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How Nora Achieved Her Dream Of Becoming An Ecologist

Sarah Yuster smiling wistfully.

While recently perusing one of my social media feeds, I chanced upon the photos of an acquaintance of mine that featured her recent trip to Panama. Enamored by the beautiful nature shots taken by artist Sarah Yuster, I asked her about the trip and discovered that she had been visiting her daughter Nora Moskowitz.

Nora, a Boston University graduate and intern with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, has been doing ecology research in Latin America. In my quest to showcase interesting career stories on Idealist Careers, I jumped at the opportunity to interview her. Below is our conversation and Nora’s reassuring thoughts about getting into the field!

How did you become interested in ecology and biology?

My mother would take me Clove Lakes Park as a kid, and occasionally High Rock (which was a real treat) on Staten Island, NY to go birdwatching and look for salamanders. My aunt was an ecologist for awhile, and she also taught me how to look for these things. She was already talking to me about climate change at age 8, just as it was becoming a universally discussed topic.

Meanwhile, my other aunt bought a house in Vermont, and my first visit there was the first time I was allowed to play outside alone! There were no safety concerns in the small town. My greatest joy was heading into the stream or up to the lake to catch frogs. I guess I had never seen a frog on Staten Island, though they exist, and I just thought they were the greatest animals ever. I didn't do much with them except watch them hop around and try to identify them - I was given several field guides as gifts, and my favorite one was the reptile/amphibian one. Herpetology is and has always been my favorite: the study of reptiles and amphibians.

It sounds like you had a clear idea of your career interests pretty early on. Were there other career paths you considered?

When I was 11 or 12, I was thinking about photojournalism. I liked pictures of animals and saw them in magazines and books, so it made sense that a kid would pick that, rather than biological research. 

What brought you back to ecology/biology as opposed to pursuing another interest?

At 11 or 12, I had a lot of discouraging conversations with photojournalists about the job prospects. I was way too young to have these discouraging conversations, but those talks made me reconsider the field.

What did you study in college and which classes influenced you the most?

I entered Boston University with the same major I graduated with (luckily!): Biology with a specialization in Ecology and Conservation Biology. The classes that helped me most were evolutionary ecology, evolution, conservation biology and most importantly, my "tropical ecology" themed semester abroad in Ecuador.

I took an evolution class in Boston as a first semester sophomore, and was immediately in love with the topic and enthusiasm of the two professors. I was the "over-participator" of the class, so the professors knew me despite the large lecture size. I went to one professor, Sean Mullen, early in the semester for help with a paper that I truly had no idea how to write. I was there (in the class) prematurely, as I had just finished my freshman year.

He gave me some quick advice on the paper, and suddenly asked me to join his lab. I was surprised: I had 0 experience, and he was a geneticist. I hadn't even taken the class yet. But of course, I said yes! I worked in his lab for two and a half years studying the evolution of Batesian mimicry in a group of butterflies. He was my most important mentor at BU, and definitely helped me get my current position here in Panama. 

My next important mentor was Kelly Swing, who lives in Ecuador full-time now, teaching the tropical ecology semester. We studied many different biomes, and took field trips to the Galapagos, through the Andes, and even to the Amazon Rainforest for a month. He helped us learn a lot foundational things about ecological fieldwork and really aided us in designing our own projects and presenting them. He also gave us valuable perspective about working in Latin America, taught us about the complications of over-harvesting, habitat destruction and pollution, as well as the socio-economic problems many of the local and Indigenous peoples face.

So you received a lot of guidance from professionals in the field. What would you advise to someone who doesn’t know how to get started?

I would say if you’re thinking about going into the field you’re going to have to get your general biology out of the way and then try to take a couple of elective science courses. Pick the ones that you like, rather than the ones that are the most prestigious. Definitely go out in nature, look at stuff and find the things you think are cool, even if it’s a beetle, and learn about them.

What would you advise to someone who does not have a mentor or is not familiar with mentorship? How can someone approach a professor or other professional for mentoring?

Definitely write a nice email saying what you admire about their work without being too schmoozy. Just be honest, say that you want to talk to them about their experience. Most people are pretty open if you show enthusiasm and that you are not just looking for someone to boost your grades or help you get a job. Most people have been willing to at least chat with me about their careers, and it’s nice even if I can’t get a job out it.

What skills does someone in your career field need?

