Career Planning

Laura Kojima: Fearless Latina Herpetologist, Alligator Scientist

Female professionals, in particular women of color, are historically underrepresented in the STEM fields. Laura's changing the script.

Shawna Newman

September 01, 2020

A fierce Latina scientist, Laura is also a powerlifter, artist, snake-removal pro and alligator whisperer. Hear her thrilling story and let her fortitude inspire you! #LatinainSTEM #WomeninSTEM
Laura Kojima:  Fearless Latina Herpetologist, Alligator Scientist
Cast your anxieties aside; Ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) and Herpetophobia (fear of reptiles) have no place in this fierce female’s story! We’re thrilled at the happenstance of our next Women in STEM feature. Here’s why: Laura Kojima is a Latina scientist. Beginning September 15 through October 15, the U.S. will be celebrating National Hispanic Heritage month. It’s the perfect time to highlight scientific work and to share her strong female character. Laura, a wildlife conservation biologist is currently working on her graduate degree at the University of Georgia. She should absolutely be considered a heroine to Hispanic-American students. Especially the female youth aspiring to a college education and future STEM career. We’re going to jump right in here: People eat gator, or more commonly referred to as alligator. It’s not an uncommon dish to see on local menus in the American southeast. If you have not had alligator, it DOES taste a lot like chicken. Food and Wine supports this comparison in a chef-inspired article. Currently Laura’s research relates to people eating gator and the levels of mercury within their systems. Mercury poisoning is a real thing. She’s combining her Herpetofauna passion with her scientific mind to ensure safety and balance within our, the homo sapiens, ecosystem. Female professionals, in particular women of color, are historically underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that only 6% of Hispanic employed adults make up the U.S. STEM workforce. Laura, similar to the other females in our Women in STEM series, is an outlier working to shatter this glum statistic. When did your interest in STEM begin? My interest in STEM started at a young age with a general passion for animal science. I came from a low-income household and did not have much outdoor exposure to the natural world until high school and college; my interest in STEM was definitely a product of self-exposure. Shows like Zoboomafoo on PBS and The Crocodile Hunter really sparked my passion for wildlife. However, I never knew there was an opportunity to pursue a career with animals outside of veterinary sciences or zoo caretaking. So, I stuck with the idea of pursuing a vet degree with an occasional off and on career change. It was not until I transferred from community college to University of California-Davis that I was 100% certain I wanted to pursue a career in STEM in conservation-based research. Please share your educational background. I have my Bachelor of Science in Wildlife and Conservation biology from UC-Davis. I am currently pursuing a Master of Science in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development at the University of Georgia. Are there any other scholarships you earned or applied for throughout your undergraduate and graduate educational journeys? How did these/this help you? I did receive financial assistance during undergrad, but in an unconventional manner. My dad is a Navy veteran and we are from California where he enlisted. The state of California grants dependents of veterans who enlisted in California a “Cal Vet Fee Waiver.” Which, as titled, is a tuition-fee waiver for any in-state public university or college as long as the veteran meets certain requirements. The waiver covered the cost of my tuition throughout my undergraduate career which was so helpful; I feel so fortunate to not have had to worry about the financial burden that often comes with getting a college degree. As for my Master’s, my research project is grant funded—this covers about 95% of my tuition and fees. Tell me about you past experiences with Fastweb.com. Why should students be using Fastweb? Fastweb is so awesome for budgeting your college experience. I wish I looked more into scholarships during my time as an undergrad student. I highly encourage anyone in higher education to apply for scholarships, especially through Fastweb. It is easy to use and super practical for deciding where to go to college. My favorite part of the website is the list of the different colleges and universities by state. This part of the website will breakdown tuition costs and list different scholarships per university. I’d recommend Fastweb to any student due to its accessibility and resourcefulness! Please tell me about any higher education obstacles you may have faced. The number one obstacle for me in higher education is the lack of representation. I must preface that I am very fortunate that I had phenomenal professors in my department in undergrad who were welcoming, un-biased, and super helpful with guiding me to advance my career. All these amazing people, however, were white men. I had one female professor during my time as an undergraduate student, and she was also white. These people deserve all their accomplishments and more, I would never want to downplay that. The reality is, it’s intimidating being part of a completely new field of study without having the option to have a mentor that comes from a