What REALLY is a Wildlife Biologist?

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

The first lecture slide. Source: Lecture1_Population Dynamics_Lou Botsford

This was the very first lecture slide in my population dynamics course at UC Davis. Population dynamics was infamous in our department for being an ultimate rite of passage due to it’s notoriously challenge curriculum. So, when Professor Lou Botsford pointed to his slide, all 120 of us Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology majors, didn’t know how to react. Finally, he announced, “This [pointing to the slide] is all of you”. The class laughed. Lou smirked. Lou knew.

Lou knew that there is more truth to this meme than words could express. I can’t tell you how many times friends and acquaintances have asked me if I was going to be a park ranger. Incredibly, not all—or even most—wildlife biologists are park rangers. I’m sure that at one point, my parents had hoped I’d be holding a tiger cub as part of a conservation project—that has never happened. Society may think that all wildlife biologists want to walk in the footsteps of the famous Steven Irwin and say thinks like “Crikey!”—but I can’t remember the last time I uttered that exclamation with the exception of doing a Steve Irwin impression. Hollywood may think we hug trees—and, don’t get me wrong, I love a good tie-dyed shirt—but most of us believe in the principles of conservation and wise-use A.K.A. we know that some trees must be cut down to support our needs. Helicoptering into a remote location to dart and take samples from wild bear populations…HA. Good one. I tell myself this is what I do sometimes, and then the chopper crashes and I wake up from my dream. But, actually, a scientist staring at a computer with stacks of papers spread across every surface, is me and almost every wildlife biologist that I know.

The “dry lab” on the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer en route to Antarctica. This room full of technology is where the majority of the science takes place. Drake Passage, International Waters in August 2015. Source: Alexa Kownacki

There is an illusion that wildlife biologists are constantly in the field doing all the cool, science-y, outdoors-y things while being followed by a National Geographic photojournalist. Well, let me break it to you, we’re not. Yes, we do have some incredible opportunities. For example, I happen to know that one lab member (eh-hem, Todd), has gotten up close and personal with wild polar bear cubs in the Arctic, and that all of us have taken part in some work that is worthy of a cover image on NatGeo. We love that stuff. For many of us, it’s those few, memorable moments when we are out in the field, wearing pants that we haven’t washed in days, and we finally see our study species AND gather the necessary data, that the stars align. Those are the shining lights in a dark sea of papers, grant-writing, teaching, data management, data analysis, and coding. I’m not saying that we don’t find our desk work enjoyable; we jump for joy when our R script finally runs and we do a little dance when our paper is accepted and we definitely shed a tear of relief when funding comes through (or maybe that’s just me).

A picturesque moment of being a wildlife biologist: Alexa and her coworker, Jim, surveying migrating gray whales. Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Simeon, CA in May 2017. Source: Alexa Kownacki.

What I’m trying to get at is that we accepted our fates as the “scientists in front of computers surrounded by papers” long ago and we embrace it. It’s been almost five years since I was a senior in undergrad and saw this meme for the first time. Five years ago, I wanted to be that scientist surrounded by papers, because I knew that’s where the difference is made. Most people have heard the quote by Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” In my mind, it is that scientist combing through relevant, peer-reviewed scientific papers while writing a compelling and well-researched article, that has the potential to make positive changes. For me, that scientist at the desk is being the change that he/she wish to see in the world.

Scientists aboard the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer using the time in between net tows to draft papers and analyze data…note the facial expressions. Antarctic Peninsula in August 2015. Source: Alexa Kownacki.

One of my favorite people to colloquially reference in the wildlife biology field is Milton Love, a research biologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, because he tells it how it is. In his oh-so-true-it-hurts website, he has a page titled, “So You Want To Be A Marine Biologist?” that highlights what he refers to as, “Three really, really bad reasons to want to be a marine biologist” and “Two really, really good reasons to want to be a marine biologist”. I HIGHLY suggest you read them verbatim on his site, whether you think you want to be a marine biologist or not because they’re downright hilarious. However, I will paraphrase if you just can’t be bothered to open up a new tab and go down a laugh-filled wormhole.

Really, Really Bad Reasons to Want to be a Marine Biologist:

  1. To talk to dolphins. Hint: They don’t want to talk to you…and you probably like your face.
  2. You like Jacques Cousteau. Hint: I like cheese…doesn’t mean I want to be cheese.
  3. Hint: Lack thereof.

Really, Really Good Reasons to Want to be a Marine Biologist:

  1. Work attire/attitude. Hint: Dress for the job you want finally translates to board shorts and tank tops.
  2. You like it. *BINGO*
Alexa with colleagues showing the “cool” part of the job is working the zooplankton net tows. This DOES have required attire: steel-toed boots, hard hat, and float coat. R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer, Antarctic Peninsula in August 2015. Source: Alexa Kownacki.

