Her friends call Carolina Saenz-Bolanos Lady Jaguar, and for good reason. She has spent years walking in Costa Rica’s wild places seeking the sacred jungle spirit, the creature of legend, the capstone species of the nation. She has seen peccary herds explode in fear. She has heard the jungle hush. She has seen jaguars swimming in the sea, hunting turtles. And she has captured and collared the great cats in order to study their ways and make them safe.
Now Saenz-Bolanos is working towards her Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts. Her sponsors have faith that she will help Costa Rica continue to lead the world in conservation. She has already developed programs for farmers to live in peace with the jaguar; she has convinced remote villages to stop hunting them and turn to tourism for hard cash. Her jungle life is full of discomfort and beauty.
Here she shares her perspective as a woman conservation scientist.
Why Study Environmental Science when People Say you’ll Never make any Money?
By Carolina Sáenz-Bolaños, M.Sc.
People often ask me, “Why do you study forest engineering?” Then they inevitably say other things.
“This field isn’t important.”
“You’ll never find a job with a good income.”
“This kind of job is only for men.”
If you are a woman, like me, you’ll hear, “You’ll never get married or have kids.”
It is hard to respond. Although people may be right that you’ll never get rich studying forest engineering or field-based applied science, it’s not all about the money. Some people choose their profession under family pressure, perhaps to earn more money or maintain status. That’s not necessarily wrong. But ultimately these people can find themselves uninterested in their profession or less productive than if they had pursued their own interests. Eventually, many people come to understand they have chosen something they didn’t want for the rest of their lives. Perhaps they will spend all day in an office with no time to take a fresh breath and enjoy the beauty of nature, or be isolated from their family and friends. And for what? To make more money? Remember–money not is all.
People argue that a field-based profession like environmental conservation makes it difficult to find a job or even a life partner. These jobs do involve a lot of travel and odd schedules. And for many women, especially in developing countries, cultural barriers can make pursuing such careers even more difficult since men may prefer that their wives stay at home. Nevertheless, I tell my students to choose professions they really enjoy, and that no external pressure should influence them otherwise if they have a choice.
I tell them, “if you do the thing that you are passionate about, you will find a way to make it work. It doesn’t matter if you are a woman.”
Life in the field is not easy. We often walk for hours or days in the rain or under the sun, shower irregularly, sleep on the ground, and suffer thousands of bites from mosquitos and ticks, among other indignities. Although conditions can be tough and physically exhausting, your mind and soul are renewed. You’re contributing to the nature you live in, and you connect with the land.
Working in the field provides opportunities to visit places few people ever see. People think these are leisure trips. But they are not. A sunset on the beach, seeing millions of stars overheard, hearing the singing of birds or the rain on the evergreen forest, feeling the presence of new animals–all these are rewards after the hard work of the day is finished.
I have visited diverse places and countries. I am a friend of the Pioneers of Conservation in Costa Rica. I live numerous beautiful experiences because I chose a profession I really wanted.
I want to share my experience with those considering a profession in conservation. As a child, I never could have imagined I would visit different countries and the incredible Coco Island, or work in one of the world’s best eco-lodges. Now I am in the U.S. working toward my Ph.D. in environmental conservation—who would have guessed?
My advice for students is this:
Be clear what you want for the future
Find people who can make you a better person and professional
Be thankful for opportunities that arise—and jump!
In the words of Ralph Waldo, “Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties that tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”
Enjoy your life and what you do.
Ph.D. Student, University of Massachusetts-Amherst in Environmental Conservation