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Green career spotlight: Michela Coury

Welcome to our interview series where we speak with purpose-driven and sustainability-focused professionals from around the globe. Every few weeks, we’ll dive into their journeys, learn about their wins and challenges, and the resources they couldn’t do without.

Prepare to be inspired and learn something new!

Today’s guest is Michela Coury, Freshwater Turtle Biologist from the US.

Please tell us a little bit about who you are, your background, and your current job. What inspired you to start a career in sustainability and what was your journey to where you are

I’m Michela Coury, a Freshwater Turtle Biologist with the Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife Department’s Endangered Species Division. Raised in Michigan on Lake Huron’s shores, I developed a profound connection to nature, witnessing environmental changes that sparked my passion for sustainability and conservation.

My journey began with a childhood spent exploring the natural world, observing frogs, turtles, and deer in my backyard. As I grew older, so did my concern for the ecosystem’s health, driven by unsettling changes such as fish die-offs and habitat loss. These experiences inspired me to pursue biology in college, where I conducted research worldwide, from Belize to Australia and Portugal, studying topics such as invasive species and microplastic pollution.

Exploring various roles, from wetlands technician to zookeeper, deepened my understanding of ecological issues and strengthened my resolve to protect our planet. Graduate studies focused my expertise on freshwater turtles, empowering me to advocate for underrepresented species.

Since then, I’ve dedicated myself to preserving these species and their habitats, driven by a passion for safeguarding our natural world and ensuring its sustainability for future generations.

What’s your day-to-day like? 

As a freshwater turtle biologist, my day-to-day work is quite variable and unlike the typical 9-5 job. I work with five freshwater turtle species that are of special concern or federally endangered. This role requires extensive travel across the state to monitor these populations, which are often few and far between. Some days, I drive three hours to reach a specific population, while other days, it may be just an hour.

My activities depend on the species I’m working with that day. For wood turtles (Glyptemmys insculpta) and Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii), I use telemetry equipment to track them. This helps me understand their habitat usage and provide habitat restoration recommendations to foresters and landowners.

For red-bellied cooters (Pseudemys rubriventris), I monitor their few remaining nesting sites. We have a head-starting program in place, which has been ongoing for the last 40 years. In this program, we take hatchlings and give them to schools to raise. The schools then return the turtles to us, and we measure them before releasing them in safe, discreet locations.

One of the projects I am most excited about involves spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata). Some of their locations can only be accessed by boat, and their populations have never been surveyed nor seen since the 80s. My goal is to gain a better understanding of their habitat use, especially as rising water levels and climate change become more significant factors. We aim to protect the wetlands they rely on from drainage or desiccation.

What do you like the most about the work you do? 

What I love most about my work is the immersion in nature every single day. Each time I step into the field, I encounter something new, something that surprises and delights me. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to serve as a voice for the underrepresented creatures, particularly our freshwater turtles. While much attention is rightfully given to sea turtles, I find our freshwater counterparts equally fascinating, if not more so at times.

Every research excursion offers a wealth of learning opportunities, ensuring that I’m never bored. It’s a constant reminder of the profound gratitude I hold for Mother Nature and her abundant gifts—the sheer beauty of the natural world and the intrinsic value of every species and ecosystem.

How does your work address societal and/or environmental issues?

As a freshwater turtle biologist, my work directly addresses both societal and environmental issues. Freshwater turtles play essential roles in their ecosystems as predators, prey, and ecosystem engineers, contributing to the overall biodiversity and health of aquatic environments.

By studying and protecting these species, I contribute to maintaining biodiversity, which is crucial for the health and resilience of ecosystems. Moreover, freshwater turtles are highly sensitive to habitat degradation and loss. By researching their habitat requirements and advocating for the preservation of wetlands and freshwater habitats, I help protect these critical ecosystems, benefiting not only turtles but also other wildlife and human communities that rely on healthy freshwater environments for clean water, flood control, and recreation.

Through outreach programs, presentations, and publications, I raise awareness about the importance of freshwater turtles and their habitats, engaging with the public, policymakers, and stakeholders to foster appreciation and promote conservation efforts. Additionally, I work to mitigate anthropogenic threats such as habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, and overexploitation by identifying conservation priorities, implementing protective measures, and promoting sustainable practices. Moreover, I respect and incorporate Indigenous knowledge and practices into conservation strategies to ensure that conservation efforts are culturally sensitive and inclusive.

