Friends of wildlife, unite. Our next Women in STEM featured female is SO inspirational and insightful. One BIG thing you should know about Cornia Newsome is her Twitter handle @hood_naturalist
has much purpose and is a message in itself.
Corina didn’t grow up near many outdoor settings, yet she was fascinated with nature when she did have the chance to explore the outdoors. She’s a true example of finding something you’re passionate about, keeping a keen vision throughout, and embracing inspiration as it is sent your way to lift your goals.
Hood Naturalist truly finds a deeper meaning in the perilous journey of bird migration. But, there’s an ironic part—Cornia herself reflects the same tenacity as the feathered friends she studies and is in awe of.
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More urban students need to hear Corina’s story. There’s a massive world, and animal kingdom, out there worth exploring. A role model in the STEM field, this female has grit and some powerful, bird-inspired life lessons to reveal. We’re delighted to share Corina Newsome’s story!
1. When did your interest in STEM begin?
I became interested in science as a young child. I was provided with lots of books and magazines by my parents and grandparents that showcased our planet’s biodiversity. My favorites were National Geographic magazines and wildlife encyclopedias.
2. What’s your educational background?
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I earned my bachelor’s degree in Zoo and Wildlife Biology from Malone University in Canton, Ohio. I am currently completing my master’s degree in Biology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia.
3. Are there any scholarships you earned or applied for throughout your undergraduate and graduate educational journeys?
During my undergraduate career I applied for and accepted an honor’s scholarship associated with enrollment in the honor’s program, which helped with the cost of tuition. As a graduate student I have applied for funding to cover the cost of my research, and have received grants from the Georgia Ornithological Society, Sigma Xi, and the Georgia Southern College of Science and Mathematics.
I also received funding for income in the form of assistantships and scholarships; first from the Georgia Southern Institute for Coastal Plains Science, and then from the Jim Spence Ornithology Scholarship.
When attending graduate school for biology, you often need funding not only to cover tuition, but for covering life expenses and purchasing the equipment needed to complete your research. All of these scholarships and grant sources have provided funding for one of these categories.
4. Why should students be using Fastweb?
I subscribed to Fastweb while I was in college to become aware of scholarship opportunities available to me. I wish that I had thought more seriously about scholarships before attending college, but I encourage everyone to seek them out as early and as often as possible.
Fastweb.com makes it easy to find scholarships for which you are a good fit, but creating a Fastweb profile
also helps to remind you to keep your eyes open for scholarship opportunities, and to keep applying.
5. Have you faced any higher education obstacles?
One of the biggest challenges I have faced, and continue to face, is that I come from a financially precarious living situation. Many of my colleagues do not bear the burden of having no safety net if they are faced with a surprise expense, but such a fear/concern is very real for students like me. Deciding to attend college and graduate school can feel risky for students from a poor economic background because of the financial strain it puts on the student and their families.
Aside from finances, growing up I had never seen black people in the field of wildlife biology at all. Despite loving wildlife and the sciences, I never considered a career with wildlife because I had never seen myself represented.
The only reason I am in my career today is because of an African American woman named Michelle Jamison. She was a zookeeper at the Philadelphia Zoo that reached out to me and introduced me to the career field. After that, I was the only black person in my major as an undergraduate, and I am one of two African American students
in my current graduate-level program.
Being the “only one” can be discouraging at times and can limit the horizon for kids who are trying to decide a career path to pursue. That’s why I try to make myself visible to as many young people of color as possible to demonstrate that this field is for them, too!
6. What’s something else people need to know about you?
Besides being a scientist, I am passionate about getting people from cities into natural spaces to explore the outdoors. I did not have natural areas near my neighborhood as a child, and neither did most of my friends.
After realizing how incredible outdoor exploration is (which I got a taste of as a child when my mom would take us to suburban forests), I try to get city people into nature as often as I can; being connected with and understanding the natural world helps us to be better stewards of our natural resources and brings us joy.
7. Did you have any internships as an undergraduate and/or graduate student? What did you learn from them?
During my undergraduate education I interned at the Philadelphia Zoo during the summers in animal care
and environmental education
. My career field, which started in zookeeping and is now centered around research, required that I have experience before I could be hired after graduating. That meant I needed to intern while I was still in school.
These internships prepared
me for life as an educator and animal keeper after graduating, equipping me with the skills I needed to be successful. Some skills included understanding animal behavior and animal training, how to conduct animal behavior research, understanding the care and nutritional needs of different animals groups (birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, etc.), and how to effectively engage with the public when providing educational experiences.
Getting experience in the field you want to enter is valuable for ALL career fields, making you a competitive applicant when you hit the job market. I encourage you to connect with professionals/organizations in your prospective field to find ways to get experience.
