Great article by the editor Tamara Sniffin of San Pedro Sun about why we need to care if crocs, or animal be that, is showing signs of illness in our environment, our communities, our homes!!!! Describes a bit of the work I have been working on in Belize…
“… and then I realized you were a woman… why don’t you study something that is more for your gender?” No, this quote isn’t from some sci-fi movie you might have seen in the 1950s. This was a comment said to me in 2011 by a male scientist.
Earlier today I was reminded of one of the most jaw-dropping moments in my life, particularly, as a woman scientist. I guess for me, I never understood there was a divide between men and women. I grew up in a family that told me I could do whatever I want in life- there was no such thing as “this is what boys do, and this is what girls do.” My grandmothers both told me stories of the obstacles they both had to go through as women when it came to jobs “back in the day.” I would always think to myself, “Thank God I never grew up during that era!” Well, I have found out many times throughout the years, the stigma against women in the workforce, particularly women scientist, really hasn’t improved.
Since the time I decided to work with crocodiles, I have been laughed at and scoffed by fellow male colleagues (of course not all of them. Some are actual MEN and are not threatened by intelligent and independent women who want to perform science!). In the very beginning of my training with crocodiles, I was given the hardest time than the guys. I was constantly criticized and ridiculed for every move I made and how I handled the animals. I was also constantly tested intellectually about crocodiles more-so than the guys. And even though I may have more knowledge and handled the animals more safely than my male counterparts, I was still not as good as the boys, and could not be trusted in leading a capture to move the crocs in another enclosure. For many girls who I knew were interested in working with crocs at these facilities, or even other reptiles, gave up. The constant hardship of proving yourself can be tiresome, and many ended up working with the more furry or feathery animals. And it didn’t help either when women with supervising or directorial positions in the facility discouraged you from working with the reptiles, and rather encouraged you to work with animals that were more complementary to women. I of course ignored all the sexist comments and continued to push to work with the crocs, but these type of events made me realize there was a reason you don’t see as many women herpetologists as males, and I was soon to find out this type of attitude transpired into the world of academia.
When I got into grad school, I figured I was going to leave behind sexism and have full support for my decision to work with crocodilian parasites. Within the first 5 minutes of my first meeting with my pre-doctoral committee, I was proven wrong. The first thing that came out of two of the male scientists words were, “Crocs are too hard to study. You need to study something easier for someone like you, a woman.” I couldn’t believe I was hearing this from scientists from a Tier 1 Research school. I was appalled! And then it dawned on me – I realized that all my life I was going to have to fight this battle of constantly proving myself as a woman scientist, particularly one who has chosen a field that is heavily DOMINATED by men. And I can tell you from my own experience, I am never taken seriously compared to my male counterparts, my hypotheses and theories are always scrutinized more-so than males who may have similar ideas, and I am always re-evaluating myself as a scientist due to the feeling of being under appreciated relative to my male colleagues. I always thought I was alone, but hearing stories from other female scientist, I realize I am not and there is a serious problem in academia. And if we are to advance as a society, a culture, and in science in general, then this boorish mindset that women are less intelligent than men must be abolished. Instead of mockery, what the current male AND female advisors need to do is encourage, inspire, and actually mold us young females into superior scientists.
So, in 2011 I was given the grand awakening of the life and hardships I was going to face (once again, not all the time as I know many men are more progressive than others). To be told that as a woman I didn’t know what I was doing, and I needed to send all my samples to a male graduate student who would know more than me on how to work with the samples… just cause. And that I should stop my research now and research parasitism in an animal that is more for my gender. I of course must be hard of hearing, or just plain stubborn, as I don’t care to listen to people like this and I am glad I never did. Upon speaking at schools, I always stress to the young girls that they can choose their own career path- there are going to be obstacles, but to not give up. I continue to struggle in spite of what is said to me, but I hope my struggles, and the struggles of other women scientist will be inspirational to the younger generation of women scientist to not give up, and follow their dreams of a scientific career.
And as hard as we try to change the perception in academia, we also need to change the perception of the rest of the public. I have been asked to do segments on random shows for Animal Planet and Discovery. However, something always goes array and I am told they no longer need me. The reason? 1) “The public won’t take a woman scientist as serious as a male.” 2) “The public isn’t ready to see a young, intelligent, woman scientist on TV.” What is the taboo of a young, woman scientist leading a TV show, or talking during a segment?
So- to all the women scientist out there, we have some work to do to change a barbaric perception about us. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be emotionally tiresome, but if we stick together we will make a HUGE difference for the next generation of young girl scientists… I am willing to take on that task-Are you?
The Fritz Huchzermeyer Veterinary Science Student Research Assistance Scheme (FHVSRAS) is now established!!!! It has been developed with the specific goal of encouraging and assisting undergraduate and post-graduate students to undertake formal research to advance crocodilian veterinary science. Please pass the information along!!!!
