Ladies, gentlemen, and all snakeaholics, welcome once again to the Snakeman’s Lair. Joining us today will be Tyus D. Williams, a young ecologist from the United States whose work and activism I have been following for a while on social media. Not only does he work on exciting research about the ecology of large carnivores, but he also makes use of his science communication platforms to raise awareness and educate people about the sadly still rampant discrimination scientists of color face in academia and beyond. I myself have learned a lot from Tyus’s efforts, which prompted me to reach out to him for this interview. Without further ado, I will now leave the floor to Tyus himself- let’s get things started!
Hi Tyus, thank you for joining us in the Lair today! Let’s go all the way back to the very beginning: how did your passion for nature and wildlife arise?
I’m essentially the anomaly in my family. I was simply born like this without any predecessor to influence the most natural parts of my being and I honestly wouldn’t change it. My parents could just tell that I was different and instead of stifling my interests in wildlife they supported me and told me to soar. One of my major role models growing up was Jeff Corwin and he had a tremendous impact on my life because I didn’t grow up with anyone to show me the natural world but watching his shows taught me a lot about this wonderful planet we live on.
If you had to pinpoint the most significant steps and/or experiences that brought you where you are now (from an academic perspective), which ones would you choose?
That’s a good question and one I feel many should address in their success, “the journey of becoming a scientist”. I would say my effort to get involved in anything I could to gain research experience led me to where I am today. My first research experience was assisting with salamander mark-recapture in the mountains of North Carolina, and I just remember being out in the field at night collecting specimens for data collection thinking how much fun I was having and that a career in research was something I truly desired.
Over the course of your scientific career, you have worked on the ecology of a wide array of creatures- from salamanders to jaguars. In your experience, is animal ecology a “one-size-fits-all” discipline or did you have to radically change your approach and methods from one species to another?
This is an important topic because there is this issue specifically in the field of wildlife where different taxa are shielded from each other and if you don’t have experience with a specific taxon then it’s extremely difficult to get a job in that group which is absurd. It’s not a “one-size-fits-all” discipline at all because skills are diverse, but rather than assessing if an applicant has worked with a particular species we should be reviewing if the skills they have are transferrable and complimentary to the specific job, that’s what we should be focusing on. My skills revolve around herpetology and mammalogy so that’s what most of my work involves.
You are currently doing research on carnivore ecology, specifically regarding big cats. What makes it so essential to understand how these animals interact with the ecosystem they live in, from a conservation point of view?
Big cats, and carnivores in general, are cardinal to a healthy ecosystem because of a couple prominent reasons. One is that they are apex predators or keystone species in some circumstances and their presence within an ecosystem changes the way other animals behave (predator avoidance strategies) so they have a vital role balancing the ecology of an area and the populations of prey items. The other is that many carnivores are elusive and on the conservation level just on movement patterns understanding how they move throughout a terrain can allow us to determine extant habitat corridors for that species which can tell you about the condition of the landscape and the severity of conservation that might be needed to protect those corridors.
On top of your strictly academic work, you are also a passionate and appreciated science communicator- featuring in the likes of National Geographic as an Explorer as well as managing multiple scicomm accounts on social media. What made you realize the importance of science communication, and how do you think academia in general could step up in this regard?
In our modern society we cannot engage in transformative and ground-breaking scientific endeavours if we don’t implement a more strenuous effort of science communication and disseminate the knowledge we have on a public level. While science in many events historically has been barraged by contrarian idealism and theocratic orders, it’s still elitist in many ways. We have to change this precedent in our field.
Another cause you have consistently promoted in your scientific efforts is representation in academia. As a Black scientist, how did race-related factors affect your upbringing and academic formation?
I’m fortunate that I come from a family of high education, almost all of my grandparents went to college and the value of knowledge and higher education was always inherent to my family and I think that influenced me in many ways. At the same time growing up a young black scientist my parents reminded that I would have to work twice as hard as others and my intellect alone wouldn’t be enough to carry me in this world. You have to have grit, tenacity, and perseverance to push through the adversities that are laid before you in life. These values bestowed on me shaped my character in a tremendous way to always give it my all and never give up on my dreams. Our journey is unique to us and nobody else can make the trek for us!
What are the main factors behind such a dramatic underrepresentation of people of color in science?
This is a big question but one that requires acknowledgement. From racial disparities, socioeconomic wealth gaps, Jim Crow era, redlining, racial atrocities, gentrification, marginalization, judicial corruption, and disenfranchisement, underrepresentation is not only inherent to the history of our country but also tied within the cultural, political, and economic means of our society. People of color are suffering from a lack of representation on the social level but we also have a lack of investment limiting our ability to have domain over how we mobilize to uplift ourselves. Ethnic minorities are still heavily reliant upon white institutions and elite academics to reach down and give us a chance when we should be able to consult, collaborate, and give back to our own community, but we can’t do that because we seldomly occupy positions of power to exact that course of change.
As we speak, multiple initiatives spearheaded by POC scientists in recent times are trying to tackle the issue of discrimination in academia- including environmental sciences. How can we all contribute to their success and to social justice in research in general?
The most important thing anyone can do is to actively practice anti-racism efforts. It’s not enough to just be an ally and be inclusive- we need action and a change in behaviour that results in consistent advocacy and initiatives to create change. Moreover, it’s crucial that people listen and actively engage in the conversation, don’t ask to be lectured unless you plan to take action and take the conversation to those who need to hear it. We have to call out racism and reform the structure of academic environments to create a hospitable space for those who are in fact underrepresented. Lastly, another big one is investing in BIPOC industries which is a powerful way for organizations to invest in their own communities and liberate themselves.
As essential as individual action is, racism in our society is largely systemic. What do you think is most needed right now to change the very framework academia was built upon, rooted in disparities and unequal access to opportunities?
I think the most powerful thing that would revolutionize the way minorities have to navigate academia would be a complete reformation of educational institutions and the personnel who occupy those positions of power. They need to step down and allow more progressive and inclusive leaders to take over because large-scale change doesn’t happen at the faculty level- it occurs on a system scale.
How to conclude our interview better than with a look to the future- what are your aspirations and dreams for your research career and for social justice in science?
My aspirations for my research career would be to continue my passion studying carnivore ecology looking at wild cats as a primary focus and maybe somewhere down the line have my own tv show which would be really fun it’s always been a dream of mine. For social justice, I hope to see more domain given to black people in science so that we have agency over our lives as scientists. I want to see larger collaboration between BIPOC in academia and witness the formation of predominantly Black ecology labs, Latinx ecology labs, and so much more where our diversity is celebrated but we ourselves foster an environment where we can all thrive.
Thank you for this interview Tyus- we all wish you nothing but the best for your career and outreach efforts to promote equality in science. As for us, we will be back here in the Snakeman’s Lair soon with another amazing guest. Stay tuned!