The Biologist

Stephanie Findlay

Stephanie F

Biologist, mom

Stephanie is a wildlife biologist working with an environmental consulting company within an engineering company.
She’s admittedly taken a pretty random approach to the jobs in her life, having worked in the past as a university teaching assistant, zookeeper, and bat researcher. But she has now found her sweet spot.

Get a grasp of what matters for you and fuck everyone else’s expectations or guidance. Deep down you know what works and you just have to be bold enough to do it.

The Snapshots

While house-hunting in Calgary with my husband, we took a break and headed to the Zoo. I had no idea at the time I would start volunteering there in animal care and then become a zookeeper.

I got this tattoo near the end of my master’s degree before I defended my thesis. I never thought I would ever get to that point in my life and I had absolutely no idea where I was going next.

Show notes

ABENA: My guest today is Stephanie Findlay.

My guest today is Stephanie Finley.

She’s a mom and scientist whose fondness for seemingly uncharismatic animals helped her find her sweet spot. Stephanie, thank you so, so much for joining me today. 

STEPHANIE: Thanks for having me.

ABENA: Yeah, no problem. Why don’t you tell us about yourself?

STEPHANIE: I’m a 30 year old woman – that sounds weird, but I guess it’s true. I’m from Calgary, I’m married with a 21 month old son.

I had a variety of different jobs and career paths over the year, which is, I guess, why. Today, right now, I work for an engineering company. Um, uh, well, an environmental company within an engineering company and I’m one of the wildlife biologists on staff.

ABENA: That’s cool. So what does that mean, wildlife biologist? What do you do?  

STEPHANIE: I do all kinds of stuff. We’re a bit of a Jack of all trades because we’re such a small group within the engineering company. So because we’re an environmental firm within an engineering firm, half of our work comes from the engineers, and they primarily do a lot of industry work within municipalities, the province. So stormwater trunks, roads, lift stations, housing developments. There’s the whole gambit; landfills, you name it. We do a whole whack of different municipal works across the board. My primary clients are the City of Calgary and operator transportation.

When we do our own – so 50% is engineer and then 50% is our own environmental company’s responsibility for getting work. And so we do a lot of restoration reclamation work, working with city of Calgary parks. That’s a lot of stuff that I do.

ABENA: You know what I’m going to jump right into your first photo. because I think this ties into this whole story. So the first photo that you sent was with you at the Calgary zoo, standing in front of the elephant enclosure. And so you and your husband were taking a break from house hunting cause you were planning to move to the city and you ended up at the zoo. So, um, I’m really curious. Why did that moment from that particular day stand out?

STEPHANIE: It stood out because I literally had no plan for coming to Calgary. I had been a teaching assistant at McMaster University for several years in my undergrad. And then I got a contract to do it for eight months full time.

And the contract was going to get renewed every year. So there was a good chance I could have just kind of kept on and doing that and continued along that route. As a teaching support, not as an instructor, I was good at it and I liked it, but I desperately needed to get out of Hamilton. That’s where I’m from – Hamilton, Ontario.

And my primary goal in life…I had no other goal other than just get out and Do somewhere else. Anything else? Ideally it would have been out of the country and that’s still one of my goals. I guess as much as I have goals, it would be nice to live in a country. Not Canada. For a period of time. I’m not saying I don’t want to live here forever, but, yeah.

So I just, I had no other goal. And so, my then boyfriend and now husband got hired with an oil firm and we were moving and they were paying to move us. And I was like, what am I going to do when I get there? And I was just like, I don’t know. I’ll figure it out when I get there. And so like I’m house hunting, we’re working on budgets.

I don’t have a job. I have zero plan and we went to the zoo because in Ontario, the closest zoo is in Toronto and I never got to go. It was so expensive and it was on the far end of Toronto. So I think I’d been like once or twice in my entire life and I’ve always loved animals. So I was like, I couldn’t believe you could go to the zoo on a public transit line.

ABENA: How far is Hamilton from Toronto?

STEPHANIE: It’s like an hour drive to the south, assuming there’s no traffic. If there is traffic, you were there for a while. Right. And so, yeah, so it’s like, it’s quite the commute to get there. And then it was expensive to go and my family didn’t have that kind of money or time to spend the whole day driving to Toronto, then walk around the zoo to then drive all the way back.

I could only imagine the prospect of screaming children in the back of the car for that long. So, yeah. So like I just, I spent the day there and had a lovely time, but like, even when I was in that picture, Working at the zoo. Wasn’t even in my mind, I was just like, oh, it’s a zoo. This is lovely. But like literally, in a few months, I’d be volunteering there in animal care.

