Doris Duke Conservation Scholar: Five Questions with Sasha Pereira
Sasha Pereira graduated in spring 2021 with a degree in zoology and minors in applied ecology and environmental education. Pereira is now working as a fisheries technician in Jackson, Wyoming, where she is studying the role of spring-fed streams in Yellowstone cutthroat trout reproduction.
While at NC State, Pereira participated in the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP), a program for undergraduate students who are passionate about conservation and diversity in the conservation field. As a Doris Duke Scholar, Pereria studied the use of acoustic monitoring to assess fish biodiversity and helped conduct biological monitoring surveys. We reached out to Pereira to learn more about her experience in the program and plans for the future.
What sparked your interest in conservation?
My first job was at Reedy Creek Nature Center in Charlotte, North Carolina during my junior year of high school. My responsibilities included taking care of the resident animal ambassadors at the center, which ranged from a corn snake named Popcorn and an eastern box turtle named Peter to tanks full of snails and darkling beetles. Helping visitors overcome their fear of “creepy crawlies” was both rewarding and entertaining, as I got to hang out with toads and worms on a regular basis.
Since that first formal introduction to wildlife ecology five years ago, my research interests have broadened to include topics like aquatic ecology, community-based conservation, environmental justice, and equity in science and environmental education. I am especially interested in how climate change is impacting interactions between aquatic organisms and their habitats, in addition to how we can use culturally relevant ecology education to engage learners from diverse backgrounds.
One of the most important lessons that I learned as an undergrad is that conservation efforts need the social sciences in order to be successful. I highly recommend that any student in a natural resource major take classes like Diversity and Environmental Justice (CNR 250) and Human Dimensions of Wildlife and Fisheries Management (FW 411).
Why did you choose your major?
I came to NC State as an engineering major because I didn’t realize that I could pursue a career in science outside of engineering and medicine. I actually ended up switching to the zoology major as a result of my first summer internship in the Doris Duke program. I liked the analytical nature of engineering, but a degree that would also allow me to spend time outdoors digging around in the mud and algae to collect data sounded much more appealing.
I decided to major in zoology to get a broad background in the biological sciences, which has helped me develop a strong scientific foundation that will be useful for specialized endeavors like graduate school. I also enjoyed completing my two minors, applied ecology and environmental education, as both of the minor coordinators are fantastic (Dr. Erin McKenney and Dr. Kathryn Stevenson, respectively).
What was your favorite experience as a Doris Duke Scholar?
One of my most memorable experiences as a Doris Duke Scholar occurred when I met my cohort for the first time during Conservation Leadership Week (CLW), which involves a series of activities and field trips based out of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in West Virginia. CLW was the first time I had ever met a large number of fellow environmental enthusiasts from a variety of different backgrounds, and spending time with them was a wonderful experience.
At NCTC, we were introduced to and participated in several common field sampling techniques, such as setting up mist nets to catch and band birds. Trying to put on waders without falling into the deep end of the pond or knocking someone else over was quite a bonding moment. I met many of my best friends through DDCSP, and my cohort remains close to this day, despite most of us having graduated and moved on to other adventures.
What did you learn about diversity in the conservation field during your time in the program?
Diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) are incredibly complex subjects, and sustaining a culture of equitable practices goes far beyond merely making an effort to recruit students from historically excluded groups into environmental fields. Establishing a strong support system for students as they matriculate through college, graduate school and the professional world is crucial to ensure and enhance their success. I can say from personal experience that having the opportunity to discuss rarely-talked-about DEI topics with my Doris Duke cohort, such as navigating cultural pressure to pursue a certain career path and the challenges of incorporating social justice advocacy into scientific endeavors, has been invaluable as I attempt to figure out my own professional aspirations.
The Doris Duke program is one of the few spaces where I have felt comfortable enough and been encouraged to bring every component of my identity to the table; as someone who is biracial, a first-generation American and a person with a disability, it is not lost on me how fortunate I am to work with colleagues and mentors who are so dedicated to fostering inclusivity wherever they go. A large part of that comfort is due to the continuous support of program administrators, including Dr. Rena Borkhataria (national director) and Dr. Zakiya Leggett (NC State campus director). When I first started conducting ecology research, I felt compelled to hide my disability because I was worried that it might be viewed unfavorably by prospective employers. The support of DDCSP increased my confidence about my abilities and qualifications, and last fall I wrote an article for The Fisheries Blog about managing a physical disability while conducting fieldwork.
What are your goals or plans for the future?
At the moment, I am in the process of narrowing the scope of my research interests in anticipation of applying to graduate school within the next few years. I decided to pursue seasonal jobs for the foreseeable future so that I could continue gaining experience working in different sectors on projects that require a diverse array of skillsets. I also want to make sure that I have a solid understanding of why I want to attend graduate school before I apply, given that it is such a big personal and professional investment. Regardless of what my career path ends up being, I would like to mentor and train future ecologists, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, and provide them with the same support and encouragement that I was given through the Doris Duke program.