Name: Emma Steigerwald
Website / Twitter Handle / Instagram:
Where do you work? University of California, Berkeley, CA
Position: PhD candidate
How did you get there? My interest in conservation arose from involvement in wildlife rehabilitation, mainly with reptiles and raptors, from an early age. It was inspiring to work with animals in such close quarters, but the work could also be frustrating: the fact that the problems populations face generally can’t be addressed through the rehabilitation and release of individuals is inescapable. Through undergraduate research with the mentorship of Drs Dan Funk and Seth Bordenstein at Vanderbilt University, I was introduced both to the possibilities of a career in ecology and evolution and to the rapidly advancing tools of genetics. I also had my first experience with herpetological research during those years, when I used a summer research stipend to contribute to a long-running capture-recapture project with Balearic lizards at the Mediterranean Institute of Advanced Studies in Spain. It was magical; I have never since worked somewhere that I was constantly covered by my study species, crawling all over me and licking my skin.
As I was graduating from Vanderbilt, I was fortunate to be granted a Keegan Traveling Fellowship, which broadened my view of global conservation immeasurably. I used my fellowship to work with conservation research and initiatives across ten countries, including assisting with freshwater biodiversity surveys in the Western Ghats and wrangling Hawksbill nest data in the Seychelles.
Coming to UC Berkeley, I struggled to decide on a research system where I could ask questions of relevance to both conservation biology and unanswered questions in evolutionary ecology. I was thrilled to learn about the remarkable amphibians of southern Peru’s Cordillera Vilcanota, which have colonized higher than any other amphibians in the world in the wake of deglaciation. This system inspired my dissertation work.
Was there any particular hardship that you had to overcome to work in your position? Finding funding for molecular work as a beginning graduate student was incredibly challenging. Many funding options available to grad students will only support fieldwork, or exclude ‘supplies’ as an acceptable budget item. Through intensive time investment searching online and asking other graduate students, I now have a long list of relevant small grants. An encouraging thought to keep in mind, if you are also in the situation where you are writing endless grant applications, is that all that writing experience will pay off! Your practice will help you write more quickly, compellingly, and coherently about your research.
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? For all of us who are passionate about this complex, beautiful planet we live on, I think it’s important to feel that the work we are doing is important—whatever that looks like for each of us personally. Fortunately, that’s pretty easy to do within the scope of herpetology. However, I do know people who committed themselves to projects, contented that they would be working in a herp-based system, and then regretted not waiting to find a project that aligned better with the questions that most motivate them.
To people from underrepresented groups: Be confident that what you are uniquely qualified to contribute is valuable! History clearly demonstrates that narrow perceptions of who should conduct science has resulted in blind spots in the science that is conducted. Actively seek out mentors who recognize your value—in grad school, a heathy mentorship relationship is so important to your wellbeing.
What’s your favorite herp? I just saw my first false coral (Anilius scytale) in Manu, which was incredible. I love the adaptations of fossorial herps! However, though it may seem like a cop out, I am fond of my principal study species, the Marbled four-eyed frog (Pleurodema marmoratum). Their resiliency in dealing with the dehydrating winds, deep precipitation, and intense solar radiation at 5400 m.a.s.l. is mind-blowing, seeing how powerfully it affects my field team with our thermal gear, three-season tents, and -10˚C sleeping bags! If my lips crack and my hands blister, how is P. marmoratum doing it?! The more time I spend with them the more questions they raise.
Why are you an HL member? I am interested in meeting and working with fellow herpetologists across the world, want to help support the publication of Herpetologica, and appreciate the opportunity to apply for HL’s grad student awards.
Is there a good caption for your attached photograph? Sampling in the snow. Though sampling Telmatobius marmoratus inside a tent is a bit cramped, it can be necessary with conditions at my field site, where we work alongside glaciers! Photo by Anton Sorokin.