Overall, my work as a freshwater turtle biologist contributes to addressing societal and environmental issues by promoting the conservation of biodiversity, protecting habitats, raising awareness, mitigating threats, and respecting cultural values associated with these remarkable creatures.

In your experience, what are the main challenges of working with mission-driven and sustainability-focused businesses? 

One of the primary challenges encountered when collaborating with mission-driven and sustainability-focused businesses is navigating the politics and securing funding.

Often, funding originates from stakeholders who are captivated by charismatic megafauna—think pandas, tigers, or bunnies—and readily contribute to research and sustainability efforts focused on these beloved species. However, when seeking support for projects centered around “less-desirable” creatures—those that are creepy crawly, slimy, or scaly—such as certain reptiles, amphibians, or insects, securing funding becomes considerably more challenging. These creatures may not conform to the status quo of what is traditionally deemed as appealing, leading stakeholders to be less inclined to allocate resources towards their conservation.

Consequently, when applying for grants or collaborating with businesses, it can be an uphill battle to justify why funding is essential for the conservation of these less popular species. This disparity in funding allocation poses a significant obstacle in ensuring the comprehensive conservation of biodiversity.

In your opinion, what are the top skills necessary to be successful at a “green job”? 

The key skills essential for success in a “green job” encompass dedication, experience, and passion. While academic grades can be advantageous, they are not the sole determinants of job suitability. In the realm of green careers, employers prioritize individuals who demonstrate unwavering dedication to environmental causes, coupled with practical experience that reflects their commitment.

Moreover, passion plays a pivotal role in driving innovation and fostering a desire to effect positive change in the world. Beyond qualifications and credentials, green jobs require individuals who are proactive, adaptable, and eager to contribute meaningfully to environmental sustainability efforts. My advice would be to start volunteering or interning as early as you can. If you are interested in a field, call a local professional up and see if they have any volunteering opportunities.

Additionally, attending conferences and presenting at conferences are a wonderful opportunity to network. When people see your face and know your personality, it is extremely advantageous when it comes back around to an interview and the hiring manager is familiarized with who you are.

This combination of attributes enables professionals to thrive in dynamic work environments, whether in the field, laboratory, or boardroom, and to make a tangible impact on global sustainability challenges.

What green careers/sectors do you see growing the fastest right now and/or will become mainstream within the next 10 years?

In the coming decade, green careers within biology are set to flourish, reflecting our collective commitment to environmental sustainability. Roles like conservation biologist and environmental consultant will be pivotal in preserving biodiversity and guiding sustainable practices.

With climate change at the forefront, opportunities for climate change analysts will grow, while green building architects and renewable energy technicians will drive innovations in sustainable infrastructure.

Urban ecologists and sustainable agriculture specialists will also play crucial roles in shaping environmentally conscious urban development and food systems.

These careers not only align with my passion for environmental conservation but also represent exciting avenues for effecting positive change in the world.

What are the most common mistakes or misperceptions you have seen when it comes to green careers? 

One of the common pitfalls in pursuing green jobs is the prevalence of unpaid or fee-based internships, especially within NGOs. Many young professionals, eager to work with animals like marine mammals, sharks, or primates, may find themselves exploited by organizations charging fees for internships or volunteer opportunities. Unfortunately, I fell into this trap when I was younger, unaware of how predatory it could be. However, it’s crucial to recognize that there are paid internship opportunities available that provide valuable experience without financial burden.

Additionally, there’s a misconception that lacking specific field experience disqualifies individuals from applying for certain positions. However, many skills, such as water quality analysis, telemetry, GIS, and data analysis, are transferable across disciplines. Don’t be deterred by job postings requiring extensive, niche experience. Instead, focus on showcasing your transferable skills and enthusiasm for learning, as many positions offer opportunities for on-the-job training and skill development.

Could you highlight some of the key differences and potential green career paths within industries/sectors you’ve worked with?

If you’re considering a career in research, I highly recommend exploring opportunities with organizations like NOAA. They offer a wide range of programs for high school, undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral students, spanning atmospheric, marine, and oceanography sciences.

