Name: Gail Westcot
Company: Mary Kahrs Warnell Forest Education Center, Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources of the University of Georgia
Alma Mater: Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture and Stephen F. Austin State University
1. What made you decide your career path?
I never intended to make a career out of natural resource education. In fact, if you had told me when I was in high school this is what I would be doing, I would have laughed because I was always terrified of public speaking! This career path did not actually come to me until I was in graduate school conducting research on bats. During my field work mist-netting bats at state parks, I would hold public education programs on bats for visitors to the parks. Watching people go from being scared of bats to enthusiastic bat supporters over the course of an evening was extremely gratifying. I also had the opportunity to teach undergraduate genetics and ornithology laboratories as a graduate teaching assistant where I discovered that I really enjoyed the entire process of teaching from preparing lectures and laboratories to tutoring students after class. These experiences made me realize that educating others was what I wanted to do for my career.
2. What has been the most surprising thing you have learned or experienced within your industry or career?
One of the most surprising things that I have experienced over my career is a distinct change in how children react to being outdoors in nature. When I first started teaching children at the Mary Kahrs Warnell Forest Education Center 17 years ago, I only rarely encountered a child who did not like to sit on the ground or touch the soil. Today, I will have entire classes of elementary-aged children who look at me like I am a crazy person when I ask them to sit on the ground or get their hands dirty. Students today seem to be more apprehensive of nature than they were in the past. I think this is because kids simply do not spend as much time playing unsupervised outdoors as they did a decade ago. I view this a both a challenge and an opportunity to provide today’s students with positive outdoor experiences in the forest that they will, hopefully, carry with them throughout their lives.
3. What do you feel is important for women landowners to know about?
I feel it is important for all landowners, women included, to know about the wide variety of professional resources available to assist them with their land management goals. Whether it is federal agencies like the Natural Resource Conservation Service or state agencies such as the Georgia Forestry Commission or the Georgia Department of Natural Resources or private organizations such as the Longleaf Alliance, there are numerous professionals that are available to help landowners make sound decisions as they manage their lands.
4. What is the biggest challenge you think women natural resource professionals face?
I think that the paucity of other women in the workplace is a significant challenge for women in natural resources. Not only can it be difficult to be the only female present in an office or at a conference but the lack of women in the workplace also hurts the recruitment of other women to the profession.
5. What would you say to encourage other women to pursue a career in natural resources?
I spend a lot of time working with elementary, middle, and high school students and I have found that young women who love animals and the outdoors always say they want to be a veterinarian because they have no clue that careers like being a wildlife biologist or forester or soil scientist exist. So, the first step to encouraging young women to pursue a career in natural resources is educating them about all the awesome career opportunities that are out there. The next step is finding ways to keep them interested in STEM-related fields as they go through high school. Encouraging girls to participate in extra-curricular activities like FFA, Girl Scouts, or 4-H is so important because these types of experiences are what will keep them interested in science as a career.
6. What is your biggest attribute that has allowed you to be successful in your field?
One of the most difficult things about being a natural resource educator is having to be able to effectively communicate scientific knowledge to such a wide range of audiences. On any given day, I may teach second graders about the mammals of Georgia in the morning and then teach middle or high school students how to measure trees in the afternoon. Or I may present a program on tree identification to a group of homeschool students that range in age from pre-kindergarten to adults. And during a program, it may start to rain or we may see a snake or a daddy long-legs that captures the interest of the students. I have to be able to adapt my teaching style to meet the needs of a wide variety of audiences under constantly changing conditions as well as be able to take advantage of random teachable moments. I guess I would call this attribute, for lack of a better word, flexibility.
7. What is your favorite quote?
“Fears are educated into us and can, if we wish, be educated out.” -Karl A. Merringer
I use this quote at the beginning of every live snake program that I conduct. It is a great way of getting people to think about why they may be afraid of snakes as well as getting them to realize that they can overcome their fears.
8. What is your favorite memory, from your career, to date?
I had the opportunity to attend an International Educator’s Institute at the World Forestry Center in Portland, Oregon where I spent a week with a dozen other environmental educators from around the world. I met some amazing and wonderful people from places like Brazil, Australia, Palestine, and China and discovered that, no matter where we were from, we all faced the same challenges in our careers. In addition, we took field trips to Mt. Saint Helens and Multnomah Falls which was very special to me because I spent my elementary school years in San Jose, California and had visited those places when I was a child. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to go back and experience them again as an adult.