By Cheyanne Lewis
In celebration of #BlackinSciComm week, I had the opportunity to interview Alex Troutman, (@n8ture_al on Twitter), a wildlife biologist and graduate student who is currently studying seaside sparrow dynamics in tidal marshes. Having always had an affinity for nature and science education, he shares how a string of outreach opportunities helped turn his passion into a business, and how his experience as a Black man in academia has shaped his views on social justice.
Traveling Wildlife Biologist Enters #SciComm
Raised in Austell, Georgia, Alex was always fascinated with nature and wildlife. He remembers the days of going fishing with his father and his uncle, paying close attention to every fish they caught. From a young age, his idols were wildlife conservationists like Jeff Corwin and Steve Irwin. Despite having never seen a Black wildlife biologist, he was dedicated to working with animals, hoping to become the representation he had missed in his own childhood. Once in college, he originally was working toward veterinary studies, but after doing fieldwork for an ornithology class, he realized that this was the kind of work he always wanted to do.
In 2014, he obtained his degree in Biology from Georgia Southern University and committed his time to interning as a park ranger in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was teaching specialized programs, and he quickly realized just how much he loved working with children. He had always wanted to be an educator, but in a way that he could teach his own curriculum. Through this opportunity, he was able to do just that and enter the world of science communication.
After 6 months, he moved on to become an animal handler at Zoo Atlanta, doing outreach at local elementary schools to teach students about nature and conservation. On days when he couldn’t make it into the classroom, he participated in programs that hosted 200-400 students inside the theater where he could talk about various conservation methods and animal habitats. There were even “NightCrawler” programs where the public could spend the night at the zoo.
Over the next few years, he teamed up with the Georgia Aquarium, the Wisconsin Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. National Park Service on Padre Island in Texas. Through these experiences, he was able to work with several vulnerable species ranging from Karner Blue butterflies to Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. These were perfect informal outreach opportunities as he was able to talk to local communities about the importance of conservation work.
Getting Down to Business
Alex, who is also known as N8ture AL, likes to share his adventures through social media. On his website, he uploads photos from the field to a photo gallery, and offers educational programs to get people involved with nature and the outdoors. For those looking for more hands-on experience, he offers both individual and group nature hikes.
As a biologist, he wants to use his position to teach and inspire future generations of scientists, and it’s important for him to show Black children, especially children of low SES, that they, too, can be like him. Outside of his studies and business, he is also an avid fisherman and birder. He has previously volunteered to teach children how to fish, and when asked why, he responds by saying: “My last name is Troutman, so why shouldn’t I?”
And when it comes to birding, the science of it boils down to this: “It’s kind of like baseball… you find what you’re looking for and keep looking at it.”
The Power of Social Media
With the pandemic restricting in-person events and programs, Alex has mainly focused on outreach through social media by sharing his adventures. By uploading photos of himself doing what he loves, he often gets responses from parents who express their admiration for his work – either responding to a particular photo or relaying questions from their children about certain insects they’ve found lying around.
During our interview, he even mentioned that his sister still reaches out to ask him random questions every now and then.
As much as he loves interacting with his followers about nature, he recognizes that his account is more than just a source for science education. His account is a platform to open discussions regarding inequity and social justice.
“There’s still a lack of diversity in this field. Representation is a big component of this.”
As a role model for younger generations in the BIPOC community, he aims to spread the message that there are no limitations, that “you don’t have to be limited to whatever your neighborhood norm is.”
He describes his experiences of wanting to give up on his education, and he equates the process of overcoming these feelings to a rock and a stream: even though the rock is hard, eventually it will wear down and the water will be able to flow through.
The goal is to keep on going even when obstacles feel impossible to conquer.
Inequity in Academia: Is There a Solution?
Alex believes that institutions consistently leave Black students and faculty out of the conversation: “We’re in the same room as everyone, but we’re not sitting at the table.”
It’s watching administrators discuss plans for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives without actually focusing on the very people it affects. It’s supposed to be a place where everyone is included, but it becomes a fight between inclusivity and diversity.
“It’s like cookies,” Alex explains, “sprinkle cookies are diverse, but chocolate chip cookies are inclusive.” It comes down to the idea that BIPOC students are often paraded around so that the institution looks diverse, but just like sprinkles, it’s easy for students to be picked off, fall off, or simply be stuck on the surface without feeling any sort of inclusion within their respective departments.
Rather than focusing on recruiting Black students and faculty, there needs to be a larger focus on inclusivity and how to keep that community thriving. This doesn’t just stop at reaching certain population percentages, but includes the discussion of pay discrepancies, proper work compensation, and equal access to resources.
Alex recognizes that more often than not, “our skills are overlooked and undervalued”, and things need to change in order to make academia a place for everyone.
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