Rae Wynn-Grant tracks lions through the Tanzanian savanna and bears across North American forests. But as the only African-American female large carnivore ecologist in the world—and the mother of a four-year-old daughter—the Nat Geo fellow has a unique perspective on getting girls and kids of color excited about STEM. She talked to Nat Geo Family about her experience as a black woman in science, why diversity in STEM is so important, and how to get children excited about learning.
NAT GEO FAMILY: What made you want to become a wildlife biologist?
RAE WYNN-GRANT: My family didn’t have a TV but my grandparents did, so I’d go to their house and watch a lot of nature shows. I was captivated by the wild animals. I’d watch these white British guys walking through the jungle with all this knowledge about the animals, and I thought, “I want to be a nature show host when I grow up.” I had no idea until I was a little older that I was being introduced to science.
NGF: And that’s when you decided what you wanted to do?
RWG: Yes, but I wasn’t sure if I could be a wildlife biologist. I didn’t get very good grades in math and science, and I really struggled with self-esteem growing up. What I needed was some encouragement and self-confidence, but I wasn’t always getting that in the public school districts I attended, in California and Virginia. I think that’s a problem for a lot of kids of color, as well as girls.
NGF: You were accepted to Emory University in Atlanta and ended up being the first African American to major in its environmental sciences program. What was that like?
RWG: Honestly it was an uncomfortable adjustment. Emory University is actually pretty diverse, so on campus I didn't feel uncomfortable with my blackness. But when I got into the environmental science department, it was really isolating. There's a lot of pressure when you’re the only person who looks like you.
NGF: How did your experiences growing up in urban areas affect that?
RWG: My family, like a lot of others around me, didn’t have a lot of access to the outdoors. My understanding of black culture did not include spending time in nature. Many of the other students in my department had been in forests, they had seen wildlife. So I felt like they had an advantage. It wasn’t just my race and my background but also my experience that made me feel super different. And those are all intertwined.
NGF: Why is it important to give children of color these experiences?
RWG: I worked with a program in New York City taking black and brown kids out into nature. And it wasn’t about, “We’re going to make you love the outdoors.” It was about empowering them to make decisions based on experience. They might go hiking and decide the outdoors is not for them. But that’s part of equality. It’s about giving kids the opportunity to make a choice from a place of equal opportunity.
NGF: When was the first time you had a black science professor?
RWG: I accepted this intense study abroad program in southern Kenya in which I’d basically be living outside for a semester—and I hadn’t even been camping before! I had no idea who the professors would be, but when I got there it turned out they were all black Kenyans. It was icing on the cake.
NGF: How would your experience have been different if you had been exposed to African-American scientists as a child?
RWG: I never would’ve questioned whether I could even be a wildlife biologist. There’s a tremendous responsibility when you have to forge your own path, and it can be terrifying. And fear keeps people—especially young people—from doing a lot of things. But suddenly there were people who looked like me, who had the job that I was aspiring to have, which gave me the self-confidence I was missing. So more representation of black or women scientists would’ve helped me feel like I had a place.
NGF: Do you still struggle with being one of the few African-American female scientists?
RWG: People sometimes have expectations of what a scientist should look like, and I don’t usually meet those expectations. That’s tough to push through. To break down those harmful stereotypes—"this is what a scientist looks like"—is really important. I mean, it’s really important to just respect people. Human dignity is the most important thing.
NGF: Why is it so important to have diversity in STEM fields like wildlife biology?
RWG: My work is about saving animals from extinction, and so many other scientists are also trying to save the planet so we can survive. We don’t have time to be caught up in stereotypes or barriers. Right now we have a bunch of people who aren’t involved because of barriers they face. That makes no sense. For such a critical mission, we need to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to help solve these problems.
NGF: How do we get there with our kids?
RWG: You can’t teach your kids something that you don’t believe in. So model the right behavior for children. Use whatever privilege you have—and we all have some kind of privilege—to be there as an ally for someone else. And though it’s great to teach kids not to be racist, it’s also important to show them how to be anti-racist as well. Show them how to intervene when racism is happening, whether it’s overt or subtle.
NGF: Are there other ways parents can encourage diversity in their kids’ lives?
RWG: It’s really easy to start local. I studied bears in Montana, which is a pretty white place. But all different kinds of people live there: super-wealthy landowners, low-income people living off the land, Native American groups who’ve been discriminated against. You don’t have to take your kids all over the world to expose them to the different ways we’re human. By learning from history, we can build a beautiful future.
NGF: How can parents be mindful of supporting other kids, whether in STEM or other activities?
RWG: I remember going to a meeting with a college professor, and I was really nervous because I was so embarrassed about my low grades. But the first thing he said was, “It’s very clear you’ve worked hard on this.” And my anxiety melted away. Acknowledging that effort instead of the performance can really go a long way in boosting a child’s confidence. We do it for our own children, and we should do it for other children too. When you see kids trying hard, or even trying just a little bit, try complimenting the effort instead of the outcome. I think that could really level the playing field in a lot of ways.