To acquire wisdom, one must observe

A green spot in the desert

This past week, I took a trip to Arizona for research I do with the EMIGRA (Especies Migratorias y Gobernanza Respetuosa de sus Ambientes or Equitable Governance of Migratory Species and their Habitats) project. I went with several other students and Professor Charlie Chester (henceforth referred to as Charlie, as is tradition), and had an amazing time. This trip, while being an incredible amount of fun, really served to clarify my career interests. I’ll get there eventually, but for now let me walk you through the trip.

Waking up at 3:45 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 29 to catch a flight at Boston-Logan isn’t an ideal way to start any trip, but it’s how this one begins. Words like “cruel,” “unusual” and “unconstitutional” fluttered through my mind in a murmur as I walked like a zombie through the halls of my dorm on my way to catch an Uber. Somehow, other people were awake too. I can’t tell you why they were, but I can tell you that those people are crazy.

 After lumbering through my morning routine and practically crawling my way down to admissions, I caught an Uber to the airport with one of the other student researchers I’d be traveling with. After arriving at the airport for our 6:30 a.m. departure (ugh), I was surprised to see just how nice Boston-Logan is. Compared to JFK or, god forbid, Newark (New Jersey is the worst state in the union), it was paradise. I luckily slept through the whole flight to Phoenix… and the whole car ride to Casa Grande … and the whole car ride to Ajo. The few waking hours I had were wonderful, filled with indigenous history and tales of Charlie’s time in Ajo in the year 2000. He did his dissertation work there, and knew a good deal about the town. Ajo was the size of a thimble and shut down at 6 p.m. sharp, but it had that small town charm about it. Having never been to Arizona before, I was astonished at the place’s beauty. There’s just so much land, filled with Saguaros, sand and snow (I didn’t think it was possible either, but mountaintops in the Sonoran desert are still covered in snow).

The next day, we traveled to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This beautiful place (which sits on stolen indigenous land) contains Quitobaquito, a spring whose name’s meaning has been lost to time. After meeting a ranger at the monument’s visitor center we (the student researchers, Charlie, and a wonderful bat-obsessed ranger named Kim) set off for Quitobaquito. Along the way, I couldn’t help but notice something grim: the border wall. The road leading to Quitobaquito sat no more than 10 feet from the wall at some points, and watching its expanse meet the horizon was nothing short of horrific for two main reasons. First, the fact that we have the power to put up a barrier like this and choose to do so for racist reasons is simply awful. Second, the environmental impact of the wall. When constructing it, every single environmental regulation was waived in the name of national security. Additionally, the construction of a physical barrier obstructs species migration pathways (the very thing I came to Arizona to study). A dystopian horror on the southern border, funded by our tax dollars and constructed in fear of the “other.” Disgusting.

I could talk about that for days, but I have limited space for my articles. After some incredibly enlightening talks with rangers at the monument’s visitor center, the group set off to Why. No, that’s not a typo. We stopped at a convenience store called “Why Not” in Why, Arizona. As you can imagine, I made some very funny jokes because I’m hilarious. We then went to a meeting of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, a conservation organization in Ajo with representatives from the Tohono O’odham nation, Mexico and the United States. Their goal is to promote “environmental excellence” and a “prosperous and sustainable economy offering opportunities for all residents.” This remarkable organization provides low-income housing, tax services and more to the residents of Ajo. This organization is truly a gem, and Charlie actually did some of his dissertation work with them.

Later, we headed to Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona, for the main portion of the trip: Y2B2. This conference is the second annual meeting of the EMIGRA team at Biosphere 2 to set priorities for the next year of international North American migratory species governance.

 The conference started with a day of science communication training, including a guided meditation (that I may have fallen asleep at [are you seeing a pattern here]), scientific journalism help, and policy brief guidance. Those “Sci-Comm” workshops were incredibly fun and taught me valuable skills, but the main event was what truly made the trip for me. I, along with student researchers from the University of Arizona and Mount Saint Vincent University, participated in goal-setting discussions with seasoned conservationists. But we weren’t relegated to an observatory role or ignored, students were encouraged to participate in these discussions and stood on equal footing with experienced academics and world-famous conservationists. I felt… important. These researchers treated me like I was one of them, and that helped me see why conservation work is so important. By actively debating policy goals and equity concerns with the (Co-)P.I.s that I’d worked with for months, I gained a deeper understanding of why conservation work matters.

Seeing all of the different perspectives held by people I’d assumed would immediately come to a consensus thrilled me. When voting on different goals, no single goal garnered the attention of every researcher. That’s why I think I loved this trip so much. I know I want to work with data to help save our planet, but I know now that there’s not one “right way” to do it. There’s several right ways, each of which can spark its own questions and debates. This trip has helped me realize what I want to do, and has helped me realize that I don’t have to know how I want to do it yet. There is no right way; just variations on a theme of engaging work.

All of the researchers that I interacted with at Y2B2, from quantitative ecologists to Mexican Bat-Man (Not a joke, that’s just Rodrigo), made me feel like I was part of an ever-more-important community of conservationists. This community was far from homogenous in their environmental interests, and I hope that wherever I work in the future isn’t either.

Special thanks to Charlie for the incredible employment opportunity and for helping organize this trip.

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