I started college as an animal science major with my heart set on veterinary school before realizing that I could never, ever be the person with my arm up a cow's rectum. Upon realizing this the hard way, I switched my major to wildlife conservation and finally felt like I clicked into place. Fast forward a few more months and I'm already doubting my new choice. I knew that I didn't want to be a field technician, so I tried my hand at research with the disease ecology lab I volunteered in. I love research, but I felt like something was missing.
Discouraged and stumped, I decided to pursue a second degree in journalism just to activate the more creative side of my brain that had laid dormant since I graduated high school. I figured that if a career in conservation didn't work out, I could always revert to journalism. It was either/or — not both. When I made this decision to work towards two degrees, I could never have imagined how it would launch me into the world of science communication.
Unlike most other naturalists, I didn't grow up looking for critters in my backyard or hiking with my family — I didn't even go on my first hike until I got to college. Instead, I grew up reading books about the natural world and watching whatever TV series or movie was on, so I know the impact that media could have on people and the way it fosters a love and appreciation for the natural world. I dreamed of places like the Serengeti or the Amazon or Antarctica, far-away places that seemed so close with the help of a good movie or a book.
I remember the exact moment I realized that I could bridge my love for wildlife and my skills in journalism as a career. I was reading that month's issue of National Geographic Magazine when I came across what is now my favorite piece of science writing ever: "Why do octopuses remind us so much of ourselves?" Through her writing, author Olivia Judson fostered a relationship between the reader and octopuses by describing how this beautiful, intelligent cephalopod and humans were not so different after all. By the end of the story, I had found my new favorite animal and gained an immense appreciation for these eight-legged wonders. If she could make me love and care for octopuses in a ten-minute read, then maybe I could also do something to inspire someone else to love wildlife, too.
My original reasoning for science communication was that people can be so quick to brush off science when they don't understand it, and it's not their fault. We can't expect everyone to have a degree in the life sciences or be a Master Naturalist. But the more I learned from other science communicators, the more I realized that this isn't the case. The knowledge is out there, but it'll take more than just accessible information to change minds and behaviors. If we're going to do that, we need to change people's feelings — and therein lies the challenge. Facts aren't going to do that, but stories might.
Storytelling has a magical ability to inspire and resonate with people, and a good story sticks with us for our entire lives — that's why storytelling is used to pass down traditions, life lessons, and knowledge. We process our experiences using stories, and they help us build connections with others. My goal as a conservation storyteller is to foster a relationship between audiences and the earth. With the planet in its current state, thoughtful and effective media is more important than ever.
When we tell stories of the natural world, we hand a microphone over to Mother Nature and let her inspire us. A good story can get people to care about species that seem so trivial to them or connects them with a place they may never see in their lifetime. If we can foster a mutual respect and love for the natural world, then maybe we can finally move forward in our efforts to protect the planet and ourselves.
I interviewed our guide, Jair, for a story on conservation and indigenous culture during my trip to the Amazon with Atlas Obscura.