I truly believe that the sheer number of connections that I have made in the first year of my undergraduate experience has provided me with a strong foundation for my future career. The old adage: ‘It is not just what you know, it’s also who you know’ rings true as I watch my professors and mentors utilize their professional networks every day. This leads to numerous accolades and publications, but these are no more important than the personal relationships that are developed along the way.
One of the biggest factors that brought me to MSU was the existence of the Social Science Scholars Program, directed by Dr. John Waller. This cohort has been designed to create “dynamic leaders, reasoned thinkers, and proud ambassadors of MSU,” connecting selected topics in the social sciences that are of the utmost importance to our global society. Topics of study range from political theory to sociology, allowing us to become well-rounded scholars in evaluating the ways in which people interact with others and the world around them. Many of the topics we cover are directly relevant to my work and aspirations. As a cohort, we consider why some conservation efforts succeed while others fail; why there are such high rates of climate change denialism despite the unequivocal nature of these scientific findings; and how governments can most effectively combat unsustainable common-pool resource use and environmental pollution, for example.
The Social Science Scholars Program also helps its members to connect students with a wide variety of resources around campus and the East Lansing community. In particular, Scholars are provided with three different mentors to serve a variety of roles in their campus lives: (1) academic researchers, (2) community members, and (3) other students. While pursuing the Scholars Program I also work as an undergraduate researcher in the Research on the Ecology of Carnivores and their Prey (RECaP) Laboratory. My work in RECaP is co-sponsored by the Social Science Scholars Program. In this capacity, Dr. Robert Montgomery – Director of RECaP - serves as a link to the professional community in the field of wildlife conservation. The Social Science Scholars Program also connects me to opportunities for engagement in the broader East Lansing community. For instance, Mr. Charles Dobis, a 1971 alumni of MSU and formal mentor of mine, has made himself available for meetings and lunches, which have been a nice way to explore the off-campus community. I also receive advice and support from Scholars in their junior year. My student mentor, Elias Kokaly, has greatly helped me navigate campus life. Each of these connections has played an integral role in my time here at MSU and all three will, I hope, continue to be important friends and mentors.
In academia, a broad professional network is critical to success. Whether ‘success’ is defined by the number of papers or books you publish or your ability to collaborate effectively with your colleagues, most researchers that I have encountered are willing to accept that building relationships with people is integral to the modern research process. I would argue that this is especially critical for undergraduates, not only as a basis for our professional achievements, but for our personal enjoyment over the four years of our time at a university. While the connections that I have made will be important into the future, their current function is much more important: making MSU feel like home. Most of my life has been spent in mid-Michigan growing up in Mt. Pleasant, so the geography of East Lansing is familiar to me. When I moved back to Michigan for school after seven years living in Wisconsin, the landscape reminded me of the hours and hours that I spent in the woods behind our house in Isabella County. The setting was (and is) perfect, but the people that I have met here have made East Lansing the special place that it is for so many of us.
The connections with people that I see daily give me a place in a campus of over 55,000 people. Being restricted to a dorm, without a vehicle or a house nearby can be difficult for incoming freshman and I can no longer do many of the things I took for granted last year when I was a senior in high school. So the connections that I have established with accomplished faculty, staff, and students offer an escape from the hustle and bustle of one of the nation’s largest university campuses. The best example of this is my opportunity to go duck hunting with one of my professors! You could imagine how difficult this could be without a car, decoys, a boat, or land access around East Lansing, but Dr. Hayes, of the Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, was able to help me accomplish this. While we were not successful on the morning we went out, we were able to have detailed conversations on many current events in natural resource conservation. If nothing else, it was an excellent chance to connect with a professor who has been one of my best mentors at MSU, while also doing something that I love to do. These numerous connections have allowed me to be successful professionally in undergraduate research, but it is important to recognize how much they have enabled me to grow personally as well.
