Early career advice for students and field technicians with Mara Huang from the University of Nevada
Mara Huang is a Master’s student in Animal and Rangeland Science at University of Nevada in Reno, United States. Her focus is on rangelands and currently she is carrying out research on Snowstorm Kochia, a non-native plant species in the Western US.
Her field work positions as a technician and field crew lead in several US states have created great connections that guided her career path, and have led to the dream of becoming a university professor one day.
Mara shares insights from her early career development and conservation education, including important skills for field work and tips on how to make the most of your time as a student to advance your conservation career.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently pursuing conservation education as a Master’s student in my second semester, conducting a research assistantship along with other courses. My research with my advisor Leslie Morris is focused on a non-native plant species called Forage Kochia, of which there are two cultivars.
My focus is on the cultivar Snowstorm Kochia, and I’m currently formulating my thesis research on the ecophysiology of the plant. This is part of a research project with my lab which will hopefully help state and federal agencies make better management decisions when seeding these species in rangelands, as there is limited research on them so far.
Nevada Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management seed this non-native shrub in hopes of quick establishment after fires and viable forage for Mule Deer and other wildlife in the winter months.
What made you want to work in conservation?
I love this story because it has really shaped who I am and my career choices.
In high school, I was a part of Future Farmers of America, a youth organization helping students learn about careers in agriculture. This for me was the closest thing to working with animals at the time, and when my teacher asked me what I wanted to pursue as a career after graduation, I told her I was interested in wildlife.
At the time I was particularly interested in animal behaviour, although my focus has changed later on.
My teacher knew a conservation biologist near where I lived in Portland, Oregon, and put me in touch with her. I was able to job shadow Susan Barnes, a fantastic conservation biologist, who took me in and showed me the ropes of what it’s like to work in the field and what the natural resources sector is like.
This volunteering experience with her was a major reason why I wanted to pursue Wildlife Ecology in Washington State University for my undergrad degree.
What was your first field work experience like?
Well, depends what you really count as field work. In my first year in my undergrad I interned in the British Virgin Islands with a head start facility conserving endangered rock iguanas. I got to set up camera traps and we also captured feral cats that were a huge problem on the island, but I paid for that experience and it was also only a couple of weeks long.
I would say my real first field experience was in the summer of my third year, when I worked as a biological technician with a Master’s student who was researching Snowshoe Hares. Our crew went up to Washington and we set up traps and camera traps for the duration of the summer.
I got my small mammal handling certificate so I was able to handle the little Snowshoe Hares and that was really fun. Carrying all those traps on my back made me realize I was stronger than I thought, and it was fun despite being hard work.
Where else have you worked and what skills do you think helped you land these positions?
I got a position as a field technician with the Great Basin Institute right after undergrad. It’s a non-profit that contracts us out to federal agencies that utilize our work.
I was working with AIM – Assessment, Inventory and Monitoring – which is a rangeland protocol. Being a field technician was pretty exhausting work, but very rewarding. We would have “8-day hitches,” which essentially means 8 days in the field camping. I enjoyed the work because there was less pressure as a technician, and I just had to focus on getting the protocols done.
Later on I did lead positions with the Great Basin Institute, including in forestry. As a field crew lead, there was a lot more pressure to ensure the safety of my crew and guarantee we get the work done within the field season. As a crew lead, you’re also responsible for a lot more management of the data you collect in the field and ensuring it has been quality checked twice before submitting it to our agencies.
Although being a crew lead is fun and rewarding and you build a bond with your crew, it’s also exhausting for the amount of work that you do “after hours” as a salaried employee. Especially at one of my crew lead positions I didn’t feel supported by my supervisor, which led to a lot of stress and overworking.
I think that having a lot of experience working with people in retail and customer service type positions made me a valuable candidate for these positions. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses is really important in this field, and I knew that my strengths were my personality, and excellent customer service and problem solving skills.
Many people get into conservation wanting to work outside and with animals, but in my experience you’re actually primarily working with people so these skills are really important.
What eventually inspired you to pursue a Master’s degree?
After working for a couple of seasons with rangelands, I was propelled to pursue that for my Master’s degree. I was also inspired by an experience as a teacher’s assistant for a professor called Dr Zamora in my undergrad.
