Today we have the absolute pleasure of speaking with the lovely Gael Sanchez (pronouns: she/her) – wildlife biologist, silversmith, science communicator creator of Cactus Quoll Creations and all-round amazing human being. Gael works as the Lead Inland Wildlife Biologist for the Bay Mills Indian Community in Texas and also leads a charge to level the playing field in the wildlife conservation space and increase diversity and opportunity.
Gael’s journey towards becoming a professional wildlife biologist began when she enrolled in a Bachelor in Conservation Ecology and obtained work experience during summer vacation and after classes through semester. After her science degree, Gael worked several seasonal tech positions with wolves, bears, mule deer, and birds of prey before returning to university to complete her Masters using Landscape genetics to predict the potential spread of Chronic Wasting Disease and mutations in the prion protein gene in Texas. Following her Masters, Gael worked several more seasonal tech positions before she finally landed her current job 3 years ago as the Lead Inland Wildlife Biologist for the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan which involves working for this Indigenous tribe to co-manage wildlife and natural resources at an ecosystem scale.
Cactus Quoll Creations
Finding more stability in her career, Gael found the time to start her own silversmithing business, Cactus Quoll Creations which began in early 2020 before the world shut down for COVID-19. Self-taught off YouTube, Gael took up silversmithing as a hobby to fill the dark evenings after work through the cold winter months and very quickly there was demand from friends and family who wanted to buy the pieces of jewelry she created.
What began as a space to sell her wildlife-themed jewelry pieces and sustainable merchandise, Cactus Quoll Creations has since evolved and expanded into a space for educational outreach for early career biologists.
If you’re wondering about this cute and quirky name, Gael provided some insight. The name Cactus Quoll Creations ties together her heritage between the beautiful Australian bush and the deserts of New Mexico, USA as well as her passion for wildlife on both continents.
“When I started out in wildlife biology, I didn’t have any friends or family ahead of me so I didn’t know how to establish myself in the field – and I could see the disadvantage of this”
More and more early career biologists found Cactus Quoll Creations and reached out for advice and support, asking how Gael had gotten to where she was. Gael loves science communication and wanted to help them and so started creating resources and networking platforms to provide information and connect biologists.
This began with “Ask a biologist Monday”, a Q&A forum that Gael runs on her Instagram each Monday where biologists can ask and answer questions about the field.
This led Gael to create her Guide to becoming a wildlife biologist – a downloadable pdf document for early career biologists that outlines the steps you can take to get your foot in the door and land a job, working with wildlife. Gael collected input and advice from lots of different ecologists in the field whilst creating the guide and continues to update it to ensure it stays relevant.
So, people came to Cactus Quoll Creations for the jewelry and funky t-shirt designs but stayed to learn more about the animals depicted in the pieces!
“You can see how Cactus Quoll Creations has branched – and my website just continues to grow and include a little bit of everything”
Always aware of privilege and equal access to resources in the wildlife sector – she wants to help early career biologists succeed and increase the diversity of backgrounds within the wildlife field.
Diversity in wildlife biology
Barriers to diversity and access
Gael identifies some of the main barriers to access and diversity within the wildlife biology field:
“A lot of people can’t put aside time to take unpaid jobs as they can’t work for free – they might have debt, mortgage, sick family members, young children, or just not come from a background where they don’t come from money – and when it comes down to it, no one should be working for free – but it excludes all these people when they can’t spend 3 years working for next to nothing or moving frequently until they can land a stable position.
“There’s a push to move around and volunteer, especially early on, but we have to provide other options and push for other ways that people can enter and stay in the field.”
“It’s so important to fight for paid positions and reduce the necessity that all people in the industry must have a university degree in natural sciences because there are always ways to get involved.”
“For us to be cutting out passionate people from a variety of backgrounds doesn’t just mean that they miss out, rather the field of natural science misses out as. We rarely acknowledge that this field has been so singular for a long time and here is so much the field could benefit from as these people are trained in different backgrounds and bring new ideas, skills, perspectives and ways of doing things that can improve the industry as a whole.”