Spartans Will Collaborate
Collaboration at MSU takes a variety of forms and includes a breadth of interdisciplinary connections. Since coming to State, I have been able to work with a dynamic and diverse group of people, varying in age, gender, ethnicity, national origin and numerous other demographics. These partnerships have been most prevalent within the RECaP lab and throughout multiple colleges within and outside of MSU.
The RECaP lab is designed to collaboratively conduct research on a wide range of carnivores occurring worldwide. Given this primary goal, RECaPivores (the collective name selected by our lab) hail from a wide variety of backgrounds to effectively create blended student cohorts. In this way, RECaP is helping to train the conservation leaders of tomorrow. I have had the chance to work with and become friends with people like Tutilo, Rose, Njambi, and Arthur, all of whom provide a unique perspective on a variety of complex conservation issues. Our lab members are not only diverse in ethnic background, but also in education. The RECaP lab is made up of students of all levels of education. Each undergraduate in the lab is paired with a graduate student to collaboratively produce scientific manuscripts. These pairings are then complemented by professors and graduate researchers around the world, from Tanzania to Montana in the case of my first publication. Working with these professors, much like working alongside my lab mates, provides a variety of new mindsets from which to attack a problem.
These examples of collaboration over the course of my time in undergraduate research here at MSU have helped me to strengthen my connections both globally, notably in East Africa, and with a range of departments and colleges on campus. This, in turn, has helped me to become better adapted to the demands of integrating the fields represented by my two respective majors.
Throughout my time at MSU, the research that I have conducted always seems to come back to one key word: interdisciplinary. Everyone I have worked with knows that it is important and many accept that we should be “more interdisciplinary” in our research, but very few seem to define it, let alone pursue it.
One of the most critical challenges facing conservation is a dearth of strong and passionate champions who can effectively transcend their field to reach wider audiences; leaders who can effect change in the political arena. I hope to do just that. Conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt have been key, yet it is important to remember that these leaders were not only politicians, but also professors, notably Aldo Leopold, and authors like John Muir. These individuals had a passion for the land, but also a conviction to ensure that it would be protected. Through writings, speeches, and town-hall meetings, such conservationists spread their message to those outside of the field to engage and activate constituencies. While this change is not always seen immediately in budgets or year-end reports, it is found in an altered mindset: one that revokes humanity’s “Abrahamic view” of the landscape, as coined by Leopold. This shift in mindset serves to initiate change at a higher level: funding, education, and outreach through pro-conservation legislation. It is so common to see wildlife ecologists today who are consumed by their work and seem to stay in academia. We have a desperate need for people like Aldo, Teddy, John, and so many others who were prepared to step beyond a cloistered university world in order to engage and ultimately to benefit the public. Champions of both fields are the key to making wildlife management a public priority and therefore a part of my generation’s legacy.
My work thus far has involved investigating how effective conservation can be achieved in modern-day East Africa. This study has entailed conducting research on how to develop public policy to promote wildlife conservation. My efforts have a focus on areas experiencing a severe decline in charismatic megafauna (e.g. lions, elephants, etc.), specifically the Massai Steppe, a region of Northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya. I am currently examining and assessing this in what is known as the “Research Implementation Gap:” the separation between robust scientific discovery and policies that are in accordance with that knowledge. Within RECaP, we explore this topic in the context of human-carnivore conflict research, but it can be observed in a variety of contentious issues in history, including the harms of smoking and global warming. For the future conservation and preservation of species endemic to this region of the world, it is critical that researchers develop approaches to overcome this gap.
None of this would have been possible if it was not for the support of my mentors in the RECaP Laboratory, the Social Science Scholars program, and the generous sponsorship of a Provost Undergraduate Research Initiative Grant. I am very grateful for all of these opportunities. Being involved with undergraduate research has made me more connected to MSU, encouraged me to collaborate across disciplines, and has shown me the true importance of transcending the fields of natural resource conservation and public policy. Who will continue the tradition of a vibrant undergraduate research experience? Spartans Will.