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Showing up unapologetically as you with Alex Troutman

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Alex Troutman (pronouns: he/him) is a wildlife biologist, author and science communicator who has worked all over the world with a whole suite of species from birds to bats to sea turtles. He talks about the challenges and opportunities he faced as a black person in a predominantly white field, and how he strives to inspire future black conservationists. He discusses how he uses his books and social media to educate and engage the public about wildlife and conservation. He also gives some advice for aspiring biologists and nature lovers, such as being curious, passionate, flexible, and persistent. Alex hopes to increase accessibility to this career pathway for all people by promoting diversity and inclusion in wildlife sciences and related fields. and to foster a love and respect for the natural world in all people.

Showing up unapologetically as you with Alex Troutman | #itsawildlife

ALEX’S JOURNEY

Alex shares his passion for nature and his journey of becoming a biologist, which started from his childhood fascination with animals and exposure to nature and wildlife TV shows. When he was younger, Alex’s dad and uncle would take him fishing – which gave him exposure to the natural world including the birds. He shares –

“Red-tailed Hawks are my spark birds – the ones that really got me into nature. I loved seeing the sun shining through their red tails as I was fishing with my dad or looking over at Great Blue Herons who were catching more fish than me.”

From an early age, Alex knew he wanted to work with wildlife, but initially wasn’t sure how –

I knew I wanted to work in wildlife, but I didn’t know what capacity that would be for me. And that’s because like the only people who I saw that looked like me, that were black or people of color working with wildlife and animals were either veterinarians or farmers.”

“So, for a long time, I thought I was going to be a veterinarian and started studying as many animal facts as I could get my hands on.”

Although very quickly, Alex realized veterinarian studies weren’t for him and so switched to studying teaching with a minor in biology. During his time, he took a class in ornithology and mammalogy.

“I was outside studying animals and I realized this is what I want to do. I’m going to make it happen. So, I switched my major back to biology and end up graduating with a biology degree.”

From there, Alex started an internship with AmeriCorps and the Student Conservation Association as a park ranger in Allegheny County, which is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he was responsible for 4 of the 9 county parks in the southern region.

“That gave me my first real experience in science communication as a park ranger.”

This also inspired Alex to start his Instagram account – and although originally this was simply to share his experiences with his friends and family, it quickly grew into a science communication platform!

From here, Alex moved into an educator role with Zoo Atlanta and Georgia  Aquarium before landing a job with the Fish and Wildlife Service as a biological science technician working with endangered butterflies in Wisconsin for a year. From here, Alex moved to work with sea turtles on Padre Island for two seasons before heading internationally to work with bats in Borneo for a few months. 10 days after returning, Alex jumped on a ship to work as an endangered species observer off the coast of North Carolina before enrolling in his Masters.

“I was put onto a professor and I went down and had lunch with him… He seemed pretty cool and he was a person of color, so he knew what it was like to be in the science field and jump through the hoops that I hadn’t jumped through yet.”

And so, Alex went to grad school to complete his research with the freshwater ecology lab that was focused on birds and wetlands and arthropod assessments on a salt marsh in Georgia.

After completing his Masters, Alex accepted another job with the Fish and Wildlife Service for almost a year before accepting the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship. He laughs –

“My last name is Troutman and I love fishing, but I had never worked with fish before. So, this is a new experience and I’m learning a lot and making policies which is pretty cool.”

INCREASING REPRESENTATION IN WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

When asked about the importance of representation and role models in making this career pathway more accessible to, Alex agrees it is extremely important in order to promote and invite a diversity of participants (and with that, ideas). For Alex, representation was the first hurdle he needed to overcome –

“Yeah, I can definitely talk about that. For me, it was definitely a big process and deal: I grew up less than 30 minutes from a national park and growing up, I didn’t see any people of color working there. And then even at the local zoo, I didn’t see anybody that was black or a person of color working there as a zookeeper or anything that wasn’t a support role like in HR until I started working there around age 25 that I finally saw some black zookeepers and educators when before it was totally white!”

“My first job with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Wisconsin, I was the only Black person in that office and probably the first ever Black person that ever worked in that office!”

“While the most diverse office I’ve ever worked in to this day was in Corpus Christi, Texas where there were many people of color and women in leadership positions as well – that was a full experience!”

“For the fellowship I’m in now, while it’s still lacking diversity, there are a few more people of color”

So, from Alex’s experience, given the current climate for lacking or limited diversity within the wildlife conservation space, what is his advice for aspiring biologists from minority representations?

  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

“You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable as where you want to go will likely be outside of your comfort zone. And as a person of color, there’ll be many situations that you’ll be uncomfortable with, and you have to deal with – both at the office and living situations if you move for the job.”

