Meet the Scientists of Black Mammalogists Week!

To celebrate the first Black Mammalogists Week (starting Sunday, September 13th), we talked to four of the amazing Black scientists behind this event! Find out what they had to say about their favorite (and most challenging) #tech4wildlife and field research experiences, what advice they have for future scientists from underrepresented communities, how the conservation world can be more inclusive, and why events for the Black science community are so important. 

Don't forget to follow Black Mammalogists Week on Twitter to get involved in all seven day's worth of exciting events! (Wildlabbers will especially want to tune in for Technique Tuesday on September 15th for some great #tech4wildlife content.)

Thanks to the organizers of Black Mammalogists Week for sharing their experiences and field photos with the WILDLABS community!

Date published: 2020/09/10

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Meet the Mammalogists!

Christine Wilkinson

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Christine Wilkinson is a conservation biologist and PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include human-wildlife conflict, carnivore movement ecology, multidisciplinary mapping, and using participatory methods for more effective and inclusive conservation outcomes. 

You can find Christine on Twitter at @ScrapNaturalist and Instagram at @christine_eleanor.

Kendall Calhoun

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Hi! My name is Kendall Calhoun. I grew up in the suburbs of the California Central Valley, but have since moved to Oakland, California and am now a PhD candidate in the department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley. I'm currently studying how mammal communities are responding to recent California wildfires. Given California's changing climate and landscape, I hope my research can help advise future conservation of these wildlife species. 

Find Kendall on Twitter at @kenleecalhoun.

Dr. Tommy Parker

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Dr. Tommy Parker is currently a professor at Spalding University who specializes in the ecology and conservation of vertebrate species in urban ecosystems and human wildlife interactions, and a Faculty Leaders Fellow at the Pardee RAND Graduate School for Policy Analysis, where he focuses on environmental policy. He is also the lead consultant at UrbanEco Consulting, where he provides expertise on the education and management of human wildlife interactions and natural resources in urban areas.  Dr. Parker earned PhDs in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Missouri, two M.S. in Organismal Biology and Statistics and his B.S. in Zoology from The University of Memphis. 

In previous appointments he has served as the Regional Threatened, Endangered, and Sensitive Species (TES) Biologist for the Eastern Region of the USDA Forest Service. During this time, Dr. Parker managed policy, management, conservation, and litigation regarding TES located on two National Grasslands and 13 National Forest over 21 states. He has served as an advisor for numerous U.S. Representatives, Senators, and high ranking politically appointed officials at the state and federal levels domestically and abroad. 

Find Tommy on Twitter at @drtommyp, Instagram at @drtommyp, and on his website.

 Alex Troutman

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I’m a Black Mammalogist, wildlife biologist, and Environmental educator with a passion for sharing and immersing the younger generation into nature. I enjoy working with Mammals because I like other humans, and I believe they are more personable than other animals I have worked with, allowing for a connection.

I love being in nature and working with wildlife, and I want to share that with the world, especially the young’uns that look like me. Representation matters, and I know how it feels to grow up not seeing anybody who look like you, doing what you want to do. I grew up not seeing anyone who looked like me in the Natural resources field. So I’m here to show the Next Gen scientists that Black and Brown people can also be a Mammalogist, Biologist, and other scientific disciplines!

Find Alex on Twitter at @n8ture_al.

We asked the Mammalogists...

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What is your favorite technology or gear to use in the field, and why? How did you get started using this gear or technique?

Christine: GPS collars are some of the most fascinating tools that I use for my research. My research is interdisciplinary, and I use a number of tools in conjunction with the collars (such as participatory mapping and camera traps) in order to understand fine scale carnivore movement and how carnivores interact with people, their infrastructure, and their livestock. Though I have participated in a few collaring efforts over the years, the first collaring project that I led began in early 2019.

With the help of a great team of folks from Kenya Wildlife Service and Soysambu Conservancy, I collared representatives of five spotted hyena clans with collars that I programmed for 5-minute fix rates in order to understand spotted hyena behaviors around certain types of infrastructure, such as fences. Because my field site (in and around Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya) is highly developed, the collars I'm using for this project are GPS-GSM collars, which use cell phone towers to transmit the data. 

Kendall: My favorite tools for doing research are our remote biodiversity sensors: 1) camera traps and 2) ultrasonic acoustic recorders. I'm most interested in patterns of species diversity and understanding how and why different assemblages of species come together and interact. Using these tools allows us to record the diversity of making up a particular area. Plus you can get some pretty cute shots of mammals with the cameras.

At the start of grad school, I was pretty sure I wanted to use camera traps to look at the responses of various mammal species to recent wildfires across California. I shadowed some members of my lab for the first couple years in how to use camera traps for research. Only relatively recently, I've been able to expand this biodiversity monitoring into bats, which has been incredibly cool! I'm still learning the ins and outs of bat monitoring, but I've found some great students and post-docs in my program who've helped me along the way.

