On a recent trek up the highest peak of Central America (Cerro Chirripó), I was excited to find my favorite lizards, those in the genus Sceloporus.

Herpetologist Highlight

  1. Name: Bree Putman
  2. Age: 31
  3. Website / Twitter Handle / Instagram: breeputman.com; @breeput
  4. Where do you work? Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
  5. Position: Postdoctoral fellow
  6. How did you get there?

Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved reptiles. I think it was Jurassic Park that started my fascination because I was first obsessed with dinosaurs. This prompted my parents to buy me pet geckos and snakes because, unfortunately, dinosaurs were not available for purchase. As an undergraduate in college, I fancied the idea of becoming a wildlife biologist, so I searched for research credit my junior year. Most professors’ work seemed so boring to me at the time (who wants to work with fruit flies?!), but then I found Dr. Emily Taylor who studied rattlesnakes and I applied to work in her lab. She accepted me and mentored me on my very first research project, which resulted in my first publication. I presented this work at the 2009 Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Portland, Oregon, and this experience was life-changing because I met so many amazing people who were legitimately excited by my research and who gave me confidence. I began to imagine myself as one of them, someone who could be thrilled by scientific discovery and part of a community that engaged in thoughtful discussions on research ideas. After I returned home from the conference, I knew I would become a professor. My path has been unwavering since.

I went straight into graduate school for my Ph.D. immediately after graduating college. I worked under Dr. Rulon Clark at San Diego State University and Dr. Richard Coss at UC Davis. Graduate school allowed me to hone my skills as a researcher and introduced me to the world of mentoring undergraduate students (which has become one of my main passions). By studying rattlesnake-California ground squirrel interactions, I became a behavioral ecologist who specializes in predator-prey theory. As a postdoctoral fellow, I now use my expertise in this field to determine how fear of humans might predict animal responses to urbanization. I am currently applying to assistant professor positions, and I am hopeful that my ultimate career goal will be accomplished in the near future. I am doubtful that I would have chosen my current career path had it not been for Dr. Emily Taylor, my undergraduate advisor. She has been a very powerful mentor and role model for me, and I strive to become who she was for me to the students I mentor today.

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

The greatest hardship I face is believing in myself and knowing that I am a great scientist. I often suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’, which makes me feel like everyone else at my age is advancing faster than I am and it can put me in a bad place. However, it helps to talk to others about it because almost everyone seems to have these same feelings. My advice to anyone who suffers from imposter syndrome is to keep focused on your work, don’t compare yourself to others, and keep a list of all your accomplishments and people who you have helped.

Another aspect that can be difficult is defying stereotypes of what it means to be an ecologist, and especially a herpetologist. There’s a certain macho/country culture within our field, which is not bad or wrong, it is just something that I don’t strongly identify with because I’m super-feminine and from an urban area. Stereotypes can push people away from our community, and I work hard to dispel them by not conforming and by having confidence in my actions. So for instance, I embrace my Southern Californian “Valley Girl” accent, even though I’ve been told it makes me sound dumb; and I embrace my love of fashion and makeup, even though I’ve been told to dress differently; and I embrace using pink and purple in my presentation slides, even though I’ve been told it’s too unusual. There should not be an expectation of what a herpetologist sounds or looks like as long as they are conducting good work and contributing meaningfully to their community. We do not want to tell people that there is only one way to be a herpetologist because this not true in reality and only hinders progress. 

  1. 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?

I work with many students from underrepresented groups as a research mentor for an NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in Costa Rica. As a mentor, I advise undergraduate students from underrepresented groups on independent research projects over an 8-week summer program. Many of these students have never left home, have zero research experience, and have strong ties to their racial/ethnic cultures. I have found that one-on-one mentorship of students is key for their retention and success. For students who are unaccustomed to the research and academic environment, having a good mentor helps with navigation of this unfamiliar territory. So, my advice to students interested in becoming a herpetologist is to find a mentor who truly believes in you and is committed to your success. Not all mentors are the same though, and you may need to do some searching until you find the perfect fit for you. It is important that your mentor celebrates who you are, respects your cultural identity and heritage, and demonstrates that she/he values your unique perspective. In sum, having a good support system helps.

I would also advise to say “yes” to any opportunity presented to you, regardless of whether it is research-based, because you never know how it could help you in the future. Every person you meet in your life (even non-scientists) could help you advance professionally so always keep an open mind. Also keep in mind that some opportunities might make you feel uncomfortable, such as public speaking or joining a new lab where you might not feel like you fit in, but overcoming uncomfortable challenges is essential, especially for students from underrepresented groups who will face these barriers more often than majority students. Overcoming fear is a big part of the growing process. 

  1. What’s your favorite herp?

Rattlesnakes, of course. As an undergraduate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I worked on a project radiotracking a population of rattlesnake for two years. I quickly fell in love with the creatures because they were much different than I had perceived. My first encounter with a wild rattlesnake was so uneventful; it just sat there staring at me from a burrow. This is what makes them my favorite animal. Many people have these preconceived notions of how rattlesnakes should behave, and then when they actually go into the field and observe them in their natural habitat, they find that most of the myths are untrue. After tracking the same individual snakes for multiple years, I get to learn their personalities and quirks and it makes them endearing (although they probably don’t find me endearing).

  1. Why are you an HL member?

I like being a part of a community that shares my same interests. I also love meeting up at conferences because many of us live in different parts of the country (or world!) and so it is always a great opportunity to catch up on old and new research ideas. I also like supporting the publications that I find value in.

  1. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Being a herpetologist is exceptionally rewarding because you can take a stand for creatures often maligned by the larger society. My hope is that by modeling diverse types of herpetologists, we can increase involvement of students from non-majority groups, and eventually have better public engagement and more creative thinking towards research.

  1. Is there a good caption for your attached photograph?

On a recent trek up the highest peak of Central America (Cerro Chirripó), I was excited to find my favorite lizards, those in the genus Sceloporus

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Mo Donnelly