Field: Conservation Biology
Job/position: Natural Capital Accounting Director, Conservation International
How long have you been working in this field? 4 years
What kind of story would you like to share? Life struggle story
Please share your story here:
I decided to major in Biology as an undergrad mostly because I was half-convinced I wanted to become a medical doctor and also didn't really know what else I could major in. I wasn't in love with the subject and moreover, the large state university I attended didn't offer many opportunities for meaningful engagement with faculty and other students about why the biological sciences were so amazing. I was in a very difficult degree course and essentially uninspired and unsure of why I was in the field.
Then, in my second year of my undergraduate, my mother suddenly passed away just three days before finals week. It was so sudden that I wasn't even devastated as much as I was just in numb shock. The reaction of my professors ranged from mild empathy to outright suspicion that I was somehow coming up with an excuse as to why I shouldn't take my final. I was a B- student who rarely came to class, so I could understand their suspicion. The next couple of years were what I would describe as a "downward spiral" where I was caught in some kind of terrible Catch 22. I was completely lost in my personal and professional life and the more I failed at school, the less my professors cared about my success, and the less I tried to pass classes. I received so many failing grades, both on tests and in courses. I wasn't eligible for most of the opportunities provided to students that would have allowed for one-on-one interactions due to my bad grades and I was told that my degree was useless because a Biology degree doesn't get you anywhere when you're GPA is at the failing end of the spectrum.
But, everything changed when I decided I wanted to graduate (I was tired of university and decided I needed to get out with a degree as soon as I could) and realized that I needed one last research credit to complete my degree. I was completely uninterested in the research lab courses that were offered but knew that if I could convince someone to take me on as a research student, I could do one semester of work and finally be finished with university. I tried to approach several professors to work with me, but no one would take me into their labs. They didn't want to deal with a student that looked like such a liability.
Finally, I found someone who would work with me. He was leaving two weeks into the semester on an extended field season but gave me a small research project to work on and said that if I could make good progress while he was gone, then he would gladly have me as a student. It was the first time I had been personally challenged by a professor at my university and it was the first time I felt like I was truly accountable to someone else. So I worked my butt off and when he came back, I proudly showed him the work I'd achieved. He was pretty blown away; I don't think he expected a slacker, lost student to do anything. This one moment helped break the downward spiral I was on. I ended up staying another 1.5 years at the university taking more courses to take my grades up and working in my advisor's lab as an undergraduate research assistant. I ended up publishing two papers during my time there, won a research scholarship, and was even awarded as "best Biological Sciences" student in my last year of school. Just one year later, I won a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship for my PhD and did so with a major GPA of 2.9/4.00. It taught me that while grades mean a lot, personal accountability, drive, and the concrete deliverables that you produce mean much more.
What do you wish you had known earlier during your career in science?
That a career in Biology can take you many places! I now work for a major NGO traveling across 12 countries in Africa working on environmental science-related initiatives. You'll find out about these kinds of careers by networking; don't let your degree be confined by the walls of academia.
Any final comments or advice for young scientists:
Young scientists often have the best ideas because they aren't constrained by past experiences. So don't be afraid to speak your mind and think for yourself!