Eleven young women visited Mississippi State University to learn how to turn their passion for wildlife into rewarding jobs at the first Conservation Careers Discovery Day.
The young women went to the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge to get hands-on experience in GPS technology, orienteering and conservation of endangered species. Members of the professional organization Mississippi Women in Natural Resources served as the all-female team of instructors. They came to promote their enthusiasm for science while showing participants it is possible to unite their interest in nature with their desire for higher education.
Mississippi State University Extension Service associate Leslie Burger organized the event because many of MWNR’s members wish they had been offered such an experience.
"We all remember what it was like to be a girl interested in the outdoors but not sure what our options were, whether we could measure up, or whether we’d fit in with all the men," Burger said. "We want to show these girls that it can be done."
When similar co-ed events were attended primarily by boys, Burger saw the need for an all-girl event. George Hopper, dean of the College of Forest Resources at MSU, agreed to sponsor the event to encourage young women to enter the natural resources field.
"Research has shown that girls perform better in math and science when they are in same-gender classrooms," Burger said. "We believe there is an interest in these topics in teenage girls, but the intimidation of participating in an outdoor-based event in the presence of boys may be keeping them away."
Participant Alexis Webber of West Point valued the girls-only event.
"What I really wanted from this experience was to get over my fear of things that slither," Webber said. "With girls, it’s a peaceful environment, watching birds, going on a hike, and seeing spiders and toads. It"s nice to get to know each other."
The day"s activities also gave Webber a clearer goal for her future.
"I thought I wanted to do wildlife biology, but now I’m thinking I want to focus on birds," Webber said.
At the Larry Box Environmental Education Center, Burger’s organized instructional teams packed the day with a wide range of activities designed to teach participants about various areas of study, from aquatic ecology to ornithology. A picnic lunch, nature-based art experiences and a canoe trip balanced out the intense focus on scientific topics.
Events like Conservation Career Discovery Day offer more than information and hands-on experiences.
"It’s critically important during these high school years, which are often filled with self-doubt, that young women receive support and encouragement from family, friends and teachers," said Joan Herbers, president of the Association for Women in Science. "The perception that women can be scientists and can do anything will always make a difference in the lives of girls interested in following their dreams of careers in scientific fields."
With representatives from a variety of federal, tribal, state and county organizations, the young women were able to see career options beyond park ranger or zoo worker.
"We want them to wake up looking forward to the day’s work, whether they choose a career in conservation education, wildlife research, land management, wildlife enforcement, human-wildlife conflict or wildlife veterinary medicine," Burger said.
Mitzi Reed, a biologist with law enforcement responsibilities for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, agreed.
"Make it fun," Reed said. "If you enjoy it, it’s not work."
"I want to be a game warden, because I believe that wildlife needs to be managed and protected to be beneficial," Keene said. "I wanted to come to Discovery Day to find out what I’m in for."
Burger and her colleagues hope that the impact of the program will extend beyond the one-day event.
"We’d like to form mentoring friendships with these girls," Burger said. "We saw ourselves in each of these young women. We want them to feel free to contact us as they pursue college careers and hope they form friendships with each other so that they don’t feel alone in their interests."