Journey- Don’t Stop Believin… an epic song, and one that is a classic for karaoke. It’s become the anthem song for my assistants and I during our 10 day research adventure in Belize on Ambergris Caye. The dynamic amongst our group was indescribable – we worked hard, and played hard, and it was non-stop entertainment. From singing Disney songs in chest high water as we were fishing in lagoons, to telling stories and cracking up jokes from the moment we woke up, to the minute we passed out, it was endless fun, and made the VERY early mornings, and sometimes VERY late nights bearable. There were definitely nights where we slept only 4 hours, but it was all worth it. And amongst our fun, we got some great science done, and as mentioned in previous posts, my theory seems to be actually true.
Tuesday we headed up to a lagoon that was far north on the island to try to see the difference in wildlife health andparasitism. We planned for an all day trip considering this was going to be the only day we were able to get to this lagoon. Well, it ended up being a fisherman’s paradise! For someone that is an extreme novice catching fish, I felt like an expert- I lost count on all the fish I caught. Helen felt the same way- it was such a good feeling! We were done within 2 hours, then headed out to the ocean to play for a bit prior to heading to our last spot- San Mateo.
San Mateo- I don’t know what to say about it, but that I feel horrible for the people who have to live there. It’s soo polluted- mercury levels are about 0.7 (regulation in US is 0.2!), and other heavy metal concentrations are at levels that would bring in HazMat in the US. But it seems like there are some people in Belize that are trying to hide the public health issue in this area. Luckily, there are a team of locals and foreigners that are gathering the evidence to make the Belizean government aware of what’s going, and we are hoping it will put the pressure to make a difference. We had great success collecting fish and crab in this area, and the next day as we dissected what we found was utterly disgusting. For example, inside the fish the organs almost looked gooey, and the liver and spleen were a very PALE pink, sometimes with white cysts. No parasites were found except for one individual whose ENTIRE body was filled with nematodes. I can not wait to analyze all the data we got, especially the heavy metals. This is the part of my post-doc project that is extremely important to me- applied science that can actually make a positive difference for both people and the environment. In my proposal for NSF, I said it was transitional applied ecology. I can’t wait to compare these results to the rest of the island, as well as on the mainland of Belize, and to parts of Costa Rica and Guatemala. Performing this kind of research made me realize how much I love outreach, education, and research/motives that are very conservational based. I definitely feel like I’m on the right path.
Needless to say, it was an amazing research trip, and I hope the results can truly make a difference for the environment and the people in Belize. And to end such an amazing trip, Pedro’s Inn and my Belizean friends through me a bachlorette party! Endless fun and laughter- a perfect way to end such an unforgettable trip!
The last 42 hours has been very successful in catching our sample quota at the different locations on the island. Even though we still have another 24 hours of sampling and collecting, I can go ahead and say this is one of the most fun, successful research trips I have ever been on. Miriam, Helen, Peter and I have such a great work and friend dynamic, that the early mornings, lack of sleep, and late nights is not even a problem. We keep everything up beat, make sure everyone is performing their research tasks, with some laughter and and singing in between.
Today was absolutely amazing! We planned for an all day trip out in the field in a northern lagoon on Ambergris Caye. Thinking it was going to take at least 6 hours to catch 20 fish, it ended up taking us 2 hours to catch 25 fish!!!! It was amazing! Helen and I, the least experienced fisherman, lost count how much we catched. There was some mangrove climbing for fun, and mangrove climbing to unhook a fishing line that was thrown in the wrong place, and ended our day with a dip into the ocean. Hoping that we find lots of parasites in these fish just to help nudge my theory a bit more. Tonight we head to San Mateo, where “rumor” has it that it is the most polluted area on the island. Other researchers have performed water tests, and what they have been finding is from a horror film. If their results were found in a town in the US, hazmat would come in- yes it’s that bad! We caught some fish and crab in that area last night, but we are heading back tonight to try to catch at least 10 more specimens. I’m interested what we are going to find…
You know the song “Gone Fishin” by Louie Armstrong and Bing Crosby? “Folks won’t find us now because Mister Satch and Mister Cros,,,We gone fishin’ instead of just a-wishin’….Bah-boo-baby-bah-boo-bah-bay-mmm-boo-bay….Oh yeah!” That song pretty much sums up our last 72 hours- we have been working 12-16 hour days fishing, crabbing, dissecting, with a splash of croc stuff, and karaoke of course! It’s definitely been full of adventures.
