Meagan Bethel Discusses Her Project On Big Cats

Friday, September 04, 2015
Woman Notebook Working Girl

Q) Tell us about how you became interested in big cats?

A) I was born in a zoo. Or at least that’s what I like to tell people. My sister was the first Junior Intern for the Jane Goodall Institute, so we spent weekends observing primates. Hour after hour, I would watch her documenting new vocalizations. I guess I learned something because when I was three years old I was looking out my window and I announced to my family that I was going out to do my “dob-ster-ba-tions.” Using my zebra-print clipboard, I went out to tally what I saw.  Ever the intrepid explorer, I bravely ventured out alone and stayed out in the Arizona heat for a grand total of ten minutes. When I went back inside, I proudly showed “My a-sults” (results). I had made two columns and carefully tallied three “Brds” and two “Bgs” on my rumpled paper.  That was the moment my career was born.

As I grew, so too, did my observations skills grow. My first actual research project was on tigers when I was in Kindergarten. Rather than venturing out into the jungles as I so dearly wished at the age of five, however, I started in a local zoo.  What followed was years of big cat study. Although stifled by my lack of funds and the adults who said I was too young to test my skills in the wilds, I traveled to zoos throughout the state, observing and documenting so I would be ready when my time came. It was then that I found my real test of courage, talking to adults to gain information, access and permission. I am introverted and talking to others often makes me very uncomfortable. But the reward for overcoming that fear first occurred when I was twelve, one of the Siberian tigers at our local zoo mysteriously died.  Zoo officials requested and used my yearlong observation records as part of their investigation. They said my records might help save the other tiger. It was then that I really got that a little bit of interest can pay off in a big way for a species that cannot speak for itself. 

Q) If there were one thing you could predict about the future of science, what would it be?

A) The future of science will not exist if we do not protect our own future, and that begins with protecting our planet. We are waging war on our own home right now. That has to stop. Science has to, and I predict will, focus on making Earth a place where all species can live safely and ultimately thrive. I predict science will increasingly reveal convincing, incontrovertible facts about global warming and climate change, as they simultaneously document the vast number of species that are disappearing forever. Together, that data will motivate the need for research and changes in daily practice. The way we go about our business both in our homes and in industry will then convince even the most avid doubters and policy makers that we require science to come up with sustainable solutions, and fast. I am looking forward to that day.

Q) If there were one thing you could have in the classroom that you don’t currently, what would it be?

A) This year, I am working in a lab at the University of Arizona, analyzing the mitochondrial DNA of big cats. I hope to be able to determine the travel patterns of several species as they cross the border from Mexico into the US so I can see the effects of the border wall. If I could have anything in a classroom, it would be for the high school lab, and it would be some of the centrifuges, hoods and equipment they have in the UA lab. I know we could do a lot of the work that would help speed things along in protecting species while learning skills that would help us in our future, even at the high school level.

Q) Tell us about your favorite teacher, how have they supported or inspired you?

A) Dr. Margaret Wilch is the Research Methods and Biotechnology teacher at my school. Although we are an inner-city Title I public school with over 2,000 students, she has had award-winning students at the international level for fifteen years straight. And it is all because she believes that high schools students can and will do real research. She prepares us by helping us to find an area of science that we are already passionate about and then by teaching us the steps of the scientific method so we can complete a research project in that area. She connects us to labs throughout the University of Arizona campus and then monitors us to make sure we are following through on our commitments. But more importantly she demonstrates a curiosity about everything, especially as it relates to the environment. And she does this year after year. As a result, we all grow into real scientists, and begin our careers in high school. She has changed lives, helping students to earn scholarships that pay their way through college. One of her students, and a friend of mine, was going to sell used cars for a living. Now he is studying neuroscience at Harvard Med School, instead. The University of Arizona awarded her an honorary doctorate last year for the number of students she sent to them that went on to do great research. I hope to be one of them.

Q) How has the NSHSS Foundation enabled you to further your passion with big cats through receiving the Earth Day Award?

