This is part 2 of 3. If you missed the first one you can find it here.
Taking Flight: Part 2
Here’s the thing, I did not necessarily grow up “in nature”. I grew up in a city in New Jersey, played indoor sports (fencing, not exactly your typical sport), and my main experience of the outdoors was going down the shore with my parents and hanging out on the beach or riding my bike with my dad along the boardwalk. I had never gone camping, never learned how to build a proper fire, never even seen a shooting star. So choosing a major that focused on nature, and then registering for a five-week field course at the Biosphere II in Arizona the summer after my freshman year of college meant I was taking huge steps out of my comfort zone.
But I was ready to learn and experience new things, and boy did I learn and experience what seemed like a million new things in those short five weeks. I learned how to be out in nature – by the time the course ended I could hike many miles, pitch a tent, and pull cactus spines from my skin (I may have lost a battle with an agave cactus during one hike). I learned how to identify birds and reptiles and mammals and plants. I learned what an ecosystem was. I loved considering how all the bits and pieces – organic and inorganic, microscopic and giant – of a particular ecosystem are interconnected, how they each play an integral role to keep the system functioning. I learned that humans were really good at altering landscapes. I learned what it meant to be a conservationist and environmentalist. And perhaps, most importantly, I learned that this was the type of work I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Oh, and I saw lots of shooting stars…
Well, wanting to study the environment and work outdoors is a bit different from the morgue, no? That first field course in Arizona awakened something in me and was the start of a crazy wonderful journey that continues today. The passion for the environment, the love for all the plants and animals, and the desire to explore all corners of the earth took me by surprise. Took my friends and family by surprise too, I think. Like I said, I didn’t necessarily grow up the outdoorsy type. But the natural world fascinated me and continues to fascinate me. I realized that science did not just happen at a lab bench or in a hospital. Science also happened outdoors, and I could pursue a career doing science outside.
Over the past decade (a little more than a decade at this point I guess) I have been figuring out exactly what kind of scientist I am. So many options. Ecology? Geology? Biology? Climatology? And those are just umbrella terms, with countless specialties within each of those fields. Throughout college I tried to seize any opportunity to be outside studying something. A geology course where we spent spring break hiking around Death Valley. An ecology course in Peru where we searched for frogs at night in the rainforest. A six month study abroad program in Australia where we explored rainforests AND coral reefs.
Among all these explorations, something did find me though… birds. During my last year of college I assisted on a black-crowned ni
ght heron project (check out the youtube videos of herons chumming in fish with pieces of bread, they are simply brilliant) in the New York-New Jersey Harbor. Birds are fascinating, and I was instantly hooked on them. Their health and well-being can tell us so much about what is happening in an ecosystem, and what could potentially be happening to the people in that ecosystem. I was also fortunate to be in the company of passionate scientists who cared deeply about their research and about the herons in the harbor, and took
the time to teach me and prepare me for a career in this field. Their enthusiasm was infectious and motivated me to continue studying birds.
They have been a constant in my life since then. They brought me to Alaska in 2007. More specifically, seabirds (marbled murrelets, they are perhaps some of the cutest birds out there) brought me to Alaska in 2007, and I essentially never left. I love Alaska, and the seabirds that call this place home. They are pretty special creatures, I often find myself wishing I was one of them when I’m watching them. I feel a deep connection to and love for the marine environment in Alaska – especially the seabirds. That is why I am currently studying them and educating other folks about them for my graduate degree. More on that in the next post…
Veronica is a Guest Contributor for Latino Outdoors and is working towards a Masters of Science in Marine Biology at the University of Alaska Anchorage/Fairbanks. If you would like to get in touch in Veronica her email is email@example.com or follow her on Instagram @vmpadula.
Stay tuned for more!