For a scientist and mom, successful conservation takes a village

A small child in a green coat looks at pebbles on a gray beach with grasses in the background

I’m 33 weeks pregnant and traveling with my toddler to Savoonga on Sivuqaw/St. Lawrence Island in Alaska to study seabirds—my last trip before I am forbidden to travel. Despite enlisting a fellow mom scientist and her son to basically do everything for me on this journey, helping my toddler navigate potty training is not something I can offload onto anyone else. “I’m pooping!!” my two-and-a-half-year-old exuberantly informs me for the third time in the past hour. I sigh, load her back into her backpack carrier, and begin another slow trek across the Anchorage Airport to the nearest restroom, which is inexplicably far away (or at least, today it seems far). 

It’s mid-July and we’re traveling over 600 miles to the village of Savoonga on Sivuqaq/St. Lawrence Island in Alaska to set up seasonal auklet monitoring that will help us evaluate the health of the Bering Sea ecosystem. Balancing childcare and work, I’ve brought my toddler Toryn and “Snickerdoodle” whose occupation of my uterus comes with a lot of reminders to slow down. Dr. Adrian Gall, a fellow mom scientist, is accompanying me from Fairbanks. She worked on Sivuqaq/St. Lawrence Island auklets for her master's research in the 2000s and also has children in tow: her 13-year-old son Gavin, whose previous visit to the island was while she was still pregnant with him.

Dr. Adrian Gall and Savoonga Field Lead Trevor Niksik put up the mist-net to sample auklets. I am safely outside of the boulders and decidedly not paying too much attention, trusting they will figure it out.

Sivuqaq/St. Lawrence Island Alaska in the summer.

To be clear, I am not an epic mom-scientist doing it all. Most days I feel like I am failing at pretty much every important part of my life. Did I exercise my dog today? No. Could I have responded more productively to Toryn spitting in the house? Yes. When will I actually finish those revisions on the proposal that I wanted to complete three months ago? Who knows. The list goes on. It is very long.

In fact, to make anything happen in my life—work or otherwise—remotely resembling “epic” takes a lot of support, which got me thinking about how this small trip encapsulated the commitment, trust, relationships, and the sheer number of people that are required to make conservation happen. To do this trip totally on my own, pregnant, with a toddler in tow, would’ve been impossible and medically inadvisable. But with Adrian and our connections in Savoonga, the reality was that this trip was relatively easy. I love Savoonga, Adrian loves Savoonga, and she has deep ties with people there from her graduate school days. I know I am safe there. My toddler is safe. If something were to happen, we’d be looked after. This trip was only possible because of a community: a support network that includes a village, colleagues, co-workers, and family members, chipping in in large and small ways so that this weeklong visit to set up ecosystem monitoring in a rapidly changing part of our world could happen.

Don’t be fooled by this shot! It took so much support to get here. Toryn checks off her daily nap while waiting for auklets. A (clean) bird bag and towel help keep off the sun and tiny rock bugs as she snoozes.

This is what conservation actually is: many people, from many different places, contributing at the level they can to get the job done. We’re meeting people where they are, accepting their values, making space for their priorities, and working together. Sometimes that means going to the beach with your kid and eating make-believe dishes comprised entirely of sand while one family has a bonfire nearby and another checks on their fish net. It is showing up, caring, and being there year after year. It is not glamorous, and certainly not epic. Maybe successful conservation is actually made up of a lot of small moments, some awkward, some uncomfortable, some funny, some challenging, and some worth treasuring. And, of course, there’s bound to be at least one trip to the bathroom along the way.

Dr. Alexis Will is a Marine Biologist for WWF US's Arctic Program where she works with local and global partners on area-based conservation. She lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and enjoys skiing with her dog and getting her (now two) kids outside as much as possible. Osar was born in late August and is a healthy baby full of humor and a solid dash of mischief.