Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

See It and Be It: Exploring the World with a Conservation Scientist!

(c) Parks Canada

I met Heather Reed through my Facebook Page, Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker’s Operation Transformation. I often talk about women and girls and the fields of science, engineering, technology, and math. What I’ve loved about getting to know Heather is that she breaks the mold that many people have a scientist. She’s a natural scientist who is out in the world getting her hands dirty, but she also a woman who loves to wear dresses, flowers in her hair and be girly. She shares a message that I just love, “Being me is what makes me a great scientist! There is nothing wrong or strange about being a girl who loves science, because there is nothing wrong or strange about being a girl!” I think you’ll love hearing her story, and kids will be delighted to hear her optimistic, adventurous view of science. So, with no further ado, let’s see what Heather had to say when I asked her to describe her job.

Whenever people ask me “What do you do?” I get a great big smile, because I know they are going to have a lot more questions for me. I have a degree in environmental science and I will be graduating soon with another degree in biology. That just means that I have learned about the different parts of the environment, like air, water, and soil, and that I’m learning a lot more about plants and animals.

I like to call myself a Conservation Scientist. My job, my school work, and my research are all about understanding how people can conserve rare and endangered plants and animals by being better stewards of nature. Stewardship means that you take ownership of responsibility to care about the environment. I love what I do, and it makes me feel good that I am making a difference in the world.

The kind of biology I do involves people and nature. I am trying to discover how people can live with and help the rare and endangered plants and animals right in their own backyards. I bet you would be surprised to know that you probably have some of these special plants and animals in your own backyard or community too!

If you were worried that biology is boring or only about one thing I have some good news for you! Scientists like me are trying to find answers to questions we have about plants and animals. Science is a bit like creating a big picture with little puzzle pieces. The picture is like the answer to my question. The puzzle pieces are parts of biology, geology, chemistry, policy, politics, economics, psychology and a bunch of other cool things too. I find the answer to my question when I put all the pieces together to make the picture, and I never get bored!

When I graduate I could work in a National Park or be a government scientist, I could teach at a university, work with a community conservation group, or even start my own business doing projects for other organizations.

When you were a child, what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up? Did you always want to be a scientist? If not, when did you decide that you wanted to be one?

When I was a little girl I always knew I wanted to be a scientist. I think it is because I loved to ask questions – and that is the most important part of being a good scientist! I loved to dig in the dirt, and go to dinosaur museums, and go camping! My Mom and Dad were not scientists, but they were really awesome and took me to the library a lot so I could find answers to my questions in books. The internet didn’t exist when I was a kid. I think it must be so cool to be a kid now where you can get on the internet and visit a museum or read about interesting things any time you want to!

At age 4, Heather already loved animals

I’m going to share a little secret with you – I didn’t always want to be a Conservation Scientist, in fact, ‘conservation scientist’ didn’t really exist when I was little! People have always cared about the environment, but our understanding of nature and people was really different back then. When I was little what I really wanted to be was a marine biologist or maybe an archaeologist (like Indiana Jones). But the really cool thing about what I do now is that I can work with marine biologists or archaeologists if I want to!

What is it about your job that particularly appeals to you? You’ve said that you like to be able to bring your own unique, creative style into your job. How do you see that happening in your day-to-day work? Sometimes when girls think about science, they think that it can’t be creative, fun, or that it’s very isolating. What would say to those who have that idea about a career in science?

One thing I really love about my job is that I am only limited by my interests and my imagination! When you become a scientist you learn to talk to other scientists in a special way, kind of like learning a secret language that only other scientists speak. That’s how scientists communicate with one another. I am lucky that I get to work with a team of people who also like to talk about ideas and science. Sometimes I like to be alone with my ideas, and just read a book or think by myself, and I get to do that too.

I think my favourite part of my job is that I get to be outside catching turtles and snakes and learning about them. When you are outside doing this people will often say hello and ask you questions about what you are doing, so I get to talk to new and different people all the time, and I really enjoy that too.

Do you know the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”, well art is also a very important part of science, whether you are drawing plants and animals, making a graph or map, or inventing a new kind of way to share your ideas and discoveries . Science is a really creative process, it all starts with asking a question, and then you have to learn all about the thing that your question asks about (like the puzzle pieces). Next you get to imagine different ways to answer your question (like putting the puzzle pieces together) – this is called making a hypothesis.

When you do an experiment, you are testing out the answers you have imagined to see which one could be the right one! Discovering new things is always fun, it is just like being an explorer! Science is full of imagination.

Maybe the most important thing to understand if you like science, but you’re not sure what kind of scientist you want to be, is to just do all the things you love! You will be surprised where it might lead you. Conservation Biologists like me didn’t exist when I first loved science. Doing what made me most happy lead me to where I am today. Science is always growing and expanding, and changing and that is what I love most about being a scientist!

When you were preparing to become a scientist, did anyone encourage or discourage you, either directly or indirectly? If you were discouraged, how did you handle it?

I was very lucky that my parents and my teachers were very supportive of my wanting to be a scientist, but sometimes you will meet someone who doesn’t think that you can be a scientist, or they don’t understand why you want to be one. I have met a few people like this, sometimes it made me feel sad or angry, but I didn’t let it stop me. You don’t have to be a boy to do science, just like you don’t have to be a girl to be teacher.

