National Geographic Fellow, carnivore ecologist, and STEM diversity activist Rae Wynn-Grant has been making a difference for bears, lions, and the communities who interact with them for over a decade. Most recently, she has been working in the Great Plains of Montana, studying bear conservation methods. Her work focuses on causes of carnivore-human conflict and how we can improve relationships between local communities and the powerful wildlife that surrounds them.
In addition to studying these extraordinary animals, Rae is passionate about making STEM-related fields more equitable to people of all backgrounds. Rae will be speaking at Expand the Field on Feb. 11, where she will tell us more about what actions are necessary for the scientific field to truly be accessible to diverse and broad audiences. Before she takes the stage, we spoke with Rae for a sneak preview into what fuels her passion for conservation:
A few months ago, you posted a photo of yourself in an old, dare I say, vintage, National Geographic sweatshirt that you wore as a teenager. What does your role as a National Geographic Fellow mean to you?
When I was a young teenager, I used to tell people I wanted to host a nature show on National Geographic. It was the only career path I was interested in, and of course I had no idea how it could be accomplished. As a city kid without much experience in the outdoors, I felt very different from the hosts I saw on TV, who were typically older white males, but I shared their affinity for studying wildlife. It wasn’t until my final years of college that I was introduced to the idea of wildlife ecology as a field of study, and I was immediately hooked. It was at that point I realized that there was a science career that could give me the adventures I was seeing on National Geographic Channel. It is a tremendous honor to be part of the Nat Geo family, especially in a science capacity — it is truly a childhood dream come true.
What led you to develop such a passion for conservation, specifically for large carnivores? And, how did you develop such an affinity for bears?
My first experience with wildlife was in my junior year of college, when I spent a semester in Kenya studying wildlife management. The East African wildlife community is like no other, and I was particularly fascinated by the area’s top predators. By the time I was pursuing a master’s degree, I knew I was meant to be a carnivore ecologist, so I took on a lion research project in Tanzania, which challenged me to my core, but also deepened my expertise. Then, my doctoral research brought an opportunity to ask similar research questions in a new study system. Switching to bear conservation was a great opportunity for me to explore the similarities and differences between carnivore species across continents. One of the major similarities is that both East African lions and North American black and grizzly bears often live at the interface with human communities, causing problems that can threaten conservation efforts. All of my science work is dedicated to helping people and carnivores coexist peacefully, no matter in which part of the globe
What do you hope to accomplish through your research as a carnivore ecologist? How can we help protect these magnificent creatures?
There are so many reasons why large carnivores are important for a healthy, functioning ecosystem, yet most of the world’s large carnivores face threats that may eventually lead to their extinction. And these threats are almost entirely human-caused! I hope to accomplish a thorough understanding of carnivore ecology at the human-wildland interface and use those scientific conclusions to make recommendations for how humans can modify their behavior to coexist with carnivores. It’s easier said than done, because, for many people, human-carnivore conflict is a threat to their safety or livelihood, and I need to make sure that my conservation recommendations aren’t in opposition to their best interests.
What advice do you have for young explorers, especially young women, who aspire to make a difference and work in STEM-related fields?
The phrase that has essentially become my motto when I work with young people interested in science is “don’t confuse performance with passion.” When I was in middle school and high school, I got very poor grades in my science and math classes — and I mean barely passing my classes. There wasn’t much indication that I would go on to get three science degrees and build a career using high-level science and math every day, except that I really enjoyed the subjects and thought the content was fascinating. Some people (like me) are not great at traditional test-based evaluations, but if I had let my grades determine my career, I wouldn’t be a Nat Geo Fellow today! Passion can often take you further than academic performance can, and I now know plenty of fantastic scientists who struggled with their classes when they were young.
Finally, you are the equity, inclusion, and diversity officer on the board of governors for the Society of Conservation Biology. Quite the title, and a very fitting role since we’ll be discussing diversity at Expand the Field on Feb. 11. What are your thoughts on representation in your field, and what can be done to make it more equitable?
To make science more diverse and equitable, our society needs to dismantle institutional racism. I don’t believe there is much of a quick fix — as long as entire communities face discrimination and oppression, there is not equal opportunity to participate in certain fields, such as science. Put another way, from microaggressions to all-out violence, the various ways racism is experienced by people of color create real barriers to achievement, and this particularly impacts the ability to break into science. To tackle this, allyship from nontarget communities is essential and can make an incredible difference. Racism is best dismantled by the groups that created it, and I look forward to more of my scientific colleagues doing the work to become allies to target communities.
Rae Wynn Grant is a National Geographic Fellow, working on carnivore mapping with National Geographic’s Last Wild Places initiative in partnership with American Prairie Reserve. Learn more about Last Wild Places and how National Geographic is helping protect and restore some of the last remaining wild landscapes on the planet.