In summary, as wildlife or marine biologists we’ve taken a vow of poverty, and in doing so, we’ve committed ourselves to fulfilling lives with incredible experiences and being the change we wish to see in the world. To those of you who want to pursue a career in wildlife or marine biology—even after reading this—then do it. And to those who don’t, hopefully you have a better understanding of why wearing jeans is our version of “business formal”.

A fieldwork version of a lab meeting with Leigh Torres, Tom Calvanese (Field Station Manager), Florence Sullivan, and Leila Lemos. Port Orford, OR in August 2017. Source: Alexa Kownacki.

We Are Family

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

The GEMM Lab celebrating Leigh’s birthday with homemade baked goods and discussions about science.

A lab is a family. I know there is the common saying about how you cannot choose your family and you can only choose your friends. But, I’d beg to differ. In the case of graduate school, especially in departments similar to OSU’s Fisheries and Wildlife, your lab is your chosen family. These are the people who encourage you when you’ve hit a roadblock, who push you when you need extra motivation, who will laugh with you when you’ve reached the point of hysteria after hours of data analysis, who will feed you when you’re too busy to buy groceries, and who will always be there for you. That sure sounds a lot like a family to me.

GEMM Lab members at the Society for Marine Mammalogy 2017 Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia at the masquerade ball. Photo source: Florence Sullivan

Many of us spend weeks—if not months—conducting field research for our various projects. None of us do this work from the main campus…seeing as the main campus for Oregon State University is located Corvallis, Oregon which is approximately 50 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The GEMM Lab isn’t actually based on the main campus; instead, you’ll find the lab at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, within a two-minute stroll of the picturesque Yaquina Bay. However, many of the core classes we need are only offered on main campus. This results in the GEMM Lab members being spread across Corvallis, Newport, and the dominant fieldwork site for their project (which could be locally in Oregon, or in the waters off of New Zealand). So rather than your typical, weekly, hour-long lab meetings, the GEMM Lab meetings are monthly and last on the order of 3-5 hours. Others hear this and think that must be overwhelming to have such a long lab meeting. On the contrary, these are scheduled to fit into all of our chaotic schedules. One day a month, all of us gather together as a family unit, share what’s new about our lives, be sounding boards for each other, solve problems, and do so in a supportive environment. Hopefully you’re getting the picture that just because we’re all part of the same lab, it doesn’t mean we’re geographically close. This is exactly why we cultivate meaningful relationships while we are together. The Harvard Business Review published an article 2015 based on multiple peer-reviewed journals, summarizing the six dominant characteristics necessary to foster a positive workplace:

  1. Caring for colleagues as friends
  2. Supporting each other
  3. Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes
  4. Inspiring each other at work
  5. Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work
  6. Treating each other with respect

And I can attest that every member within the GEMM Lab embraces all of these characteristics and I have a feeling that none of them have read that article prior to today. Family naturally follows those basic guidelines. And, our lab, is a family.

My very first GEMM Family Dinner.

Case and Point: when I was applying for graduate programs, I made a point of traveling to meet the GEMM Lab members at the monthly lab meeting. Sure, I also wanted to make sure that both Newport and Corvallis would be good fits in terms of locations. But, mostly, I needed to see if this Lab would be a strong family unit for my graduate school career and beyond. The moment I arrived at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, it was clear, this was a family that I could see myself being a part of. Not only had all the members brought some kind of food item to share at the lab meeting (this was important to me), but Florence had baked homemade bread, Dawn had offered to show me around Hatfield, and Leila had set up a time to take me around main campus with other grad students. During the lab meeting discussions, I was welcomed to contribute and I felt comfortable doing so. That was another big moment where something “clicked” and I knew I had found a great group of amazing scientists who were also amazing human beings.

GEMM Lab members at the Port Orford Field Station in August 2017.

Flash forward a few months, and now I am one of those lab members who is bringing food to lab meetings. More than that, we have GEMM Lab dinners and game nights. I may be based in Corvallis, but I commute out to Newport just for these fun activities because this is my family. I want to be with them—not only when we’re talking about our research—but when we’re laughing about the silly things that happen in our daily lives, comically screaming at each other in an effort to win whatever game is on the table, and enjoying home-cooked meals. This is my family.

GEMM Lab members helping some friends at South Coast Tours build a dirt-bag house in August 2017.

I guess I’d like to plug this message to any potential graduate student regardless of discipline(s): find a lab with people that you truly want to surround yourselves with—day and night—in good times and in bad times—because undoubtedly, you’ll need those kinds of people. And, to current lab constituents in any lab: it’s up to us to create a supportive family which will make everyone successful.

