Photograph courtesy of Matt Goode
Birthplace: Newcastle, Wyoming
Current City: Tucson, Arizona
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I started out wanting to be an NFL quarterback, but when reality set in, I decided I wanted to be either a writer or a teacher.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I took a job taking care of a captive colony of rattlesnakes at the University of Wyoming. It wasn't long before I switched my major from English to Biology. I was lucky enough to work with a brilliant ecologist named Dave Duvall, and his passion for science wore off on me almost immediately. At first I was interested in the questions more than the animals, but that gradually changed to both a love of science and a love of the incredible organisms with which I work.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to biology?
It mostly boils down to a deep desire of wanting to know just for the good old-fashioned sake of knowing. What is it like to be a snake? That fundamental question has really spawned a lot of hard work and hard thinking. Ultimately, I am inspired to take what I have learned and try to use it to better conserve snakes and other reptiles. I really enjoy combining hard-won natural history, complex ecology, and applied conservation to develop an integrated approach to research and education.
What’s a normal day like for you?
If I'm in my office, I am usually sitting behind my computer working on a manuscript, report, or grant proposal. I spend too much time on administration, but it is a necessary evil. However, when I'm in the field, which is often for a week or more at a time, there is no normal day. Field biologists don't really have a schedule of their own; they have to adapt their work to the activities of their subjects. Snakes in the desert are usually more active at night, so we spend a lot of time in the field after dark. The hours are long, typically 12-16 per day, but it sure beats being in the office! The fieldwork is really why we do what we do.
Do you have a hero?
I don't know if I have heroes, but I have a deep appreciation for smart, talented, hardworking people from all walks of life. I am a huge music fan and I admire a lot of artists, but Richard Thompson and Peter Case are two that come to mind, because they are brilliant songwriters, crafting tunes that speak to the highs and lows that we all go through in life. I also admire really good athletes, especially soccer players like Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, because they are so dedicated to their sport. In the world of herpetology, I look up to many people, such as Harry Greene and Rick Shine, because they are so passionate and creative in their approach to science and education.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
One of my favorite experiences was to implant radio transmitters into king cobras in India and track them through the jungle. They are so different than any other snake species I have ever worked with. They are so charismatic compared to other snakes. They seem to have an intelligence that other snakes do not possess. I'm sure I'm anthropomorphizing, but they way they look at you is definitely different than the blank gaze you get from rattlesnakes for example. As for most challenging, I would have to say tracking over 20 rattlesnakes across the hilly prairies of southern Wyoming, walking over 15 miles per day with winds commonly reaching 60 miles per hour and temperatures hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
What are your other passions?
I'm totally into music. I love all kinds of stuff, from old-fashioned country music to heavy rockabilly and gypsy punk, but I guess I gravitate mostly towards folksy, singer-songwriter stuff. I'm also passionate about beer, but I should probably try to curb my enthusiasm a little more! And my newest passion is handball. I love to play handball and I am lucky enough to live in a town where handball is popular. If I don't get to play handball two to three times per week, I get pretty ornery!
What do you do in your free time?
I spend time with my family, doing all kinds of things. We travel as much as possible, and we like to just hang out and cook or watch a movie. I also go out herping (looking for reptiles) a lot. Even though I essentially do this for a living, I still never get tired of it. We go on long road trips and look for certain kinds of species that live in certain areas. We also do a lot of camping and cooking on the campfire. And of course, I listen to a lot of music and go to shows whenever a good one comes to town.
If you could have people do one thing to help save reptiles what would it be?
I would get them to sit back and watch. I mean really pay attention to just how fascinating these misunderstood animals are. I strongly believe that until you really appreciate and even admire something, you won't be compelled to conserve it. There is plenty to marvel at in snakes! Few animals invoke the range of responses that snakes do, and we need to capitalize on that to aid in their conservation.
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In Their Words
I strongly believe that until you really appreciate and even admire something, you won't be compelled to conserve it. There is plenty to marvel at in snakes!
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Datta explores the conservation challenges facing one of India's last vast tracts of wilderness.