Written by Emmi Losasso
Firstly, I should say that I can’t ever manage to put things into short words so this will be a long introduction to me and how I got to where I am now. Settle in with a cup of tea on a comfy couch and turn on some songs by Lord Huron and I’ll let you get to know me as a fellow lonely conservationist.
The earliest memories I have come from when I was around 3 or 4 in the backyard of the second house I’d ever lived in, located in Westfield Ohio. I vividly remember being in the garden of the house completely engrossed in finding “woolly bears” (Pyrrharctia isabella) and letting them crawl into my hands and up my arms, it drove my mother to always check my pockets and hair for rogue caterpillars but was endearing enough to warrant about two dozen photos of me carrying woolly bears over the years. In this particular memory however, the one that remains the most vivid in my mind, I was not only hunting for woolly bears, but was on a mission to help the birds make a nest in the tree behind my house. This involved me finding sticks and placing them in the crook of a tree strategically so that I could create my own nest for the birds to move in to. I was fascinated with the ways they built their nests out of simple twigs and leaves and frustrated as any typical toddler would be at the fact that I could not replicate what they were doing myself. I distinctly remember my mother telling me that the birds were special in making nests and that it was better if I left the sticks for them to find in a pile so they could build the nests themselves but I could still “help”. It might have been this conversation that stuck with me the most, the idea that I could be of help to the natural world and its creatures in some way, even if it was as simple as making a pile of twigs for birds to find to build their nests.
Soon after this memory we moved to Maryland to a house in the suburbs where my natural world was suddenly very restricted. Aside from visits to my family in Minnesota in the summer, my contact with the natural world had changed. In the half acre backyard in Maryland, there wasn’t much in the way of creatures in the yard aside from birds and my precious woolly bears and I quickly became antsy for more. To this day I have no clue where she found it but somewhere my mother found and decided to enroll me in a summer camp for pre-schoolers aptly named “bug camp.” This was when I had my first contact with things that lived in streams and it changed everything. Suddenly the world of bugs and cool things wasn’t limited to the caterpillars and birds in the backyard, but was again open to much more. Bug camp is another memory that is still vivid when everything else is a blank, I clearly remember the feeling of seeing a crayfish for the first time and promptly deciding it was way cooler than anything else I’d seen on land before. I came out of the camp with a million questions and a thirst for more creatures.
Fast forwards to years later, it was around maybe 3rd grade after my parents had decided to take my younger brother and I on at least one big trip a summer to a new national or state park each year when I began realizing that the world is a much bigger place than just what I’d seen. This was around the same time that science classes were starting to become even more fun and for every career day from 2nd grade onwards I had come to school as a new kind of scientist. After our school’s 2nd grade space camp, it was an aerospace engineer (something I had read in a book on space and instantly gravitated towards though I didn’t really know what it was other than super cool), in 3rd grade it was a zookeeper (this was the year I learned about Jane Goodall). Then at the end of 3rd grade a big change came when my family bought a foreclosed farm house in northern Harford County Maryland and set about the task of completely renovating it and moving in.
We raised chickens for eggs, we had two Toulouse geese, and we were surrounded by farmland full of crops, horses and cattle. Suddenly I was growing up rural and that meant that my brother and I had to entertain ourselves outdoors since there weren’t any neighbors with children to play with. This meant spending hours in the woods behind our house, running through the creek, exploring the paths, disappearing into the cornfields often expressly against the warnings of our family, and most importantly, finding salamanders and frogs and all kinds of creatures in the creek and fields behind the house. This is how I spent my time all the way through middle school when all of the ideas and experiences in my head began to come to a conclusion about the future. I was going to be a scientist and I was going to study environmental science.
Now something I should have mentioned, and maybe you’ve caught an inkling of this by now, is that my mother was a key in driving me towards the outdoors and particularly in cultivating a respect and love for it. In some aspects my father was too as it was his idea to buy the farm since that’s what he grew up near in Ohio, but it was my mother who was the key. She showed me the woolly bears when I was a child, it was my mother who encouraged bug camp and field trips to local nature centers, and my mother who told my brother and I to play outside whenever we got antsy. She has a Bachelor’s of Science in Natural Resources from Colorado State and told me stories about her crazy college experiences that enthralled and encouraged me that yes, this is exactly what I want to be doing.
My father disagreed. He didn’t want me to end up working in a job that he perceived as having little options and poor pay. My mother had been there working for the state parks in Colorado for almost nothing while putting herself through college and he worried about me. It was the first time that I felt like maybe people weren’t as excited about the environment as I was. I argued that you could do a lot with an environmental degree but the doubt was there. The mantra to me sounded like “money money money” and I didn’t want to hear it even if it was really meant with love and concern. Though my father was the first to voice concerns, he wasn’t the last and it was a small part spite and a massive amount of love that kept me from changing my dreams.