similar background as you. There definitely needs to be some work done to fix that! Besides being a leading female scientist, what’s something else about you’d like for people to know about you? I am really interested in reptiles and amphibians, and I am really passionate about desensitizing people to this stigma that they are gross or scary, especially when it comes to snakes. I offer free snake removal services in my neighborhood and more times than not the person tells me they would have killed the snake if I was not available to relocate it. I try to explain and educate the value of snakes when in circumstances like that and hope that seeing me handle non-venomous snakes without being bitten shows that these animals are not a threat at all. Did you have any internships as an undergraduate and/or graduate student? What did you learn from them? I had a few veterinary internships my first year at UC-Davis, one which I worked with an exotic-animal veterinarian. This is when I discovered my passion for reptiles and amphibians. Eventually, I decided to focus on the research side and had an internship working with Western Pond Turtles in the lab of Dr. Brian Todd - my university’s herpetology lab. I worked with a Ph.D. student looking at the physiological consequences of rising water salinity on this turtle species; this project resulted in my first publication too! The project taught me so many valuable skills in the field of conservation biology. I had a balance of field work, animal husbandry, and lab work when I processed our biological samples. It was the perfect gateway for developing my research interests and how I wanted to be involved in science. Never be too shy to put yourself out there. Learning to network is such a crucial skill that will get you far in life. If there is an opportunity you are interested in pursuing, go for it. If there is a professor whose research interests you, let them know. You will be surprised at the opportunities that arise when you put yourself out there! What would you tell your high-school self as you were preparing to go to college? Apply for scholarships! Even though I did not have to worry about tuition, I regret not being more proactive about applying for scholarships to supplement other costs such as housing and textbooks. What are three, grad-student tips?
  1. Imposter syndrome will happen, but it is temporary.
  2. You are in graduate school for a reason. If your advisors and colleagues can see it, then you should too.
  3. Manage your time!
  4. Develop time management and organizational skills before you even start. Get a planner and write EVERYTHING out. Set daily goals for yourself. It will make a world of difference.
  5. It is okay to have a day off.
Academia tends to be a world of working 24/7 and feeling guilty for experiencing any off time. Train yourself out of that guilt (I still am working on it), you need time for you so you don’t burn out and your work is the best it can be. The breaks will pay off in the end. What’s your favorite part about begin a scientist? What do you love the most about your job? What’s your least favorite part? My favorite part about being a scientist is the field work. I feel so incredibly grateful for being able to be outdoors to collect my data. I have worked with aquatic reptiles and it is such a blast canoeing, kayaking, driving a boat, and just getting wet while doing my work! And of course, getting to interact with my favorite animals is a total plus. My least favorite part is the bugs; aquatic bugs are very annoying (sorry, entomology people). In layman’s terms please tell me about your current graduate studies with alligators. What’s a typical day like for you? My research is looking at the public-consumption risk associated with alligators on the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. Alligators on this site have been reported to harbor high levels of mercury. I am investigating the frequency which they move off of the SRS–via GPS tracking– into public hunting grounds on the Savannah River and vice versa. We are assessing their mercury loads by collecting biological data such as blood, tail scutes (the ridges on the back of the tail), and tail muscle via a punch biopsy. Tail is the most commonly consumed part of the alligator. I am excited that we found a non-lethal and minimally invasive way to assess contaminant loads in the tail! A typical field day for me is going out on the water in the afternoon with a technician and activating my alligator traps. I use baited traps (gators love raw chicken). After the traps are set, I wait until an hour after sunset to go back and check them. We try to avoid leaving our traps longer than nine hours because alligators are territorial animals; they will bully fellow trapped alligator. Once it is time to check the traps, I go out with my advisors and our team of four and look for animals in the night. If an animal meets my criteria for receiving a GPS tag, we will safely attach one to the animal prior to release. I end my night by processing and storing my biological data in our lab...and later, going home to get loads of sleep. What’s one thing you’ve learned from amphibians and reptiles—something humankind should know and appreciate? Where can we go to stay up to date on your latest herpetology studies? Herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) are so incredibly crucial to their ecosystems and it’s such a shame people will go out of their way to kill them. Snakes in particular are