It was through this experience in Kenya that I, ironically, realized I could have a career in wildlife biology. The only scientist I knew of was Jane Goodall. She moved to the forests of Tanzania to study chimpanzees with very few people and was sometimes alone. I knew I could never do this; I was too scared and had never even camped before, let alone live in remote places in Africa. But through my experience at SFS, I realized it didn’t have to be this extreme and that there were lots of career options in wildlife biology, including those in the US. My experience in SFS also allowed me to rebuild my confidence. Again, I had traveled halfway across the world with a bunch of strangers. I had nothing to lose and a chance to start over. I stepped out of my shell and started to become confident with who I was.
First Jobs in Wildlife Biology
I now knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I still didn’t know for what. I took three years off working various internships before going back to school. In the first internship, I worked for the Bureau of Land Management in St. George, Utah updating water catchment maps. This was a difficult experience for me. St. George was very different culturally. For the six months I was there, I didn’t develop any friendships and was very lonely. I did, however, get to do some cool things though, including tracking bats in the northern Grand Canyon and gained experience to lead me to my next internship.
My next internship was in Disney World, and one that I absolutely loved. No, I wasn’t a Disney princess (although I would have loved to be!), but instead worked at the Wildlife Tracking Center in Animal Kingdom. This was one of the best jobs I ever had. Most of my research was on monitoring the hormones of the animals at Animal Kingdom. For example, one of the elephants was pregnant and very close to giving birth. The gestation period of elephants is about two years, so we needed to monitor her hormones daily to look for signals that she would be giving birth soon, and therefore alert the veterinarians. I was also able to participate in other fun projects like surveying the wildlife on undeveloped land within Disney and collecting alligator vocalizations.
My last internship before graduate school was with the School for Field Studies in Kenya, where I previously attended as a student. I lived and worked in Kenya for a year. While I mostly helped in running the program for students, here I got the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Moses Okello’s research on tourist preferences of wildlife. We interviewed tourists and followed them when on safari to record what animals they stopped for. I was to co-write two publications for this research, one of which is still my most cited publication. In between semester breaks, we had month-long breaks, and I traveled all across Kenya and visited nearby Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania.
Studying African Forest Elephants
The following year, I started my Ph.D. at the University of Missouri. I knew I wanted to study larger vertebrates, and preferably internationally, but that was it. My professor was a geneticist, so as long as my project involved genetic research, I was good to go. It was amazing in that I had the academic freedom to chose whatever I wanted, but I was also overwhelmed because I could choose whatever I wanted. I struggled for about half of a year, but after being introduced to a data set on African forest elephants from one of my advisor’s colleagues, I found something intriguing that was the stepping stone for my research.
In this dataset of six GPS-tracked elephants, the elephants’ home ranges looked extremely small and didn’t seem to overlap with each other. We’re talking only tens of kilometers for elephants! This contrasts with what we know about African savanna elephants. Many of them have large home ranges with extensive overlap between individuals. In savanna elephants, their maternal kin is important to their survival and they can maintain relationships with hundreds of individuals. Given the GPS locations of the forest elephants tracked, it seemed like their sociality differed from savanna elephants. No one had ever looked into this. In fact, hardly anyone studied forest elephants at all.
I spent the next few years with most of my time collecting data in Gabon and running genetic analyses on forest elephant dung samples in the lab. In Lope National Park, I observed elephant groups, identified individuals, and tried to collect fresh dung from them (“How to Tell Individual Elephants Apart“). From group observations, I made network models of the elephants and overlaid their genetic information to see if related individuals were more likely to be group members (“Secretive Forest Elephant Friendships“). I also organized transects across the park, looking for as much dung as possible, to see if dung found closer together was from more closely related individuals (“Elephant Dung is the Easiest Way to Get DNA“). My field work brought me many amazing adventures including traveling by canoe to the extreme north of the Republic of Congo, getting surrounded by hundreds of mandrills, and even having an elephant trying to break into my room (“The Night African Forest Elephants Broke Into My Room“).
Hard Times During My Ph.D.
Graduate school did not come without difficulties. I had a severe case of imposter syndrome, struggled with anxiety, depression, and migraine headaches. Quite honestly, I never felt like I belonged in graduate school. While I loved my research, I looked very different from the other students. Most of the women didn’t wear any makeup and many students wore field clothes, even when they weren’t in the field. They “looked” like ecologists, while I did not.
I looked like someone who hated being outside. I started to worry that people did not take me seriously and thought I was stupid. This was compounded by all of the messaging I received from the overall culture of academia. Many thought and still think that time spent away from science is not time well spent. I was paranoid that people would look at my appearance and think that too much of my time was devoted to fashion and makeup, when it really only took a few minutes of my morning.
On top of this my mom was very sick. She was diagnosed with liver cancer (originally from breast) before I went to graduate school and was slowly getting worse – thinner, more frail, and weaker. I also fell in love with someone my second year in graduate school and knew I wanted to get married. I never intended on having a wedding during graduate school, but I wanted my mom to be there, so I planned a wedding during this extremely stressful time and got married three weeks after I got back from field work. At one point, I felt so overwhelmed and disheartened, that I wanted to quit. The major thing that was holding me back was that I truly loved my project and was so deep into my research that changing to a Masters degree wouldn’t have saved me any time or work.