Personally, I had a fantastic experience volunteering with NOAA’s SEFIS sector, conducting Red Snapper and Grouper surveys. It provided invaluable hands-on experience and insight into marine research. Another excellent avenue is zoo conservation departments, particularly those accredited by the AZA.

During my time at the John Ball Zoo’s conservation department, I gained a wealth of experience, from conducting freshwater turtle surveys to studying lake sturgeon juvenile recruitment. These roles often involve engaging in public outreach and contributing to local conservation and research efforts, making them incredibly rewarding opportunities for aspiring researchers.

As you reflect on your career journey, what challenges would you pinpoint, especially those shared by individuals in similar roles?

Reflecting on my career, I’ve encountered some of the most challenging moments grappling with imposter syndrome during grad school. This is a common struggle, particularly prevalent among women in academia, and it can profoundly affect mental health and career progression. Overcoming imposter syndrome is paramount. It’s essential to recognize that achievements such as gaining admission to grad school, defending a thesis, or securing a job amidst fierce competition are not flukes—they reflect the hard work, intelligence, and passion that others see in you.

Another significant challenge in this field pertains to gender disparities and inequalities faced by women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities. Unfortunately, certain sectors within the academic realm, often dominated by older, white males, perpetuate biases and discrimination. Many of us, myself included, have experienced instances of belittlement, harassment, or discrimination based on our identities.

While infuriating, it’s crucial to channel this frustration into advocacy and empowerment. We must strive to be catalysts for change, raising our voices and championing diversity and inclusivity within our field. This is a challenge I wish I had been better prepared for, but overcoming it has been a pivotal part of my journey. I urge others facing similar obstacles not to let them hinder their progress but instead to use them as fuel to drive positive change and stand resilient in the face of adversity.

And what where the most rewarding moments?

Some of the most fulfilling moments in my career have revolved around witnessing the transformation of others’ attitudes towards turtles and other less celebrated species. Through my unwavering passion and persistent advocacy for turtles, I’ve had the privilege of inspiring family and friends to develop a newfound appreciation and concern for these creatures. Witnessing their willingness to adopt more sustainable practices in their daily lives as a result is immensely gratifying.

Moreover, there’s profound satisfaction in seeing species that have been rapidly declining finally receive the recognition and protection they deserve. Moments where endangered species are listed for protection and landowners voluntarily sell their property to conservation districts, ensuring perpetual preservation, are monumental victories in my eyes.

These moments reaffirm the impact of our collective efforts in safeguarding biodiversity and preserving our natural heritage for generations to come.

Any “lessons learned” or advice you can share with others looking to succeed in their purpose-driven career? 

For those embarking on a purpose-driven career in this field, I’d offer a few pieces of advice.

Firstly, if you face rejection in job applications, don’t internalize it. Remind yourself that you gave your best effort, and sometimes things simply don’t align.

Secondly, in professional settings, it’s essential to maintain diplomacy, especially if you encounter individuals with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye. While disagreements may arise, it’s prudent to handle them discreetly to avoid unnecessary conflict, as reputations can spread quickly in small professional circles. Being on good terms with everyone can open doors to valuable connections and opportunities in the long run.

Lastly, attend conferences regularly and don’t hesitate to network with new acquaintances. Building relationships in the field is crucial, as professional connections often play a significant role in securing job opportunities and advancing your career.

What inspires you every day to wake up and keep going? 

What motivates me each day is the knowledge that my actions serve a purpose. Every small effort contributes to the betterment of our world. I find solace in knowing that I’m aiding these creatures in navigating a world that we, as humans, are altering and often endangering. It’s a sobering realization that drives me forward—knowing that if I don’t advocate for them, who else will? My work is a testament to the interconnectedness of all life forms and the responsibility we bear to protect and preserve our planet and its inhabitants.

Michela Coury, is a Freshwater Turtle Biologist, who advocates biodiversity conservation. Growing up on the shores of Lake Huron in Michigan, she developed a deep connection with nature from a young age and witnessed firsthand the beauty and fragility of the natural world, igniting a lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship. Beyond work, she enjoys hiking, fly fishing, scuba diving, and traveling, strengthening her bond with the natural world. Instagram: @michiganbiologist and @field.stories.podcast

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