8. What’s your favorite part about being 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 that I get paid to ask and answer important questions about wildlife conservation, explore the natural world, and share it with others. Birds are my favorite group of animals and my research centers around avian conservation. My work as a keeper was also wonderful because I got to work closely with lots of different kinds of animals, over 100 species in total, and get an up-close look at how they function.
The least favorite part of my job as a scientist is that, being from the city, there are some things that still make me uncomfortable about the outdoors. For example, I love animals like insects...but I don’t like being surprised by them. When I am collecting data for my research, sometimes bugs surprise me and cause me some momentary fright. But, I wouldn’t trade my job for the world!
9. In layman’s terms please tell me about your current graduate studies in avian conservation. What’s a typical day like for you?
My research focuses on a bird called the MacGillivray’s Seaside Sparrow, which lives in the coastal saltmarshes of Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida. These saltmarshes are tidal environments, meaning that the water level rises and falls twice a day.
During the nesting season, sometimes Seaside Sparrows experience nest flooding during a high tide that causes their nest to fail. Their response? They build a new nest higher off the ground. However, the higher a nest is from the ground, the more likely it is to be found by a predator (an animal that will eat their eggs or hatchlings).
Nest flooding is expected to increase as climate change causes the sea level to get higher. My research focuses on understanding the nest predation side of this issue, specifically seeking to understand if the threat level for predation is higher in certain parts of their habitat compared to others.
A typical day of research includes looking for Seaside Sparrow nests, placing camera traps (motion-triggered cameras) around the marsh to take pictures of predators, and placing video cameras on nests to record instances of nest predation. I always bring lots of water (because it’s hot, hot, HOT), and keep my ears open for the calls of the Seaside Sparrows to help me find nests.
10. Please tell me one thing you’ve learned from birds? Where can we go to stay up to date on your latest avian conservation studies and work?
I have learned that survival in an ecosystem, like a coastal saltmarsh, takes some SERIOUS adaptation. For example, Seaside Sparrows drink saltwater without getting sick, and their eggs can survive 30 minutes underwater without suffocating (yes, chicks breathe through the shell while they are developing in the egg)!
I have learned that species that live on the coast, whether on land or in the ocean, can be affected by the chemicals we put in the water—even hundreds of miles inland. I encourage people to be careful about what they put into their local water sources because it will end up impacting both the water they need to survive, and the water used by animals far away on the coast.
If you want to stay up to date on my research and explorations, feel free to follow me on Twitter
11. Who was the most influential STEM role model for you?
My most influential role model is the woman who introduced me to this field, Michelle Jamison. She was the lead Carnivore Keeper at the Philadelphia Zoo (America’s first zoo)
and was so kind to me.
She took me behind the scenes of her work, showed me all that goes into caring for and conserving wild animals as a keeper, introduced me to people who could serve as helpful connections in the future, and ALWAYS checked in with me even after I completed my internships.
I owe the work I have done in this field to her diligence in exposing me, a Philadelphia city girl to a field that I knew absolutely nothing about.
12. Why does the world need more women scientists?
In order for any group of people to solve problems, there needs to be as many perspectives represented at the table as possible, and the people at the table should represent the people in the community it serves—this most DEFINITELY applies to science!
Science is tasked with answering some of life's most important questions; questions about survival, about making human life more sustainable on this planet, curing ailments, learning about the natural world, building new technologies...
Additionally, women have historically been excluded from this kind of work. The more women we have working in the field of science, the more girls and young women will be able to envision themselves as scientists one day.
13. Looking back, what would you tell yourself as a high school senior?
I originally wanted to be a veterinarian because that was the only animal career with which I was familiar. So, I volunteered as a veterinary assistant for five years (until the summer before my senior year) in order to make that happen. Then, one day I nearly passed out during a surgery and realized immediately that I had to figure out a new path.
I would tell my high-school-senior self that I was about to have a MASSIVE change of plans; plans that would scare me when I was confronted with them, but that I would love it more than I loved my original plans. YOU GOT IT, GIRL!
14. What advice do you have for a young female pursuing a STEM career?
I would encourage her to seek mentors in her desired field—and, if possible— to find a mentor that reminds her of herself. This way she can find someone who can not only provide her professional guidance, but also provide support and advice when/if faced with challenges related to experiences specific to her identity.
15. From your perspective, how does our nation get more women into STEM fields?
There needs to be intentional culture changes at the workplace level that eliminate hostile, aversive environments for women. Furthermore, I think that the women who are already in the field need to be more rigorously highlighted and portrayed to younger generations.
For example, if you are an educator or textbook editor: Use pictures of women scientists, especially women of color, in your presentations and book chapters. Every opportunity you have to portray scientists to students or people—especially young people—be intentional about finding scientists who are women.