Through the TA experience on the course Arid Landscapes and Ecosystems, and his mentorship, I realized how much I love plants. I taught classes and labs about plants, and that inspired me to go onto do a Master’s in plants at my current university to further my conservation education.
What advice do you have for making the most of your time as a student?
Washington State University, where I did my undergrad, had a really comprehensive wildlife ecology programme. They also had a ton of facilities where you could volunteer and work with professors and wildlife.
Throughout my undergrad career I volunteered for the Research Bear Centre on campus for 1-2 hours a week, which was really awesome. We also had another facility with deer for research purposes, where you could go and feed and socialize with the deer. Seeking out these opportunities during your conservation education is so important. I didn’t have a lot of experience in the field right after undergrad, but my volunteering experiences helped me land a field job.
I also recommend getting to know your professors and getting to know what you want to do. While you have your whole career to figure out what you enjoy doing, finding those little things that make you happy within such a huge field, is really important during your conservation education. Make sure you’re having a good time but it’s also worthwhile to push your boundaries and experience new things, including hard things, while you’re still in school.
Do you already have a plan for what to do after graduation?
My long-term goal is to pursue a PhD, become a university professor and do research.
But before that, I still want to go back to work after finishing my Master’s to gain more experience. I want to do positions that are aligned with people and project management, but I’m not really biased in where I want to work yet, whether that be Federal agencies or the state, or non-profits.
Do you have any tips for networking in your early career?
Get involved in different projects and make relationships in the places where you volunteer, work or intern. You don’t know where you’re going to come across these people in the future, and who they may know. So putting that effort in is going to lead to a lot more connections in the long run, as well as being a great opportunity to make friends.
I think all of the positions I’ve had after undergrad have propelled me to get more positions afterwards. Make sure you put in 110% of your work ethic at any job, whether that job be natural resources related or not. Even references that are not wildlife or natural resources related are going to go a long way because someone can vouch for how hard you work. That matters more than being able to get every single wildlife position out there.
What’s the biggest challenge in your career so far?
I would say the biggest challenge is honestly the pay. I know it’s somewhat taboo to talk about pay but I feel like it shouldn’t be, because we all should be paid liveable wages. The natural resources field is notorious for underpaying for the amount of work that we do. That’s definitely a struggle, especially in the US with current inflation.
What makes your work in conservation worth it despite the challenges?
Being able to contribute to a project that’s bigger than yourself always feels worthwhile and fulfilling. I know the work I’ve done for previous projects contributes to future management practices, and how the lands will be restored.
I love meeting the field crews, and all of the people I’ve met during my positions are fantastic individuals who want to contribute to conservation and to making this planet a little happier.
I’m also really excited for the stuff that we’re able to publish with my lab. I just submitted a scientific research poster today to the yearly conference of the Society for Range Management on our findings so far. That’s something that I’m proud of, especially as we’re a lab that just started this last year.
Can you share your favourite thing about the nature around where you live?
Reno is located in such a perfect location to explore different types of nature, all within a reasonable distance. You can drive out to the coast, the mountains, the desert, and several national parks within a few hours. I’m really thankful for having had the opportunity to explore all these places while I’ve lived here, it’s just so beautiful.
If you are interested to learn more about Mara’s experiences and her Master’s research, feel free to connect with her through her LinkedIn.
Also check out these resources for students and young professionals, or if you’re considering pursuing higher level conservation education:
- Conservation Master’s degrees
- Top Conservation Careers Advice for Students
- Podcast | How to survive academia (& enjoy it!)
- Do I need a Master’s Degree (to work in Conservation)?
- How to Find the Best Conservation Internships & Volunteering Opportunities
- Top Conservation Internships
- Top Conservation Skills
- TOP US Conservation Organizations
Author Profile | Minttu Hänninen
Minttu is a Master’s graduate of Sustainable Development, with a focus on environmental governance. She loves exploring new places and has experience studying or interning in several countries, but is currently based in the Netherlands. She gets excited about communicating about the environment, and is interning with a non-profit focused on climate communications. She also runs a blog on sustainability science with her friends. She dreams of one day having a rooftop terrace with plenty of colourful flowers and buzzing bees.