How WEC Works: Diane Episcopio
Diane is a WEC master’s student, studying the exotic pet trade and invasive species in Florida. She has gathered qualitative data by interviewing stakeholders, and quantitative data through an online survey of the general public’s opinions about the pet trade and actions that could be taken to manage it. Her adviser is Dr. Elizabeth Pienaar.
You’re studying the exotic pet trade and invasive species- is your focus on amphibians and reptiles?
It started out with them, especially as a focus of the stakeholder interviews. There is a wide variety of exotic pets, all with lots of different issues and opinions held about them, so we had to pick a subset. The public surveys were more general, and covered views on all kinds of exotic pets.
When did you know you wanted to work in ecology? Is there an origin story?
That’s so interesting. I always really enjoyed animals and wildlife, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized I could make a career out of it. As a kid, I saw Steve Irwin on TV, but I knew I wasn’t going on TV, so I didn’t know how else to do it.
I’m from New Jersey, and it wasn’t until I moved to Florida, started studying biology at Valencia, and came up to visit UF, that I realized there is actually a big spectrum of careers in this field.
What’s one word that describes how you work?
Do you have a go-to tool?
Other people! Especially my adviser, but also my lab mate, who recently got her PhD. I really respect her work, so a lot of times I’ll ask her to read over things or for advice. Also, my counterpart in my master’s program. We’re in the same place, but I’ll ask her to read things over and make sure they make sense to her, and not just me, since I did the research.
What’s your favorite organism you’ve studied and why?
Since I’m doing human dimensions, I have to say humans. I think they’re the most surprising animals. You could study a different organism, and would get some anomalies, but you can talk to two humans with exactly the same background, and get two completely different opinions from them. I think they’re pretty interesting!
What’s an unexpected experience you’ve had because of your work?
I was genuinely surprised by how many people in my surveys and interviews were supportive and thankful when I explained my research to them.
At the end of the survey, you have a little comment section, and most people don’t fill in the comments, but every now and then I would get a comment saying, “Thanks for the work you are doing, this is a huge problem,” or “Thanks for the work you’re doing, I didn’t know this was a problem and now I am going to do more research on it.” It was a cool experience, because I have a counterpart who is studying coyotes and public opinion on them, and she has unfortunately gotten some negative feedback from people. I’m grateful that the people I’m contacting, whether the public or stakeholders, are appreciative of the work that I, and we at UF, are doing. That’s always nice, and something I didn’t expect. I was all geared up for negative feedback.
How do you manage your time?
I LOVE lists. I’m totally a list person. I’m one of those people who put things they’ve already done on a list, just so I can check it off.
I do that!
It’s so satisfying!
So lists. I have three things, really.
I use lists for daily tasks, I have a planner for my school work, and I use my phone calendar for actual meetings and events with specific dates and times.
How do you balance work with your personal life?
I am really lucky, because my husband has a variable schedule as well. He has a food truck, so he doesn’t have a regular 9-5 schedule.
It works because we can mold our own schedules. If I know he works Saturday, Sunday, and is off Monday, I’ll work through the weekend and take Monday off, too.
It’s a planned balancing of time.
I’m lucky in human dimensions because, other than timing for releasing surveys, I don’t have the pressures common to ecology students of needing to be in the field for “these three months” from 5 AM to 1 PM. So I think that the nature of my research helps, too.
What do you like about living in Gainesville?
I like that there is stuff to do, but it’s not a huge city. I lived in Orlando, so I that’s my comparison. Everything was a 30 minute drive, it was all built up, and there wasn’t a place to escape the concrete. I like that there is a lot of nature stuff to do here. There are a lot of places to go out to dinner, or a movie, or you can go for a nice walk. Sometimes I drive to all the springs around here.
There’s a lot to do without it being too “big city”.
Have you got any wildlife jokes?
I used to work on the safari at Animal Kingdom. I was always afraid to say this one on the truck, because I was afraid people wouldn’t respond and it would fall flat.
The joke was:
How do you tell the difference between a male and a female lion?
The lioness is a strong, independent woman and she don’t need no mane!
What are you currently reading?
I’m actually reading two books!
One is Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick. I’d really love to work with elephants someday, so it’s a fascinating book about Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s career in conservation, love life, and work raising orphan wildlife in Africa, including elephants.
The other is Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Peterson. People would probably label it a “feminist” book, but it’s a really fascinating look at how society often labels women who have similar qualities that are celebrated in strong men, and label them unruly.
If you could call yourself back when you started undergrad, what advice would you give?
I think I spent too much time early on, waffling over what to study, and what classes to take. Having that experience, I would go back and give myself guidance, pushing myself in the right direction, now that I know what I want.
At the same time, everything that I did do, pushed me to the path that I’m on now, so I’d be hesitant to change it. So my answer is, basically, nothing.
Maybe I would say not to stress as much. There were classes I took that left me in tears, but now they don’t really matter. So, I would tell myself not to stress as much.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
My counterpart in the Pienaar lab, Kelley Anderson.
Also Cat Frock. I worked for her as a field technician before starting my master’s.
Another one from my lab is Elena Rubino. I love what her research is on: rhinos and the rhino horn trade. It’s fascinating.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell people?
I feel defensive of the human dimensions subset of wildlife research. I really want to emphasize the importance of the human dimensions of wildlife conservation, especially nowadays.
Ecologists do amazing work, but it could all be for nothing if we don’t get the public on board with what our research tells us, so I think that it’s a critical component of wildlife conservation that people can sometimes overlook.
This interview by Rhett Barker, and lightly edited by Rhett Barker and Claire Williams for clarity.
Thanks to Diane Episcopio for sitting down with us!