Everyone’s welcome: UF PhD student’s video series highlights diversity in science

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As a PhD student in the University of Florida’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, Kirsten Hecht has had years of experience sharing her research with the public. Kirsten has particularly made a name for herself on social media. Last year, she made headlines with her Twitter hashtag #HERpers, meant to highlight women in herpetology. Now, Kirsten has broadened her focus to show the world that scientists are much more diverse than they are typically depicted in mainstream media. Her new Periscope video series is hot off the press, and we got a chance to ask Kirsten a few questions about her new project. For more info about her background, take a look at her website: www.giantsalamanders.org.

Check out the first episode of her new video series here!

Can you tell me a bit about your background? How did you first become interested in wildlife science?
I’ve always been really interested in wildlife. I grew up in northern Ohio and spent a lot of time outside in my big backyard, which my parents were able to grow more naturally because we were on the outskirts of town. There was a cornfield behind that. I would catch all sorts of critters back there, especially crickets and toads, so my love for wildlife started very young. The interest in science grew later, largely due to two amazing high school science teachers. I knew I wanted to pursue science then, but originally planned to study genetics. Once I started attending Ohio State as an undergrad, I quickly realized that a lab was not the place for me. I needed to be outside. By that point I had become more educated about conservation issues, and felt a calling, so I switched programs and haven’t looked back.
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Kirsten Hecht poses with a Hellbender salamander while in the field in Tennessee.

What research are you working on now?
Most of my research focuses on the ecology and conservation of giant aquatic salamanders.  I am especially interested in how species, like Sirens and Hellbenders, change the types of habitat they use over a lifetime. I’m also involved in work that examines the demographics of salamander populations (like how many there are and their ages and genders), which helps us understand how well the salamanders are doing. Lately, however, I’ve developed a strong interest in communicating science to the public, and I’m hoping to add that focus to future research.
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Screenshot from the pilot episode of SciVerse, Kirsten’s new video series that works to highlight diversity in science. Diego Juarez-Sanchez joins as her first interviewee.

We were excited to see your new project on Periscope. Can you tell us about your idea for the project? Have you chosen a name for it yet?

I just completed the pilot for a series of live broadcasts where I chat with scientists from all types of backgrounds to learn more about their work, their pathway to science and challenges they’ve faced. Because the series is live, viewers have the opportunity to directly interact with the scientists and ask them questions. I’m hoping the broadcasts will be interesting for all ages, but I’m specifically targeting teenagers and young adults who may be interested in becoming scientists themselves.
I’ve been toying with a few names, but I think I’ve settled on SciVerse.
 
Science as a process truly benefits when different perspectives and new ideas are heard.

 

Why is it important to highlight diversity in science?
Science has a diversity problem as many minority groups are underrepresented. I think it’s important to highlight the diversity that is there for two reasons. First, highlighting diversity helps people from underrepresented groups view science as an attainable career. I’ve learned through literature and  many conversations that younger folks need relatable role models. I’m hoping this broadcast will make role models of all different backgrounds more accessible and encourage more individuals, especially from underrepresented groups, to consider science careers. Second, I feel it’s really important to hear voices from underrepresented groups to better science itself. Science as a process truly benefits when different perspectives and new ideas are heard.

 

Have your colleagues been receptive so far to this project?
For the most part people seem to be pretty encouraging, although there are some scientists who aren’t as interested in outreach activities. I was supported by the instructors and classmates in a science communication course I just completed, and having that audience to brainstorm with was a great experience. I also reached out to several friends and colleagues who I knew had valuable knowledge and perspectives, and they were all quick to lend support.

 

If your viewers could only learn one new thing from watching your interviews, what would like that to be?
My hope is that people will learn that scientists come from all types of backgrounds, and that they too can be a scientist if they have the interest.

 

Where do you see this project going? How would it ideally develop?
I’d like to turn this into a weekly broadcast series. Right now, my main focus is working out kinks and building my audience. Due to limitations, I foresee most of my initial guests coming from within my UF network, so the focus may be more on biology, but I want to slowly expand out and include scientists from all different fields of science. I’m also hoping to partner with UF’s Natural Resources Diversity Initiative (NRDI) to help spread the word to local high school classrooms as well.
 

 

What are your future goals and dreams? Where do you see yourself headed in the next few years?
Hopefully graduating! haha. After that I really want to make a career making science accessible to the public.
 

 

If you had to choose one message to send to the world (about anything), what would that be?
Keep your curiosity and never stop learning. There is so much to learn in our world from both the natural world and from other people if we keep our minds open to new ideas.