Nikki Roach: Conservation Biologist

Nikki Roach: Conservation Biologist

We are excited to introduce you to another inspiring scientist. We recently interviewed Nikki Roach, a Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University in the Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences & Applied Biodiversity Program. She is also an Associate Scientist at the Global Wildlife Conservation and is the Director of Communications for the Latin American and Caribbean Section of Society for Conservation Biology.

Can you give a brief background about yourself?

“I was born and raised in Oakland, California where I spent my first 24 years. I attended private school from grades K-12 and graduated with a B.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology from the University of California-Davis in 2010.

Growing up, I was always involved in a variety of activities from choir and theatre to student government to softball, basketball, and dance groups. In college, I was a member of the Delta Gamma fraternity at UC Davis. I say this because I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up exploring creeks or hanging in the forest; I was an extroverted, city kid who spent most of my time in the gym hooping.

I always loved animals and nature and was fortunate to have parents who took us traveling from an early age. After Davis, I worked for two years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and as a research assistant for a graduate project in Puerto Rico, before completing an M.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries Science at Clemson University. At Clemson, I studied the impact of sea-level rise on marsh bird communities in South Carolina and Georgia. Today, I enjoy yoga, dancing, going out with friends and meeting new people, a good glass(es) of wine, traveling, and time spent outside, oh and dogs of course.”

When and how did you first become interested in conservation biology?

“I always loved animals. Since I was young I wanted to be a veterinarian. During my senior year of high school, I took a science course called global change science, where I was exposed to the impacts climate change is having on our planet. Around this time, I also saw the movie “The Inconvenient Truth” in theaters with my family. I realized that climate change would be my generation’s biggest battle. I became heavily focused on what I could do to make the world a better place. At UC Davis, I was lucky enough to find my major in wildlife (after a lot of bumbling around let me tell you!) which nicely blended my love of animals, desire to do something in the face of climate change, and my hope to not spend all of my time in an office. It was really at the university level that I was exposed to conservation science. In my senior year of college, I interned for the NGO Global Wildlife Conservation in Austin, TX, where I got to attend a field expedition in Colombia searching for lost frogs. It was here that I realized that this was the kind of work I wanted to do. I envisioned myself coming back to Colombia one day (I made it back 6 years later to start my Ph.D., kind of serendipitously and through some deep-rooted manifestation). Conservation science has combined my love for travel, new cultures, animals, and outdoors into one tough but rewarding career.”

Can you describe your Ph.D. project? Any findings you can share so far?

“I am in the final year of my Ph.D. (phew!). I have worked in Colombia for the last two years, where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Fellow from 2017-2018, collecting data for my dissertation on anthropogenic impacts (specifically land use and climate change) on the amphibian community. I work in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. This region is a global hotspot for biodiversity and endemism, it was ranked the most irreplaceable site in the world for threatened species in 2013. It is the highest tropical coastal mountain range in the world, is a UNESCO Biosphere reserve, a key biodiversity area, and is an important bird area. Yet, the mountain range and biodiversity itself is very understudied.

My research is the first comprehensive study on the amphibian community to date. We found that the community here is driven largely by land cover type (forest vs. agricultural land covers) and that transitional habitat zones (areas between forest and agriculture, we refer to as ecotone) are really critical habitats for amphibian persistence across the landscape. With these findings, I created a new project, Filters for Frogs (#FiltersforFrogs), that we kicked off this last month. This project explores how we can embrace community-level conservation with coffee farmers and work toward improving the sustainability of farming practices while protecting and enhancing watershed habitat for both amphibian and human communities alike.”

How did you decide what you wanted to focus on for your Ph.D.?

“I knew I wanted to work abroad, it has always been a dream of mine. I was also interested in continuing my work on examining anthropogenic impacts on threatened species. I’ve worked with birds, amphibians, and small mammals. I had a connection to a private nature reserve in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region and from there, things fell into place. I started writing grants for my proposed research in Colombia and I managed to get quite a few, including the Fulbright fellowship which landed me there for 15 months. I am very thankful for my experiences, especially for all the people I have worked with and the local communities who have opened their homes and lives to me.”

Do you have any advice for students looking to being a Ph.D. program?