“When we eliminate barriers to inclusion, we enable people not only to enhance the industry but also feel more comfortable being involved in the workplace.”
Increasing the involvement and connection of people in wildlife management and conservation can raise awareness and the profile of conservation issues and ultimately impact the resources that are allocated to conservation and environmental research over time.
Back to unpaid positions
Although some people enjoy the opportunities provided in unpaid positions and are happy to work them for free, Gael encourages us to recognize that other people are also interested but can’t take those positions – so when we take an unpaid position, we uphold the standard that unpaid work is acceptable in this field.
“Just because you are passionate about your job (as so many people in the wildlife sector are) doesn’t mean you and your technicians shouldn’t be paid your worth because it’s still a job”
Without the legal protections, benefits of leave and compensation of salary that come from a paid position, it can be challenging to support yourself in the long-term both inside and outside the workplace. Gael says –
“Not to mention, the treatment of people and conditions they work in are much better in paid positions, which is something to consider for your long-term involvement in this field”
Burnout and work-life balance
Gael reminds us: “It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about your job, it’s still a job – and it can’t be 100% of our being, especially in the long-term.”
Often the unpaid positions, the uncertainty in career path and sacrifices that people make, especially early on in your career this industry are considered necessary to get their foot in the door and establish themselves in a career working with wildlife. This mentality and physical expectation on early career biologists lead us to push ourselves to increase the time and energy we put to work commitments, often at the expense of life commitments.
Although this is just the beginning, it sets the undertone for a career in wildlife biology – eliminating people who are unable to make this unrealistic commitment and paving the way to early career burnout of your physical and mental health. But Gael says –
“This has to change so that people don’t have to choose between the work and the life that they’re passionate about – because you can and should be able to do and love both”
Gael says there is definitely progress being made to encourage diversity and support people in the wildlife industry that has come from discussing and bringing these issues to the forefront. However, there is still a long way to go – and advocating for change at a personal level and speaking to employers is one of the best ways to continue to make progress in this field.
Gael’s career advice
Gael has created an all-encompassing guide on How to become a wildlife biologist which is available as a free PDF download from her website as well as many other resources: education outreach for early career biologists as well as a network and community for all biologists through her platform, Cactus Quoll Creations.
One of Gael’s big pieces of advice is that it’s ok to not know how to do something and you should never feel afraid or embarrassed to ask questions or reach out for help! There’s a first time for everyone for everything – and a lot of firsts happen on a daily basis.
Another piece of advice is to avoid unpaid positions as it pushes for inclusivity and you will be treated better and set a higher standard of self-worth for yourself. Not only will this make you a better (and happier) person, but Gael says, it will also make you a better biologist –
“The more you start to consider everything and everyone around you, you start to see how interconnected everything is and receive input from a broader array of people – community members, people from all walks of life”
“This will help you to build stronger relationships with the people around you which can be hugely advantageous when doing things like writing grants, undertaking collaborative work, forming partnerships and of course building a support network and ultimately improve the quality of and the opportunities that are available to you through the work you do – as there is a more diverse input of ideas.”
As for the creative and business side, Gael says that lots of people are afraid to try new things, and find way too many excuses not to start – but just having a go is an important first step. It might become a fun hobby or even build itself into a lucrative side hustle or small business – you’ll never know unless you try!
Keep in touch
Want to hear more from Gael? Check out our conversation on the podcast, launching on Earth Day (22 April 2022).
You can follow Cactus Quoll Creations on Instagram @cactusquollcreations and Facebook cactusquollcreations. Gael also has an amazing website, filled with free resources for wildlifers and manages a jewellery and sustainable shop where she sells her own products and designs. Make sure you check those out at the links!
Gael was also featured recently on Women in Wildlife, so check that out as well.
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