And then a few months after that I’d be working there in animal care. And I didn’t even know that was a career path or a career option.

ABENA: You’re a wildlife biologist now. So you were always interested in animals?

STEPHANIE: I always was, but my amazing guidance counseling, I guess, in high school, they would sit you down and ask what you liked.

And I always liked animals and they’re just kind of like, well, unless you’re going to go to veterinary school, there’s nothing else to do. You can do biology and dissect things. And I was just like, I don’t want to kill things and take them apart. Like I like animals alive, thanks. And so they basically said that there’s no field like that, there were no options. 

And so they just gave me a bunch of science courses or degrees to apply to at university. And when they were helping me fill out the applications and stuff, what they ended up kind of helping me guide me towards biochemistry. And it’s just like, why didn’t they put me in ecology?

My high school was a Catholic high school. I went to chemistry and physics and biology, and then the last year they started to offer earth and environmental sciences. And I took that. But it still wasn’t animal related. And, so I just didn’t think it was an option. I didn’t even know ecology was a field of study until I started my master’s degree. 

Um, so yeah, and I didn’t get into biochemistry because I didn’t have those grades. And so I just got into general social science degree and I was so fed up with the whole system by the time I was in first year university, because I was under the impression that I could finally take courses that I wanted to take and no electives. In high school, they made you take drama. So that’s some of the crap I had to take. 

I was so fed up with having to take garbage courses. And then here I was again in university where I had all these electives that I had to take. And so I abandoned science altogether and took a whole heck of weird stuff in my first year. Like anthropology, gerontology, world religions, Greek history, earth and environmental sciences, theatre and film.

I took everything and then I decided I liked earth and environmental sciences, but I didn’t want to have to go back and redo first-year to get the B.Sc. So there was a little program that kind of melded policy with science. And it was called environmental studies. And so it was this world that lived in science, but kind of in social science. So I ended up with a BA.

ABENA: I had a counselor at university. I met her at the end of my first year, and I kind of wish that I had gone to see her sooner because she was like, this is the one time in your life – and this is pre online learning and all of that stuff – where you’re going to have the ability to be exposed to so many topics. So she was like, if you can, take them. Because you’re here and you’ve got that, like your mind can be blown. So I’m actually envious that you took all of that in your first year. That’s pretty awesome.

STEPHANIE: Well, I was rebelling. I was like, this is garbage. Like my parents said “you should be a vet”. And I was like, animals hate vets! Let’s go to get into biology, let’s dissect animals, or go be a vet where animals are terrified of you. And I was like, none of this seems like a place I want to be and no one in my world, no one in my orbit…

Me and my sister were the first ones to go to university and our family, with the exception, I think, of my dad, my dad’s brother, but everybody else was like high school, if that, maybe some college. So there wasn’t the background there to have people interject in my life to help direct me in choices like that. So, my parents were just like “be a vet, do this”. And I was firmly into my rebellious stage at the end of high school, into my first year of university. And I was just like, screw all of you. I’m not going to do any of these things and I’m going to do what I want for a change.

I don’t know what that is yet. And I’m going to do it all. 

ABENA: I wonder how things would have played out if you had kind of followed that traditional path, do you think you would have stayed in school?

STEPHANIE: I don’t know. This is an interesting question. So if I had a guidance counselor who was like, “Hey, there’s this world of ecology, maybe you should apply for that”, I would have found ecology sooner. But I met Duncan in my third/fourth year of university because he was in the geology department. So I was kind of again, living halfway in that world. And so I wouldn’t have met him, which wouldn’t have taken me to Calgary, which wouldn’t have gotten me to work for the zoo.

And that gave me a lot of experience in understanding animal behavior, which is what ultimately led to my master’s degree in animal behavior. So would I have gotten there on my own? I’d like to think so, but I had a lot of really low self-esteem, especially after the zoo, and doing my master’s degree really pulled me out of that.

But the zoo was what put me in that state. So. Again. Yeah. I don’t know if I would have been ballsy enough to do it after my undergrad. And I’d like to think that I would cause yeah, I was balsy enough to just throw away my first year and just say, I’m going to do whatever I want. Screw everybody else.

ABENA: Okay, so I’m gonna move on to your second photo. It’s a very intricate tattoo that looks like bats? 

STEPHANIE: They’re bats with the echolocation, you can see the dash lines that represent the echolocation calls. 

