Name: Kinsey Brock
Website / Twitter Handle / Instagram: kinseybrock.com / @kb_kinsey / @kbkinsey
Where do you work? University of California, Merced (the newest UC and a Hispanic Serving Institution with more than 70% first generation college students!) @ucmerced #UCMerced
Position: D. Candidate
How did you get there?
I grew up on a farm in Michigan, where I spent most of my hours outside playing games we made up in the woods and corn fields with my friends. We’d happen upon frogs and snakes, but back then I didn’t even know herpetology was thing – I just lived for being outside, day and night. The outdoors was a natural playground that changed with the seasons, and was really where all the interesting stuff was happening.
Choosing a university was easy for me – I wanted to go somewhere that was big, had endless opportunities, and where I could pursue all of my interests in art, music, science, and literature. I enrolled at the University of Michigan initially as an Art & Design student, but upon meeting my mentor Professor, Joe Trumpey, everything changed. Joe was an artist, a farmer, a scientist, and someone I could identify with and trust. He fanned my flame for nature and sparked a curiosity in me that motivated my decision to dual-enroll as an art and biology student. I found my niche at the interface of art, literature, and science in the Program in the Environment at Michigan, taking coursework in environmental justice, conservation biology, and field ecology. But it wasn’t until my second year as a biology student that I had my first herpetological encounter.
I was accepted into an Eco-Explorers field sketching trip to Madagascar, led by mentor professor Joe, where students spend a month camping and working on art and service projects. In the first hour after landing in Antananarivo, my life changed. While walking through a garden and admiring the flowering trees I noticed odd movement and felt a presence. Then there it was, one clear eye pointed right at me. Even though I’d never seen one in real life, it was like I had known it forever and swiftly reached for it without a second thought. It was a Carpet Chameleon, a little rainbow with a big mouth and freaky feet living and breathing in my hand. What a wild thing! I spent the rest of the trip on a quest for herps: chameleons, geckos, boas, all of them extremely rare and unique to Madagascar. I was transfixed by their color, the way they moved, and diversity of habitats they occupied. How could all of these wildly different-looking animals live on the same island? How could they fit so perfectly in their environment? How can I spend the rest of my life among wild things and figuring out why they look the way they do?
I left Madagascar with an insatiable thirst for all things reptilian. I got a job in the Herpetology Division at the University Museum of Zoology, and spent many hours prepping and caring for specimens and meeting herpetologists visiting from all over the world. I decided to stay at Michigan for my master’s degree because I found an advisor working on lizards in the Greek islands – a perfect combination of my interests! I spent two summer field seasons hopping around the Cyclades islands trying to figure out the ecological and evolutionary drivers of different anti-predator behaviors in lizards. Behavior was interesting, but as I moved through the Aegean islands studying different populations of lizards, I got curious about the variety of their color and pattern. I contacted several advisors about studying color evolution for my Ph.D. (a big switch from behavior!), but once I met my current advisor, Dr. Danielle Edwards, I knew I had study with her. She was going to let me acquire the skills I needed to pursue any project I wanted, and my dream research was to go back to the Aegean islands and figure out why lizards on some islands are extremely colorful and behave differently than lizards on other islands. Sounds simple (and I’ve simplified it somewhat), but is in fact quite challenging and requires one to be an explorer, ecologist, geneticist, photographer, phylogeneticist, statistician, savvy kayaker, field team leader, schlepper of heavy and awkward objects, and writer. It also helps if you speak Greek. I am never bored.
Was there any particular hardship that you had to overcome to work in your position?
Being a first generation college student from a lower socioeconomic background was the first big hurdle I faced – and it hit me the moment I stepped foot on campus as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. I felt out of place. I didn’t know what to expect or how to live on my own in a “city” and everything up to that moment came pretty easy for me socially and academically. But the move from activities and worksheets in small classrooms with the people I grew with to analyses of tomes on Art in Theory, 300-person chemistry lectures, and a maxed out 18-credit schedule hit me hard. To learn how to learn, I made study group friends with upperclassmen in the Michigan Marching Band. To survive economically, I learned the financial aid system with help from staff and got hooked up with jobs to make ends meet in art studios, bands, and museums with help from my mentor professors.
Academia and other male-dominated fields like herpetology can be a tough place for women and minorities (social, gender, ethnic, etc.) to thrive. I’ve been underestimated, overlooked, mansplained, taken advantage of, excluded, harassed, and ignored in academia and during fieldwork simply for being who I am. Finding community, allies, and advocates helps. Get involved with societies, organizations, and individuals at the next professional level who make diversity, equity, and inclusion their mission. Spread the word about initiatives and opportunities with your community. As you move up, bring others with you.
What advice do you give to someone interested in your profession? What advice might you have for someone from an underrepresented group who is interested in entering your field?
When I became interested in herpetology, I researched local opportunities at my university and in my state that would get me into the field and interacting with herps in their environment. Check out university websites for professors who are studying herps you’re interested in – maybe one of their graduate students needs a field assistant! Look up your local Department of Natural Resources, or do some online investigating if your town has a local herpetologist. Zoological museums are another great place to get involved.
My advice for underrepresented folks interested in herpetology or science in general: Find your people and create community wherever you go, they make all the difference.
Develop a diverse network of mentors. You can’t expect one person to be everything for you, and you’ll gain a wider perspective by engaging with a variety of folks. If you meet a professor who is an excellent writer, develop a relationship with them founded on giving each other feedback on writing or just chatting about the process. If you find someone at the next professional level who is really good at listening and willing to give personal advice? Cultivate that. Maybe they study fly brains and you study lizards, that doesn’t matter. If you like the way someone thinks, try to find a way to work with them. Mentors don’t have to be herpetologists to help you become a herpetologist. The mentor map is a fantastic resource for identifying your network and mentorship needs.
In addition to forming mentor relationships with people above you, find yourself colleagues at your level who will support you and who you’ll support in return. Seek out those individuals who collaborate, who will proofread a grant, who share your passions, who will be there to reassure you when it seems impossible, and be that person for them. Creating community within my graduate group has brought me joy and has been great for my mental health.
What’s your favorite herp?
My pet leopard geckos, Despina and Athena, have my heart. But my favorite non-familial herp is the lizard that made me a herpetologist - the Carpet Chameleon, Furcifer lateralis. I could stay forever watching their conical eyes dart around while they slowly move through the trees. I will study chameleons one day.
Why are you an HL member?
I joined HL to contribute to an intellectual community of folks interested in studying and protecting herps. As a graduate student, Herp League also provided access to research grant opportunities, which are important for students doing field biology.
The events that transpired at JMIH2018 were unacceptable, and unfortunately not uncommon for women in science. However, I’ve decided to remain a member of HL not because I approve of everything the organization has done in the past, but because I want to be a part of the change to make herpetology accessible and safe for everyone. Visibility matters, and I’m excited that HL has been quick to make positive change by profiling HERpers. There is more work to be done, and I hope to see more privileged herpetologists (ie: White, CIS, men-folk) actively engage in making herpetology more inclusive.
Is there a good caption for your attached photograph?
Not the most recent (or highest quality) photo, but perhaps the most significant. Me and that Carpet Chameleon I snagged in Anatananarivo eight years ago.