an amazing form of pest control. I think they are just deeply misunderstood and that is more at fault of society negatively stigmatizing these animals in literature and in the media. There’s this common misconception that reptiles don’t have feelings and that is far from the truth. I have three pet snakes and they know me. Anyone who has seen them with me and tries to handle them will tell you they act different with me than with them. The same goes for my brother and his three pet lizards. They act more comfortable with him than they do with me. This has nothing to do with my level of comfort around the animal because, I am very comfortable with his lizards. To check out my latest work, visit my Twitter and Instagram pages! Who is/was your most influential STEM role model? Why? I feel like this is everyone in my field’s answer, but Steve Irwin for sure. I appreciate how he exposed the general public to “scary” animals and was part of this movement to desensitize people from reptiles. So many herpetologists are where they are at in life today because of him and Terri Irwin. It is always the biggest compliment when people tell me I am the Latina Steve Irwin. Why does the world need more women scientists? Science needs more perspectives or else discovery, and insight will be limited. Science needs more diverse perspectives and viewpoints, and by having more women in STEM fields that can be accomplished. Looking back, what would you tell yourself as a high school senior and/or college senior? I would tell myself as a high school senior always trust your gut. Just because science was hard in high school, do not doubt your capabilities as a scientist in the future. From your perspective, how does our nation get more women into STEM fields? More representation in the media! The internet and social media are so ingrained in everyday life and impacts decisions people make. We need more easy-to-find, visual representation in STEM fields so that young women everywhere have role models to guide them towards paths they may feel discouraged to pursue otherwise. Are there any STEM causes/organizations you’re passionate about? I really love Partners in Reptiles and Amphibians (PARC). They are a free group that is inclusive and accessible. They have resources for job and academic opportunities specifically in herpetofauna conservation and they offer grants, and you don’t have to pay for a membership which is usually unheard of! What’s one thing that fascinates you about biology? What gives you goosebumps/concerns you? I am so fascinated by the unknown and the fact that there is so much we will never know about. It is so eerie, but neat to me that biology will always go beyond our understanding. The fact that humans have made such incredible discoveries thus far is amazing in itself. Tell me about an inspirational piece you were recently found. What was it and why did it touch you? This is unrelated to STEM, but Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention was very inspirational to me. Our country needs to do better and can do better. I will keep it at that. Please vote! What’s one thing you prefer to do in your free time? I really love exercising, in particular powerlifting. I love the idea of being a strong woman. When it is time to completely relax, I enjoy drawing and painting. No surprise, I tend to focus towards herpetofauna. Just for fun, if you have the chance to time travel to anyplace/decade for one day where and when you go? What would you do? I would want to go to a day in 1984 to see the Victory Tour by Michael Jackson and the Jacksons. The Thriller album is hands down one of my favorite albums ever and to see it performed lived would be mind-blowing. Do you have any pets? If so, tell us about them. I have three snakes and a Saint Bernard. My Saint Bernard (Nala) is the most wonderful animal ever and she knows it. She is in California with my family and I miss her every day. My snakes are great and super easy pets. They are also in California being taken care of by my best friend. What’s one not-so-science life lesson studying alligators has taught you? Never let your guard down! September - October is National Hispanic Heritage month; You use the #LatinainSTEM in your Twitter profile. What do Hispanic females with dreams of studying in the STEM fields need to know? STEM is for EVERYONE! Never let anyone tell you otherwise. I have been so fortunate to have such a strong family, friend, and academic support system throughout my journey in STEM and I know this is not the case for everyone, but never doubt yourself regardless of your situation. A lot of our families came to the U.S. so that their children and grandchildren can have the freedom to choose and pursue the field of their dreams. That is my driving factor when pursuing my dreams. ¡No te olvides que sí, se puede! Don’t forget that yes you can! An explorer of the natural world, what’s the best National Park you’ve been to? The best National Park I have been to is the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. I went here on a trip to the Big Island with my younger brother and we were both in awe by the geology and the physical biology at this park. We were able to adventure within and outside the volcano; the juxtaposition of tropical vegetation and wildlife, to dark fascinating geological structures was truly a gift to witness.

Are you, or do you know, a female working towards a career in the STEM field?

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