“Be fairly certain this is what you want. I would identify your skillsets (sociable, smart, good at statistics, great writer, organized, good leader, etc.) and also identify future careers that you would like. Do they line up? Do you need new skillsets that a Ph.D. could provide that would help you further your career? If they do, maybe doing your Ph.D. is a good option. You really need to be passionate about what you do, and make sure you have funding! I have been on a research assistantship for 5 years and have never had to work as a teaching assistant. It’s been hugely helpful for me to focus on my research. Also, remember work-life balance is key. A Ph.D. is just one part of your life. It shouldn’t be everything. Make sure you keep up with your hobbies and personal relationships, those are equally, if not more, important at times. Take care of yourself and put your health (emotional, mental, physical) first.”

What is your favorite part of fieldwork? The most difficult part?

“The best part of fieldwork is getting to be in magnificently beautiful landscapes. I feel so thankful for the gift of working outside with wild animals and good people. The most challenging part is getting there! Literally. The roads to my field sites and fieldwork are extremely challenging and physically demanding. The furthest site was a two-day hike away from our base camp. I cried almost every night in the field last year because I was so physically exhausted. I would just shed a tear at times like “why am I doing this!?” But then, I would wake up and see the most magnificent landscape, snow-capped mountains and the ocean below, and feel so thankful for the opportunities I’ve had that led me to this special place. It’s all about balance!”

Do you have a favorite story from the field?

“Oh man, I’ve had a lot of almost fieldwork fails…I have crashed my boat on a sandbar and had to get towed off by a passing fisherman (he towed us while a friend and I ran on the sandbar and jumped into the boat at the last minute, difficult to do in thigh-high waders). After an early morning of sampling, I crashed my boat trailer into a gas station and broke the trailer. Luckily I was only a mile away from a boat store and we got help from two nice guys who directed traffic a mile down the road to the closest boat shop. I have almost sunk my boat, jumped off bridges into alligator-infested waters, driven my car off the ledge of a road and been towed by a coffee farmer…you know the usual fieldwork fail kind of things.

One of the best experiences I had was while surveying for rodents at night, my field assistant and I came across a tigrillo, a small jungle cat (Leopardus tigrinus), just sitting in a branch overhanging the road. We got to watch it for 10 minutes, it was amazing to see such a beautiful, and secretive creature so close. Also, working with Atelopus species – the most threatened amphibian genus – and seeing healthy populations has been very rewarding.”

What do you see as some of the most critical steps for tackling climate change?

“Right now we need a huge political change in regards to climate policy. We need politicians to accept the science and enact policies that focus on mitigation, adaptation, and preservation of current ecosystems and biodiversity. We are going to lose species and places, what’s most important is how to minimize that loss. We need leaders who are unafraid to tackle big industries, like fossil fuels and Wall Street, and we need this to happen at all levels of politics (local, regional, national). We also need to address inequality because corruption and inequality are only magnified by the climate crisis. Hundreds of environmental leaders are being murdered throughout Colombia and Latin America, and there is zero accountability. We can’t have politicians hide behind big money anymore, we need to reduce inequality and ramp up protection of our natural resources through on the ground efforts and swift policy change. People of privilege, like myself, need to step up and use their privilege to be of service to others. At the end of the day, we are all in this together, and we must put aside differences in hopes of building a fairer, more equitable, and habitable world.”

Can you talk a bit about your interest in science communication and policy? Why is it important to you? How does it integrate with your work?

“I have worked a lot with the IUCN Red List. I was in charge of coordinating the assessments for species extinction risk for small mammals of the America’s for the first two years of my Ph.D. It was a really difficult process, as it is a volunteer role. It made me realize that science needs more resources as well as societal and political prioritization. There is a lot of good work to be done, and people are trained and ready to do it, yet resources are lacking, especially in developing countries. I think it’s really important to communicate science to the public and across sectors (NGOs, academics, private business, etc.). While social media is great and a useful communication tool, a lot of people don’t use social media, so being innovative in our communication techniques is critical. Also making resources available in languages outside of English, will greatly improve communication efforts in science and increase inclusivity.”

We would like to thank Nikki for taking the time to chat with us. We loved hearing about the work she is doing to fight climate change and about her amazing fieldwork experiences. If you want to keep in touch with Nikki you can follow her on Twitter, @niksroach. Do you want to be our next blog feature? Reach out to us on Twitter, @Conserisapp.

Reference: Le Saout, S. et al. Protected Areas and Effective Biodiversity Conservation. Science 342, 803–805 (2013).

Some responses have been edited for length/clarity.

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