Sister Sledge knew just this when the group sang this verse of their hit, “We Are Family”:

Living life is fun and we’ve just begun
To get our share of this world’s delights
High, high hopes we have for the future
And our goal’s in sight
We, no we don’t get depressed
Here’s what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
You won’t go wrong, oh-no
This is our family Jewel

I’m grateful to have found a lab that embodies the lyrics of one of my favorite childhood karaoke songs. The GEMM Lab is not only a lab that produces cutting-edge science; it is a family that encourages one another in all facets of life—creating an environment where people can have high-quality lives and generate high-quality science.

GEMM Lab Family Dinner complete with the board game, Evolution, and homemade pizza. October 2017.

Twitterific: The Importance of Social Media in Science

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

How do you create the perfect chemical formula for social media in science? (Photo Source: The Royal Society of Victoria)

There’s a never-ending debate about how active we, as scientists, should be on social media. Which social media platforms are best for communicating our science? When it comes to posting, how much is too much? Should we post a few, critical items that are highly pertinent, or push out everything that’s even closely related to our focus? Personally, my deep-rooted question revolves around privacy. What aspects of my life (and thereby my science), do I keep to myself and what do I share? I asked that exact question at a workshop last year, and I have some main takeaways.

At last year’s Southern California Marine Mammal Workshop, there was a very informative session about the role of media in science. More specifically, there was a talk on “Social Media and Communications Hot Topics” by Susan Poulton, the Chief Digital Officer of the Franklin Institute science museum in Philadelphia.  She emphasized how trust factors into our media connections and networks. What was once communicated in person or on paper, has given way to this idea of virtual connections. We all have our own “bubbles”. Susan defined “bubbles” as the people who we trust. We have different classifications of bubbles: the immediate bubble that consists of our friends, family, and close colleagues, the more distant bubble that has your friends of friends and distant colleagues, and the enigma bubble that has people you find based on computer algorithms that the computer thinks you’ll find relative. Susan brought up the point that many of us stay within our immediate bubble; even though we may discuss all of the groundbreaking science with our friends and coworkers, we never burst that bubble and expand the reaches of our science into the enigma bubble. I frequently fall into this category both intentionally and unintentionally.

Coworkers from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center attending the Southern California Marine Mammal Workshop 2017. Pictured from left to right: Alexa, Michelle, Holly, and Keiko. (Photo source: Michelle Robbins.)

Many of us want to be advocates for our science. Education and outreach are crucial for communicating our message. We know this. But, can we keep what little personal life we have outside of science, private? The short of the long of it: No. Alisa Schulman-Janiger, another scientist and educator on the panel, reinforced this when she stated that she keeps a large majority of her social media posts as “public” to reach more people. Queue me being shocked. I have a decent social media presence. I have a private Facebook account, but public Twitter and LinkedIn accounts that I use only for science/academics/professional stuff, public Instagram, YouTube, and Flickr accounts that are travel and science-related, as well as a public blog that is a personal look at my life as a scientist who loves to travel. I tell you this because I am still incredibly skeptical about privacy; I keep my Facebook page about as private as possible without it being hidden. Giving up that last bit of my precious, immediate bubble and making it for the world to see feels invasive. But, I’m motivated to make sure my science reaches people who I don’t know. Giving science a personal story is what captures people; it’s why we read those articles in our Facebook feeds, and click on the interesting articles while scrolling through Twitter. Because of this, I’ve begun making more, not all, of my Facebook posts public. I’m more active on Twitter. I’m writing weekly blog posts again (we’ll see how long I can keep that up for). I’m trying to find the right balance that will keep my immediate bubble still private enough for my peace of mind and public enough that I am presenting my science to networks outside of my own—pushing through to the enigma bubble. Bubbles differ for each of us and we have to find our own balance. By playing to the flexibility of our bubbles, we can expand the horizons of our research.

Alexa at an Education/Outreach event, responding to a young student asking, “Why didn’t you bring this seal when it was alive?” (Photo source: Lori Lowder).

This topic was recently broached while attending my first official GEMM Lab meeting. Leigh brought up social media and how we, as a lab, and as individuals, should make an effort to shine light on all the amazing science that we’re a part of. We, as a lab, are trying to be more present. Therefore, in addition to these AMAZING weekly blog posts varying from highly technical to extremely colloquial, the lab will be posting more on Twitter. And that comes to the origin of this week’s blog post’s title. Leigh said that we should be “Twitterific” and I can’t help but feel that adjective perfectly suits our current pursuit. Here’s to being Twitterific!

With all that being said, be sure to follow us on: Twitter, YouTube, and here (don’t forget to follow us by entering your email address on the lefthand side of the page), of course.