NSHSS Foundation kept my dreams alive and further fired my passion.  It helped me answer the question I am often asked - what is the impact of losing just a species or two? I learned that after all the copper has been leached out of a mine, only the tailings remain, once we have encroached on a species enough to eradicate them, the biodiversity never totally recovers.  If one species is sacrificed, where do we draw the line? The Earth Day award will let me continue to collect data in Southern Arizona until I feel that the other species on our planet are adequately protected. Volunteering for a cause is not always easy but this award showed it is worth it. I remember one summer-Saturday when the alarm rang. All I wanted was to cover my head. I got up and limped down trail the, sweat through my shirt, and prayed for one miserable cloud to appear in the sky. And between the groans, I’ve grown. I learned we accomplish our goals one “yes” at a time. From volunteering, I learned tracking, GIS mapping and research techniques, been selected to attend three International Science competitions, and traveled to China and Australia. And more importantly, I learned that sometimes people listen to younger people in a way, and at a time, when they would not hear that very same information from an adult. This award is evidence that others believe in the power of young people, as well.

Q) What is a key learning you had from your travels with People to People Ambassador and Confucius Classroom Project?

A) When I received my first passport at the age of four, I thought the best thing that could ever happen would be having all of the pages filled up with pretty colored stamps someday. Turns out, I was wrong. The best thing that could happen already has. I learned to love travel. Each trip I take makes me want to earn one more. Every place I go, I learn something that I would never have learned staying at home.  The adventure of meeting new people and trying new things is addicting. Tasting new foods is great (I had kangaroo and crocodile in Australia and you don’t even want to know what I ate in China.) Breaching the language barrier is exhilarating as well. Last year, I bartered with a young scientist from Qatar who spoke no English. We laughed our way through a tough trade of a country flag for a precious pin - I think we both felt like we emerged the winner. But learning what a culture values, from the smallest tradition taught by a grandmother in a distant province in China, to finding out about the role that native aborigine tribes play in a modern Australia, helped me discover we are more alike than we are different. My key learning is that this Earth is a smaller planet than we could ever imagine, and traveling helps to make it even smaller.

Q) What is your fondest or memory related to your research, thus far?

A) Last year, a copper mine was proposed where an endangered species new to Arizona, the ocelot, was sighted. Protecting species starts with documenting their presence and establishing a critical habitat. My cameras could do that! This meant getting to mountains several hours away and traveling over the worst roads imaginable. I hiked another hour to get to all four cameras often in blazing,112 degree Arizona heat. Sometimes I found wolf spiders residing inside. Once home, I analyzed photos, entering each into the data-base each month. I used GIS mapping to establish a critical habitat for ocelots, which is the first step in ensuring their protection. Although all of this was hard work and not so fun, the end result was. I am proud to say that my work contributed to the fact that the mine is now on hold and there is evidence for establishing critical habitat for the ocelots and jaguar now. That memory will last me a lifetime.

Q) Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A) In ten years, I hope to be the person I am now, believing in causes and playing a small role in making them happen. Those who would look in on me now would think that I am highly confident, having won so many awards and traveled so many places across the globe because of my research and interests, but that is not true. I am actually as shy and reclusive as many of the species I observe and protect. But I speak out nonetheless. I can do no less since I have a voice and they do not. And so I use it on their behalf.  It makes it easier for me when I think of that. There are many things I do a bit hesitantly, but I do them, because it is right.  I was not anxious to work in a lab this year, much preferring fieldwork where I can be on my own. However, being a part of a research team learning DNA analysis helped me learn the many steps that are required once I bring samples back. I am humbled.  If my life speaks for me, then it also speaks for the animals I protect. Although we both prefer to remain silent, we will be heard when we need to be. And our time is now. I see myself continuing being a champion for other species, using my knowledge of research protocols and experience in the field at a young age to fuel my passion, as I grow richer in skills and experiences. So in ten years, go for a hike. If you hear a rustling in the bushes, it may be me you see there, watching some species that is endangered, or about to be.

