It all started with a hedgehog

At least, that’s the short version of how I got here.

After 7 years of teaching Social Studies in public school, I left my job and career feeling that I wanted to have more direct impact on the world. The original plan was to head to graduate school for archaeology and commit myself to preserving our past. I spent 2 weeks between the end of my teaching work and the start of my graduate program volunteering with environmental research in Mongolia (see for information). One morning a researcher asked me if I wanted to head out on my own and track a hedgehog- everything changed at that moment.

I came back from Mongolia with the realization that I could do conservation work, although I didn’t exactly know how I was going to get there. I started the archaeology program, but withdrew when I realized that I was spending all of my time at field sites keeping track of  mammal sign. Six months of wildlife rescue (loved the skunks!) and 2 months of rain forest mammal capture later, I entered the master’s program in environmental studies at Antioch University New England. My thesis research was conducted back in Mongolia, where it all began, and focused on habitat selection by Daurian hedgehogs; my degree was conferred in July 2012.

In January 2013 I started the doctoral program in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Department of Biology as part of Dr. Paul Leberg’s lab. Here in Louisiana I study carnivore ecology on the coast- mainly that means looking for coyotes, raccoons, and otters, but I also get to see mink, dogs, and even the occasional feline. My research focuses on where these species are found and what they eat- I’m trying to understand if there are environmental characteristics that influence distribution and diet and that we can use to predict carnivore presence in the future as sea levels continue to rise. Carnivores are an important part of ecosystems- they control prey species, influence the abundance of other carnivores, disperse seeds from the plants they eat, and fill other ecological roles- and it’s important to understand how they fit into the ecosystems they inhabit.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of doing my field work was collaborating with volunteers to gather data, and I believe that anyone can directly contribute to conservation research if they are given the opportunity. My work here is meant to translate current environmental research and conditions for everyone to understand and then use that understanding to engage in research themselves. Simply put, I want to turn all of you into citizen-scientists who feel empowered to contribute.

I also hope to get more researchers involved in sharing their knowledge with everyone- check out my collaborators here.

Posted June 27, 2012 by Mirka Zapletal