Lauren Esposito Ph.D, 34
Curator of Arachnology, The California Academy of Sciences
I am an evolutionary biologist, so without Darwin my career wouldn’t exist as an option. One of the things that I respect most about him was that he published his ideas even though he knew that it would mean being rejected by society at that time. He was a rebel… with wanderlust. I think for a lot of people who are interested in biology the only career option seems like medical school (which Darwin originally attended but found it was so boring that he was a terrible student). I was a pre-med student as well before I discovered field work.
My junior year of college (at the University of Texas at El Paso) I took a “Field Biology” class. During the class we had to come up with a research project to do at the seashore in Puerto Penasco, Mexico. My project was counting the “handedness” of Fiddler crabs. I spent a week digging up crabs and counting how many of them were right or left handed. After the course I had this conversation with the professor where I told him I wasn’t sure what I should do after college (I had planned to go to med school). He said “You love the field, why don’t you be a field biologist.” I had never realized until that point that this was an option!
There are actually a ton of women in science, particularly biology. In fact, the number of females PhD students in biology is greater than the number of male students. The problem is that there is systematic bias in the sciences against women. A couple of years ago there was this study where researchers gave scientists 2 identical CVs of a fictional man and a fictional woman. They asked male and female scientists to rate the “applicants” and give them a starting salary. Across the board, regardless of their own gender, scientists rated the females as being weaker candidates and gave them lower salaries.
The Cal Academy is definitely my dream job. Actually about a year before I got the position, I had become so jaded with the Academic system that I decided to leave and start an non-profit so that I could have a bigger impact on the world and still be able to do science, independently of the system. Then this position opened. There are like 4 dedicated arachnology positions in the country, and they are basically for-life kind of jobs. That means they only open when someone retires. Well, someone retired, the position opened and I knew I had to go for it. So after a crazy 6-month application process I was pretty shocked when I got the call. I brought on board with me one of my closest colleagues and an amazing spider biologist/ naturalist extraordinaire, Sarah Crews. Now I pretty much get to hang out with her all day, working on grant proposals to fund our research, discussing ideas, planning expeditions to search for new or interesting species. We also spend some time working with the awesome folks here to figure out how best to get the stories of our research and discoveries out to the public. It feels very special to be in a place that values both science and education, but also doing both of those things in untraditional ways.
Islands & Seas is the non-profit that I founded with a good friend, Eric Stiner. We’d had enough of the ivory tower of traditional science and we felt like we had a personal responsibility to do more. Our idea is to build a network of field stations that can stimulate research in special places but also educate the local community so help them develop sustainably. This is kind of a win-win scenario where researchers can benefit from local knowledge and contribute data back that can be used in community and government decisions about conservation priorities. In a sense, we want to connect local communities with resources to understand what they have in their backyard and how they can grow sustainably, and we want to connect scientific experts with local communities who intimately know and understand the area they are living in, in ways that facilitate scientific research.