- Tell me about how you first got interested in conservation?
I grew up in northern Vermont, just a few miles from the Canadian border. Vermont is a beautiful state with strong land management and wildlife conservation programs. I didn’t fully appreciate how lucky I was to grow up in the Green Mountain state until I moved away and gained perspective. My interest in herpetology also developed in Vermont. I have fond memories of finding knots of garter snakes hiding in a woodpile and admiring a gorgeous northern milk snake that lived in a rock wall on our property.Also, my grandparent’s basement was home to several yellow spotted salamanders. The unfinished concrete slab basement often flooded and a shallow depression around the edge of the wall remained constantly damp, a perfect sanctuary for mole salamanders. I was mesmerized by them and would disappear to the basement to observe and feed them earthworms my dad and I would catch in the front yard.It wasn’t until I moved to Georgia for college that my interest in herpetology became more than just a general curiosity. A biology professor at Agnes Scott College, Dr. Lock Rogers, suggested that I read Their Blood Runs Cold: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians by Whit Gibbons. I would highly recommend this short read filled with entertaining stories of herpetology adventures and misadventures in research. Somewhere within those pages, I realized herpetology and conservation research was the career I wanted to pursue and I never looked back.
- Do you have something specific, a lifetime ambition perhaps, that you would like to achieve?
In the short term, I would also love to see the formation of and be involved in a working group for the conservation of the Pigeon Mountain Salamander, Plethodon petraeus, the focal study species of my master’s work at Kennesaw State University. This terrestrial salamander is a Georgia state endemic and protected as a rare species at the state level due to a highly limited range. It is distributed along a 10 mile ridge of the Cumberland Plateau in Northwest Georgia.
- In the years that you have been involved in conservation research, what would you say is the biggest change that you have witnessed and what has been the effect of this?
I’m still young (only 25) and starting to build a career but honestly, I am worried about the current proclivity towards anti-intellectualism and a sense of growing distrust in science by the public. The politicization of the environment is not good news for conservation. However, regardless of political leanings, I think most Americans have more in common desires than divergent ones when it comes to safeguarding our environment. I think the majority of us probably want fresh air to breath, clean water to drink and beautiful natural places to recreate.As much as possible, I try to integrate educational outreach into my research projects with a goal of relating these benefits of a healthy environment to biodiversity. By better understanding the value of biodiversity, hopefully biodiversity (including the scaly and slimy creatures we all love) can become a positive and an attainable goal in the minds of people who aren’t necessarily trained in biology or have much experience in the great outdoors. In the current political environment in the United States, I think scientists and citizens passionate about safeguarding biodiversity about will have to work extra hard to ensure projects are funded and scientific discovery can be translated into sensible management.
- What would you say is your most rewarding moment?
In research, it was when I completed my master’s degree. For this project, I assessed the conservation status of the Pigeon Mountain salamander using a population genetic analysis. I was able to detect at least three genetically distinct populations across the species range. That was a pretty exciting scientific discovery for me. It was the first time I had taken a research project from start to finish. It was exciting to know that I had an idea I was able to pursue and turn into hard science with results meaningful for the conservation of a rare species. It was a very powerful and validating realization that I was a member of the scientific community.Also, from an outreach and education perspective, I find teaching children about reptiles and amphibians fun and rewarding. One of my favorite experiences with this was when the mother of a student I had for a Georgia State Park Jr. Ranger summer camp told me her young son made her stop killing snakes in their yard after he had participated in herpetology class. I’ve never been so proud of a student!
- Tell me about your worst experience and how you overcame/dealt with it.
I wouldn’t really call it a bad experience, but it started out as an event that made me somewhat nervous. I was wrapping up a day in the field collecting salamander DNA on private property. I had previously secured permission to access the site through the landowners. As I started back to my vehicle, I heard a four-wheeler approaching. As it got closer, I could make out a large tough looking individual with a long gun on his back and a machete strapped to the front of the ATV. Not exactly a comforting sight. When he pulled up he asked me a few gruff questions about why I was trespassing. He quickly warmed up to me though when I made my case. The individual ended up being extremely helpful and told me how to find and access cave entrances I previously didn’t know about! In general, when you treat people with respect you get the same in return. I just always try to be prepared for occasions when that doesn’t hold true.
