Taking Flight: Part 2 by Veronica Padula

 

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Looking for waterbirds in the Florida Everglades I learned how to drive an airboat in the process

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.

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I helped teach a field ecology course in Belize last year. Had to take the snorkeling selfie.

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.

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I spent two summers working on Alaska’s North Slope. We used a float plane to get around, it was spectacular.

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 vmpadula@alaska.edu or follow her on Instagram @vmpadula.

 

Stay tuned for more!

 


Taking Flight by Veronica Padula

*This post is broken into three parts. I hope you enjoy!

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Veronica releasing a Thick-Billed Murre on St. Paul Island, Alaska.

Part 1

Ok, I have a confession… here it goes… I’m… 32 years old. Yea, that’s a hard one for me to admit. I realize some of you reading this are probably rolling your eyes at me right now because what is the big stinking deal about being 32, but stick with me. Because I’m 32 and I feel as though I’m only JUST figuring out who I am and what I want to be when I grow up. Because outside forces (read: the rest of the world) seem to tell me that I should really have my act together at this point. Because “adulting” is an art form that I have not quite mastered, although those outside forces seem to suggest that I should have mastered that art form ages ago. What exactly is adulting anyway, right? I tell myself to stop comparing my progress against what these outside forces expect progress to be. This is part of why admitting my age is difficult, I don’t exactly feel like I fit into what I believe that adult category to be just yet, I’m a little different…

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Koalas in Australia! This picture was taken at an animal sanctuary there, I was in heaven cuddling this little one

But then again, this feeling of being a little different is nothing new for me, and that feeling is something I’ve always struggled with. When I was little, I had a fleece blanket with rows of little white sheep, with one little black sheep in the bottom corner of the blanket. Guess which sheep I related to the most. I was born and raised in New Jersey, first-generation American on my mom’s side, as she and her immediate family had immigrated to the United States back in the 1970s from Uruguay, and deeply-rooted New Jersey Italian on my dad’s side, going back a couple of generations. On one side of my family, I was practically brand new to the region, and on the other side of my family I was probably related to a quarter of the people inhabiting a 20-mile radius around my house (ok, that might be an exaggeration, but it felt like that!).

Reflecting on it now, I wonder if my younger self considered this as part of why I always felt a little bit different. How did I define myself? How Latin American was I? How Italian was I? How Jersey was I? People often tell me that I don’t sound like I’m from New Jersey when I’m speaking. Have I just never had a Jersey accent because I grew up in a bilingual home, or have I really been away from Jersey for that long? But deep down inside I’d like to think I still have that tough-as-nails attitude and pride that comes with being a Jersey girl. You can take the girl out of Jersey, but you can’t take the Jersey out of the girl.

But seriously, how did I really define myself? Did I consider those factors back then, or are those questions I am asking myself now? I also wonder if these questions, rather than making me feel a bit different, could have united me with others. It might have taken me time to do so, but as I have opened up to other people about these topics, I have found kindred spirits with similar experiences. Why didn’t I talk about this sooner? Perhaps it takes getting older (I’m careful not to say “becoming an adult” as I do not feel as though I qualify for that just yet) to recognize the need to open up, and I have learned that many of us are similar in that we all feel just a little bit different…

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Ice fishing my first winter in Alaska. That fish was quite a catch!

Perhaps some things that stick with me most are the conversations with other first-generation Americans, and the similarities we shared in growing up first-generation American kids. Turns out many of them grew up feeling that the way to honor their parents’ sacrifices (leaving their home country, family, careers to start over, possibly moving to a place where they did not know the language, possibly traveling across dangerous borders) was to have super successful careers, with all the boxes that indicate “adulthood” checked. Seems like many of them felt themselves to be a bit different because of this desire to honor such sacrifices…

Me too. I believed my way of honoring my parents was by becoming a doctor when I grew up. As I was graduating high school, I specifically wanted to become a forensic pathologist, mostly because I watched lots of crime shows with my mom (who doesn’t love CSI or Law and Order?) and I was riveted by the things going on in the morgue. So I entered college thinking I would take the pre-med route, with just a bit of a twist. Instead of choosing Biology as my major, I chose Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology because I thought it would be cool and different to do a study abroad in the rainforest or at a coral reef. As a teenager entering college, choosing something because it seemed cool and different was totally logical. Mainly I was looking for adventure, and never really considered what I might be getting myself into. Little did I know that I’d find my life’s passion outside in nature…

 

 

 

 

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 vmpadula@alaska.edu or follow her on Instagram @vmpadula.

 

Stay tuned for more!

 

 


Guest Post: Ocean Day CA 2015

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Ocean Day California

The alarm buzzed at 5:00 am last Tuesday, and while I wasn’t thrilled about the early start, I was very happy about the short 70 miles commute from San Francisco to join #CAOceansDay in Sacramento.

Dozens of ocean lovers joined from around California, coming in from as far as San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange County and Arcata to participate in the yearly tradition that is Ocean Day in the State’s Capitol.

After weeks of planning (Environment California ftw!) we converged in the Capitol’s downstairs dining room to caffeinate and plot our day. Teams hunkered around the tables to discuss strategy and after greetings and hugs, it was my turn to put together a plan for my day (trying to decide on a schedule from all the options on the table was mildly reminiscent of first week of college semester: trying to get into a 10 am Western Civ I wanted instead of the 7:20 organic chemistry class I really needed). While the teams are pre-planned around geography and issue collaboration, I’ve found it most effective to “float” throughout the day. I’m technically based in San Francisco, but Azul takes me all over the state, working with Latinos from Los Angeles to Humboldt, so I end up making drop-bys on unsuspecting teams all day and usually doubling up on the total number of meetings by the end of the day (unexpected benefit: totally obliterating my fitbit step goal).

Every year the focus is ocean and coastal issues (like working on protecting the big blue from plastic trash and acidification), but this time, the dire water situation in our state couldn’t be ignored, so naturally, talking to decision makers about climate change was a priority (specifically, making sure our state and federal agencies are working as efficiently as possible).

I will admit though, personally, my favorite subject to talk about at Ocean Day is still our state’s awesome underwater parks (and not just because I personally sacrificed my car’s transmission, engine and alternator to driving around thousands of miles talking to people about them). While all the media attention tends to go to massive ocean sanctuaries like the newly designated Pitcairn Islands marine reserve(which is roughly the size of California), our own network of marine protected areas was a trailblazing effort at its inception and implementation.

While it is possible to protect thousands of square miles in remote parts of the Pacific, we had to adopt a much more measured approach, fitting in smaller reserves alongside prized fishing holes, shipping lanes, and coastal developments. Together, they make up a statewide chain of refuges linked by currents. In a heavily populated state where every inch of coast is well loved, these underwater parks are critical for sea life and popular with visitors.

The design process (I was one of the stakeholders) is an example in public participation, bringing together all the different interests invested in ocean health (public agencies, conservation organizations, commercial and recreational fishermen, universities and local elected officials) to craft a plan that best benefits ocean health and by extension, Californians everywhere. As the results start to come in, it’s a delight to talk about teamwork that pays off.

For now, the work continues throughout the state. Maybe next year you can join us at the capitol?

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Marce Graudiņš is the Founder and Director of Azul, a project focused on empowering Latino coastal and marine stewardship. In a previous life she used to sell fish, now she saves them.