One of the most challenging aspects of being a scientist isn’t what you think it is. Sure, there are infinite puzzles to solve and obstacles to overcome; animals die, and foundations don’t give you the money you think you deserve. Well, those are just hockey players losing their teeth, and that’s just par for the course. However, one of the most arduous parts of being a scientist is effectively communicating. Utilizing the skills that we all learned in daycare about communicating with others to ensure their understanding is particularly important in conservation.
This past week, our Turtle Team was blessed with a special guest, a Virginia Tech PhD student named Zoie. Zoie’s research is extremely interesting because she is trying to bridge the knowledge gap between scientists and the general public in regard to the illegal trade of box turtles. She is beginning to create this connection by thoroughly understanding the thought processes of people on either side through surveys. So, while I am studying the epidemiology of the box turtle trade, Zoie is delving into the social science of it all.
Why is this communication so hard to convey? I think this conversation begins by understanding what conservation is in the first place. As someone who studies turtles, many listeners imagine my research saves the lives of sea turtles, and I just spend my time lecturing to the lower and middle class not to use straws. I am always returned with a disappointed expression when I explain that I actually study box turtles. My parents see conservation as “looking out for the little guy”. Growing up we found dozens of snakes consuming our frog friends and we saw it as our duty to kill those snakes to ensure the frogs’ survival. We performed several miniature Jaws fishing expeditions by tying hot dogs to milk jugs to catch the snapping turtles in our pond and remove them to save our tiny fish. My brother sees conservation as a form of management. If we can somehow control what goes in and what goes out of the ecosystem, we are performing acts of conservation. I think some notions of the public’s idea of conservation stems from systemic exclusivity of the scientific profession. If you are unable to work for free or below minimum wage for the summer, you might decide that STEM and conservation isn’t worth your time. Political divides can also hinder the communication behind conservation, adding levels of difficulty for wildlife scientists to affectively connect with non-STEM community members.
I am sure that if you asked the veterinary students, medical students, and graduate students at the University of Illinois, “What is conservation?” you would get hundreds of different responses, each likely based on what those students value in their higher education. If you asked middle schools in the Chicago suburbs, they would likely give you a different answer than the students from my high school in Stillman Valley, Illinois. What about the welders or dancers or tax managers or basketball coaches? This diversity makes conservation so impressive, yet it also makes it difficult to describe to those not involved in science. I am so thankful Zoie made the drive to central Illinois, and I hope we can all think a little deeper about helping her and the scientific community bridge this gap. What is conservation to you?