ABENA: Very, very cool. And so you got that right before you defended your master’s thesis? Yes. So I was curious, what’s the symbolism there?

STEPHANIE: I love tattoos. I have always kept my tattoos hidden so they could be discreet behind clothes. You just wouldn’t see them. I wanted to actually be able to show off some of the tattoos – a sleeve is on my next wishlist. In Ontario, it was very different. Whenever you were in the business core, people didn’t have tattoos.

We came to Calgary and there’s lots of people walking around downtown in their fancy office clothes, and you can see their tattoos loud and proud. So I just kind of felt empowered. And so I got one on my neck. Not as far forward as I wanted, but I’m glad as far back as it is. It’s kind of nice, it’s showy, but not showy.

And then there was a tradition, a lot of people in our lab got bad tattoos near the end or with, during their degree. And that was kind of holding this off till the end, because it’s a symbolic kind of time, right? Like the thesis defense is the thing you work towards. And so I was just like, I’m doing it again, like another big bold move.

And so, I found an artist here and he helped me design it. The echolocation calls are significant because that was a good chunk of my thesis. 

ABENA: And what prompted you to go ahead and get a master’s? 

STEPHANIE: Oh, I was at the zoo for almost four years. And it was clear that it was, it was never going to develop as a career, maybe once upon a time.

That’s what the industry in that company would have provided for young and upcoming zookeepers, but they were moving away from that. And that was becoming more and more evident to me and other young zookeepers that I’d been working with. You don’t see zookeepers at the end of their careers and for optimal health. I’ve seen a lot of deteriorating bodies and missing fingers and enough for me to recognize that, you know what, I do want a family at some point and I’d love to be whole. Or functional. It’s a really physically demanding job. And it’s not a nine to five; you don’t work Monday to Friday. And I missed so many holidays and so much time with friends and family that I was just like, this isn’t enough. As much as I loved it, it wasn’t enough. And so I was thinking about getting out and looking at other industry and honestly, undergrad degrees just don’t do what they used to do. I know a lot of the older boomers that were chatting with me about it, they’re like, oh, just start going to the offices and handing in resumes yourself. 

[00:13:01] Abena: Yeah. I’m laughing because I’m old enough to have done that and recognize that doesn’t work anymore.

[00:13:06] Stephanie: 

No, that’s not the world we’re in right now, but thanks. Um, I appreciate the feedback. So I did try looking for jobs, consulting firms, various other types of jobs and stuff like that. But if it’s like, you know, I had a BA I didn’t even have a B.Sc. So nobody was even gonna look at me.

Plus I did a bunch of teaching. Then I worked at the zoo. It looks funny on a resume. So the opportunity presented itself. One of the zookeepers that I worked with, a wonderful lady, is into bats and she had an in with a professor here at the university of Calgary and got me in touch and the rest is history.

ABENA: Awesome. And so your thesis was on echolocation? 

STEPHANIE: Yep. Part of it. The other half was roosting ecology in the Badlands that was fun. 

ABENA: So you went in to do this degree to kind of help facilitate a career shift. Did you have really strong expectations of what you would do with it? 

STEPHANIE: I had a couple of rough ideas, the degree itself, wasn’t for me getting in specifically to bat research, wasn’t that I thought bad research would get me into a bat related field. If I was going to do a master’s degree, it was going to be something I was interested in, and I did work with a lot of species at the zoo.

They tend to put a lot of the newbies with undesirable species or the less uncharismatic ones. And so they dumped me with the bats. And I was just like, this is awesome. I loved them. I fell in love with them. And a bunch of the other uncharismatic species like snakes. So I was doing something I loved and was really interested in and then what I got out of it, I was like, okay, as much as I had done this to find another job, me being in bats was a little niche. 

So I go into looking at some consulting jobs and it’s just like wetlands and fish and birds. And I’m like, Hmm. Definitely not into wetlands. It’s not my cup of tea and certainly not fish. It’s just like, nah, no, not a great swimmer either. You don’t want to toss me on a boat.

I was kind of sitting there thinking great – here’s me not thinking things through again. And I ended up working with the company that picked me up. 

ABENA: I have this question. Would you say that there’s a connection between your tattoo and your career path? 

STEPHANIE: Oh, that is a good choice because if there is a way into consulting through bats, it’s through echolocation, acoustic monitoring is the way in, unless you’re going to count carcasses at a wind turbine facility, which is an option.

