Kacie Hanke (pronouns: she/her) is a zoology student at UC Santa Barbara. Having found her passion for wildlife conservation, Kacie has spent her most recent summer working with the Forest Service as a field technician with Southern Steelhead, an endangered fish in Los Padres. Kacie shares her experience with science communication and social media and it’s power for spreading conservation stories as well as inspiring people to follow their passion and work as a scientist with wildlife.
WORKING WITH ENDANGERED SPECIES
Kacie has spent the past summer working with the endangered Southern Steelhead, a native fish species in Los Padres. Many scientists believe they’re the ancestral steelhead to all other steelhead on the west coast of north America, which makes them really important for understanding the group. Steelhead are the same species as Rainbow Trout and are a valuable resource both for predators within the ecosystem and humans.
So, why are they such a threatened species?
Southern California has been going through some pretty crazy changes due to climate change with extreme drought and wildfire. While Southern Steelhead can adapt to dry conditions, they
cannot may be unable to tolerate these extremes. Kacie explains:
“Our project specifically has been running the past six years, trying to understand how climate induced wildfire is impacting these fish, and to what degree.”
Kacie’s passion for these threatened freshwater fish evolved at an ecosystem level with a passion for its predators – from orcas to wolves and bears.
“Those keystone animals had always caught my interest. So, when I saw this job posting, I was really interested to take it and see more of the species that fed these predators that I’m so interested in.”
Conserving prey species like the Steelhead is an important part of the picture for conserving many of the keystone predator species as well as a food resource for us humans.
Kacie grew up watching a lot of Animal Planet which fostered a passion to ultimately work with animals, but a career path in conservation is rarely straightforward or publicized!
“I always wanted to work with animals and as a kid, I felt the only way to do that was at a zoo or aquarium.”
As Kacie grew up, she went back and forth between the idea of pursuing the arts and the sciences.
“I didn’t think I could get through all the stem requirements that come with science. And honestly, I don’t think I really considered I could be a scientist for a really long time.”
When she started college, Kacie realized that she wasn’t as interested in animal husbandry as she was in the mechanism behind ecosystems and different species.
“I took an evolutionary biology class in college and realized that when I really applied myself, I was able to get through the science classes and discovered there are so many other ways to work with wildlife and do so much for wildlife outside of zoos and animal care”
“I dropped my art major and picked up biology and really haven’t looked back since”
The thing about conservation is it’s possible and incredibly important that people of all backgrounds are involved. Kacie believes it’s important to have as many different perspectives as possible because new perspectives bring new ideas for conservations and different ways to go about it.
SHARING SCIENCE ON SOCIAL MEDIA
“I think art and science are actually really similar in the sense that they’re both modes of storytelling and they’re just different ways to talk about the same thing, which to me would be animals.”
While science is able to tell us about the mechanisms behind nature and art in the same sense can celebrate those mechanisms and present them in a way that people can understand and connect with without having a scientific background.
With her artistic background, Kacie is a huge advocate for science communication and telling important stories about wildlife to promote its conservation:
“Telling stories about animals captures people’s hearts and attention. I mean, it’s hard to take care of something if you don’t care about it first, so I think being able to empathize with these animals is actually a great way to engage people”
Kacie also uses media like Instagram to share an insight into the realities of her life as a biologist and telling stories about the animals themselves. Kacie explains:
“I like to post photos and videos that give an insight into the work that I’m doing, because I love seeing what other people are doing”
Some of the largest barriers to wildlife conservation is that people don’t realise this can become a career path, and if they do, they can’t picture themselves in that space because they can’t visualize what it looks like. Biologists like Kacie who share their stories are helping to break down these barriers and open up the space so that wildlife science and conservation can have a broader reach.
“With social media we’re able to see more diversity in the field. I know for me personally, I never thought that I would be a scientist because I didn’t think I was smart enough as a kid and didn’t see other people and other women in those roles…”
Social media is able to document science in a relevant and authentic way that traditional methods of sharing like publication and conferences can’t compare to. Kacie encourages all biologists to share their journey and their work for this reason:
“It’s really fun, and it feels really good to show people the kind of work I’m doing out there, but I think it would be awesome to see more scientists sharing their work online in general. It’s so easy to get bogged down on the negative things that are happening in our world, but there’s so much good work going on out there which doesn’t have coverage”
Imposter syndrome can create a major barrier to people showing up as biologists online and sharing their work. Kacie thinks this stems from early on in a wildlife conservation career path.
“I think it is hard to consider yourself a biologist until you have that big PhD or have worked 20 years in the field… but even the work you do in undergrad is still science – and it’s important that we share it and get excited about what we’re doing.”
Kacie’s advice is to embrace and romanticize our careers in biology – as early as possible. Because, when you share your experiences on social media, you never know who’s lives you might change!
KEEP IN TOUCH
“If anyone has questions or just want to chat about different opportunities and journeys within the biology space, message me on Instagram – I’m here, I’m all ears!”
Want to hear more from Kacie? Tune into the podcast to listen to our conversation or follow her adventures on Instagram @kacie.jr.
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