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Blending art and science with Kaitie Schneider of The Understory Studio

The amazing Kaitie Schneider (pronouns: she/her) is not only a full-time wildlife biologist and conservation advocate in Colorado, USA, but also uses her creative content to raise awareness and inspire positive change. Her goal is to rethink the way we communicate for both wildlife and the biologists who dedicate their lives to them! Kaitie is the founder of the @theunderstorystudio, her own creative small business which blends together art, science and everything in between. 

Blending art and science with Kaitie Schneider of The Understory Studio | #itsawildlife

KAITIE’S JOURNEY

Kaitie has a Bachelor of Science degree in wildlife conservation biology from Colorado State University and is now a full-time wildlife biologist. But to get to where she is, Kaitie’s story follows a unique and winding path, like so many people in the wildlife world. Kaitie explains:

“I’ve always had a stack of animal books next to me since I could read… so I guess there was really never any question that I was going to go into wildlife conservation – although it took me a while to figure out that’s what this was called!” 

“There’s not a lot of awareness around the jobs in conservation, and what I wanted to do within that field has changed a lot as I have learnt more about the reality of each job… Early on I wanted to be an animal trainer at Sea World, then I discovered animal rehabilitation and when I was 16, I got my first job to fund a trip to Thailand where I volunteered abroad at a wildlife rescue centre”.

“While I was in Thailand, I got really interested in animal behaviour, and so, I thought that was where I might drive my career, towards being a researcher, possibly an educator – the next Jane Goodall. As I started getting into scientific papers, I realized there are so many cool things people are learning about and studying out in the world – and yet nobody really knows about it! Nobody’s talking about it.”

For Kaitie, this was a lightbulb moment. As she explains: 

“I figured if more people knew about the amazing things animals can do in their own right, more people would be more inclined to save them.”

But when Kaitie actually started university and spoke to her professors, the people with her dream job – she realized the reality wasn’t as she’d pictured it – and being a professor might not be for her.

“Actually, that’s one of the biggest things I can recommend to people in this field is talk to the person with your dream job, figure out if it’s everything that you’ve imagined, and if it’s not, be okay with finding a plan B”

Kaitie realized that her drive to work in education was spot on but she didn’t support the barriers in place for people accessing a higher education in order to pursue a career in wildlife conservation. Kaitie found she was steering more towards public engagement and outreach.

“I didn’t want a degree to be a reason why people felt they couldn’t be involved – and that’s kind of where I’m at today.”

Most of her work through college and after college has been in government, on the federal state and local levels but after a while, the structure felt rigid and somewhat inflexible in the pathways towards creating meaningful change for the environment. Kaitie explains:

“At the end of the day, I think I kept bumping into this issue of inflexibility where “this is the way things go” or “this is how things are” and so in working for startups, non-profits, and for myself, I definitely found more freedom to make change when things don’t make sense or feel inefficient.”

And now, Kaitie is a Program Coordinator for Defenders of Wildlife, which is a nationwide non-profit working to conserve some iconic American species including relocation of Bison and recovery of Wolves. Even in her free time, she works with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to hold public programs around Black-Footed Ferret recovery – as Kaitie says, she doesn’t really relax!

“I’ve worked everywhere from the lab to the field and from the US to Mexico and Thailand, I’ve been kind of all-over and tried a bunch of different things and this is kind of where I landed.” 

And when Kaitie can’t speak on behalf of the organization she works for, the Understory Studio (see below!) has become a space to speak freely on science, communication and conservation in general. 

“I’m grateful for this space where I can rant and divulge all my thoughts – and where people can find and support the work that I’m doing in art and science communication – and get something from that… so it’s definitely a one big two-way street.”

THE UNDERSTORY STUDIO

Although Kaitie has been an artist her whole life, she did not open The Understory Studio until late 2019. Kaitie explains – 

“I was in my junior year of college during my undergrad when I (rather spontaneously) realized I could use my art, replicate it, and create products like stickers and to raise awareness for wildlife conservation… Pretty much overnight I opened an Etsy store”

Kaitie ran the store for a few months and then closed it while she travelled to Mexico to study abroad for four months. While she was there, she designed a t-shirt for the group. This first t-shirt design planted the seed to expand The Understory Studio. 

When Kaitie returned from Mexico, COVID-19 was just beginning. We all know the story – a two-week quarantine quickly became two-years. At the time, Kaitie was a lab researcher for the U S government but unable to go into her lab. 

“So, I spent that summer of 2020 teaching myself web design, graphic design, brand design – and that’s how The Understory Studio evolved into what has now become a much bigger umbrella than I ever anticipated in the beginning – and I’ve since done brand work for small startups, like Blue Turtle Sustainable, to huge NGOs like Beneath the Waves.” 

And from it, a huge community for science communication has blossomed. Kaitie says:

“I’m just so excited about both how far it’s come as well as what’s still to come.” 

