Herpetologist Highlight

This was my first interaction with a brown vine snake, one of my most coveted species, in the northern highlands of Nicaragua. We found many more on the trip, but this was my favorite!

Herpetologist Highlight

Name: Erin Westeen

Age: 24

Website / Twitter Handle / Instagram: @erin_westeen

Where do you work? University of California, Berkeley

Position: PhD Student

How did you get there? I majored in biology at the University of Michigan, with the original intention of becoming a veterinarian. Like many other students, I didn’t really know what a herpetologist was when I started out. But after a few courses in ecology and evolution, I was hooked by the diversity of herps, especially squamates. I was fortunate to land a position at the museum of zoology working with Dan Rabosky and Alison Davis Rabosky, professors in ecology and evolutionary biology and the herpetology curators. I worked largely in the collections (with collections manager Greg Schneider), CT scanning snake skulls for my honors thesis. There, I learned that there are many pathways to becoming a herpetologist, such as field biology, museum jobs, or the academic track. Wanting to get some field experience, I did an internship in Arizona with the Game & Fish department. I spent four glorious months exploring every corner of Arizona in search of its herpetofauna; I still regard this as one of my most meaningful experiences in my journey as a scientist. Since then, I have been on field expeditions with the University of Michigan museum of zoology to Peru and Nicaragua, and soon Belize!

I came to UC Berkeley for my graduate studies because I wanted to learn new skills: my research at Michigan focused on the morphological evolution of many species, while my current advisor, Ian Wang, has expertise in population and landscape genetics. It is my eventual goal to link these two interests to understand how microevolutionary processes impact macroevolutionary patterns. Another reason I chose Berkeley was because I wanted to be a part of a diverse research community; I’m extremely grateful to be here.

Was there any particular hardship that you had to overcome to work in your position?

On the academic end, being a science major at a big public university was tough. I went to high school in a small town in New Jersey, and I wasn’t prepared for a 1,000+-student organic chemistry course in my first semester. After a particularly abysmal exam, my professor basically told me that I didn’t have what it takes to be a scientist. I thought I was the only one struggling; then I joined a study group and realized that a lot of other students found the material difficult, but we could solve the problems by working together. That was a hard experience but I’m glad that I had it early, because it taught me when and how to ask for help. No one got to where they are on their own!

 

Additionally, doing fieldwork as a woman can feel like you have something to prove, or that you don’t belong. I imagine this circumstance is similar or enhanced for minority students, and historically fieldwork, especially in herpetology, hasn’t been the most inclusive. “Jokes” about your appearance or not being able to change a tire/lift heavy rocks, etc. can be hurtful. I may not be particularly strong, but I have small hands that can fit into crevices, which is pretty awesome for catching lizards, frogs, snakes, and even tortoises. I walk slowly, but that makes me good at finding cryptic animals. So find your strengths – you belong in the field as much as anyone else. In my experience, diverse field teams are always more successful and more fun anyways!

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? 

You can get experience wherever you are! I remember being frustrated as an undergraduate by advertisements for faraway field expeditions that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but provided little to no financial aid. So for a while, I just assumed fieldwork cost a ton of money and wasn’t feasible for me (and really, these experiences are not feasible for the average student). Then I found out about mailing lists such as “Ecolog” and wildlife job boards that advertise paid positions. I couldn’t believe someone was willing to pay me to catch snakes, but it happened. So I would recommend signing up for those types of services and keeping an eye out for local positions. It’s totally fine if you don’t have any prior field experience! Just express an interest and willingness to learn. Same goes for research experience - if you had a professor or graduate student instructor whose research seemed interesting to you, reach out! If you are close to a museum, they often have positions as curatorial assistants as well.

It’s okay if you don’t land your dream job at first – I started out working with pollinators, which was great, but I really wanted to work with herps. Luckily, my mentor was friends with folks in the herp lab, and wrote me a great letter of recommendation. Everyone has a different path, but it’s likely that you will learn something every step of the way.

If you are from an underrepresented group, I would say look for a mentor that will support you as a herpetologist and researcher but most importantly as a person. Find someone that understands that the academic system was designed for certain demographics that may not apply to you, and wants to help you in every way they can to overcome that. Remember that others can be mentors, too, not just your PI – some of my most influential mentors have been post-docs and graduate students. Try to cultivate a community of people that you admire and respect, both peers and those at different levels of the process. Often, those folks will have the most helpful advice on how to navigate the system because they have been in your position more recently. It’s likely that you will be able to help others, too, especially those that are just getting into herpetology or research.

Finally, if any field or research experience doesn’t feel right to you, it’s okay to say so, or to leave altogether. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking out, try to find an ally that will vouch for you. And if you are a person with authority or privilege in a given situation and you notice that something is happening to a lab mate, be an ally.

What’s your favorite herp? I quite like arboreal snakes. I don’t think I can pick one, but I’ll give you my top three genera: Oxybelis, the vine snakes, Imantodes, the “blunt-headed” snakes, and Dipsas, the “snail-eaters.” And of course, I love Sceloporus lizards, the focus of my graduate work.

Why are you an HL member? I love talking about herpetology, so I am always looking to connect with other researchers and students, through forums like this or at conferences! Plus, some of my favorite publications have been published in Herpetologica. I think it is important to support the societies that make these opportunities possible.

Is there anything else you would like to add? Some thoughts on making herpetology more inclusive…if there are local collaborators that contributed significantly to your ability to collect data in the field, or shared knowledge about native herpetofauna, include them as authors on resulting publications (or at least ask if they would like to be involved in the process – mostly likely they will!). If you worked in another country, disseminate major results of your research in the native language(s) so that residents can read your work and take pride in their wildlife. If you are reviewing a paper written by a non-native English speaker, remember that the author is surmounting a huge barrier already by trying to make their research understandable to you: respond with courteous and constructive comments. We all stand to gain when herpetology is more inclusive.

Is there a good caption for your attached photograph? This was my first interaction with a brown vine snake, one of my most coveted species, in the northern highlands of Nicaragua. We found many more on the trip, but this was my favorite!

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