“I guess a lot of non-people of color don’t understand that it’s not just your office atmosphere, but also the living situations, the town, the people you’re doing life with outside of work, your community – even simple things like distance from family and finding your comfort foods.”

  • Be unapologetically yourself

“Don’t try to hide who you are – chances are if people don’t like you, it’s not just because you are being yourself. They already have reasons to not like you. So, don’t give in to that!”

“Go ahead and be unapologetically you – that will open so many doors for you!”

  • Find your support systems

Alex says finding your community is an important part of creating a support system around you – even when you’re far outside your comfort zone.

“Make sure you build a support system – whether it’s your family, friends, mentors or other conservationists and people of colour – we can all reach out and check in with each other.”

  • Build your life around work

Another important coping strategy when jumping between contracts and locations is to do fun things for you in your down time. Alex shares –

“A fun thing I like to do when I move is try to find the best places to eat that serve creature comforts like pizza and chicken wings – and also nature spots which are healing for me, places that feel comfortable and allow me to be myself when I’m away from home.”

“Also, make sure you do your research before moving to an area – look at the demographic, the hate crime rate – and make sure it’s something that you can, sadly, I guess, deal with, because it can change your experience.”

Alex also suggests finding friends in a new town – with similar interests – is also a good place to start – joining sports teams, using meet up aps or social media to connect with likeminded people.

TAKING OPPORTUNITIES (BUT WHICH ONES?)

Speaking from his experience, Alex loves volunteering for worthy causes but discourages anyone from working for free or paying for experiences that create financial pressures or take them away from supporting themselves or their dependents, especially whilst studying. He explains –

“Another tip is you shouldn’t pay for experience. If someone is offering you experience, you should definitely be getting paid for that experience.

“There are some times where I enjoy volunteering, but I’m not gonna volunteer where I’m doing the job for someone else. When I do volunteer, it’s something I’m passionate about, or it’s to gain a new skill that I don’t have, such as my first experience with bird banding to learn.”

Especially working with some of the charismatic animals, a lot of people will tell you the experience should make it worth it – but although it’s not about money all the time, you have to pay the bills! Alex says –

“I shouldn’t have to decide if I want to gain experience or if I want to eat that summer because a lot of times with these experiences during the summer and if you’re a student, you need to pay for your classes for the next semester. So, you can’t afford to not work and do a free volunteer experience or even worse, not work and then pay for the experience, especially if you don’t have any scholarships, or if you have to take out loans.”

“There’s a lot of organizations out there that definitely profit off of that aspect that a lot of people want to work with these charismatic animals. So, they make you pay for the experience, even though some of them say they are trying to increase diversity and be more inclusive.”

“Then, there’s other organizations, some nonprofits that say they pay you, but it’s very little – it’s literally like the bare minimum despite huge hours. And a lot of times, it’s the same job as the biologists who are in the agency, but since you’re an intern, they’re paying you a quarter. So, you have look out for that!”

“So, if you’re looking to get experience, make sure you’re getting it through a reputable source and you’re not being taken advantage of.”

Remember your value and be true to that!

KEEP IN TOUCH

Want to hear more from Alex? Tune into the podcast or follow him on social media – @n8ture_al on Instagram, @n8ture_al on Twitter or on his website.

Something we talk more about in the Podcast, is that Alex has written several nature guides for kids – Critters of Georgia, Critters of New York, Critters of Michigan, Critters of Minnesota, Critters of Florida and Critters of Wisconsin. You can purchase these on the Adventure with Keen website, Amazon, Target and Books a Million! Alex says –

“Feel free to send me an email through my website or DM through Instagram if you have any questions or want to talk more.

I’m showing up unapologetically as myself – Alex. I’m talking about science things and wildlife in the way that I understand it and the way that I hope that it helps other people understand I’m not using big words or anything I’m communicating in a way that I believe is accessible and approachable and I think people like that because they understand and see the real me and it’s not me.”

Instagram @n8ture_al: https://www.instagram.com/n8ture_al/

Twitter @n8ture_al: https://twitter.com/n8ture_al

Website: https://alexktroutman.wixsite.com/n8tureal

Critters of Georgia: https://shop.adventurewithkeen.com/product/critters-of-georgia/

Critters of New York: https://shop.adventurewithkeen.com/product/critters-of-new-york/

Critters of Michigan: https://shop.adventurewithkeen.com/product/critters-of-michigan/

Critters of Minnesota: https://shop.adventurewithkeen.com/product/critters-of-minnesota/

Critters of Florida: https://shop.adventurewithkeen.com/product/critters-of-florida/

Critters of Wisconsin: https://shop.adventurewithkeen.com/product/critters-of-wisconsin/

KEEP IN TOUCH

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