WORKING OUT WHERE TO TAKE YOUR CAREER IN WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

On behalf of The Understory Studio, Kaitie does a lot of public outreach work, speaking in public schools about working as a wildlife ecologist, and shifting the scientist stereotype to broaden the scope of what students consider conservation to look like and ways they can make a difference and get involved. Kaitie explains: 

“I think there’s still a lot of stereotypes out there as to what a scientist looks like and what a job in science in general looks like – let alone one in wildlife conservation. Most students I speak with have a limited perception of what working in wildlife conservation looks like: zookeeper, animal trainer, animal rehabber and Jane Goodall – that’s about it!”

“But in reality, there’s a huge spectrum of options out there: you can do field work, lab work, education and so much more.” 

While public engagement is an important first step to increasing awareness and promoting wildlife conservation work, volunteering is a great next step to “try before you buy” – testing the water before you commit to pursuing a career in it.

Trying out different roles is a great way to figure out what you actually like and disentangle your expectations from the reality. While these tips can help to smooth the pathway towards landing your dream job working with wildlife, everyone ends up having some kind of wrap-around winding path as they figure out what they love and what they want to do.

FUSING ART WITH SCIENCE

Kaitie has found that her content on The Understory Studio has supported and encouraged a lot of creative scientists and brought both the science and art communities together, as she explains:

“Like me, there’s a lot of people that have the science brain and the art brain. I see that a lot. And I think The Understory Studio has really brought those people out to a place that they feel like they’ve been seen.”

“There’s also people that are really one or the other, but want to learn about the other side: as in, there’s a lot of scientists that could really use some help creatively and a lot of creatives that are really mission-driven and passionate about helping the planet and helping conservation.”

The Understory Studio is a space for all of these people, and through her art, Kaitie aims to transform hearts and minds to rethink the story of wildlife conservation globally. Not only through raising awareness, but also by fundraising to support important environmental causes.

“My followers are able to either nominate or vote on organizations to donate to through The Understory Studio… so, in 2021, we were able to donate over a thousand dollars to different projects happening – from wildfire relief to our first annual undergraduate scholarship for underrepresented students who are pursuing a career in conservation.”

SHARING IS CARING

The Understory Studio’s social media presence is a great platform for discussing conservation challenges for the planet itself as well as for the people working within the industry. Kaitie explains:

“So, the people that are in this community are a good mix between folks who are well-seasoned in the issues that come with working in conservation, to students that are getting their feet wet and figuring out where they want to drive their career, to others who are really just interested in sustainability and conservation in general and want to be more aware of what’s going on in this space.” 

“I try to talk about a diverse range of topics because I think even if something is a little bit more relevant to say the folks that are in conservation like unequal pay or barriers to entry into this field, it’s important for everyone to know”. 

A lot of Kaitie’s posts are framed infographics based on science which makes some more complex or underrepresented issues easier for her audience to digest and share. Sharing specific case studies of broader (often dark!) issues like climate change and ocean acidification can help people to engage as it feels more tangible, empowering or manageable to tackle – less overwhelming in any case!

“I approach content creation through sharing ideas, papers and stories which is an eye-opening way for people to realize that they are not alone in this fight and individual action does matter! But broader accountability by governments and bigger business matters as well. While it’s easy to try and give a black and white answer, at the end of the day, there is so much nuance to all of these problems that I think often gets overlooked.”

Through The Understory Studio, Kaitie breaks down and fleshes out issues like imposter syndrome, gender- or racially- or socio-economic- based barriers to entry and subsequent underrepresentation in the field – and in doing so, her content helps people to feel seen and their concerns heard.

“I think I’m just really passionate about changing the world view of what the scope of conservation is and who works in it”

TOP TIPS FOR WORKING IN CONSERVATION

From her broad array of experiences, Kaitie has 3 top tips to set you in good stead towards landing your dream job working in either the art- or science-side of wildlife conservation: 

  • Volunteer in as many different corners of conservation as you can. 

“I’m not talking about working 40-hour weeks unpaid – this is not volunteering – it’s exploitation, robbery, unethical and this reduces accessibility to conservation. Rather, I’m recommending small things that you can do in your community to benefit conservation, build your skills, meet people in the industry and earn about what you’re interested in, figure out what drives you, your why.”

  • Follow scientists and artists on social media and learn from what they do

A great place to start is Kaitie’s Instagram page: @theunderstorystudio

  • If you’re interested in starting your own small business, either scientific or artistic (or both!), give it a go – and explore monetizing your passions

And if you’re a mission-driven creative like Kaitie, looking to put your artistic or other talents to good use, she recommends checking out Oekologie Media. As Kaitie explains, she is creating a directory of people with skills from filmmaking to writing to graphic design and so much more.

“When scientists approach us and say “I have this project” or “I need creative help”, we have a long list of people signed up and ready to tackle it together.”

So, if that sounds like you, check it out and sign up!

KEEP IN TOUCH

Want to hear more from Kaitie? Check out our conversation on the podcast. You can follow Kaitie’s adventures on Instagram @theunderstorystudio @kaitie.schneider or LinkedIn. You can also support The Understory Studio on her website and Etsy shop – and for more on Oekologie Media, click here.

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