FIELD experience: Dr Christine Wilkinson

Who are you?

I grew up in Queens, New York, and as a kid I was always running around looking for urban animals like squirrels, cockroaches, cicadas, and pigeons. I wanted to be like the nature show hosts I saw on TV, but none of them looked like me or had similar backgrounds and I had no idea how to get to that point. I just knew from a very young age that I wanted to work with wildlife. During the time when I was applying to undergrad programs, I was teetering between wanting to do acting, screenwriting, or orchestra, and wanting to do research on wildlife. At that time, what made my decision was that I was fortunate to be invited to be part of a field science program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) – where I would be doing marine science research on an island before starting my freshman year of college. My mentor for the NSF program, Dr. Myra Shulman, ended up mentoring me throughout my college career and recommending me for other grants and fellowships that she had applied for to support underrepresented students in science and research. Without these programs, and the amazing mentorship I received during my undergrad, I am sure I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today.

I was also fortunate to be able to study abroad at a program in Kenya and Tanzania during my undergrad. This experience shaped my career immensely. I made a lot of friends during this time in Kenya and Tanzania, and so many of them were dealing with conflict with wildlife – whether it was their livestock being eaten by carnivores, or their crops being raided by elephants or baboons. One of my friends said to me “if a person kills a lion, the government will be there in a day or two to find and arrest that person. But if a lion kills a person, the government may never acknowledge it, let alone compensate for that loss.” These experiences led me to understand the importance of working with community members for lasting and meaningful conservation outcomes. These experiences were also what made me want to do a PhD. My friends in East Africa were asking me for tools to deal with conflict, and I knew that I didn’t have the qualifications. I went back for my PhD because it was a way for me to gain these tools to bring to communities who were interested, and to surround myself with people who were doing similar work.

But first, I wanted to gain experience outside of academia. This is where networking is key- I had kept in touch with one of my professors from my study abroad program in Kenya/Tanzania and ended up living in Uganda and managing her primate conservation and human-primate conflict organization for a year. After that, I knew that for my PhD I wanted to go to UC Berkeley to work with the interdisciplinary group of people here- especially folks who have expertise on human-wildlife conflict. On top of that, I’m a taiko drummer, and I knew I wanted to move to the Bay Area to join the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, which was the first taiko dojo in north America. So, I moved out to the Bay with almost no money, found a job at the California Academy of Sciences developing and facilitating youth programs and doing some nature videography and animal husbandry. After I had established myself there for a few years and built up some programs, I applied to UC Berkeley and got in.

After my PhD, I was fortunate to have quite a few options. But in the end, I actually ended up using networking – and the power of twitter—to get my current position as a postdoctoral researcher working on carnivore ecology and human-carnivore coexistence in the Bay Area, California. My overall goal is to work on human-carnivore conflict issues within an NGO, in policy, or in another capacity that helps me to empower and elevate communities to create sustainable solutions to our conflict and coexistence challenges. Additionally, I’m building up my media presence—with the help of National Geographic—and working on fulfilling that dream of having my own nature show, which now seems a lot more feasible than I could have dreamed before.

What is your favorite field food?

My favorite field food definitely varies depending on the country and the specific place I’m in within that country, since different foods are available in different places. My backup plan is always a mint chocolate Clif bar (complete with caffeine!), but if I can get my hands on some chapati (a fried flat bread originating in India but very common in East Africa), mandazi (imagine a donut but puffier and cube-shaped), or fresh fruit, those are my go-to foods. If I’m having a really long day and I run out of Clif bars or other options, I usually dig in to a sleeve of thin, relatively bland vanilla cookies that are really cheap and prevalent in supermarkets across East Africa. On the other hand, for my work in California, I’m totally spoiled—it’s easy to get good food and access granola bars of all sorts at any time when you work with urban wildlife.

Tell us about your field work

Right now, I work mainly in Kenya and in California, though I collaborate with folks working all around the world on human-wildlife conflict and coexistence.

I really love how meaningful and applicable my research is. People are dealing with conflicts and interactions with wildlife every single day, and they are asking to get involved in the solutions to these challenges. My interdisciplinary work allows me to address the problems and questions that we have about these very pressing issues. It also challenges me to figure out how to take a “back seat” and really elevate community voices and priorities.

I also really enjoy field work with carnivores—they are not always easy to study, but they do teach me something new every day. It is a very powerful experience to connect with an animal in the early morning hours and then later in the day be able to connect with people who are living with these animals. The juxtaposition inspires me to do better and more meaningful work each day.

