Four-time Emmy-nominated ecologist, television personality, author and Bren School of Environmental Science and Management researcher Rae Wynn-Grant spoke at the Pacific View Room at UC Santa Barbara on April 23. There, she divulged her journey of becoming a renowned researcher and advocate for diversity within the environmental education sphere.

Wynn-Grant emphasized the need for more minority representation in science, as a Black woman who grew up without seeing her reflection in her mentors and her field as a whole. Her recently published book, “Wild Life: Finding My Purpose in an Untamed World,” discusses her journey following her childhood dreams to become a wildlife ecologist.

Although she grew up in the urban jungle of Cincinnati, Ohio, Wynn-Grant had a fascination with nature from a young age. Early on, she knew she wanted to hold a job similar to the white male explorers on popularized nature television shows. Wynn-Grant reflected on the lack of diversity in the natural spaces she observed on television as a child.

“It was those shows that showed me wild animals and the people who work with them because I had no idea that there were jobs or careers in wildlife ecology,” Wynn-Grant said. “So all those British and Australian middle-aged white guys were absolutely my heroes and still are, many of them. But they were so different.” 

Despite the boundaries set by the lack of representation, she continued to pursue her passion for environmental science in her young adulthood. Unsure what to major in at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, she decided to try to pursue environmental science in the hopes that it would give her insight into becoming a nature host.

“In that department, I kind of realized, you know what, there’s more to this nature show host thing, you know. It’s cool to be on TV and to, you know, be able to communicate that science, but this is a mission-critical field,” Wynn-Grant said. “I learned there’s a lot of environmental challenges going on and these people can train me to be a solution maker.”

During an immersive study abroad program in rural Kenya, Wynn-Grant received news of Hurricane Katrina and the mismanagement of the natural disaster that led to the deaths of many people of color. The news led her to the realization that social justice was something she needed to fight for, regardless of where she was in the world or the work she was doing.

“I’m always going to have to do both and infuse both of these things together: ecology and wildlife conservation with social justice and empowerment of communities that are facing marginalization,” Wynn-Grant said.

While abroad in Kenya, Wynn-Grant witnessed instances of young poachers being arrested for the illegal hunting of giraffes. After their arrests, Wynn-Grant described watching Indigenous women of the Maasai tribe come to collect the giraffe meat for food. Watching this unfold, she realized that the issue at hand was how the lack of resources in Black communities contributes to wildlife crimes.

Wynn-Grant walked the audience through the socioeconomic complexity of poaching, sharing her initial ignorance of the “highly racialized economic inequality across Africa, where one person’s life can be snuffed out.”

Expanding her point, she revealed, “my science background had trained me to only see the wildlife problem and stay blind to the needs of nearby villages.” This experience, which she described as a “whiplash moment,” helped Wynn-Grant merge her scientific work with social studies, giving her an interdisciplinary perspective as a wildlife ecologist. 

Throughout her career, Wynn-Grant was determined to diversify fields in which she often did not see her own reflection. At a previous office job, many of her coworkers turned a blind eye to a march for Black lives when they had been supportive of a previously held Women’s March. She decided to take a stance.

“I remember standing up in a staff meeting and saying, ‘Okay, here’s what’s going to change,’” Wynn-Grant recalled. “‘If we as a community support science … that means we have to support scientists, and scientists are women, black, brown, any kind of racial group, from the LGBTQ+ community and immigrants because we are all intersectional people that come from different places. You don’t just get to support science in a vacuum.’”

Highlighting people of color has been a recent theme in her work, including one of her major projects, a podcast called “Going Wild” with the Public Broadcasting Service. It features an array of accomplished BIPOC wildlife ecologists and shares their most interesting stories about their experiences working in the field. 

“In seasons 2 and 3 the entirety of guests featured were BIPOC,” she stated.

In addition to this, Wynn-Grant stressed the need to allocate more resources to engage low-income communities in the field of science, especially in the face of a warming climate and socio-economic change. 

Wynn-Grant continues to advocate for diversity in science and the exposure of low-income communities to research and mental health resources. Reflecting on her experiences in the scientific community, Wynn-Grant acknowledges that there has been a positive shift in the conversation. 

“I talked about painful moments that have come up in my life and in my career, but there’s also a lot of emerging discussions that are happening and that are healing,” Wynn-Grant said.