June 10, 2015

A Conversation with Gwynne Nell Corrigan

In the third in a series of conversations between staff at the Conservation Biology Institute, Gwynne Nell Corrigan, Communications Guru, at CBI, shares with Kai Foster, GIS Specialist, about backup singer dreams, a Burmese python named “Katy”, and the brilliant challenge that rocked her world.

Can you describe your job in 5 words

I have to do six because I’m a bit of a rebel. This was challenging because at first I was wondering, should I use words that describe what I do? But, with more thought, I came up with words that express the way it feels to do my job. One is mosaic because my work is so varied. Two is nimble as I think you have to be agile in this job. Three is remote, because I work out of my home office. Next, I chose a combination of cerebral and creative, as both are involved. The last word I chose is backstage, because I feel like much of what the communications team does involves efforts to make the work of the scientists and practitioners more accessible. We aim to present complex concepts in a way that is digestible and sometimes less technical. Communications work is critical but is not the “star” of the proverbial show. That’s not to say it’s at all less important than the science and technology.

What excites you about your job?

I really love the idea of taking the science out of the ivory tower and making it more approachable for audiences. I know we have a long way to go, but making solid science more accessible and useable is what motivates me. 

Much of what I love about my job is the people that I’m fortunate enough to work with. It’s very cool and interesting to engage with scientists, software engineers, GIS and other communication specialists. The people at CBI are innovative and obviously really bright. I find them to be inspiring, and the combination of the intellectual and creative capacities required for their work is very compelling. Again, I’m intrigued with that integration of left and right brain. For me, it is often about relationships. I like the people who I work with, and it is a critical for me to do work that is mission driven and for a purpose. To be doing something, that is at least intended to make the world a better and more sustainable place, is huge for me.

What project or accomplishment do you consider to be the most significant in your career?

Photo Credit: Bill Bouton

I’ll parse this out into ‘before CBI’ and ‘at CBI’. Before CBI, I would say the work that I did for my masters thesis at University of California, Santa Cruz, looking at population genetics of Blunt-nose Leopard Lizards, was super important to me. I was honored to get to work in the field with such an extremely endangered (and COOL) lizard. I don't know how much the results are being used in terms of management plans, but the results were applicable to conservation. So, I felt that was very significant. 

At CBI, I feel like the communications work that I do, helping to craft wording and communications that make our work more accessible and actionable to a wider audience makes a significant contribution. I love the inbound marketing successes that we’ve accomplished, especially drawing people into the wide variety of webinars we present. I appreciate that we are exposing more people to our work and providing opportunities for collaboration and innovative thinking. I am quite proud of our social media presence and the consistently strong content we offer. It feels good to be a major part of those efforts. 

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the world of conservation/science since the start of your career? And what opportunities do you see?

I went to the National Adaptation Forum (NAF) a few weeks ago, and was really heartened by the wide variety of people from different sectors coming together to address climate change. There were many people from vastly different backgrounds earnestly working together, to figure out "how can we get our message out there in a way that is meaningful to the audiences we are speaking with?" One suggestion was that we often need to "shut up" for a period of time and listen to what the other side is saying - try to step into their shoes. This doesn't mean we have to agree with them, but to try and understand their perspectives, which will make reciprocity more likely. That is the space in which progress is made - when both sides feel heard and respected and hopefully find some common ground. 

Another impactful suggestion came from a climate scientist who observed, "scientists need to stop leading with the caveats". She said this with respect to how we communicate the science of climate change, because as scientists we are trained to lead with the uncertainty. Changing the way we communicate is not about being dishonest, it’s about asserting the bottom-line.   Stack the recommendations first and then be able to speak to exceptions. Otherwise, the general public often focuses on the caveats and our message (and opportunity) is lost.

Who is your conservation hero?

I know many people would answer with someone like Rachel Carson, or someone very well known in conservation. Mine is actually, Jim Dunlap. He was a teacher of mine in high school. I grew up in Texas, which is not known for its environmentalists. Mr. Dunlap’s background was in biology, and he built what is called the "Living Materials Center" in Texas. It began as basically just a space in the school where Mr. Dunlap, adult volunteers, and students cared for injured wild animals and exotic pets that had been abandoned. Mr. Dunlap wanted to teach kids about science and biology and knew that giving kids the opportunity to have hands-on experiences with animals was a powerful mode of instruction. 

