BABE #149: IMOGENE CANCELLARE, Wildlife Biologist
Working in STEM takes dedication, resilience, and a patience that can only be learned through hard work (and today’s nature-lovin’ babe embodies these traits wholeheartedly.) Imogene is a wildlife biologist and second-year PhD student at the University of Delaware. When she’s not studying the evolution and genetic structure of snow leopards, she is a science communicator mentoring future generations on STEM careers. Imogene shares her passion for wildlife, her perspectives on why it is so imperative we conserve natural habitats, and the professional moments that have made her (literally) scream, run, and jump for joy. Thanks for chatting with us, Imogene! You are most definitely a BWH, and we can’t wait to see what you conquer next.
Hometown: Charlotte, North Carolina
Current city: Newark, Delaware
Alma mater: West Texas A&M University
Degree: PhD in Wildlife Ecology (in progress)
Very first job: Serving ice cream at a local dairy farm
Hustle: Wildlife Biologist + Science Communicator
Babe you admire and why?
Two women. (1) Hatie Parmeter, founder and CEO of Women of Heart and Outdoor Adventure Magazine (WHOA Mag). She’s kind, she’s cool, and she is always getting after it outside (and teaching others to do the same). I love that she always encourages her friends and never gives up. (2) Marie Martin, wildlife biologist and general badass. Marie is a fellow scientist and hardcore outdoor enthusiast. Her work ethic and level of excitement for the outdoors are unmatched, and she’s a great friend. She’s always down for a hike with dogs and a beer at the summit. I admire both of these women because they are good humans who make the world better.
How do you spend your free time?
I love going to my local parks to look for salamanders. Sometimes I paint (though it’s been a while!), and I’m always down to tour a craft brewery or coffee shop.
Go-to coffee order?
A cortado, always.
Go-to adult beverage?
This is hard. A good IPA, or sour, a gin and tonic, an old fashioned...
Go-to power anthem?
Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.”
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Pho. Or chicken tikka masala.
What is something you want to learn or master?
Statistics. Stats are so incredibly important to the field I work in, and mastering the newest tools and techniques means I’ll be better able to help conservation. (I can’t believe I just typed that—I’d much rather learn to fly fish.)
Go-to news source?
Twitter is a great starting place for me. I fact-check things before I post or form an opinion, but I find online news to be easier to decipher and more diverse than traditional TV news.
What was your middle school AIM screen name?
missibcountry (Miss I Be Country—get it? Yes, I am embarrassed).
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
What’s something most don't know about you?
I showed dairy goats growing up and won a few state championships in showmanship.
Tell us about your hustle.
I am a wildlife biologist and second-year PhD student at the University of Delaware. I teach the lab section of an advanced mammalogy class, and my PhD research focuses on the evolution and genetic structure of snow leopards. I am also a science communicator and I regularly mentor young people on careers in STEM.
What does your typical workday look like?
I’m usually on campus five days a week, where I work as a student, teaching assistant and researcher. When I’m not reading papers to learn new scientific techniques, I’m asking questions about them. I also use Instagram and Twitter to regularly post daily wildlife facts and information about conservation and the importance of research. This has recently turned into a side gig, as I now work with wildlife-related organizations on social media strategy.
Where does your passion for wildlife stem from?
I grew up falling down in the mud along the creek behind my house, where I was able to watch literally every taxa with a birds-eye view. Nature has had lifelong importance to me because it’s been always been a source of happiness. Outside, I’m as free as the foxes that need to eat and the frogs that must metamorphose every spring. My passion for wildlife stems from having endless questions about natural history, my appreciation of the scientific process and my desire to conserve biodiversity.
What kind of biology-related work and projects do you most enjoy?
I study wildlife ecology, the branch of biology dealing with the interactions between organisms and their environment. Specifically, I use molecular techniques to understand how landscape and environmental features impact population movement over time. This field, landscape genetics, helps us understand microevolutionary processes like gene flow, as well as address ecological mysteries such as what habitat types best promote animal movement. I love using genetic techniques to study wildlife because I get to combine field work, which includes animal observations and data collection, with the precision of lab work for conservation. Genetics is so cool! Through my research I can “see” how animals move across vast landscapes by exploring information in their DNA. How cool is that? To do this, my role varies seasonally—for example, I won’t go into the field until summer when snow melts and study sites are accessible. For now, I’m in the office.
What has been your favorite research project?
My first job out of undergrad was really special. I tracked radio-collared bobcats in northwest Montana near Glacier National Park. I worked under a female PhD student and the two of us spent several months following bobcats and collecting information on their prey. It was beautiful, challenging and it really earmarks the start of my career. I’m very fond of Montana. And bobcats.
How have your past internships, education, and work experiences prepared you for your work today?
I credit the two years before starting my master’s degree with (1) being one of the best times in my life, and (2) helping me learn what a biologist does and how they should do it. I worked on several wildlife research projects as a technician collecting biological data on various carnivore species, and this was essential to narrowing my research interest using genetics as a tool for conservation. I currently study a rare cat that lives on the roof of the world in High Asia, and being competitive for this type of research position involved a lot of field work, a lot of determination, and a lot of assistance from some really wonderful people. Despite what you see online, however, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the stress of graduate school. Grad school itself is not hard—taking classes and doing research on something that excites you is not work, in the traditional sense. What’s hard is the immense pressure individuals place on themselves. Graduate students constantly judge themselves, and harshly. The combination of real deadlines, the need to master new skills, and an always-running internal monologue is not the kind of stress you can train for. It can be exhausting, and while I’m much better at it on this PhD journey, it is something I constantly work at.
