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I study wildlife ecology and conservation. Two weeks ago I was riding an airboat catching alligators by hand. Two weeks before that I sat in on the autopsy of a Florida black bear and a Florida panther and I extracted brain tissue from white tailed deer to study chronic wasting disease. I’ve learned how to catch a jaguar with a foot snare and how to properly handle diamondback rattlesnakes (Protip: you don’t). A year ago I saw my first echidna in the wild and made krill sausages for research on Antarctic leopard seals. Not long before that I was greeted by a sting ray in a sea of jellyfish right after studying dolphin-sized tuna. Before that, I hopped in a helicopter and tracked orchid bees across an island before climbing rainforest trees to catch three-toed sloths.
And it all started with a trip to Wyoming and a revelation in a grove of aspen trees.
About 10 years ago I took a summer trip with my high school’s eco club. Allow me to paint you a picture. The location is Jackson Hole, in the Teton Mountain range of Wyoming. The season, a picturesque summer complete with cooling breezes, aspen groves, geysers, and bald eagle sightings. An eager group of tenth graders treks through the forest, examining bison scat and searching for paw prints. Awed eyes absorb sunsets above the Tetons, excited ears listen for coyote howls beyond the crickets, and naïve noses find the sulfuric scent of millennia old hot springs. Can you imagine it?
What you might not be able to imagine is the little girl who discovered her purpose in life during that trip. A little girl, who’s now (mostly) an adult, getting a PhD, all because she took a trip to Wyoming when she was 15. It’s always weird when I tell people I’m studying Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. I often get one of two responses, general interest in learning exactly what that means, or something akin to disbelief. I often get the disbelief from black people. But then they glimpse my bike helmet hanging off my arm or my Nalgene clipped to my jeans and they decide that it’s believable, that someone like me might devote her life to nature.
And devote my life I have. I’ve now had the chance to learn and research in my field in four different countries (the U.S., Panama, Australia, and New Zealand) and I’ll soon add a fifth to the list for my PhD research, Swaziland. I moved to Gainesville from Los Angeles last fall to study at the University of Florida. Every day I spend around 12 hours between classes and my office/lab. The amount of reading I’ve done in the last 8 months eclipses that which I’ve done in the last 4 years. My life revolves around my research and my classes. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My main research interests are in understanding wildlife conservation within economic and social frameworks and learning how changing land use practices in Sub-Saharan Africa impact animal survival, behavior, and ecosystem health. I’m also interested in the impacts of conservation efforts on both animal populations and local human survival. My goal is to better inform policies and programs designed to conserve and protect biodiversity and the ecosystems that maintain it. I seek to gain a deeper understanding of what influences animal behavior, conservation success, and improvement and sustainability of human livelihoods
Aside from my actual research, I am getting involved in efforts to improve minority representation in the natural resource fields. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, I never truly had the convenience of nearby rivers and lakes, local forests and fields, or many species that weren’t dogs, cats, opossums, or sparrows. Nonetheless, I always had an appreciation for palm trees and squirrels, and an inherent love of nature. Today, having graduated from a university with excellent research opportunities, and met researchers from all over the world, I have only recently had my first chance to learn from an African American doing research in in this field. So now I am encouraged to serve as a role model and help kids get opportunities to have experiences like the ones that led me down this path.
I recently had the chance to talk to high school and middle school students (many of them minorities) about the awesomeness of wildlife ecology. We talked about the research we do and the classes we take and I watched as a few eyes lit up. Then we let them pet baby alligators and the whole room lit up. There’s a good chance that had I not traveled to Wyoming as a tenth grader, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Providing similar outdoor, natural, scientific experiences to inner city and minority youth is very important to me. Our underrepresentation in these fields is not the result of aptitude or ability, it’s primarily due to lack of exposure.
Ultimately, I aim to combine my commitments to education, improved representation of minorities in the sciences, academic research, and conservation. My ideal career is one where I serve as a mentor and teacher to students from elementary to graduate school and conduct research locally and globally that provides opportunities for researchers and aspiring researchers from diverse backgrounds to understand and address complex conservation issues. I think I’m on a path to accomplish that. And wherever I end up, I know it’ll be a wild ride.
Karen Bailey is a simple, hopeless optimist and a committed learner. She fancies herself an ecologist, writer, dancer, and activist. She never stops smiling and is incredibly grateful she’s accomplished and experienced all that she has in life.
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You’re truly a inspiration. Best wishes with your studies and your career pursuits. If only everyone was as engaged as you are. Cheers.
Karen, I’ve already told you this personally, but–what a touching piece! It’s quite clear that you are committed to developing your passion and sharing it with others. Please continue to be the beacon of inspiration that you are. Loving your work is a rarity–relish every moment!