The #1 skill is attention to detail. Sometimes I have to collect data 10 times because we did something wrong- for example, if you don’t have the same temperature in the room across experiments, it can add another component. You have to be patient about work. Also, if you’re going to do tropical ecology, you must be tolerant of tropical conditions and high humidities, as well as bugs being everywhere.

Tell us a little bit about your current work. 

I am here in Panama with Karen Warkentin (another BU professor) studying hatching plasticity in red-eyed treefrogs. This is a five-month internship, and we are going to Portland, Oregon in January to present our research at a conference called SICB.

What is more important in your career field- skill or passion?

If I had to pick, it would be passion because this work is about knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It probably won’t affect everyone in everyday life. In other fields, researchers have to write into their grants how their topic will change the world. While some of this research has broader impacts, a lot of it is done just for the sake of knowledge and has intrinsic value. The people who love it the most ask the most interesting questions and as a result, do the most interesting work.

As far as skill goes, in terms of statistical and data analyses, those things will come as long as you have the passion. I know people who entered the field because they were computer programmers and knew they could do the work for scientists. They can analyze the data but they don’t have the curiosity about natural history that would drive the data collection in the first place. They can’t ask the good questions and they aren’t as curious. As long as you have the passion, the skills will come- the passion will drive you.

What are some ways to break into the field- networking, studying with prominent faculty, applying for research programs, volunteering, taking alternative courses of study or supplemental programs… ?

Definitely as an undergrad, send those emails to people who have jobs you are interested in. Read about their research, review papers they’ve written, and show enthusiasm in class. Always do it respectfully, not in a schmoozy way. I always like talking to grad studs because they have seniority but may not be as intimidating as professors to approach. It’s always good to apply for a summer opportunity, even if you start small. Just talk to everybody.

What other types of opportunities exist for someone interested in ecology who might not have the science or research background?

There’s a lot of stewardship opportunities- tree planting, such as NYC Trees. You could definitely teach at a nature camp. Online courses at Coursera can help you learn a lot of background information. In terms of a job there are a lot of opportunities at the Parks Department or at zoos, as long as you have the interest and tolerance for the environment.

Speaking of environments, you’ve worked and studied in several countries. Which has been your favorite so far and why?

It has to be Ecuador because I did my tropical ecology study abroad program there. I realized the country is very small but has so much to offer: the Galapagos, the Amazon rainforest, the Andes, so much diversity. It’s very diverse in terms of types of ecosystems. But also the people are good too. I speak Spanish, which is useful.

What issues (of the ones you’ve studied and researched) do you see as the most detrimental to our planet and why?

There is habitat destruction that surrounds everyone’s research. Even if it’s a protected natural park, it is in danger of being destroyed. I was doing research in Yasuni National Park in Ecuador and even though it was supposed to be a biosphere reserve (sacred pieces of land and protected by the UN), they are going to be drilling for oil somehow and that is going to disturb the area. I did minor projects in Ecuador but i definitely saw a lot of overfishing and habitat destruction. With that, comes a cascade of events- more roads, more cars, more pollution. Most of that is driven off the idea, “I want to make money off the land somehow”.

Based on your studies, what are some (simple, easy to implement) things we can do to lower the impact of our footprint?

Well, I could just say that in seeing all of these really beautiful ecosystems, do the stuff you are taught- do not litter or overuse electricity and water. When you see the destruction firsthand you gain an incentive to try to avoid things that will destroy the ecosystems.

What resources would you recommend to someone who wants to live and work in Latin America?

I would definitely say that people should apply for the Smithsonian Fellowships because pretty much anyone can get them. They are a couple of months long and they give you enough money for housing and research. The requirements aren’t exactly lenient, but I would say they give everybody an equal chance, regardless of what university you come from or GPA you have - they choose based on how realistic your goals are and how interesting your questions are.

What skills are currently in greatest need in your career field? Which do you anticipate to be most needed 5-10 years from now?

Definitely writing skills- both in scientific terms and also with the ability to communicate your ideas more simply, being able to share them with the public. The most necessary one 5-10 years from now will be the type of writing and speaking understandable to the layperson, because they don’t want to listen to technical jargon, they want to be able to understand what you are saying. Because of the risks our planet is facing, being able to communicate as simply and easily as possible will become really important.

Thank you so much for talking with me today, Nora! Please keep us posted on your next position and what you’ll be researching!

Thank you! I am so happy that my work is of interest to you and I really enjoyed the interview. I think I learned a bit more about myself as well.

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By Victoria Crispo

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