I remember one time in math class that was really frustrating. I was having a hard time figuring out a question, and my teacher (who was a man) would not spend the same time helping me as he did helping the boys. When I asked him for more help, he just said I didn’t really need to understand math. Although this experience was really unfair, it did challenge me to find a solution to the problem (just like I do in science now) and I found other people to help me!

This taught me that I can solve problems all by myself. Another important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be good at everything to be a good scientist, that’s exactly why scientists’ work together in teams. Some people are really good at math, some people are really good at chemistry, and some people (like me) are really good at putting all the puzzle pieces together.

When you tell people who you’re a scientist, do you ever get strange reactions because you’re a woman?

When I tell people I am a scientist, they are often surprised. I think that is because I don’t look like scientists on TV or in movies do. Sometimes people say “but you don’t look like a scientist” or they say “Really?” and just look really surprised that a girl in a dress can be really smart.

When people think of what a scientists looks like, they think of someone who has messy hair, big glasses, and wears a lab coat. There is nothing wrong with messy hair, glasses, and a lab coat if that is what you want to wear! I wear glasses and sometimes my hair is messy, and sometimes I wear a lab coat – but sometimes I don’t! Sometimes I wear jeans and a t-shirt and rubber boots when I am outside. Sometimes my jeans even have turtle poop on them! Sometimes I like to wear a dress, even in the lab, and sometimes I like to wear make-up, and I even wear a flower in my hair! Science is about how you think, not how you look. So if anyone says “you don’t look like a scientist” just tell them you don’t work on TV, you work in a real lab!

What would your advice be to girls and boys who may be interested in being a biologist? What about those girls who may be getting the message that science is “for boys” and not for them?

The best advice I can give to anyone who loves science and want to be a biologist, or any other kind of scientist is GO FOR IT!

Some of the greatest scientists in history were girls and women. Marie Curie was a physicist and chemist who won two Nobel Prizes for discovering radioactivity, and that was almost 100 years ago. Women have been doing science for a long time. One of my favourite women scientists is Rosalind Franklin, she was a biophysicist who helped to discover DNA, and she wore pearls with her lab coat when she worked in her lab.

Science is about learning new things by asking good questions and thinking about ways to answer those questions. Girls are just as good as boys at doing science, but sometimes girls and boys ask different kinds of questions, and think of different ways to answer them.

Science needs girls because the more questions we ask, and the more different ways we ask questions, the more answers we’ll get! In fact, girls ask such good questions about biology and the environment there are more girls in biology school than boys.

Let me tell you another secret…I was scared to be a biologist because I thought I would not be good at it even though it was my favourite thing to do!

I thought I had to be really good at math to be a scientist, and I’m only ok at doing math. When I was a girl I didn’t see other girls and women doing science, so I thought it wasn’t for me, but now I know that is just not true.

I was also scared to wear a dress, and to wear make-up, or for people to think of me as a girl. As much as I loved science, it made me sad to act this way because I AM a girl. I learned that it was silly to act that way, and I learned that the MOST important thing I had to do was to be myself. I’m ok at math, but I am really, really good at other things like biology and chemistry and physics.

Being me is what makes me a great scientist! There is nothing wrong or strange about being a girl who loves science, because there is nothing wrong or strange about being a girl! ☺

I asked Heather to share recommendations for parents to encourage their child’s interest in science and for kids who love science. Here’s what she had to say:

Recommendations for Parents:
There are a few important things I want to share with parents about science, and about learning in general.

• Encourage your kids to ask a lot of questions! Whatever it is they are interested in, ask them what they think about it, and challenge them to ask their own questions! Video games can be a great way to learn, but kids can’t ask video games questions. Challenging your kids to ask questions and seek answers to them is how they learn to be critical thinkers. I have been a lab instructor and teaching assistant at two universities and the thing I noticed most was that students were just trying to give me the right answer. While the right answer is important, it is not as important as asking the right questions! Critical thinking is a life skill, and over-crowded classrooms and teacher performance is missing the magic of asking good questions!

• If you feel unsure about how science and your religion or personal background work together, that may make you reluctant to have your child get involved with science.Try contacting your local university, or searching online for resources. Chatting with a scientist who shares your beliefs or background can help you to see how the two can fit together!

• Even if your kids don’t love science, visit museums and libraries as often as you can. Kids are inherently curious, when they have questions go find the answers together. Trust me; it won’t take long before you to have a budding naturalist, geologist, or anthropologist on your hands. In fact, joining a local naturalist club is a great family activity. The important thing to remember is that feeding curiosity and challenging kids to figure things out (instead of just giving an answer) is incredible important to being a critical thinker – and being a critical thinker is key to being successful no matter what your kids are interested in.

Recommendations for Kids
• To the kids out there, especially the girls, don’t shy away from science! Science doesn’t care if you are a boy or a girl. Science is a really cool club of people, all different kinds of people, and there is always room for one more!

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One comment on “See It and Be It: Exploring the World with a Conservation Scientist!

  1. naomi@thekidscoach.org.uk
    August 20, 2012

    What an interesting interview. I love to read about women and men doing jobs that are so different to others. I think they become great role models for young people and show them that you can be and do whatever you set your mind to.

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