It was simply luck that my high school happened to be the magnet school for Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences but it wasn’t luck that drove me into it with a passion. That potent mix of spite and love drove me into it with a vigor and found myself diving in head first. I joined the school’s Envirothon competition team immediately and quickly became the captain for the wildlife as well as the wetlands and aquatics portions of the competitions. If you asked me today to sex a turkey or tell how old a deer is by their jaw bones, I’m sure I still could simply due to the amount of time I poured into studying after school. I spent hours learning the macroinvertebrates in streams and how to sample for them and I got way too good at finding juvenile salamanders. On top of this, I joined FFA for a year or two to see if agriculture was as much of a draw as natural resources but quickly found myself gravitating back towards the environmental side of everything more and more. It was here in the hands-on magnet program at an extremely rural high school that I learned how to set up sticky traps for insects, how to set up pitfall traps, identify plants and animals, how to use basic forestry tools and raise rainbow trout fry, do time-constrained herpetofauna surveys, and even how to breed tortoises. I wouldn’t have changed this experience for the world as it set me up to succeed more than most. I took a year off my Junior year, lived in Germany on the CBYX exchange scholarship, and then came back to finish my capstone project my senior year. I chose to try and investigate non-invasive biopsies on freshwater mussels for some reason and ended up with six Pyganodon cataracta and a bluegill in a tank fished out of the school pond. The project was going great until suddenly I had glochidia and a DNR worker excitedly asking questions only to have them all killed by flatworms two days later. It was the first time I had a project both succeed and fail and I loved it. I graduated with a $200 check for my Capstone project and honors in the magnet program and general schooling and big plans for a college degree.
This was also the year I moved to the suburbs outside of Atlanta Georgia unexpectedly and found myself in a gap year of poor timing looking for a college with Environmental Science and German. Berry College fit the bill almost perfectly and I set up a visit to there and three other colleges. I never made it to my other college visits. I saw Berry and that was it, I was sold. Not only is it gorgeous, but it has the largest contiguous campus in the world with 27,000 acres of contiguous land that is mainly forests, mountains, and meadows. With longleaf pine and chestnut tree restoration projects, deer outnumbering students, breeding projects for sturgeon, huge conservation and environmental projects in the city of Rome and the watershed around it, and access to five ponds, a reservoir, and the point where three rivers converge to form the Coosa River it is an environmentalist’s playground and I was in love with it all. Me being me I decided the moment I got there that I was going to make up for my gap year and finish my BS in three years, picking up two minors along the way. I spent every summer at Berry to make it happen, working my tail end off between classes and working and even rowing for a year, once taking 19 credit hours in one summer to keep up. I loaded my schedule with as many extra biology and environmental classes I could. It’s a typical kind of story, I had my passion and now I had a program guiding me but also exposing me to things I hadn’t thought of before.
It was here I took a cave ecology course over the summer with a Biology professor focused in plants who also happens to be a caver who has discovered massive sections of Lechuguilla and is a veritable wealth of knowledge. In that course I found a new hobby and also saw creatures that I had never dreamed of seeing in person. I had plans to join a local stream surveying group in the hopes of seeing my favorite animal in the world, the Eastern Hellbender. (I am through and through a herpetology fanatic, ever since I first started finding those tiny salamanders as a child). The more I learned, the more I felt a drive to protect the earth. Each new class imparted new information that made me angry at the world, angry at humans and corporations for hurting the natural world but also fueled the fire in me to make a difference. Every bad thing was another log in my fire, I’m generally an optimist and this was no different.
Overall, I was having the time of my life in college and all too soon it was my senior year, I’d managed to do it in three years with more ups and downs than I might have recorded here, but I was looking forwards to my last semester of courses and classes. I had met the love of my life in a fellow Berry student my junior year and had just gotten engaged to that same person, now a Berry graduate, at the top of longleaf pine trail, the same place he asked me on our first date, in the fall semester of my senior year. For a sappy romantic environmental science student, it was perfect. I finally managed to fix my schedule to be taking the aquatic biology class that I had wanted to take for two years and was thrilled taking labs and getting down and dirty in a local pond, my independent study projects in GIS had been approved with the city for helping address food insecurity and the college for creating a sinkhole risk assessment map and were going perfectly, and to top it all off, I was sitting on a great GPA.
Then COVID hit.
My GIS projects ended immediately as I didn’t have the software at home. One was only half finished. My aquatic biology class went online and all of our in-person labs were online too. I never got to electroshock the pond, something I had been wanting to do since I saw the Simpsons movie as a child (not a good reference but it’s the truth!) My two minors in anthropology and German had luckily been finished already but my major hadn’t and I was terrified that the straight As I had would slip away. My fiancé and mother are immunocompromised and going out became absolutely not an option, even going somewhere to go hiking seemed like risking too much. On top of that, I was employed with my college in three jobs. All of them were instantly terminated, and since I was graduating, I wasn’t qualified for unemployment. It was here that the words of my father began creating doubt again.