Tommy: My favorite gear to use in the field is very low tech – live traps and darts. However, given that most of my work is in urban areas, this can be difficult at times because of the human element. Traps get moved, taken, or destroyed. Animals are let out of traps because people assume the animal is being hurt (which usually leads to the person being attacked by the animal). I have received several messages calling me some interesting names; however, one thing is consistently said: redneck. People usually assume that I am a white person. 

I started using traps in my mammalogy class when I was an undergrad. I realized that live traps allow you to catch the animal multiple times without harm, handle the animal safely, and move the animal with minimal risk if necessary.

Alex: My favorite technique for mammals is Harp Trapping for bats. I like this technique because once the trap is set up, it looks a window  into the forest, or an art frame that has captured the forest's beauty. I also like it because It reminds me of going into the mystery bag as young school kid to pull out a prize... only now it’s different bats!

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What improvements to tech, new innovations, or new techniques would you love to see developed, or would you love to have access to?

Christine: One of the most exciting technologies for me is GPS collars with high-accuracy accelerometer capabilities. Though they're quite pricey, more and more people are using these collars not only to understand animal movement, but also to more accurately determine animal behavioral states while they are moving.

I would also like to have access to solar-powered camera traps that are secure and won't have their solar panels stolen. Battery life and theft are major issues in the field when using camera traps. Battery life is particularly challenging since it is very difficult to get a large supply of lithium batteries in East Africa!

Kendall: I'm waiting for the day when machine learning catches up to the point that it can auto-classify camera trap images. We get hundreds of thousands of pictures from our study site every year, and having an auto image classifier to ID species would save so many hours.

Tommy: I hope to be around when DNA scanners are invented. You take a drop of blood, saliva, or tissue from and animal while in the field and a minute or two later you have the genetic makeup of the animal.  

Alex: I would like to see outdoor gear become better. Harp traps are great, but they are bulky and heavy to carry up mountains. There should be a better design and functionality of them - I think that they could be lighter and not sacrifice the integrity and  strength of the trap.

I also think that outdoor gear could be more inclusive in the design and development phase, which can be improved by hiring black and brown creators. Many of the outdoor companies are lacking designs that are urban-minded, but cater more to non-persons of color.

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What was your most difficult "fieldwork fail" experience, and how did you overcome it? Did that change what gear you use, or what techniques you use in your work?

Christine: I would call this a fieldwork "almost fail": We were setting out to try and collar a hyena that was part of one of the conservancy clans. The conservancy hyenas are much more skittish and wary than the hyenas that live in the national park, since they were persecuted in the past, with a bounty set upon their heads. So safely darting the desired hyena from this skittish clan was proving to be a struggle, especially since the veterinarian's large vehicle was similar to those used in the past for scaring and persecuting hyenas.

However, I had spent months watching this clan at their kills, and observing their behaviors, so they knew my small car and had become accustomed to my presence. After an hour of struggle in darting the hyena, I convinced the vet to jump into my car's passenger seat, and we worked together to, at last, stealthily, carefully, and safely dart the hyena that we had been laboring to catch. In my opinion, being able to change up the tools and adapt "on the fly" is one of the most important parts of fieldwork, both in terms of success and in terms of safety.

Kendall: A frustrating hiccup has been getting our bat monitoring running correctly. My first pilot season happened to be this last spring, at the same time we were just beginning to deal with the fallout of Covid-19. That delayed my field season a bit, but I also realized mid-season that the types of ultrasonic recorders I'd ordered weren't working like I'd planned. I ended up having to swap gear (a more specialized ultrasonic recorder) to get the bat vocalizations I was looking for. But it worked out in the end, and got thousands of bat calls to look at from my first season of ultrasonic sampling!

Tommy: I got lost in a jungle in Eastern Tennessee for a day. This was before GIS and cell phones, so I kept walking until I found a road... ten hours later. 

Alex: My most difficult fieldwork fail was working with harp traps in the jungles of Malaysia. We had 5 harp traps and 3 of them broke in some way. But even with broken traps, research must go on. We had to macgyver  together one trap using pieces from the 3 broken traps  in order for us to have 3 working traps. If I were to do that project over, I would look for a different design of harp traps, and also figure out a sling or carrying case that was able to be carried easily and manipulated in the forest.

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On the opposite side of the coin, what was your favorite experience using tech or a specific technique in the field? (Maybe this is a time when everything went smoothly, or a time when you got some really great, unexpected data, or even a time when something went wrong but you learned from it!)

Christine: During the time when I was setting up my hyena collaring project, Kenya suddenly banned darting of all wildlife, so my collaring project was put on hold. My advisor and I decided that in the meantime it would be best to try and get a sense of spotted hyena movement in and out of the national park, by setting up camera traps. I had a limited number of camera traps, so I mapped the fence that surrounds the national park and placed the cameras at sites where there seemed to be signs of carnivores crossing. I was expecting to see the occasional hyena or jackal on the cameras, but I was surprised to see that many species (carnivores and otherwise) were crossing in and out of the park every day, and exhibiting fascinating behaviors around fence crossing.

