Working in penguin conservation with ecologist and wildlife educator Katie Propp
Katie Propp is an ecologist and wildlife educator, currently working as the Conservation Education Director at Penguins International. With 18 years of experience in the field of wildlife conservation, Katie shares her tips and tricks in delivering effective science communication, as well as her advice for landing your very own dream job with wildlife.
From a young age, Katie was captivated by animals, watching shows like Steve Irwin and Animal Planet – and always running around outside catching frogs in the mud. Based in Chicago, Illinois, Katie looked around for local opportunities and headed for her closest zoo, Brookfield Zoo where she signed up as a volunteer.
“So, that’s where I got started. As a volunteer, I stood in front of exhibits with skulls and skins and bio facts, and educated the people that came by – I just loved it so much!”
Katie realised this was something she loved, and through that experience, she was able to meet people that she pictured herself being one day. The opportunity opened up so many doors for her. After working with polar bears in the zoo, Katie was selected as part of the team heading into the Arctic to work with them there.
“And I was like, okay, this is what I’m going to do with my life, conservation and education. And that was my first step in getting into the field”
From that point forward, Katie worked at several different zoos as a zookeeper and then switching more into education: the Columbus Zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo, the Denver Zoo, the Downtown Aquarium in Denver as well as for various clients including SeaWorld, Bush Gardens and non-profits here and there.
“Quite the journey, but it did get started with that passion.”
And what about navigating these shifts in organizations and contracts? Katie has always let the opportunities come and then just gone with it! And, whether it was whilst volunteering or by sparking up a conversation at the wash basins of the ladies bathroom, Katie has been offered some exciting jobs with wildlife, even in some surprising places!
“It’s all about taking those opportunities as they come and not knowing how it’s going to turn out.”
It’s all about being open to people and open to trying new things. Katie explains:
“For a long time, I thought, I want to be a zookeeper, and it wasn’t until I was a zookeeper that I realised, actually it’s the education piece that my heart is more drawn to – teaching not necessarily having to be hands-on with animals.”
Working in penguin conservation
Lots of people (including myself before this conversation!) don’t realise there are 18 species of penguin in the world, all of which live south of the equator. Penguins make incredible sentients as they are closely tied to climate and ocean health and make excellent study species for this reason!
“As meso-predators, they’re right in the middle of that food chain which tells us a lot about the ocean, which is so cool.”
Penguins International was founded in 2017 by David Schutt, who was studying mercury levels in Gentoo Penguins. The organisation is all about raising awareness for the plight of penguins around the world, and raising money to fund important conservation work to support them.
Katie began with Penguins International just before the pandemic began and has been able to connect the dots between what Penguins are threatened by and how we can help them.
“I wear many hats, like many non-profit roles – today I’m a project manager, working on penguin projects we have running, and then the next day I think, how do I work with the scientists and synthesize data? And another day I’m all about fundraising – so there’s never a dull moment in this job! But like I said, it always comes back to the penguins and how are we educating people”
The importance of science communication
Science communication is a critical component of all effective conservation work for wildlife. Katie explains the importance of changing hearts and minds:
“It’s tricky because a lot of people think, I need to be boots on the ground, covered in guano, collecting data in the field to make a difference. But the thing is, the public don’t always know how to interpret data which is why being in the space of communication and education is so important.”
“We can take those scientific concepts and make it something that the general public can understand and then take action on it. Because if people don’t know the stories and know what’s going on, they don’t know how they can help.”
“Conservation often feels like this huge problem on everyone’s shoulders: how can I, as an individual in the middle of the United States, actually help a penguin? And the answer is, you can. There are so many ways you can help a penguin, even if you’re not near one. And it’s learning about them and being educated that’s going to make that connection for people and make a difference”
Communicating these scientific concepts to the movers and shakers of the world, the people in positions of power and the people that are in charge of organizations and companies is also very important for facilitating policy changes to benefit wildlife.
“It’s easy to feel hopeless, but when we talk about it and we work together, we can do something.”
Staying positive for polar conservation
Especially in priority areas for conservation like the Arctic and Antarctic, where models and predictions don’t always share good news, how do we stay positive and motivated? Katie explains:
“It’s all about separating the hardships from the hope. Watching the news each day is going to bog me down. Instead, I try to focus more on those success stories, how many penguins were rehabilitated and released from the oil spill? How many polar bears were they able to track and see where they spent their time? And those upbeat pieces of information”
Although it may seem like a drop in the pond, when we hold onto those sorts of things, we’re able to get excited that yes, we are making an impact, we are making a positive difference.
“Even more importantly, it’s surrounding ourselves with professional friendships and continue to spread that hope to each other and get excited because even though people are the problem, people are also the solution.”
Measuring success in science communication
When we’re thinking about how to measure the effectiveness or success of science communication and outreach, Katie says it all comes back to evaluations and looking at the data.
“A lot of that comes down to surveys, honestly, and having people share their thoughts and making a survey where the questions are so specific that there’s really clear data”
From this engagement and feedback come novel ideas to tackle and develop novel ways to tackle issues in conservation and spread awareness.
For people looking to do science communication really well and make a positive impact, Katie has some tips:
- Build experience
“Put yourself into different types of jobs where you have to communicate things that are maybe a little bit challenging, because you really have to learn quickly on your feet. And a big piece of that too for me was starting theatre and improvisation”
- Find mentors
“That is huge. I grew so much from finding a mentor when I was a zoo teen at the zoo that taught me all sorts of things and I was able to bounce ideas off of them. And to this day, I’ve changed mentors over time, but I always have someone that I can talk to that I can learn from that inspires me and they have a job in something that I want to do.”
Career advice for ecologists
“Yes, it is a tough space to get into.”
Although it’s a highly competitive space to start out in, Katie recommends starting out local:
“The best place to start is by learning about animals near you or getting involved in the local parks systems, zoos, aquariums, museums. Even a farm or veterinary clinic or something like that where you’re starting to handle animals. That’s a good space to get started.”
Working in the world of wildlife conservation is such an important job and it’s so important to follow your passion and persist, even when you feel like you’re losing hope:
“We know there’s not enough of us out here and we could always use more people in this space. So, to the readers here today, I just want to say, don’t give up. Find those mentors, take the opportunities that present themselves because you never know where that journey’s going to take you or how it’s going to end up for you.”
Keep in touch
Want to hear more from Katie? Follow her adventures on Instagram @wildlifekatie or send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Penguins International on Facebook @penguinsintl, Twitter @penguinsintl and Instagram @penguins_international.
Author Profile | Susie Stockwell
Susie Stockwell (she/her) is a field ecologist, science communicator and creator of the blog and podcast, #itsawildlife, a platform to support people on their journey to work their dream job in wildlife science or conservation. Based on beautiful Menang country on the south coast of Western Australia, Susie is passionate about finding novel solutions for wildlife conservation and opening up the space to promote engagement and involvement for everyone interested in pursuing this career.