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Interview with Dr. Piper Wallingford

📷 Dr. Piper Wallingford

Journalist: Maya Chari

Maya: Welcome to Scisection. My name is Maya Chari and I am a journalist for the Sci Section section radio show broadcast on CMFU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Piper Wallingford. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me, Dr. Wallingford.

Dr. Wallingford: Thanks, Maya. I'm really excited.

Maya: I was wondering if you could start by giving us a little bit of background on what you've been doing now and what your field is.

Dr. Wallingford: Sure. So I am a climate resiliency scientist at the Nature Conservancy, and my job is thinking about how we can protect natural communities and use them to think about climate resilience as we are facing climate change. So not only protecting natural communities, but thinking about how we can incorporate nature into planning decisions that protect human communities too, as there are increasing risks from things like wildfires, coastal flooding, and sea level rise. So really encompassing human and natural communities and incorporating them together in the face of climate change.

Maya: That’s very exciting, a very relevant field. I know that you have a background in academia and have your PhD and did your postdoc. What were some of your major milestones in your scientific and academic careers that led you to the work that you do now, and why do you think you were drawn to this field?

Dr. Wallingford: I think some of my major milestones have really been the results of just opportunity and luck. As I was going into my undergrad, I knew that I was really excited about environmental science, it had always been my favorite class in high school, but there wasn't an environmental science department at the school that I was going to. And so there was a minor that was available through biology. I sort of planned: "okay, I'll do this minor", but I was actually a journalism major. So really it just was luck that while I was in my sophomore year, they developed this new major specifically for environmental science and that changed the trajectory of what I had been planning to do with my career. Because it was a new program, I really got the opportunity to take a lot of different classes and explore a lot of different topics and figure out what I liked. A requirement of the program was also to do an internship, and that was very broad in terms of what you wanted it to be, it just had to be environmental. I interned at New York City Audubon Society. I knew a little bit about birds going in and a little bit about ecology, but it was really my first experience with doing field work, with project managing, and with working with community scientists on different projects. And I realized that that that was what I wanted to do. That sort of shaped the rest of my career. After my internship, I applied for a master's program in marine biology and eventually a PhD program. And even within my PhD program, it was really some lucky coincidences that that shaped what my dissertation was and what my career looks like. I was out doing field work and saw a species that I had never seen before, and that shaped my dissertation into thinking about climate shift and how species are responding to climate change. And that's why I work on climate resiliency now.

Maya: That’s a very exciting and interesting path, definitely full of surprises. How do you reflect on working in academia, in the past and how it has influenced your current career?

Dr. Wallingford: I will definitely say that I would not be where I am now if I hadn't worked in academia. A lot of places do require you to have a graduate degree, but also a lot of places don't. And so one of the things for me that was really important about working in academia is you develop a lot of skills that you can apply to multiple different fields. So things like project management and time management, working on multiple different projects, TA-ing and being a researcher all at once… you really learn how to put on a lot of different hats and do a lot of different things within the set amount of time that you have in any given week. I think for me it was also a really important opportunity to identify what I wanted out of my own career. And so it helped me shape my own goals in terms of recognizing that for me, academia wasn't the career choice that I wanted to have. I think that's really important too, oftentimes we start something not knowing what we want to do at the end of it, and sometimes the experiences that we have can help shape where we go in the future.

Maya: That’s very good advice. I know that you are deep into ecology and environmental science, I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about what you have seen in the natural world that has surprised you or some theme that you want to convey to others from your experience working in ecology and working in a natural environment.

Dr. Wallingford: I think one of the reasons why I was drawn to ecology in the first place is that it's very intuitive to me. You can see how the relationships between different species or between ecosystems make sense in terms of why things are the way they are in the natural world. That's only really been emphasized more for me in terms of what I've learned. Everything is connected, even if we can't see it. And I think, you know, one of the most important things for me to remember is that we're a part of the natural world too. We influence it and it influences us. I think as humans we tend to disconnect ourselves a little bit and say that we're somehow separate from nature. I think that that's really important to challenge because we're also animals, we are also dependent on the world around us for how we can respond and how we live. And so re-engaging humans and nature is something that I think is really important.

Maya: That sounds also like some more great advice, and I think it would be great to have that disseminated to not only scientists but to everyone. Everyone should be connected with nature and deserves to learn about the natural environment. So going off of that, what do you think our scientific community and our global community needs the most right now from science and ecology?

Dr. Wallingford: I think right now science and ecology has an opportunity to sort of shift the narrative. I think we're really in a time right now where there's a lot of distrust of science and of data and I think that that's especially challenging because climate change is probably the greatest threat that our world is facing right now. And not just the natural world, but humans too. I think this is really an opportunity for the scientific community and the ecology community to come together and say that this is the single most important issue that we can focus on, and we really need to reach out to people and engage and connect in order to not make it just a little concern that's only within scientific communities because it's not.

And I think this is starting to shift. I think there's been a lot more awareness of climate change in the general public and in the dangers that it presents. So I would say that that's something that's very important. I will say a second thing that I think is important is the scientific and ecology Communities really need to look inwards a little bit as well and assess what we want our goals to be and what we want our communities to look like. In the past few years it's become increasingly aware that people of color, women, and marginalized communities face a lot of difficulties in academia that other people don't face. And we really need to increase trust within the community and improve conditions for these groups and for grad students who at a position where they may not have any power to disrupt the status quo. So I think supporting and protecting students, supporting and protecting marginalized communities and, and holding bad actors accountable is something that as a community we need to start doing more of.

Maya: Thank you so much for that beautiful response. On a lighter note, one last question. What is one of your favorite memories working as an active researcher?

Dr. Wallingford: So I will say that being a field ecologist has given me so many amazing memories that it's really hard to pick just one. I will say my two favorites are the one that inspired me to become an ecologist in the first place. The first was banding baby birds in the middle of the New York Harbor. Being surrounded by the Manhattan skyline and getting thrown up on by Tiny Baby Egrets was one of my favorite memories. And the second one is doing an overnight project where we were looking at how different tide pools respond to changing environmental conditions. It was overnight sampling; we’d make a lap around and test all of our tide pools and then have usually like a 20 or 30 minute break before we did it all again. We were up in Oregon, Coastal Oregon, we're an hour away from the largest city, and so the night sky was just gorgeous. You could see the Milky Way, and it happened to be during the Perseid Meteor Shower. So every time we would take a break, we would just lay out on the rocks and watch all of the meteors going over. That's probably one of my other favorite memories of just a time that I got to experience something that most people don't have the chance to.

Maya: Wow. Yeah, those both sound wonderful and I know field work, especially ecological field work can be very "painful", but those seem to be two really wonderful memories.

Thank you so much Piper, for talking with me today. That's it for this week of Sci Section. Make sure to check out our podcast available on global platforms for our latest interviews. Thank you so much Dr. Wallingford.

Dr. Wallingford: Thank you!


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