Q) What do you plan to study in college?

A) I plan to attend the University of Arizona, where I will major in Conservation Biology. I will continue my research out in the field throughout the year and each summer. I hope to continue working in the Conservation Genetics Lab with Melanie Culver at the UA, where I am just finishing a research project, now.  I will continue on to a Master of Science and then take a break to gain additional experience in the field before returning for a doctorate. The more education I can obtain, the more respect I may be able to earn from those who can make a difference in forming policy and legislation to protect the species we all will miss when they are gone and it is too late.

Q) What do you hope for this year’s incoming Freshman class?

A) I hope this year’s incoming class will walk out their front door and actually observe nature more. We ALL need to go outside!  When was the last time any of us went for a hike instead of talking about going on one? Did we look up at the clouds today? Or stop to watch what was flying by?  Our Freshman need to drag their friends away from their video games and cell phones for a bit. It is time to see what we are fighting for – not just theoretically – but in reality. My advice is to schedule an hour a week just for this purpose.  Students should discover what activities excite them to the point that they will not only push harder to achieve in that area, but continue it long-term. When a student finds the thing that they love to do, it is no longer work. It becomes fun. The endorphins fire and we willingly take off! No one has to encourage us to put down the technology.  And since friends are what can make or break success in school, it is important to find out what is fun or inspiring to do outside with friends.

Q) Outside of your research, what has been your favorite / most enjoyable aspect of high school?

A) While in high school, I have really enjoyed two clubs that I belong to – Yoga Club and Ecology-Farm Club. In yoga, I learned all about what burns within me, and how to release some of that fire. I enjoyed doing the poses right alongside many of my teachers who are also in the club. It was a great way to get to know them as real people. I also enjoyed working in the dirt right next to them as well in Farm Club. We call it Ecology Club but we all know the real truth. We are farmers that one-day a week, nurturing our babies and seeing them to fruition. Since my graduation class has over 730 students, it is a time that I can slow down and get to see my fellow students and teachers in a whole new way.

Q) What do you do to stay organized / focused?

A) I have a pretty busy schedule. I ride horses and clean corrals three days a week, do martial arts three days a week, act at the historic theater three times a week and volunteer in a lab at least once a week, as well as do my clubs. I don’t really keep a detailed schedule, but I do write the important things I am afraid I will forget to take down on a white board in my room. It is positioned near my door so I see it as I leave. I trust my brain will remember the things that I need to do. If it doesn’t then I stop to wonder if I should be doing them.

Q) How do you relax? What’s your favorite hobby?

A) I do several things in order to relax. The first is my art. I mentioned previously that I was born observing. And I think the result of that was wanting to get what I was seeing and imagining on paper so I would not forget it. The minute I get home I grab my sketch book and begin to draw. In addition, I love to act. I perform at a local historic outdoor theater and that brings out the other side of my brain. The actors there are fun and don’t take themselves so seriously. It is a nice change of pace and something I have done for 15 years now. And finally, I study Tae Kwon Do. I am testing for my brown belt and this one activity helped me to find my strength and my peace, simultaneously. While tiring me out, it also makes me stronger so I can do great work both mentally and physically the next day and long-term.

About Meagan Bethel, Tucson High Magnet School, 2015 graduate, Tucson, AZ

Meagan Bethel first developed a love for science and the environment when given an assignment to research tigers in Kindergarten. She has now become a Citizen Scientist with Sky Island Alliance. After learning that a copper mine would possibly be placed where ocelots, an endangered species, had been seen, Meagan set up remote sensing cameras and later proved the area to be a critical habit for ocelots. Meagan is now researching the travel patterns of big cats as they migrate from Mexico into the United States.

Meagan has received an array of awards including First Place SARSEF Finalist at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. She has also traveled abroad multiple times via programs such as People to People Ambassador and Confucius Classroom Project. Meagan has participated in track and field and she has been in multiple theatrical, music, and dance productions. She has also been featured in both the local and state media numerous times.