As a conservation biologist, Laura King isn’t just a scientist; she’s an advocate for nature and wildlife.
She also has a passion for seeing more women become scientists who step out of the lab and effect change in the field.
During her presentation for the Women in Science and Engineering Newfoundland and Labrador (WISE NL) speaker series, she asked the 82% female audience: “If you’re doing great science and nobody knows about it, is that what you want? Are you doing science so that you can influence the future? Or inspire women? Or influence policy?”
Laura is ‘doing great science’ for all those reasons.
“The worst for me would be to be 80 years old and look back and be like, ‘Oh, I did really cool stuff but it didn’t change anything,” says Laura. “It didn’t make anybody’s life better, it didn’t help any wildlife anywhere, no bird is here because of me.”
Currently, Laura works as a conservation biologist at SAM, a stewardship non-profit committed to the conservation and enhancement of habitat across Newfoundland and Labrador.
As part of her job, she visits towns and cities throughout the province to see what opportunities there are for conservation.
“Over the past little while there’s been this call to scientists to ‘suit up,’” says Laura.
One of the ways they can do this is by influencing policy to preserve wildlife, or helping to ensure better air-quality and water-quality.
These changes, says Laura, can be driven by what society, governments, and corporations want, but it’s the scientists who are able to show exactly what’s going wrong in nature and what can be done to fix or improve it.
“There’s lots of different ways to contribute, but I like it that I get to be outside, talk to people, and make stuff happen,” says Laura.
In the first few months of working with SAM, she saw two conservation areas assigned into law as a direct result of her work. “It’s only a few hundred hectares,” says Laura, “but they matter to the community.”
“A lot of times with these areas people sort of know they’re special but they’re not really sure why,” says Laura. “So to be able to do part of the work that maps them out and shows what’s there, and to hear community leaders and councillors stand up and say, ‘We have 120 species of birds here. We never knew that. Isn’t that amazing?’ … it feels really good.”
“It’s the exact opposite of research,” says Laura. “It’s very tangible.”
Laura’s love for science, wildlife, and helping the animals came at an early age.
In Brownies and Guides, she loved getting the nature badges–bird watching, camping, and animal tracking.
Even earlier than that, when told to depict what she wanted to be when she grew up, Laura drew herself as a biologist. “A painting of me in a suit working with a duck,” says Laura.
Another key moment was when her grandmother gave her an issue of National Geographic that focused on scientists tracking animals.
“I was obsessed with this magazine,” says Laura. “To this day I have it in my room.”
It wasn’t always an easy journey to follow through with those dreams to get where she is today, but Laura persevered.
Her first major challenges happened during her teenage years.
“If you’re a really keen person, society can consider you a nerd,” says Laura. In high school, wanting to be a scientist or a biologist or working really hard so you can get a scholarship, says Laura, “it’s not always cool.”
But, suggests Laura, if that’s the case, it just means you haven’t found ‘your people’ yet.
She encourages youth to put the hard work in to become who they want to be or do what they want to do. And when you do that, she says, you’ll most likely find incredible people who’ll inspire you, “people who think that nerding out is cool.”
Of course, she tells the audience at the WISE NL speaker series, there’ll always be “people who don’t believe in you or don’t treat you the way you want to be treated for whatever reason … your age or your gender or just who they are.”
Recently, as an adult working in the field, she’s had to go through some of that.
“It makes you question yourself and makes you realize that you have to do things on your own,” says Laura. “If you take yourself seriously, that’s really all that matters.”
Even though fifty-two percent of PhDs in biology are female, says Laura, “I show up at a meeting in my biology suit, with my backpack and binoculars,” and people look dumbfounded. One woman questioned, “You’re the biologist? I didn’t expect a young lady,” and then a few minutes later, asked again, “But are you a real biologist?”
“Being underestimated or undervalued or even disrespected happens, and it happens a fair bit in the field,” says Laura, “but accept it as part of life and the consequence of being a social animal.”
She’s also experienced men laughing at her ideas, and not respecting her as a biologist.
“People tell you to your face that your ideas are stupid or that they’ll never work,” says Laura, “but if you want to have impact, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Keep presenting those ideas, and keep doing the work, despite the barriers.
For female scientists working in the field, the barriers are even more pronounced.
“I have so many certifications to drive a boat because those are easy. You just go to a class and get a certification,” says Laura, “but I’m still not that good at it.”
No one has ever shown her how to properly trailer a boat, yet she sees her male counterparts in the field receive these types of lessons.
“We can take all the courses,” says Laura, of women, “but still nobody’s ever shown me how to do certain things … Nobody’s ever said, here, let me show you how to take apart a chainsaw,” even though those skills make a huge difference in the field.
Job descriptions in biology and other science-based field work describe specific labour tasks. And so women don’t often apply because they know they can’t do the work.
And if they do apply?
“I’ve seen women with graduate degrees get out-competed by people with undergraduate degrees,” says Laura, because they can’t do the labour work.
In her WISE NL talk, she questioned how to fix that. Should these lessons come from fathers teaching their daughters, or should it be more formalized through education, or as a component in the field?
“I’m never going to be as strong as a man,” says Laura.
She shared the stats that men have about 1.7 times the grip strength of women and about 1.65 the squat weight, which means women need to find workarounds.
“If you’re a woman, you kind of need to be acting like a monster,” says Laura. “So what do we do on days off? Lot’s of push-ups.”
Women need to think of strength training as part of their professional development if they want to be working in a field that requires labour tasks.
“It’s not that we can’t be that strong,” says Laura. “It’s just that we have to work hard … we have to change the culture.”
Changing the culture isn’t just something Laura focuses on regarding her professional work environment, but for society as a whole and, specifically, her passion for nature and conservation efforts.
“Being with wildlife, being in nature, being outdoors, it’s like shifting into an entirely different mode” says Laura. “Nature can help stress melt away.”
It ties to physical activity, she says. “We’re living stressful lives, running around with two or three screens in front of us … in a typical day I may look at five different screens.”
Many of us miss that connection to nature, she says, even though we may not realize that’s what our life is missing.
“You’re not the same person you are when you’re hunched over a cubicle desk that you are running across a trail,” says Laura. “It gives you a chance to work with a different mind and a body that works in different ways.”
“I think of myself as part of an ecosystem,” says Laura. “When I go outside I’m just a mammal walking down a trail. I’m part of something bigger than myself.”
Laura was awarded the “Canada’s New Noah” scholarship from Wildlife Preservation Canada, which enabled her to spend six intensive months in Mauritius learning about conservation both in the field and the classroom. To learn more about her journey, check out her blog or, to see some pics, follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
Have some thoughts or questions about Laura’s journey? Have you also wanted to be a scientist or share Laura’s passion for wildlife? Scroll down to “Join the Conversation!”