Polar Bears International

Meet Alysa McCall – Director of conservation outreach and staff scientist at Polar Bears International

Working in the outdoor sphere is an appealing career path to many people; an open-air office may seem like a great alternative to the 9-to-5 grind but breaking into that job market can, at times, seem daunting and littered with obstacles. We caught up with Alysa McCall, director of conservation outreach and staff scientist at Polar Bears International, and outdoors educator in Canada. With a Bachelor’s degree in Animal Biology and a Master’s in Ecology, Alysa has spent much of her career working in the field leading research on polar bears. We caught up with Alysa to chat about her work and the journey that led her there.

Alysa, you are a scientist and director of conservation outreach for Polar Bears International; can you give us an idea of what your job entails?

I feel fortunate to have such an interesting, exciting, and (in my opinion) important job. I work on an engaging mix of outreach, program development, and research projects which sometimes involve getting into the field. What I love most about my job, though, is distilling the science jargon and concepts into information that everyone can understand. I especially love developing programs and curriculum to help teach kids about polar bears and climate change, like our Tundra Connections program where we chat live with thousands of classrooms of kids all over the world. It’s so much fun to answer their questions and see their faces when they first see a polar bear. The youth are the future leaders of our world, and I strive to inspire them as much as they inspire me.

What stoked your interest for ecology, and what path did you follow that led you to your current field of work? 

I’ve always loved nature and wildlife. At a young age I realized that “wildlife biologist” was a possible career and I never really looked back. During my Bachelor’s of Science degree, my first research projects involved studying deer mice and spadefoot toads. We would put little GPS collars on the mice and backpacks on the toads and track them through their habitats, learning about their movements and needs. That experience led me into collaring and tracking polar bears for my master’s degree, something I had never imagined would be possible. Polar bears are a highly sought-after research species in the world of ecology, so I was surprised and honoured when I was selected to be part of Dr. Andrew Derocher’s lab to work on this project. 

While in Andy’s lab, he connected me with Polar Bears International (PBI) and my first volunteer assignment for them was to travel to Churchill to be a panelist for the Tundra Connections outreach program. At the time I had only been working with data and hadn’t even seen a wild polar bear yet. It was an incredible experience and I fell in love with the animal, area, and organization. After that, I volunteered for PBI on a number of projects for several years, until eventually a position became available full-time, where I now head up that same program.

What would be some words of advice for women looking to establish a career in conservation?

Work hard, be flexible, and don’t be afraid to try new things! Skills can be more transferable than you think between species and habitats, so look into anything that interests you without worrying that you might be “stuck” in that niche for your whole career. 

Take advantage of unique opportunities; some of the best will require you to be in the right place at the right time. If you are ready to jump when you see an opening, you can help yourself get ahead. 

Many opportunities can come from who you know, so make a good impression on who you are working for and with. You never know who they might know and where a good reference could lead you, so being a fun and hardworking colleague goes a long way. 

I have been fortunate to have had a few incredible female mentors in conservation and leaned on them for advice and encouragement throughout the years. Look for and take advantage of these sorts of relationships where you can as they are beneficial for both parties.  

You mention in the film that you want to motivate young men and women to be more involved in the future of the planet and make life choices that will benefit the environment. What are some of those choices that we can all make to have a positive impact?

The most important action you can take is to vote with the climate in mind, in each and every election and at every level of government. Also, let your representatives know you support bold climate action. Write them emails, make some noise on social, sign or start petitions, etc. Make your voice heard. 

Get involved in community projects that reduce or replace fossil fuels with clean energy sources like solar and wind. Also, research renewable energy options available to you. A critical (though sometimes scary) action is to open up and talk about climate change and solutions with friends, family members, and colleagues. There is a movement for positive change happening, and we can all be a part of it. The more of us, the better.

Alysa, you also work as an educator, talking to school kids about polar bears. What do you find is the best way to capture people’s attention on these issues and make them truly connect to what is happening to their fragile ecosystem?

Everyone learns in different ways, so we need to deliver this sometimes difficult content in various formats that are fun and engaging. PBI is constantly working on new informative animations and graphics based on the best science, making them visually engaging to grab attention and improve comprehension. 

Our staff does a lot of internal training on the most effective ways to communicate climate change with people of all ages. Research shows there are certain techniques and ways of framing this issue that are the best way to really help people to understand the problem and solutions; we follow best practices whenever possible. For kids in particular, it is important we help them feel empowered and hopeful, not overwhelmed and anxious.

Knowledge is power, and when people learn about what is happening and why and truly understand how they can help, it’s difficult not to care and act.

See Alysa on the big screen at the Ocean Film Festival World Tour this February to April in the stunning film Bare Existence where a donation for every screening is being made to Polar Bears International.  This is just one of 6 breathtaking films in the program. Secure your seat HERE!

Word: Celeste Botton

Image: from the film Bare Existence