What do you miss most about home whilst you are away and what can’t you live without?
So far, my research has kept me relatively close to home. While I was working on my Master’s in Georgia, I only lived 2 hours away from the Wildlife Management Area where my fieldwork was conducted. My next project will likely keep me close to home as well since its’ focus will be on salamander populations in Ohio. I enjoy working on research projects that allow me the opportunity to develop connections at the state and local level. That means I haven’t yet found myself too far from the comforts of home! I’m going to have to slightly change the question because I can easily answer what I miss about the field while stuck at home or working in the office and lab for long periods of time. I always miss my nocturnal adventures. Night fieldwork is exhausting and hard work but there is something almost magical about being out in the woods at 2AM in the morning. The forest really comes alive after dark! I’ve been able to see amazing things I never would have experienced if I had been tucked into bed, dry, warm and cozy instead of trekking through the woods in the middle of the night.
- What’s your favourite reptile and why?
Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, is currently my favorite reptile. A labmate, Andrew Hoffman, is studying a population in Southeastern Ohio. I have so much respect for these beautiful snakes after finally getting to see them up close. Observing Andrew track individuals has made me realize how many times I’ve probably been near them while hiking or doing fieldwork in Northeast Georgia and never noticed them. They are magnificent to observe.
- Do you have any pets of any kind? Reptiles or otherwise?
I currently have a sandfish, Scincus scincus, a species of burrowing skink. I fondly call him Sandy. I inherited the skink from the Crabb Biomechanics lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Sandy and other reptiles that use a swimming motion to navigate sandy substrates were used to help engineer a robot that can navigate complex terrain. I like to think I am giving him a restful retirement from his days in the lab working on groundbreaking research.Find out more about reptiles and biomechanics at the link below.
- Where is your favourite place that you have visited?
Ironically Iceland, a country without a single native reptile or amphibian! It was a strange experience going on vacation and not having a reason to herp!
- Do you feel that enough funding is available for conservation research and that there is enough awareness outside of the community?
As a graduate student actively searching and applying for funding it definitely doesn’t feel like there is enough!The first grant I ever received was from a wonderful non-profit called the Foundation for the Conservation of Salamanders. Small grass-roots organizations like FcSal can really make a big difference when it comes to funding for conservation. When on the hunt for funding, I never overlook a dime. Sometimes starting small and looking locally can be tremendously rewarding. I was able to complete an entire project based on the resources they were able to provide me.
- What tips would you give to somebody who was interested in getting involved in these types of projects?
Be your own best advocate, no one else is going to do it for you. And do not underestimate the power of networking. The strong network of professionals, mentors and friends I have developed since beginning college is a large contributor to my success.
- Is there an ideal type of person, in terms of age, qualifications, fitness etc., which makes the best volunteer?
My ideal volunteer has has to be enthusiastic, has the ability to learn/following direction and comes with a dash of humbleness. Fieldwork can be unpredictable, you have to be able to adjust to a situation quickly. A sense of adventure is often required too, but not too much! I don’t want anyone being too risky and getting hurt. Following directions is vital, especially if the directions are related to the collection of data or keeping yourself and others safe. Also, be prepared to ask lots of questions and admit when you need help. I’d rather repeat myself than have data incorrectly gathered.Once, I did have someone ask to volunteer with fieldwork and then wear blue laboratory gloves the entire time we were outside. I wouldn’t recommend doing that! Fieldwork sometimes means dirt, grim, mud and muck. Be prepared to fully embrace it!
- Where/what’s next?
I just began a PhD program with Dr. William Peterman in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at Ohio State University. I’m working to develop a research project to investigate the impacts of energy natural resource extraction (natural gas and/or coal) on salamander populations in Ohio. Ohio has a long history of coal mining and a recently there has been a large influx of natural gas well development. I’m interested in the ability of salamanders to survive and adapt these altered habitats.
- Some of these expeditions last several weeks; what’s your most annoying habit?
I might not be self aware enough to answer this one! You would have to ask my research assistants.
- If you could implement one change that would improve our planet, what would that be?
Immersive environmental play and education for students starting as young as possible! I believe playing and learning outside instills a sense of wonder and respect for nature. Children are all natural scientists. That sense of exploration needs to be nurtured and encouraged. I wish this could be a possibility for all children.