My son and I dressed up as different stages classes of my favorite study organism, the Hellbender

Herpetologist Highlight

Name: Kirsten Hecht

Age: 36

Website / Twitter Handle / Instagram: giantsalamanders.org (Website); @HellbenderHecht (Twitter)

Where do you work? School of Natural Resource & Environment/University of Florida

Position: Graduate Assistant

How did you get there? I first came to UF to study under Max Nickerson for my Masters degree because I wanted to keep working with Hellbenders. I ended up staying for my PhD because I valued the interdisciplinary nature of my program and wanted to dive deeper into understanding how the socio-economic system impacts conservation.

Was there any particular hardship that you had to overcome to work in your position? My PhD has been full of ups and downs. I was newly married when I started my Masters degree and become unexpectedly pregnant. I was very lucky on the timing of everything so it didn’t interfere with classes or field work. I had a supportive mom with a flexible career who came to the field with me to watch my son.  Ultimately my surprise gift didn’t affect my progress much during my Masters degree. In fact I was held up more by flooding in my study site! My husband and I eventually parted ways but my mom stayed on as a support system as I started my PhD.  Sadly, she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer after I started my PhD and passed away two years ago. Since I don’t feel it’s safe to bring my son into the field with me quite yet, I had to completely change my study focus. I went through some hard times and then an identity crisis but kept on the best I could.  Thanks to an awesome support system and amazing mentors at my university, I eventually found a way to combine my new interests in the human dimensions side of conservation and scientific public engagement. I’m excited about my new focus and hope to make these research topics more normalized in our field.

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? Breaking in for anyone can be difficult. It’s often about who you know and having experience, so do your best to get involved as soon as you can and meet people. Some ways to start are getting involved with research as soon as possible, volunteering at a local institution, or getting to know your undergrad professors. There are a lot of unpaid internships or even opportunities you must pay to do at entry level, but if you are like me and don’t come from a family with money or have other obligations those can be impossible to do. There are paid opportunities or at least ones that provide living arrangements out there, so keep looking. I did my first internship working at the Good Zoo in Wheeling, West Virginia. They provided housing and I also worked part-time as a janitor at the zoo to pay for basic living expenses.  Also, its normal to get a lot of rejections as you are starting out so just keep at it.

For folks from underrepresented groups, I won’t lie and say it’s always going to be easy. I’ve had my share of hardships, but I know I have some things easy comparatively. More and more white women are entering the field, thanks to those that paved the way. Even though we are still working on evening things up in higher up positions and working to change things in the broader culture of herpetology, white women aren’t here alone anymore. Other groups face many more struggles.  Herpetology has a long way to go with recruiting and retaining members from all underrepresented groups. We are just starting to see the organizations working to make some actual changes in the system, and I’m hopeful. In the meantime, put yourself first so you don’t burn out. Find a support system who understands the struggles you face. Don’t feel obligated to do any more than you need or want to. There is often a pressure on members of underrepresented groups in all fields to not only do more than others to prove yourself, but also to take on the work of fixing the issues in our organizations.

What’s your favorite herp? This may be a surprise since I’m a salamander nerd and love giant salamanders, but my all-time favorite animal is the Komodo Dragon.

Why are you an HL member? I’m a member for two main reasons. 1) As a student, there are many benefits of membership for minimal money. These include grant opportunities, journal access, workshops, and networking opportunities at meetings. 2) I think it’s important to be involved in professional societies in general, so the societies have the administrative and financial support to continue, but also because the members can help shape the trajectory of the field.

Is there anything else you would like to add? We really need all hands-on deck in herpetology right now, both for science and for conservation.  Bringing in people from different backgrounds helps advance the field by bringing in new perspectives and ideas. Losing anyone from herpetology because they don’t feel welcome is a detriment to the field and to the herpetofauna we love and study.  Fixing the complex issues going on is not going to be easy. It will be hard and uncomfortable, but it’s worth it. We are going to have to take a hard, critical look at our institutions and make changes in our structures and culture to address these things. We also can’t pin this on those already struggling in our field. I’m encouraged that we’ve started on this hard process and hope we continue.

Is there a good caption for your attached photograph? Since it’s Halloween season I figured it’d be fun to share a photo of me and my son dressed up as different stages classes of my favorite study organism, the Hellbender.

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