“Wow there’s a job like that?!”
Kenai Refuge wildlife biologist films with Mission Unstoppable to highlight STEM careers
Kristine “Kris” Inman first became interested in a wildlife conservation career after reading a story about a bear biologist: “I hadn’t even realized such a profession existed,” she recalled.
Kris went on to study biology, joined a bear research team, and then worked on wildlife conservation issues across large landscapes in Montana. Her new job leading a team of biologists at Kenai Refuge in Alaska was recently profiled on an episode of Mission Unstoppable, a youth-focused Saturday morning CBS program that showcases diverse women as role models for STEM (Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology) careers.
Mission Unstoppable correspondent Fionnghuala “Fig” O’Reilly, an engineer, NASA Datanaut, actress, and model, joined Kris at Kenai Refuge to film the show segment. They explored three different methods that biologists at Kenai use to monitor wildlife populations and trends across the nearly two-million acre refuge, from a low-tech tape and tube method collecting bog lemming fur for DNA analysis to a high-tech aerial thermal imaging camera.
We asked Kris and Fig about the experience and what they hope to share with and inspire in others.
Did you have any favorite moments when filming this episode?
KRIS: I would have to say watching Fig not hold back on her awe of everything about Alaska, from seeing an eagle catch a salmon in the river to walking into the hanger where we keep our small planes for wildlife monitoring and research. The cameras weren’t rolling yet, and when Fig saw the planes, she did a spin of pure joy! I could almost hear her say when she reached out and touched the wing, “Now you’re talking.” I enjoy seeing people find a part of our work that relates to them!
What is the importance of representation in science and media?
FIG: Growing up as a military kid with an African American mom and Irish dad, I rarely saw people in STEM that I could relate to. The turning point for me was when I was 14. I started going to a math and science summer program, and for the first time in my life I had access to teachers that were women and people of color who worked in various STEM fields.
I was that kid who had that Aha! moment because of representation. Without that experience, I know that I wouldn’t have become an engineer.
KRIS: When I was young, I hadn’t heard that there was such a thing as studying wildlife. Of course, I saw wildlife documentaries, but they were about wildlife and not a profession. I first heard of a job studying wildlife from reading about a bear biologist. Once I learned of it, I was hooked.
Through outreach, I hope to bring this profession into young girls’ and boys’ living rooms no matter where they are, and maybe a few of them might sit up and say, “Wow, there is a job like that!?” and then pursue it!
I remember witnessing aggressive discrimination towards two women running for school board seats when I was a kid, and my father’s response: “You will see this in your life sometimes, but don’t buy into it, don’t hold yourself back. You can be anything you want to be with hard work and determination.”
I want to share that with others and that is why I am an If/Then Ambassador with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The program has a tagline — “If then/She Can,” which is about representation in the STEM fields. I see it as a way for me to support young girls to know they can if they find themselves in a situation when someone tells them they can’t.
Who were some of the formative mentors in your life? Did you have an influential female role model or mentor who inspired you?
FIG: There are many women from various industries that I look up to. I’ve actively sought out mentors and chosen role models that I can see myself in. Trailblazers like Mae C. Jemison and Michelle Obama, innovators like Sara Blakely, and multi-talented creatives like Hedy Lamarr are all women I admire.
I’m also inspired by many of the women that I work with on Mission Unstoppable. I get to meet fascinating women across all STEM fields and learn about their professions and the differences they are making in the world. I also get to work alongside incredible women on the show like our Host Miranda Cosgrove, producer Geena Davis, and a lot of other talented women behind the scenes who make the show possible.
KRIS: I am really fortunate to be surrounded by incredible mentors in my life, men and women alike. Both my grandmothers were brave and strong women who weren’t afraid to try new things and wanted to have a positive impact on others.
When I entered the wildlife profession, there were few women in my career, and most of my supervisors were male. Like my father, they didn’t consider being a female as something that held me back. They truly loved the profession and wanted to share it with the next generation: dedication and hard work were what mattered to them.
Is there something they taught you that you try to pass on to others? What advice would you give to young people who see you as a role model?
KRIS: When I joined the bear research project, I had never driven a snow machine, an essential tool to get us many miles through the backcountry to where bears hibernated in their winter den. It was a bit of a rough start to learn, as a petite person, how to throw my insignificant weight around to keep the sled floating forward rather than getting buried.
The lead bear researchers encouraged me, saying, “give it time, don’t give up, you have a critical role on the team, to be small enough to climb into the dens. We will help you figure out how to think through rather than muscle through it.” The support they gave me is something I strive to pay forward.
FIG: Don’t be afraid to explore new things! Some great advice I’ve received is to not be afraid of starting something new and being bad at it. We all have to start somewhere and the value of any experience is in the journey: I like to focus on discovering new passions and trying new experiences. Even if I fail or decide that something isn’t for me, there’s a lesson to be learned that can be applied to the future.
Kris, what did you enjoy sharing about the Kenai biology team’s work? What are your hopes for the refuge’s future?
One of my favorite aspects of the wildlife profession is thinking outside the box to find new solutions to old problems, and we have a great team of biologists who do just that.
On our team, we have a collaborative project to test thermal imagery as a new technique for improving effectiveness, efficiencies, and safety in inventorying and monitoring wildlife. Another project is testing something simple — using tape to capture a genetic sample from our smallest wildlife. We are doing this in place of the traditional method, which requires skull and dental records to document what small mammals we have today and how that might change in the future, affecting the rest of the food web that depends on these animals.
This brings me to what I hope for the refuge’s future and our team’s contribution to that future.
I am excited to see our team collect science that improves our understanding of how the refuge responds to climate change and increasing human presence so we can make stewardship decisions that reflect future conditions, ensuring this place remains intact and functioning for the well-being of people and wildlife in the face of change.
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.
Story compiled by Lisa Hupp, Communications Specialist for the National Wildlife Refuge System in Alaska.