The number one challenge for me is that I’m an interdisciplinary researcher—what this means is that I work on nocturnal animals like hyenas, and then also work with people during the day. Sleep is hard to come by. Typically, people are doing one or the other in their research.

Another challenge is that sometimes, the work can feel futile- like bailing out a sinking ship with a thimble. Don’t get me wrong- this goes for all conservation work. There is just so much to be done. Luckily, the connections I make with people and with wildlife are very encouraging and help me to continue pushing forward with this applicable research.

Another challenge is that field work can just be strenuous. Aside from the lack of sleep, when I’m in East Africa I have to worry about dangerous animals such as buffalo, etc., when I’m out at night doing the work. Since I often work solo, this can mean using a Maglite to look out for buffalo, while using both hands to drive a manual car over volcanic rock. While it’s not always pretty or peaceful, and the car can break down relatively often, at least I’m learning new skills in dexterity, auto maintenance, and of course wildlife ecology.

I’ve had many crazy field experiences. I’ve been attacked by buffalos three different times- one on foot and two in my car. There was a particularly harrowing time when I was giving a buffalo herd lots of distance in my tiny Suzuki Samurai, and looked up just in time to see that a huge male had peeled off and was chasing my car. I had to dodge so many boulders in order to escape that guy—it really put my manual driving to the test too, and shook me up quite a bit. Safety in the field is something we take really seriously—it’s important to always be prepared for situations like this and have a game plan ready to the extent possible.

On the other hand, one of my most gratifying field experiences was when I was looking for a hyena den for a few months only to one day finally spot the tiniest hyena cubs from about a full kilometer away. It was incredibly lucky, and I was rewarded for my efforts by several hours of great observations on that first day up close and personal with many hyenas who had almost no fear of my vehicle.

How does your identity interact with your field work?

My identity interacts with my field work in a number of ways. I have experienced many different contexts in which I have had to code switch as a half-Black and half-white person, and for other reasons. Generally, consistently being in (academic/scientific/etc.) spaces full of cis (usually white) men, as a Black, female-leaning gender-androgynous person has been quite an adventure. I have also dealt with many deaths and family dysfunctional issues throughout my life- unfortunately, academia is a relatively unforgiving place for life challenges and their effects on you.

What I have learned for most of these instances is the importance of self-advocating. I have been fortunate to find myself at UC Berkeley, which has a history of student and staff activism and many examples to draw from when self-advocating. I also think that calling out microaggressions and other similar aspects in meetings and other academic spaces can be so important in order to help break down some of the built-in power structures in these spaces.

The more we can tell our stories about our challenges, the more we can normalize the challenges we face and create momentum for collective change at the organization and institution levels. We also need to be gentle with ourselves- and remember that mental health comes first, above everything else. I think there has been a lot of excellent work on normalizing mental health care, which is fantastic, but there is still a long way to go.

What advice might you have for someone preparing for a similar experience?

Your number one priority should always be your mental health! Have a life outside of academia. Play sports, play music, find your hobbies, etc. Make a routine for yourself that involves something other than your academic studies. Additionally, try to get experiences that will help you in your career. Research experiences are always out there, for instance, but also branch out and try all of the unusual or “out of the box” things that you are interested in. Some of your best opportunities to try new things come when you are an undergrad.

Additionally, network to the extent possible. Talk to people, hold informational interviews, and go to office hours. If you see a position, job, or internship you are interested in, learn about what the people in those positions have done to get to where they are.

Lastly- there are so many pathways for someone without a PhD. You do not need a PhD to succeed in STEM fields. In fact, a large number of the advertised jobs in the NGO and policy realms actually do not call for a PhD. Many policy jobs require a bachelor’s or master’s only. Arguably, you may not need a 4-year degree at all in order to get your foot in the door in some STEM fields, including wildlife ecology and conservation. You do not need to be in academia to be a conservationist, and many of the most impactful conservationists are not academics.

How has your field experience influenced your perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusion?

In order to maintain a sense of self and of identity, I have made a point of having a work-life balance. I have kept up making music – by playing and teaching taiko drumming, singing and playing guitar and cello, and doing my running routine. I also spend a lot of time training my dog, and I try to prioritize my family and my friendships. Keeping your community close, and having hobbies and activities outside of work have been crucial for my mental health. This is even true despite me absolutely loving my work. It has also been really helpful to connect with people who have similar identities to mine—this is why I co-founded Black Mammalogists Week, and I have also done a few things with 500 Queer Scientists, among others.