16. Are there any STEM causes or organizations you’re passionate about?
I am passionate about any organization that eliminates barriers unique to students of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds trying to enter a STEM field, and connects young people from marginalized communities with scientists, especially scientists of color.
The Greening Youth Foundation
is an organization that exposes youth from under-represented demographics in science to careers in conservation, and engages both youth and adults in environmental education opportunities. They provide funding for students to complete internships that are necessary to enter the field but would otherwise be unpaid, and fund professional development opportunities.
Skype A Scientist
is an e-learning organization that I am deeply passionate about (and I sit on its board of directors)! This organization provides opportunities for classrooms, families, and the general public to have Q & A sessions with all kinds of scientists, ranging from wildlife biology to artificial intelligence.
This allows students to learn science directly from the source, in an experience that they typically would not have in the classroom. It also helps build trust between the general public and the scientific community. Trust that we desperately need in these times.
17. What’s something about biology that fascinates you or gives you goosebumps?
The most fascinating phenomenon in biology is bird migration. It definitely gives me goosebumps. In the U.S., we see birds small and large make mind-blowingly long migrations from South America to North America and back every year.
For example, Ruby-throated hummingbirds, which weigh 0.1 ounces, will fly 500 miles over the Gulf of Mexico!!!! It takes about 20 hours non-stop!!!! THAT’S INCREDIBLE! The thing that can be concerning about this part of their natural history is that they not only need healthy habitat in North America, but in every habitat between North America and their wintering grounds in South America. It takes coordination between countries and continents to make sure that migratory birds can survive.
18. Tell me about an inspirational piece you recently read.
I recently read a book entitled: “Season on the Wind: Inside the world of spring migration”
by Kenn Kauffman. He eloquently explains the process of spring migration and the science behind it, but he doesn’t stop there.
He poetically describes the emotional experience of anticipating spring migration, paying close attention as it’s happening, and longing for the cycle to repeat itself once it’s over. He put words to feelings that I have often struggled to express. It’s a great read for both longtime birders and people who have never watched a bird in their life.
19. What do female scientists do in their free time?
I am a person who grew up surrounded by the performing arts, so in my free time I play piano and dance to some of my favorite music! But, of course, women are diverse in their interests, and I know plenty who participate in a wide variety of activities!
20. Just for fun, if you were stranded on an island alone what are three items you must have and why?
1. Binoculars, so I can see all the birds.
2. Water. I’ll get thirsty watching the birds.
3. Tacos from Taqueria San Luis (my favorite taco place in the entire world, located in Nashville, TN).
21. Do you have any pets?
YES, I DO AND I AM SO GLAD YOU ASKED! I have a 10-month old fluffy orange kitten who I adopted from the Humane Society in Savannah, Georgia. He is a very unique cat, mostly because he LOVES to play fetch. Like, every day—all the time.
And guess what? I named him San Luis.
22. What’s one not-so-science life lesson studying birds has taught you?
Birds have taught me to have hope. They are some of the most fragile vertebrate creatures (animals with backbones) on this planet. They have hollow bones, delicate lungs, and weigh very little (even larger birds tend to weigh a lot less than you might guess).
But, despite this fragility they accomplish what I believe to be the most incredible physical feat in nature: migration. Anytime I feel fragile, weak, or discouraged, I look at the small bird outside my window that has endured a journey so physically taxing that you would never guess it was capable of, and I am reminded that I, too, am capable.
23. What was the best part of being an Ambassador Animal keeper at the Nashville Zoo? What was the most challenging?
The best part about being a keeper was that I got to work with a wide variety of species, ranging from small invertebrates like spiders and hissing cockroaches, to birds like parrots and hawks, to mammals like sloths and porcupines, and even large carnivores like leopards and other large cats. But what topped it all off was that I was able to share my excitement about these animals with the general public through education and encourage them to participate in wildlife conservation.
A challenging but even more fun and exciting part of my work was animal training. Training animals requires that you build trust with a creature that has no way of understanding your words, just your behavior. To effectively build trust you have to learn the personality of each individual you are training.
For example: What is their favorite food?
Use it so that they associate you with good snacks. What are the things that startle them?
Be careful not to carelessly do those behaviors in their presence. These personalities/preferences vary not only between species but between individuals within a species, just as they do between human beings.
24. An explorer of the natural world, what’s the best-kept-secret place to go camping or to trek the outdoors?
I would have to say that southern Georgia has much more natural space than I anticipated, especially on the coast. There are long stretches of undeveloped beaches where the forest runs all the way up to the sand next to the ocean.
There is one beach on Jekyll Island called Driftwood Beach
which has hundreds of dead trees strewn across the sand. It kind of feels like the elephant graveyard from the Lion King movie, except not scary! You can find so many different species of birds, insects, and reptiles on the coast. I love it!
Are you (or do you know) a female pursuing a STEM career?
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