From camper to conservation biologist

October 31, 2013 - 12:59pm

It’s no exaggeration to say Lisa Cavola grew up at the Oregon Zoo. A zoo camper from age five through 13 and a four-year ZooTeen volunteer, she credits those formative experiences with igniting her interest in science and conservation. Her passion has taken her to the Amazon rainforests of Peru, sea turtle nesting areas in the Greek islands and, most recently, back to the Oregon Zoo, where she worked as a member of the 2013 summer camp staff. This fall, she took a break from her graduate school classes to share her Oregon Zoo story with us.  

How did your experiences at the Oregon Zoo influence your path?

It all started at the Oregon Zoo. My family first brought me here at age two, and I fell in love. It is my ongoing love story, growing from visitor to camper to ZooTeen to conservation biologist to camp counselor to biology teacher: I keep coming back to where it all started.

What do you think is special about the Oregon Zoo’s education programs?

Conservation and education are lifelong endeavors, and the Oregon Zoo provides opportunities for every age. It is so special that our zoo has such a comprehensive education program that allows people of all ages to learn about wildlife. I feel so fortunate to have grown up close to a zoo that provides opportunities for the community.

What conservation research and education experiences have you been involved in?

As an undergrad at University of Washington, I worked in Dr. Samuel Wasser’s Conservation Biology lab on conservation projects with worldwide importance. Dr. Wasser was studying the effects of drilling in the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, on populations of wolves, elk and moose. He also created a genetic map of all of the elephants in Africa and has developed a technique to extract DNA from ivory, which has greatly aided in identifying the major elephant poaching hot spots across Africa.

I spent a month in Greece on the island Kefalonia working as a volunteer with a local conservation group to protect the local nesting population of Loggerhead Sea Turtle. We cleaned the beaches, monitored and excavated nests to track reproductive success and conducted education programs for locals and tourists.

I also participated in a three-week trip through the cloud forest and Amazon rainforests of Peru, focusing on conservation, sustainability and biodiversity. We met with other scientists who were conducting their own research at the research stations in Peru, worked and shared environmental education ideas with local schools and learned and practiced biology research techniques in the field.

How do you hope to merge your interests in conservation and education?

I have always loved science, animals and working with children. After I earned my bachelor’s degree in biology from University of Washington, I worked in the Mojave Desert as a field biologist, mitigating the impact of construction on a threatened population of desert tortoise. It was a valuable experience, but I learned that conservation is not truly successful without education. Working as a substitute teacher in Las Vegas, I discovered my true passion for teaching. I loved seeing kids light up as they explored the sciences.

I am currently attending Western Washington University to earn my master’s in teaching in secondary education with endorsements in science and biology. My ultimate goal is to earn my Ph.D. I hope that by incorporating my passion and excitement for biology and animals, I can educate children to think critically and bring an understanding of the importance of conservation into their everyday lives.

As someone heading into teaching, why do you think experiences like zoo camp are important?

Science can be so magical. Being exposed to it at a young age makes it more likely that kids will have an affinity for it as they grow up. If people are not amazed, excited, or thrilled by animals, they will lack the understanding, compassion and motivation to protect them.

I truly believe that what we love and value is learned at an early age. The more opportunities children have to experience zoo camp—with teens and young adults who are already passionate about animals and the zoo—the more possibilities we create for raising conservationists and ensuring animals and their habitats survive in the future.