How I Saw the Light at the End of the Tunnel
What really changed my perspective and gave me the motivation to keep going was working with kids. I participated in a National Science Foundation program called GK-12, where I worked with teachers to co-create lesson plans for their classroom based on my own research. Working with these teachers reminded me how cool my research was. Then introducing it to their kids in the classroom took it one step further. The fifth graders I taught were so eager and excited to learn from me. They asked in-depth and off-the-wall (but good) questions about my work and allowed me to see my science for what it was: a quest for truth-seeking in nature on something that nobody has ever studied before.
This was also my first time working with camera traps. I wrote a grant proposal with the students to fund a project on their school grounds. Our school was rural, so we chose camera traps and began to study the wildlife around us.
My Mom’s Death
In December of 2012, I graduated with my Ph.D. I stayed in Missouri for nine months after and worked on a postdoc with one of my former committee members on the influence of resources on raccoon genetic patterns. I delved further into camera trap research, running a study on of disgust in raccoons (“How Do Humans Impact Raccoons?“).
The following spring, my mom lost her nine year battle with liver cancer, which originated from her breast nearly 20 years before. While I was extremely sad, I also knew this was coming for a long time and in some ways, was grateful for my mom to no longer be in pain. We expected her to live up to two years after her liver cancer diagnosis, but she defied the odds and lived nine years. Her survival was so unexpected that doctors wrote about her in medical research journals.
During this time I also started to really pay attention to my health. When my mom was diagnosed, she stopped drinking (although she didn’t drink much to begin with), ate blueberries, turmeric, and other cancer-fighting foods religiously. I don’t know for sure if this helped, but the doctors could not explain her success. My goal in life is to carry on my mom’s legacy of showing people how amazing all the animals are.
eMammal Camera Trapping
During my postdoc, I applied for jobs all over and was surprised that people pigeon-holed me as a geneticist or an elephant biologist. I now had a husband and too many pets, so I could no longer look abroad for jobs, which was where most of the elephant jobs were, and although I appreciated genetics as a tool, it wasn’t my true love. I was reluctant to look for temporary postdoc positions, because I really wanted to move somewhere permanently.
However, I decided to apply for a postdoc on the project eMammal project, where my job would be working with teachers to implement camera traps into their classrooms for kids to collect data for real science. I knew of and admired Roland Kays through my research and was extremely excited for this opportunity. I got it, and this experience changed my life.
With eMammal, I worked on highly collaborative projects with remarkable mentors and teammates. During this period, I blossomed as a scientist. In graduate school, I was insecure, but in my postdoc, I developed confidence and learned how to think big and creatively. I loved working with teachers and saw how eMammal was transformational in their classrooms and students’ lives.
Both felt empowered by their ability to contribute to research and all of us were amazed by the kinds of animals we found on school grounds. I set up eMammal projects in dozens of schools around the world in North Carolina, Kenya, Mexico, and India. I found my dream job. However, this time in my life was not without struggles and uncertainty.
Full Blown Fancy Scientist
Working with teachers also taught me to embrace my fancy side. In graduate school, although I loved dressing up and wearing makeup, I didn’t feel comfortable doing it because I was worried people were judging me or thinking I spent too much time on those things over science (which is not true). Although I was still a little fancy, I held back, and quite honestly, it didn’t feel that good.
When I started working at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the culture was different and I didn’t feel uncomfortable embracing who I really was. I started to dress up again and when I worked with teachers, they kept telling me how fancy I was. Because of the stereotype scientists have, they were not expecting this from me and called me a Fancy Scientist. I loved the name and changed my social media channels to reflect this. Now, I bring attention to other fancy scientists around the world by featuring a Fancy Scientist every Friday.
Shortly after moving to North Carolina, my headaches increased in pain and intensity. I was now getting them almost every other weekend and they would last 2-3 days each. When I went to doctor after doctor, they were only willing to prescribe me stronger medication to take away the pain, but would not help determine what was causing them to begin with. I was determined to end my migraines and turned to unconventional health podcasts to look for answers. Eventually, I decided to see a functional medicine doctor, which meant I had to pay for all of my services out of pocket costing me quite literally, thousands of dollars. The source of my headaches ended up being mercury toxicity, something that no doctor had brought up to me before. I went through a detoxification process and now, several years later, I can count the number of headaches I’ve had on one hand.
Despite solving my headaches, I still suffer from unexplained fatigue. I’ve even been tested for narcolepsy. Being poisoned by mercury, living with an autoimmune thyroid disorder, and seeking solutions to my chronic fatigue has led me to pay incredible attention to my health, in addition to trying non-conventional medical solutions. My risk for breast cancer is high, as both my mom and my maternal grandmother had it. I therefore try to take exceptional care of myself, remembering my mom defeating the odds of her own cancer. Having suffered from mercury toxicity, I am now extremely cautious about what products I ingest and put on my body, and have become an advocate for environmental health. I am so passionate about this cause and one company in particular, Beautycounter, that I have decided to become a consultant to encourage people to replace their personal care products with those that are safer for us and the environment.
My Uncertain, But Exciting Future
My time with eMammal is almost up. I absolutely love my job, but my position is grant-funded, meaning it is temporary. In the meantime, I am trying to figure out ways to make my eMammal position sustainable, but I have also been searching for jobs, and I really want to stay in the Raleigh, NC area. Although uncertainty scares me, I am excited for this new chapter of my life and I hope I can continue to research animals and share my mom’s legacy of connecting people to nature.
If you’ve gotten this far, thank you so very much for reading my story! I hope it offered you some inspiration and the courage to pursue your passions in life. I look forward to interacting with you on our journey learning about animals and what we can do to help them survive on this amazing planet. Never hesitate to contact me.