This result was unexpected, and morphed into a whole study for which a paper is currently in prep. So, essentially, the camera trapping effort went from being a stop-gap measure to a manuscript that will hopefully add a major body of evidence to the new field of "fence ecology", as well as being able to directly aid park management on the ground. 

Alex: My favorite fieldwork experience was in Borneo. We had been trapping for bats for 3-4 days, climbing up and down the mountain 2 times a day to set up traps. I was discouraged - we had only trapped three bats in that time. Finally, on the 5th day or so, we moved higher up the mountain and also set out mist nets, and caught over 25 bats in one night. Finally, we could see that all our hard work was actually worth it.

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What advice do you have for our community members who are underrepresented in the sciences and in conservation work?

Christine: My best advice is: do not be afraid of asking questions. Questions lead to opportunities. Also, reach out to the people that you admire and who you want to work with. The odds are, they will be happy to hear from you, and what's the worst that can happen? Take advantage of opportunities, and allow yourself to be flexible. Though it may seem daunting to be a BIPOC person in conservation/mammalogy/etc., there are a lot of people out there who want us to succeed. And, there are more and more BIPOC scholars who will have your back. Reach out to us.

Kendall: I'd recommend that other members who are underrepresented in conservation seek out mentorship and guidance from other underrepresented folks who may have more experience navigating our discipline. Conservation can often feel unwelcoming to Black students and professionals, so it's important to find support and community where possible. Perseverance is also key, and I'd just like to remind them that they are definitely not alone in what sometimes feels like an uphill journey.

Tommy: Oftentimes in underrepresented groups, science is viewed as the enemy. Many either have a distrust for the sciences or fear it. The only way your community is served by science is to go into science. Do not be afraid to go into the sciences. Many of the important issues facing our world can use a different viewpoint that would come from people with varying life experiences. The world needs you. 

Alex: Keep going and never give up. There’s a reason why you have that passion. Times may be hard at certain points of your path. Just remember that a diamond is made under pressure.

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And lastly, why are events like Black Mammalogists Week so important to the conservation community, and how can the conservation tech community better support the work of Black scientists?

Christine: We created Black Mammalogists Week after seeing the success and widespread reach of other weeks (Black Birders Week, etc.). Our goal is to find and bring together Black mammalogists and mammal enthusiasts, and provide tangible ways to connect and support one another. This is our way of addressing systemic racism in academic/consevation spaces in the USA, while boosting mammalogists and mammal enthusiasts from the African diaspora around the world. We hope that young and aspiring conservationists and mammalogists will be inspired and know that this community is there for them and wants to lift them up. 

Kendall: Black Mammalogists Week and events like it are important for giving a voice and platform to Black scientists that often go uncelebrated for our achievements and contributions. I think it's also really important to have these events show the wider public what Black scientists look like and the kind of work we're involved with. Hopefully this can change the prevailing stereotype of what I scientist "should" look and how they should act.

Making conservation tech more affordable would be extremely helpful in making conservation more accessible to marginalized groups. Providing specific grants targeted for Black ecologists or other marginalized groups could help people just entering the field a chance to explore their interests and perform better research. 

Tommy: Black Mammalogists have been around since mammalogy has been a discipline. As with most things in science, many assume that we have similar backgrounds and interest that lead to our involvement in science. However, nothing can be further from the truth. I grew up in the inner city of Memphis, TN, so I am a city boy at my core. My father and grandfather both worked at a slaughterhouse while my mother did data protection at Federal Express. In fact, I had never heard of ecology until I was in college. I did not come from a family with a science background.

As a result of this, I bring my urban, non-outdoorsy (made up a word!) background with me when I look at ecological questions regarding mammals. Additionally, I bring not just my experiences with mammals in urban settings, but also the experience of those people that were around me, who educated me, who coached me, who attended church with me. I bring their misunderstandings, their anger, their fear, and their curiosities. I see mammals not just through the eyes of science, but also through the lens of those that live in inner cities and were told things that may not be totally accurate or, in some cases, told to put fear in Black people.

Black Mammalogists week is important because it highlights the varying background of mammalogists not just to the public, but also to other scientists. Black children need to know that it is a good thing to want to see what a mouse looks like up close, to wonder why squirrels move the way that they do, or to want to see a coyote run down your street.  

Alex: I think these weeks are important because it gives us (Black Scientists) an opportunity to be the representation that we never had, and that even now so many kids do not have. Seeing a black scientist on TV is very rare. So these weeks are great to highlight Black scientists, and using social media, we can reach further scientists globally.

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Learn more about Black Mammalogists Week

Check out the full Black Mammalogists Week schedule on their website, and follow them on Twitter at @BlkMammalogists to participate by using the hashtags #BlackMammalogists#BlackMammalogistsWeek, and #BlackinSTEM.

Let's talk about how the conservation tech world can become a more inclusive community. Come find mentors and resources in our Early Career group forum.

Continue the discussion… Early Career