Seeing STEM: Science career ambassador in a national spotlight

What do you want to be when you grow up …

Do you remember the first time you heard that question? What was your answer and where did you learn about that career?

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge supervisory biologist Kristine (Kris) Inman first found her future in a book she read as a child, a story about a biologist who worked with black bears.

“I hadn’t even realized such a profession existed,” she recalled. “Once I learned of it, I was hooked.”

Kris went on to study biology, joined a bear research team, and later she and her husband co-led a wolverine research project in Montana that studied the large landscape conservation needs of wildlife. She moved to Alaska last year with her family to lead the biology team at the refuge.

Kris remembers a piece of advice from her father that helped keep her motivated in her career path.

“He said, ‘You can be anything you want to be with hard work and determination,’” she recalled. “I want to share that with others and support young people, especially girls interested in science, to know they can if they find themselves in a situation when someone tells them they can’t.”

While still in Montana, Kris joined a national cohort of 125 women promoting visibility and representation of women in science, technology, math and engineering careers through the American Association for the Advancement of Science IF/THEN Ambassador Initiative.

The program has a tagline “If then/She Can,” encouraging young people inspired by an ambassador to see themselves in a future science career.

Mission Unstoppable, a youth-focused Saturday morning CBS program that showcases diverse women as role models for STEM careers, visited Kris this past year to film a short segment as part of her ambassador role. Kris met with the show’s correspondent, Fionnghuala “Fig” O’Reilly, an engineer, actress, model and NASA Datanaut, for a day behind the cameras.

Together, they explored three different methods that biologists at the Kenai refuge use to monitor wildlife populations and trends across the nearly 2 million acre refuge, from a low-tech tape and tube method collecting bog lemming fur for DNA analysis to a high-tech aerial thermal imaging camera.

“One of my favorite aspects of the wildlife profession is thinking outside the box to find new solutions to old problems, and we have a great team of biologists who do just that,” Kris said about the showcased projects.

The episode aired this February, and Kris will interact with the audience again during a live Q&A coming up in April.

“Through outreach like this show, I hope to bring this profession into young girls’ and boys’ living rooms no matter where they are, and maybe a few of them might sit up and say, ‘Wow, there is a job like that!?’ and then pursue it!” Kris said.

Kris recently joined 90 of her fellow STEM ambassadors at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., for an event that unveiled life-sized statues of the ambassadors to kick off the Institute’s Women’s Futures festival during Women’s History Month.

“I was not prepared for the number of people who came to the exhibit,” Kris said. “They were so thrilled to see the real-life people standing beside their statues and asked us lots of questions. I was blown away by how positive, supportive and genuinely interested each person was to know about our careers and to see women recognized for our contributions.”

One young girl stopped to talk with Kris during the exhibit and, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, responded, “I want to be just like you!”

As our communities look ahead to addressing the complex conservation challenges of a changing climate and a growing human population, we will need scientific and technological solutions. We will also need the next generation of conservationists excited and inspired to help the places and wildlife they care about.

Lisa Hupp is a Communications Specialist for the National Wildlife Refuge System in Alaska.

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