But again, I don’t really like working with dead animals. I’d much prefer working with living things. Not to say that it’s not a viable career choice, it’s just my personal preference, but yeah, so it did work out and again, it’s a field that not a lot of biologists really like living in or dancing too much in, but most biologists, I know, think it’s really boring, but I loved it.

It was a weird meld between biology, ecology, and math. There’s a lot of statistics involved. Um, math has always been a strong suit for me. So getting to use math with ecology just lit me on fire.

ABENA: It immediately took me back to when you first discovered ecology. Could you ever have imagined that you could find a career path that would blend those two interests?

STEPHANIE: Again, this brings me back to the elephant picture. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time really thinking things through. I know this isn’t a great way to phrase someone’s life where I didn’t have these big lofty goals. I was just like, yeah, I’m going to just do this. And what happens afterwards is future Stephanie’s problem.

I didn’t spend a ton of time thinking these things through and that’s a theme that’s existed well through high school, that’s a big chunk of my life is I don’t really have a lot of well thought out plans. And how the heck I ended up landing on my feet, I still have no idea. I’m not entirely sure how that happened.

ABENA: Well, it’s interesting though, because there are so many careers that didn’t exist back when, for example, you were doing your undergrad, that people may find themselves in. Now. I personally think that it’s really challenging to plan for a career and what it’s going to look like 15, 20, 30 years from now.

ABENA: How do you envision your life would be different had you started out with a concrete career plan? And you sort of alluded that you may have found your way to the spot where you are now. 

STEPHANIE: I think what worries me about that question is I spent a lot of time pushing back against norms. That’s very much a fundamental character trait/flaw TBD of my personality.

And it’s something that I like about myself. I liked that I pushed boundaries. Because it takes me to interesting places. I think if I accepted things and took a more conventional path, I think that actually would have meant that I wouldn’t push back. And I’d maybe be more of a basic person, almost less of a bats and maths kind of person.

It worries me that I would lose that part of myself. And I don’t know what that would make me. Boring.  

ABENA: So when you were a little kid, did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? 

STEPHANIE: Oh, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was like, I had watched free Willy. It was the greatest movie ever.

I was going to train whales and that was what I was going to do. Not necessarily like in a captivity setting, but I was just like, “yeah, oh my gosh, this is amazing”. And then as I got older and thought about it more and more and more. I’m not a good swimmer. I’m quite terrified of the ocean and of sharks so marine biology was not an option for me.

And so I realized that and I was like, well, I don’t know what else there is. And then again, you end up down the path of guidance, counselors and aptitude tests. 

ABENA: I know I sounded really quite surprised by that because, to me, it’s awesome that you ended up working with animals. 

STEPHANIE: Right? Yeah. It’s like my childhood self knew what I wanted to do. And it was just like past Stephanie, childhood Stephanie knew; I just didn’t know how to get there. And then when I got older and I started to think about logistics, like, how do you actually get from point a to point B, this isn’t possible. And I just wrote it off, which is sad.

And that’s like, this is kind of alluding to, that I’m worried about if I just accepted things. I have done that in other parts of my life, and there are other parts of my life that I firmly rebel against. I’d be worried that I’d miss out on a lot of cool stuff. Maybe I would’ve never dreamed of being a marine biologist.

Firefighter was the backup.

ABENA: So I have one last question. It’s actually looking for advice for the listeners, and your advice was quote: “Get a grasp of what matters for you and fuck everyone else’s expectations or guidance. They don’t know you and don’t know what will work for you. Deep down, you know what works and you just have to be bold.”

STEPHANIE: Yep. Perfect.

ABENA: You’re like, “Enough said!”

STEPHANIE: Yeah, mic drop. Next question.

ABENA: What I was going to ask around that was if you’d always kind of held that close and true to you.

STEPHANIE: Yes, I think this kind of ties into my pushing back against – not society – but against like authoritative forces.
I started to realize that the adults in my life didn’t know what they were talking about and they didn’t know what I was interested in, and I’ve always really had a strong grasp.

I’ve always been this way, even since I was little. Like I never had a problem advocating for what I wanted.

It was always in the forefront of my brain and so realizing this is an adult that if this isn’t a feature that’s in everybody’s head, that they don’t intrinsically know what they want. And that’s not a paralyzing subject for them, but like it really is there – you really do know what you want to do deep down. Dig into it, lean into it and be OK with it.

It’s fine to like what you like. You can just like it because you like it. And that’s OK. Lean into it and have fun. This is your only shot at it.

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Music: Been and Gone by The Permanent Residents (Duncan Findlay, Adam Carter) ℗ 2016. Used with permission from the artists.

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