Women Who Wild: Elizabeth Babcock

From visionary CEOs like Rose Marcario to space-walking NOAA administrators like Kathryn Sullivan, American women have recently taken on leadership roles in the outdoors that extend the upward reach of gender equality while contributing towards a more sustainable future. At Hipcamp, we definitely dig our women leaders (currently crushin’ it with a female CEO, Head of Land, and Content Manager), and are always stoked to hear about other women who are helping to deepen our connection to the natural world.

In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we decided to feature an interview with one of our local heroes, who holds the dual titles of Chief Public Engagement Officer and Dean of Education at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Elizabeth Babcock, PhD, oversees both the Academy’s educational programming (from school visits to teacher workshops) and their engagement and outreach efforts (from special events to iPhone apps), which is a big deal to the tune of a million-and-half visitors a year! Her career has spanned education, user experience design, academic research, and museum partnerships, so we were very lucky to get some of her time.

Hipcamp: Here at Hipcamp, we’re constantly exploring new ways to connect recreational camping to meaningful conservation initiatives. What are opportunities for growth that you see in that field?

Elizabeth: The first one that comes to mind is citizen science. How powerful would it be to mobilize everybody who’s camping across the whole country to help us document the biodiversity that lives on our planet? The Academy has an app called iNaturalist. It’s a really easy-to-use app where you can go outside and document what’s living where you are. You take a photo of a plant or an animal and it gets uploaded to an international database of species observations. Let’s say you’re out there, taking a hike while you’re camping, and you come across a plant that you’ve never seen before. You can take a photo, request help from the online community of other iNaturalist users, and they’ll just tell you what that thing is. And you’re contributing to a science database that scientists use to understand how habitats are changing over time, why certain species are now in places they’ve never been before, or why species are missing from places where they used to be.

That’s one example of citizen science, but there are so many citizen science projects that people can do with other groups too; Cornell Lab of Ornithology has bird ones, NASA has ones on cloud cover and climate change. Any kind of topic you’re interested in, there’s a citizen science project you can do while you’re camping!

HC: While we’re on the topic, are there any other Academy apps we should know about?

EB: Science Today, it’s free, and we publish a couple of science stories a week. They’re all cool video based stories on hundreds and hundreds of topics. You can watch our penguins 24/7 on Pocket Penguins, and we also have a shark cam that you can watch for sharks and rays!

Photo by Travis Perkins, Big Bend National Park, TX

HC: Electronic search and discovery platforms have gone from nonexistent to hyper-diverse over the course of just your career. So how have they changed the work that you do in public research institutions?

EB: They totally transformed how you do education. Before, it was not easy to make it feel real for a person about where they physically were on the planet. Now, using all kinds of cool tools, not only can you actually literally locate someone with the exact coordinates of where they are on the planet, but you can help them understand questions of scale, like “how big am I compared to other things?” or “how big is my city or neighborhood compared to other things?” You can show them things like species distribution maps, of where certain kinds of plants or animals live and how that’s changed over time.

That totally changes how we think about learning. No longer is it hard and laborious to find out just facts or information; what’s more important is how are we making sense of these new tools like data visualization or these discovery platforms, where you have access to data in a way you didn’t before. It’s a totally exciting moment, but you have to change teachers how to leverage that. Particularly we’re interested in this question around how to use digital media for environmental learning. iNaturalist is one example—here’s a tool that can help a kid understand what that thing is they’re looking at. You can turn your phone into all kinds of devices. Your phone can be a Ph meter, it can be a microscope, it can be an ultraviolet light source, you can turn your phone into all kinds of inquiry tools… it also tells you where you are!

HC: As someone who spent time in both the Field Museum and the Academy here, we feel like you might have something to say about female researchers and policy makers. So how has the landscape changed for women pursuing careers in science and science policy over your time?

EB: I would say that the awareness that diversity is an important component of the scientific community has gone up so much in my lifetime. It’s not just morally and ethically the right thing to do to be more inclusive, but also you’re missing half the population’s smarts if you don’t include women. So it doesn’t make sense from a business perspective to not have a representative point of view.

We’ve also learned more since I’ve been in my career about the importance of getting girls and people of color earlier in the pipeline. You can’t just get high school kids all of a sudden to decide they’re going to go and major in science, it really starts more in middle school. I feel proud because I know in my work we’ve been able to specifically focus on that: at the Academy, we have a careers in science internship program, specifically targeting young people who are underrepresented in the sciences. These are paid internships that are 3 years long for girls and boys, but we usually end up with at least 60% of our interns as females. And that’s so fulfilling, because we see them then go on to go and succeed in college and then major in STEM.

The other thing I’ll mention though: It’s not enough getting women into those positions, but it’s also about the support system that’s put in place in organizations to ensure that they succeed. Sometimes they succeeded fine in getting there, but then what’s it like to be in that situation? Do they have a cohort, do they feel like they’re constantly having to explain themselves or interpret what they’re saying, do they feel like there’s subtle discrimination? That cohort and that connectedness and having allies that are supporting you in that work is really key.