At our southern most point, known as the Blue House, we have been fishing in waist high water, singing our lungs out to all types of disney songs for hours. Not to mention that I stepped on a sting-ray and then almost got smacked by another one while walking to our fishing spot. If I got stung, I was not going to live that down amongst my crocodile friends! After an unsuccessful day due to a storm coming in, we thought we were doom for the samples we needed. Right as I began wishing for us to catch crabs, about 20 crabs began walking on the road across us- we jumped off our bikes and then… needless to say we decided to call that event the Blue House Massacre.
We thought the night was over, and had some fun at the local hostel pub, singing some karaoke with our new Zimbabwean fisherman friends. As we headed to bed, I got a phone call- Chris and Vince from ACES caught a croc and wanted to stomach flush it right away. We instantly woke up, put on our croc gear, and at 11:30pm at night we were stomach flushing a croc. The second croc they were relocating we took basic measurements, and assessed it for abnormalities, etc. One croc had NO TEETH!!!! And it was a young croc too. So far we are finding evidence that my theory is true- the heavy pollution of this island is causing some weird aliments in the crocs, and the further the crocs, fish, and crab are from the city, the healthier and more parasites they have. Parasites are not a bad thing. Actually, a healthy ecosystem has a healthy population of parasites. When you find no parasites that is a serious red flag. Once we perform the heavy metal analysis on the samples, we will have a better idea of what is going on here, and what action the government will need to take to ensure the health of this environment, and its people.
Yesterday was by far the most tiring day. We started at 7am and finished at 8pm. We biked about 10 miles in total on bumpy roads to get to our collection site and back, but it was worth it! After helping out with a croc capture (again, a pretty emaciated croc that was blind), we ended up fishing and crabbing. We definitely had a good time, but being in the beating sun for hours and hours sucks the life right out of you. We almost caught a HUGE fish (we think baracuda) which would have been amazing! We had some locals fishing with us at the end of the night, and they helped us a lot getting our sample number by giving us the fish they were not going to eat. After it raining on us, and fighting with fish and crab all night, we eneded up with 15 samples. We are heading back over there tonight to get 5 more fish- those that we already dissected had parasites which was pretty exciting.
Needless to say we are having a blast on this trip! There’s been a lot of singing, a lot of laughing, and just good ol’entertainment with one another. We have a great work dynamic with one another, which sometimes isn’t always the easiest to find. Definitely I have found my dream team of research assistants, and hopefully we can continue working with each other in the future.
“One person can make a difference and every person should try.” This quote by JFK is embedded in my soul, as I live mydays believing I can make a positive impact in this world. For me, it’s to help bridge the gap between nature and man. I’ve seen it, and I’m sure you have too. History shows that one person can make a difference in what they are passionate in: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Goodall, Steve Irwin… the list goes on, and on, and on. Nowadays, however, its hard to believe that one person can make a difference. With all the negativity being thrown in our faces from the world media, more and more people are pessimistic about our world’s future. Most have given up- that we are heading towards the apocalypse. Not me- I will be an advocate for wildlife and the environment until the day I die, and I know I can make a difference. How do I know- because today I have witnessed something that was thought impossible 6 years ago.
Today, my field research took me to the WASA Lagoon on Ambergris Caye. As the sun began to set, I noticed something – there were no crocodiles, no tourists, no locals illegally feeding the crocs as a show. What a difference compared to my first time on the island. A local group of teens would get tourists to come watch them feed and do “tricks” with the crocs, even coercing tourists to let their children sit on the crocs (seriously- this is true!!!!). Working with ACES, I went undercover to get the full story about what was going on. I went to the shows. I talked with the teens. I spoke with the tourists. It came clear that what was happening was not beneficial for man or croc. The crocs were losing their fear of humans, and appeared very unhealthy from a daily diet of frozen chicken (it’s like candy to them). The crocs were becoming more aggressive- some of these teens were bitten by some of the crocs. Also, the crocs saw humans as a food source, so they easily approached people, which made the job easier for poachers. It was going to be sooner than later that a tourist was going to get hurt. Working with ACES who informed and continually works with the Belize Wildlife Officer, we finally got the operation to stop. ACES continued to work with the police and local communities to educate the people of Ambergris the danger of illegally feeding these crocs, and the importance of crocs in their natural environment. It took at least a yearbefore all these “croc shows” finally stopped, but it stopped. Outreach to the community really made a positive difference. It may seem like a small win, but it is a big step for the conservation of crocs inBelize, and ACES is leading the torch for their preservation for generations to come. And I am glad that I have had a small part in that.
So, just as we were cleaning up and ending our evening at WASA, a 10ft croc decides to come 25 yards from us standing on the shore, just watching what we were doing. It amazes me that 6 years ago, this croc would have been running towards us looking for food. But now, this croc is being a croc. It’s respecting my space as I respect his. It’s a good feeling to know that I have made a difference, especially in a foreign country. Next step-to continue that work and passion worldwide.