What has been your biggest career milestone?
My first interview for a master’s project was in 2012. I applied for a snow leopard project studying snow leopard predator-prey dynamics. I was hiking when I got the call requesting an interview, and I literally screamed and ran up and down a field. I was so bummed when I didn’t get the offer. However, I stayed in touch with the professor who gave me that interview. Over the next five years I’d occasionally send him emails that said “Hi, I got into grad school!” or, “I’m graduating, hope you’re doing great!” and “I got a job, but still want to do a PhD down the road.” In summer 2016, he emailed me asking if I’d be interested in being his PhD student for a snow leopard project. As someone who has tried so hard to become a good biologist and enter the competitive field of carnivore ecology, I am so proud of this moment. Truly, hard work, perseverance, and building relationships pay off. I was standing in an RV park when I got the call from my now-advisor, and I screamed and ran up and down a fallen tree. I hope the field of wildlife conservation provides me with many more reasons to scream joyfully and run around.
How has being a woman has affected your professional experience?
I am very fortunate to not have had any truly limiting experiences in my profession as the result of being a woman. I have received pushback from younger male assistants, and, when conducting my own research, spent a lot of time correcting people that my male assistant wasn’t the project lead. I’ve often dressed down so as not to attract attention from men in the field or office, and, like many women, walked away from groups hearing whispers or “good ol’ boy” comments about the way I look. My main concern is making sure I don’t receive a lower salary than an equally qualified male counterpart.
What steps are necessary to get more women to pursue careers in STEM?
Start young. Girls aren’t uncool because they like frogs. Girls aren’t abnormal for being good at math, liking to get dirty or going through a “phase.” They’re gravitating towards the things that give them joy. Let them. No matter the age. Loosening gender conformities and letting go of ideas about who a child should be or what a woman should enjoy are so necessary to encouraging girls and women to pursue careers in STEM. Making science a daily part of our lives is a crucial part of this process, which I why I post about science on social media.
What are some common misconceptions about your job?
People think scientists are boring, or biologists are smelly hippies. Scientists are the funniest people I’ve ever met. I know I smell pretty rank in the field sometimes, but that’s a really incomplete view of my job!
What is one of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work? How’d you overcome it?
Time. Careers in wildlife biology require a lot of time and emotional investment. I’ve interviewed for countless positions, received a lot of no’s, and put my life on hold compared to other careers and people my age. It’s been hard, but I’ve been able to overcome it by truly enjoying what I do. My work requires a lot of flexibility and patience. I don’t think that’s always fair, but it’s been part of my journey thus far.
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
There are so many women with whom I engage online who are just killing it. I look to all of them on a daily basis, and they are constantly teaching me about social justice, equality and science. A few you should follow: Dr. Lauren Robinson, Asia Murphy, Dr. Auriel Fournier, Nicole Wood, Janet Ng, Megan Winzeler, Dani Rabaiotti, and Desiree Narango. These women are field biologists, technical scientists, outdoor enthusiasts and super passionate about the species they study, which include primates, fossas, rails, mute swans, hawks, salamanders, African wild dogs and songbirds.
What’s your ultimate dream job?
I would love to work for a research nonprofit or science museum as a conservation biologist and public educator. I’d love to collaborate with educational media like National Geographic to teach others about how awesome amphibians are and why they should care about conserving habitat.
Are you involved with any other community organizations or side projects?
I am an ambassador for WHOA Mag and the amazing women’s outdoor athlete film festival No Man’s Land Film Fest. I also work with various online educational groups that connect scientists to classrooms, so that children and young adults can have Q&As with a professional in their field of interest.
What advice would you give to a babe trying to break into your industry?
Stay the course. Do everything. You want to study big cats? That’s awesome, but you need to learn about a lot of other things, too. Don’t just study one thing—study everything. Wildlife biology is about populations and ecosystems, and every species is connected to, and impacted by, many others. Habitats, i.e. wild places, are the homes of wild things, so in order to study wildlife, we must also understand where they live, and we must first and foremost speak up for the protection of that land. Don’t be afraid to ask for help—so many women are willing to lend a hand, share an experience or find you an opportunity. If you run into a superior or potential mentor who doesn’t lift you up, don’t be discouraged—there are so many of us who want to see you succeed.
What is your philosophy on work/life balance?
Go hard, then go home. When you’re off, really be off.
What helps you wind down and manage stress?
Making time for community; friends are so important. And get outside. Seriously. Go look for salamanders, take pictures of insects, climb a mountain, listen to the way the ecosystem sounds.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully I’ll have generated meaningful data for snow leopard conservation and will be doing the same for other species. My goal is to use my education and enthusiasm for wildlife to help others appreciate wildlife and wild places, with social media being a large part in continuing those efforts. Positivity and consistency are great metrics to measure your goals by.
What’s next for you?
Field work in the mountains of China to collect snow leopard scat for my dissertation.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Be unapologetically you, and find a group of women who love the hell out of that.
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