By Shannah Cumberbatch
In July, I was invited to meet with the Environmental Justice Academy of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum on two separate occasions.At the start of the second week of the program, I greeted the academy students at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens where we engaged in hands-on activities. The group was split in two with half completing pond-dipping surveys and the other half using microscopes and interacting with skeletons activities. The students were encouraged to search for and ID both macro and micro invertebrates in the ponds using nets and microscopes, then the groups switched after about 30 minutes. Among the animals identified that day were dragonfly larvae, water beetles, snails, tadpoles, shrimp, and more. Microscopes were used to look at cross-sections of lotus petals, grasses, leaves, and water droplet samples for microinvertebrates. The students were determined to find a “water bear” which is another name for a tardigrade, a microinvertebrate commonly found in freshwater (no luck). Following the exercises, I answered questions about animal life cycles, skeletal structures, insects, amphibians, and more. There was a snapping turtle skull that stumped quite a few students and even some of the educators, but it was a learning opportunity for all involved. My background in wildlife biology and passion for conservation provided the right type of connection for these high school students to be able to hear from a woman who may be in a field they want to enter.
Later that week, I was invited to speak on a panel discussion at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where students visited the “Our Places: Connecting People and Nature” exhibit which explores our human connection to accessibility in green spaces and what that looks like to different people. The exhibit features the voices of the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens among many other local non-profit organizations. During the panel discussion, I was able to share my early career path and how I landed my job with the Friends in addition to how many times my career path changed from high school to college and my early work experiences. My background as a wildlife biologist and willingness to take on various jobs added to my stories of struggle and success when working in the environmental field, one where I was often the only black person in the room. I described how much I struggled with chemistry in college and how that coupled with the astronomical cost of veterinary school made me change the life path I had set since childhood. I felt lost, but a mammalogy course and a study abroad trip to the Amazon Rainforest changed all of that. I encouraged the students to go easy on themselves because they’re young and the paths they have set for themselves may not be where life leads them. There is nothing wrong with changing careers or shifting interests, especially in college. That’s what those years are for! I finished with “you will be alright” to reassure the students that everything will be okay as long as you stay true to yourself.