“You take anything inside your brain, put it on paper and immediately it becomes real”
Natalie Cibel (pronouns: she/her) is a field ecologist and researcher with the San Diego Zoo, California. After finishing her degree at the University of North Carolina, Natalie started setting intentions, journaling and effectively creating her own pathway towards her dream job in wildlife conservation. Natalie shares her experiences in the field and advice for anyone looking to carve out their perfect role in the ecological space.
Having access to nature at an early age laid the foundation for Natalie to pursue a career in environmental science.
“My subconscious influence to get into wildlife definitely began with exposure to the ocean as a child and going to sleepaway camp in Shenandoah valley in Virginia”
Natalie went to the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, a small beach town with the intention of pursuing marine biology, having spent a summer in the Caribbean that had given her exposure to working on the water. However, once she started studying, Natalie found that marine biology had too much chemistry for her tastes and her path tended towards broader environmental science work.
Something that laid the foundation for how Natalie’s career took off was being inspired by and building relationships with her professors.
“I feel like that’s a big part of my career advice: listen to your elders.”
Natalie started doing bird work and believes that bird watching is the gateway to the wildlife world and landed a job working with threatened birds in the recovery ecology program at the San Diego Zoo. This experience led her down the path of working in coastal ecology, and now migrating further and further inland to take a deep dive into desert ecology.
Natalie now works to protect the Desert Tortoise and Western Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert, both of which are threatened with extinction. For Natalie, the desert has stolen her heart:
“I think the surprising element is how biodiverse the desert is. A lot of people think of it as a barren landscape, I think the Oxford dictionary even describes it as a wasteland but it’s not that at all: the endangered Mojave Desert tortoise, the burrowing owl, the most venomous rattlesnake in the world, the Mojave green rattlesnake, the Mojave shovel nose snake, the list goes on.”
GETTING SPECIFIC ON YOUR CAREER PATH
Natalie has successfully approached ecology with intention and focus.
“I really targeted an organization I wanted to work for and researched what experiences were necessary to work for them: the qualifications and time spent volunteering.”
For Natalie, her dream job was working in the recovery ecology program at the San Diego Zoo for threatened bird species like the California Least Tern and Western Snowy Plover. It took three years but she got there – and not for lack of trying!
“Let me tell you: failing and trying again is a big part of my story. It wasn’t until my third try that I received a position with them, after my second application was successful but lost due to COVID in March, 2020.”
A big part of what helped Natalie acquire this experience was through journaling:
“I was journaling, figuring out what I wanted to do and looking at wildlife job boards but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. So, I started writing about it in my journal and I will never forget that journal entry, just kind of casually talking about the San Diego Zoo which was really my dream job. So, writing it down was that first step for me and watching that come to life over the next four years.”
“Now, I’m starting graduate school with a program through the San Diego Zoo so it all falls into place when you start being inspired: first by your professors and experiences, and then writing about it, really thinking a lot about it and planning to acquire more experiences to land that dream job.”
Natalie acknowledges it can be easier said than done.
“I know not everyone has the time to volunteer. Early on, I worked full-time as a barista alongside my volunteer and study commitments and that’s why I emphasize networking and writing things down and, and listening to your elders as other ways to take steps towards your dream job”.
The climate crisis and widespread destruction of our biodiversity are big, scary topics to discuss but they can feel even bigger and scarier when you’re observing it first hand in the field. Natalie explains:
“I think it weighs heavy on a lot of biologists who are seeing changes firsthand on the ground with wildlife. For example, we see the real impacts of climate change on populations of the critically endangered California Least Tern when we monitor them”
Natalie explained that adults are now spending more time off the nest foraging for longer period as their main food source, anchovies are retreating to colder waters, further away from the shoreline. When they spend more time off the nest, this leaves their chicks more vulnerable to predation.
“I mean, it’s not easy seeing that. Walking through the desert can feel bare, but walking through empty chick pens, it’s tragic.”
Experiencing these impacts firsthand in our generation can create huge feelings of guilt, but is this our guilt to carry? And how can we overcome it to change the story for nature?
As Natalie puts it, we need to use our powers for good.
“To combat my own eco-anxiety I like to seek out positive news because once you do, it manifests itself in a way that you start to see the possibilities of your own actions. And that comes with listening to stories.”
Natalie is a firm believer in the power of science communication to help us turn the story around for the better. She emphasizes that there needs to be more story sharing to inspire people with the message of hope.
“It’s really the small moments that make up for those heavy feelings of eco-anxiety. Blooming flowers, baby tortoises, things that survive those are messages of hope for me.”
The biodiversity crisis is the biggest problem our generation is facing right now and there are so many people who want to help but don’t know how. This is where messages of hope come in because as Natalie says, change can start at the individual level.
So, what are things we can do each day to make an impact? Natalie says it all comes down to stewardship, taking responsibility for our backyard, and in turn our planet. She has 3 suggestions:
- Admire and help your local wildlife. For example, put up a bird feeder or plant some native plants outside your front door.
- Volunteer to help local wildlife conservation initiatives when you have time. Beach cleans, wildlife rescue, threatened species advocacy, everything helps!
- Share good news stories. Lead by example and promote what you’re doing to magnify your impact as an individual.
FINDING YOUR DREAM JOB
For so many of us searching for work in the ecology space can be challenging because it is a career with no defined pathway. Natalie has advice on the 3 steps she’d recommend when navigating this space:
- Get inspired.
“I listened to my professors to Jane Goodall and that just opened my mind to the possibilities to what this career pathway could look like because it is unclear. And I think seeing other people in the space and what they’ve done helped me create my own path.”
“I spent a lot of time in my first year after undergrad on LinkedIn targeting different organizations that I was interested in working for from there. I’ve really acquired all of my jobs through networking and following up with employers, building a relationship with them.”
- Write down your experiences and ideas.
Start writing things down. Journal about the experiences you have and research those you need to meet the criteria for your dream job application.
“That really helped me create my own pathway”
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Natalie? Tune into the podcast to listen to our conversation. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @natcibel or Linked In or check out her website to find out more about Natalie’s field experiences and wildlife conservation blog
What do you think? why not let us know or follow along for the adventure!
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