I grew up in the wonderful southern college town of Gainesville, FL, where the weather is hot, the food is greasy, and where (in my opinion) the highest concentration of amazing people in the world exist. Under these conditions and with the constant support and encouragement from my loving family and friends, I began life on the path of wanting to help people and being a conscious world-citizen. I was not, however, always the ever curious naturalist and passionate conservationist that I am today. As a child, I never encountered the noble teacher that piqued my interest in the deep sea, nor did I have the natural propensity to figure out just what the ants were up to after they’d left the suburban sidewalks and disappeared into the grass. In fact, I recall an overwhelming and - in retrospect - completely hilarious phobia of the dragonflies patrolling my backyard, and felt quite strongly that the ants should keep to their own business and I to mine. This harsh interface between the natural world and my world drove me away from nature initially, but, as you’ll come to see, evolved to uniquely motivate my passion for fostering biophilia and raising awareness for conservation in society at large.
My first true passion was cultural diversity; as a Filipino-American growing up in the South, I knew its meaning from a young age. My family’s gatherings were split between the rural barangays of the Philippines and my family’s land in Central Florida. I was fascinated by the fundamental differences in thinking and living between my two connected heritages, and by adolescence I had already come to appreciate a variety of perspectives on the human experience.
Given my interest in cultural diversity, I chose Anthropology as my undergraduate major at the University of Florida. Through my studies, I became interested in indigenous cultures and in 2008 took a position with Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps (HYCC). I was initially drawn by the program’s emphasis on revitalizing Hawaiian culture on the Islands today, but found myself captivated by how their culture, past and present, was built around living with their environment. I returned to UF inspired by that summer’s work and intensified my study of the human-environment interface and the relationships between biological and cultural diversity.
After graduating from UF in 2010, I promptly returned to the Islands to work with HYCC again, but this time as an AmeriCorps Team Leader. That summer, I learned essential leadership skills directing a multicultural team of underrepresented local youths on conservation projects. On a more profound level, I developed an intense passion for relaying what I had learned from past experiences and work with HYCC to the kids on my team. This was an interesting juxtaposition with the adversarial relationship I had with nature in my youth. HYCC’s central concept is Maka hana ka ‘ike, meaning In working one learns. I had taken this idea to heart and made it my own: it was through teaching the importance of conservation that I myself learned to truly value nature. This transformative experience would ensure that environmental education would become a salient feature of my life’s work, with my childhood phobias lending me an original perspective on communicating with audiences outside my discipline. In order to become a more effective teacher, however, I wanted to better understand natural processes and applied conservation.
To further my understanding of applied conservation, I secured an AmeriCorps field crew position with Pu’u Kukui Watershed Preserve (PKW) on the island of Maui in late 2010. There I practiced natural resource management with a small team of local Hawaiians in one of the most biologically unique and endangered places on Earth. Our work focused on watershed health, with an emphasis on invasive species eradication, and monitoring and restoration of endemic Hawaiian plant and animal communities. I gained valuable skills that year, ranging from the use of geospatial analyses to coordinate predator control efforts in a native ground-nesting sea bird colony, to a refined understanding of Hawaiian botany. These professional developments prepared me well for future conservation work, but my personal growth during that time was equally noteworthy. Working closely with native Hawaiians on their land was a very powerful experience. My teammates had such an intimate knowledge of their forest, yet still emanated an excited curiosity about all the organisms we studied. Both of these traits I absorbed during my time at PWK and actively put back into my own passion of environmental education, with the hopes of instilling in others the love for nature that I was taught. To incorporate this into my work on the island, I regularly led public nature hikes in normally inaccessible areas of the preserve to give people a better understanding of what we were protecting and why. I helped coordinate volunteer restoration projects to involve the community in our efforts to maintain ecosystem services for the benefit of society as a whole as well.
While my work in Hawaii increased my efficacy as an environmental educator and amplified my passion for conservation today, I felt that my perspective was limited to the Islands. I wanted to diversify my scientific knowledge of the natural world to prepare me for environmental work and teaching in a variety of settings, and so in 2012 I moved to the Philippines to explore additional aspects of conservation science that were connected to my own heritage.
What I experienced there was absolutely remarkable. I spent that year volunteering with conservation initiatives throughout the country. While working with long-running conservation NGOs like the Philippine Eagle Foundation, I took part in the scientific rigors of protecting a flagship species in a developing country. During my time with the Hotchkiss Foundation (HF), I conducted rapid environmental assessments of small islands. We are now using these data to delineate key protected areas, develop long-term biodiversity studies, and draft management plans. Also while with HF, I taught local ecology to children in rural communities and worked to establish a hands-on outdoor teaching lab at the Foundation’s school. My time with the Luzon Parrot Project was the most scientifically rigorous. I extended my ecological and biological understanding of new taxa, and also furthered my knowledge of experimental design, data collection, analysis, and the logistics of doing graduate-level research in a developing country in multicultural teams. In addition, I honed my expertise as an accomplished nature photographer, videographer, and graphic designer. I used these tools to communicate my volunteer experiences in conservation and science to non-science audiences in the Philippines and abroad via numerous multimedia productions disseminated on social media platforms and my personal website.
Based on my broad knowledge of Philippine conservation and multimedia communication and technology skills, I was selected to participate in an NSF-funded course spanning 2012 and 2013 that focused on international communication, citizen science in SE Asia, and emerging technologies in conservation research. The course, titled Next-gen Forest Surveys, brought together a handful of young multinational scientists for both an online project-based cross-cultural communication component, and a fieldwork component in Yunnan, China. While in China, we tested readily available and emerging technologies that had the potential to transform citizen participation in novel forest research in SE Asia.
My experiences throughout those years prepared me well for higher studies in the sciences. I had acquired a refined knowledge of multiple tropical ecosystems and taxa from a variety of perspectives in different scientific disciplines and cultures. I also obtained the tools and experience to successfully engage diverse audiences on the importance of conservation and scientific findings. More than anything, I had matured my desire to produce science and communicate the field to broader audiences. Thus, at the end of 2012, I returned home to further my capabilities as a well-rounded scientist and sharer of scientific knowledge and practice.
Continuing to expand my understanding of science and nature, I spent the first part of 2013 volunteering for the Kawahara Lab of Insect Systematics and Evolution at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity (MCLB) in the Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH) at the University of Florida. There, I used the skills I had developed in Hawaii and the Philippines, in combination with newly learned concepts in insect molecular genetics, to plan and execute a preliminary molecular phylogenetic analysis of Philodoria, a poorly studied endangered moth genus endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. This project proved to be the perfect way for me to expand my knowledge of the natural world and science, while continuing to raise awareness about conservation of lesser-known yet charismatic taxa. My work with Philodoria has evolved into my current doctoral research.
My long-term goals are a natural extension of my past and present work. My future is in applied conservation with a focus on integrating greater society into natural resource protection. I see myself managing imperiled ecosystems in places like Hawaii and the Philippines, by employing scientifically-informed yet novel approaches to conservation and restoration, and advancing conservation science through on-the-ground research. In addition, I hope to act as a conduit of information, bridging the knowledge and awareness gap between the sciences and the underrepresented populations of the places I work.