Students taking Mr. Dunlap’s class cared for the animals, and I was one of the lucky ones who got to do this. Super cool. He did community outreach by going around to schools with this huge Burmese Python named "Katy". The purpose was to educate kids about wildlife and ecosystems and increase awareness about the problems associated with owning exotic pets. In Dallas, Texas that's not necessarily an easy sell. He was like this oasis of hope for me. The facility is now a designated nature study center and has its own building. I was saddened to hear that Mr. Dunlap just recently passed away. I will always think of him as a trailblazer and a conservation hero. Trying to do what he was doing, in the area where he was doing it, was a huge uphill battle. He’s left his legacy, because the work he initiated continues beyond his life. 

What is a challenge that you've overcome and what did you learn from the experience? 

My answer is very personal. The birth of my (now 12-year-old) daughter Cassidy, my fiery, spirited, and beyond inspiring child, woke me up and catalyzed a journey of personal discovery and brilliant challenge. The impact of Cassidy is profound-in every aspect of my life. From her first day in this world, nothing has come close in demanding me to step into my own strength and resilience.

Cassidy surprised me from the get-go by being born with an undiagnosed, severe heart defect called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS). Essentially, she was born without the left side of her heart (she has two chambers instead of four) and underwent her first open heart surgery at 6 days old. By the time she was 3½ years old, she had undergone three complex open-heart surgeries and had a pacemaker implanted. In total, she’s had four heart surgeries, multiple cardiac catheterizations, and countless other medical interventions. It’s not well known, but congenital heart defects are the #1 birth defect and twice as many children die each year from congenital heart disease than from all childhood cancers combined. HLHS is rare, but congenital heart defects are not.

Cassidy’s diagnosis has been a monumental journey. I don't know that I have overcome it or ever really will, and I’m not even sure what that means. I learned to live with it, adapted to a “new normal”, and thrived despite the challenges that she faces and that we have all faced in the family. Her disease is a part of her but not nearly all of her, and I have always strived to give her as normal of a childhood as possible.

In terms of what I have learned from the experience with Cassidy, it is that life doesn't typically turn out the way that you expect it to, and I try to no longer get too attached to outcomes. I learned that I am a lot stronger than I thought, and Cassidy has taught me to step into this courage.

If you weren’t a Communication Specialist, what would you want be?

I couldn't pick just one, again, that’s my mosaic personality. Definitely a writer, I love writing  both fiction and nonfiction. I have often thought about starting a personal blog.

I would also love to be a backup singer for a Soul, Rock-and-Roll, or R&B band. The Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” is an epic performance. They have these two backup singers who are super dynamic. Other cool musicians to sing with would be Parliament Funkadelic and Jack White.

What did you care about most when you were 10 years old?

Much of what I care about now, but just on a different level. Friends and relationships - they have always been at the forefront for me. Being out in nature. When I was 10, I lived in Houston, Texas right next to a golf-course and a bayou, and what I remember doing was any time I was not in school, my brother and I would spend all our time outside in the bayou catching frogs and just running and playing. I also always cared about movement, dancing around and singing. Those are the things I really cared about then and now.

If you had the opportunity to get a message across to a large group of people, what would your message be?

I have so many that one of my challenges is narrowing it down to a single message. One of the things that has come up for me a lot in the last year or so, is to slow down and stay present. So many people here in the Bay Area seem constantly stressed, too much on their plate, with not enough time for anyone or anything outside of their work related bubble. That’s not how I want to live and I admittedly struggle at times to find the balance myself. Again, Cassidy has been one of my greatest teachers and if my experience with her has taught me nothing else, it’s to appreciate and be present with the people, relationships, and causes that I care about. Because we don’t always have as much time with loved ones as we might think. I want to stay awake to my life and enjoy what I do have right now. Maybe that will resonate for others, as well.

About the author:
Kai Foster, M.A.
Senior Spatial Analyst | Project Manager
Kai Foster is a Cultural Ecologist/GIS Analyst with CBI. Her work is primarily focused on managing protected areas data and the Data Basin Protected Areas Center.
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Previous: Maps as Tools: Nepal and Our Own Backyards
by Katie O'Connor, M.S.
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by Katie O'Connor, M.S.
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