What was I going to do now? Were there going to be jobs after I graduated? The parks were shutting down, everything was shutting down, hiring was freezing, had I pigeon-holed myself into a dead end somehow? My fiancé had just gotten into grad school in Saint Augustine, Florida, I was going to be the one to support us as his school didn’t allow him to work, how was that going to work now? How could I work out in the public with him at home? My whole field, what I wanted to go into, revolved around leaving the house, how could I do that now? I felt like I doomed us by choosing a major that revolved around the outdoors even though I never could have guessed this was going to happen, even though it’s my passion. Those doubts, every time someone had told me:
“Be careful with choosing that major it’s kind of specific”
“You’ll never make money doing that.”
“How do you expect to support yourself?”
“Oh you’re doing environmental science? What is that anyways and what can you even do with that?”
These doubts started coming back with a vengeance and I felt like every time I’d answered them with confidence and sass, “yes I love this field, and I would make money and find a job and be able to support myself and that there were a million things to do with my degree”… was a lie.
These doubts got worse as the semester went on and I felt myself losing passion for the classes the longer we were online. If I couldn’t do the labs, writing a 23-page paper on pond management using data from three years ago felt pointless. I had always, always, been hands-on in my learning. Ever since I was a child, I learned best when I could try things, see things, touch things with my own hands. That’s how I was happy with what I was doing and how it stuck in my head the best, and it’s what made me feel alive and passionate. Its why environmental science worked so perfectly for me. Now I was cut off from that and relegated to a suburban environment of my home once again.
All too quickly it ended. I graduated Cum laude, I had a ‘ceremony’ with my parents and fiancé at home and got my degree in the mail along with a letter from my department that made me cry. I was so terrified of not being a student and not learning anymore that I felt the need to cling onto something that was familiar. Learning was familiar, school was familiar, so one day in an unusually good mood, I signed up for the Master Herpetologist program with the Amphibian Society and tried to drown out everything else and all of those doubts in my mind and very real fears about having to still move to Saint Augustine in August with my love for herpetology. I told myself that I was doing it not only because I needed familiarity or comfort or stability that I found in learning but because it was a great program and a stepping stone towards my true passion and dream of being a herpetologist someday and maybe even getting a masters or doctorate one day. It was true but what I didn’t want to admit is that it was also because I’m still terrified that I made the wrong choice in the wake of this pandemic.
I am hopeful, I’m optimistic, I know one day that things are going to be back to normal and that in the meantime the environment is still my passion, I still want to work in conservation and protection and learn more about it with my own two hands and I’ll do that one day. I love the course I’m taking and I realize now more than ever that my goal is to go into wetlands and aquatics and especially in relation to herpetology focusing on amphibians. I realize that I am the crazy lady obsessed with salamanders and that there are a lot of others out there just like me.
But here and now, I’m an unemployed college graduate about to move to a new place in a pandemic. Everything is so uncertain, my wedding is postponed, my job search has resulted in applying to over 40 jobs, inside and outside my desired field and only hearing back from 5 that rejected me due to lack of experience. I didn’t realize that “entry level jobs” often means having years of experience until now and though that might not have been a problem before, in COVID times with so many other people vying for work it feels like a battle I’m losing.
Yet I remember that little girl looking for woolly bears. She is still there in my mind buried under all of the fear and uncertainty of now. I remember the feeling of seeing a crayfish for the first time as a child and last year seeing a cave adapted crayfish for the first time and having the exact same feelings fill my chest. I want to chase that feeling, I want to always feel the joy and love and excitement I get when I’m in nature and doing things with my hands. I want to be the change in the world and I found my calling in the slimy creatures and watersheds. I have so many hopes and dreams and passions that I can’t let them go. My path to becoming what I want to be and doing what I want to do is not over, it’s just starting and though it’s starting off in a pandemic on a rough start, it can only go up from here.
My story is about following your passions and doing what you can with what you can. Maybe it’s a familiar one for a lot of you out there of doubt and also of finding what you love through moving and coincidences. That’s why I wanted to share it. Because I’m just starting and I know that it makes me feel better to know that even where I am right now alone and feeling more isolated than ever from what I love, I’m not the only one. There’s a lot of other starters out there. I graduated in an unprecedented class but you know what? I think through the doubts, the fears, everything I know I’m feeling and you might be too, you starters out there, we are going to do amazing things and this might be the push to work harder against the odds.
So if you’re like me, having a life full of big dreams and amazing learning opportunities only to find yourself filling out job application after job application, watching things go on hiring freezes faster than you can apply and wondering if everyone was right when they said you won’t make any money and that it’s a rough jobs field, that you aren’t alone.
For more if Emmi, check out @sistasasso on Instagram