Another difference: as I’ve come up in my career, is that you used to not really want to talk about how you had kids and a family, because you could really get zinged on what assignments you got. So as a leader in charge of a big team, I really try to make that okay, and let people know. I’ll tell them: “you know what, I’m taking the day off because my kid has their concert and I don’t want to miss it.” Not only is that true, but I also am trying to set an example that it’s okay to make those kinds of choices.

HC: Are there any influential women that you looked up to when you were younger?

EB: Yeah, I used to read books about the Shark Lady, Eugenie Clark. She was an early ichthyologist who studied sharks and I loved reading about her adventures and what she discovered. I also used to read about Mary and Louis Leaky and their discoveries of our early hominid ancestors.

As far as women leaders, I like to read historical accounts of women rulers, the ways that they manage the politics of situations. I’ve always been fascinated by Queen Elizabeth the First (the 1500’s one), because she ruled for a really long time and she really had a rocky start, and she had not the most clear cut claim to that throne to be honest and then she did that thing to her sister… anyway, I’ve read a lot of books about her.

I had graduate advisors that I really admired for my PhD. Carol Greenhouse, Susan Sutton, were two of my mentors, both of whom were just wonderful. I had a very nice committee for my graduate work: it was very diverse and they had different opinions about stuff, but I felt that I had people I could look up to.

Photo by Jacqueline Tanzella, Yosemite National Park, CA

HC: For young women who are inspired to follow a career path in science or policy, do you have any pieces of advice for them?

EB: I totally have some advice for these young women, and I’m a pragmatist so these are pragmatic words of advice.

Number one, if you decide to go and get a graduate degree, what you want to be thinking about is the realistic nature of how many professor jobs there are… and aren’t. Realize that there are many more exciting careers of things you can do with an advanced degree in science that may be just as fulfilling and interesting and may also pay you more. As you’re going into grad school, have that in mind, and along the way get some contract jobs that are not academic in nature, so that at the end of your PhD you have a CV that’s rich with not just academic experiences but applied experiences. That made all the difference for me. I knew when I started that I probably wasn’t going to go into academia, so I got contract jobs along the way, and that made a huge difference in terms of the jobs I was able to get later.

The other advice I’d have for young women is don’t give up, because it’s hard work going through grad school. Life sometimes gets in there and you might end up juggling lots of different things like a full time job and graduate classes and a baby and family obligations… don’t give up, persist through it, even if you have to take a break for a little bit. Don’t give up because that advanced degree actually can open some doors, so work creatively with your employers. I was able to get the use of absences for two of my employers to finish my PhD, because I was working full time. They were really generous—I mean they were unpaid leaves—but when you’re doing an unpaid leave of absence you’re highly motivated to finish your project!

That’s the other thing young women should do: keep track of your network. So, whether you do it on Linkedin or some application that you like better, keep track of your network, leverage your network, when you meet someone, get their card, send them a follow-up email saying how nice it was to meet them, you never know when they’re going to be useful later.

HC: Do you have any favorite places to hike or camp in California?

EB: Because I’m an anthropologist, I like to hike and camp places where there’s this weird mix of natural space with cultural history, so to be honest one of my favorite spaces is Land’s End right here in SF. The view’s amazing, you get a sense of where you are in the entire bay, and you also see the cultural history of how SF has changed; there used to be a railroad right along the trail!

I also have a thing about the Redwood forests. There’s just nothing quite like that sense of silence and majesty and the smell, and the sort of sense of mystery, like you’re gonna discover something cool and unique. I really like taking my kids hiking in the Redwoods, it’s just a different place. I grew up in Indiana and Texas, where the forests are just different. Redwoods are just majestic and quiet but you feel like they’re so alive. I do like the Avenue of the Giants… that’s pretty impressive. You can drive along there and they just keep going and going, and it’s so quiet!

HC: Finally, any Academy events we should know about?

EB: 47 times a year we do NightLife, and we have a different theme for every one of them… surfing, Yuri’s night, zombie night, beer night… we’ll probably have a camping night soon for all I know!

Feeling inspired by Elizabeth’s perspective? It might have something to do with the phenomenal organization she works for, and there are endless opportunities to get involved there. For the stories of other science heroes at the Academy (if you’re trying to giving your kids some more role models), you can check out their biographies and follow their journeys on social media. And don’t worry, Hipcamp is publishing an interview a week in honor of Women’s History Month to keep the run-the-world vibes going strong.

Finally, for Redwood camping near the Bay (Elizabeth’s favorite), here are a few sites to test out your iNaturalist app on.

Hipcamp Staff

Hipcamp is an online marketplace where you can list, discover, and book campsites and accommodations on private and public land. Hipcamp is your go-to guide to getting outside. If you’re a landowner, Hipcamp creates new revenue streams for your business, which can help conserve your land and keep it wild. #FindYourselfOutside #LeaveItBetter

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