Women in Herpetology – 50 stories from around the world

Umilaela Arifin in the herpetological collection at the Museum der Natur Hamburg. © LIB, F. Steinkröger


Umilaela Arifin works as a herpetologist at the Museum of Natural History in Hamburg and has experienced a great deal in her research career. Now, she has teamed up with 49 other women in her field to publish “Women in Herpetology” – a book that gives each individual the space to tell their own personal story. In the interview, Arifin shares how the project came about and who will benefit from the proceeds.

How was the idea for the book born?

It was a very long process. Since I started my journey in herpetology, I often share my experiences with my friends, either about my fieldwork or my overall journey pursuing a career in herpetology, which is not always easy. Many found my stories fascinating and inspiring. They suggested writing them into a book and even offered to write them on my behalf. I never did! I wasn’t confident because I believed that other people probably have more interesting and inspiring stories than mine. However, the idea of trying it out kept coming back to me. Still, I felt it would be biased to write only a personal story about myself. That is when I thought of having people (from all over the world) write together and compile these stories in a book. I was certain that it would definitely be more compelling than a book with only one personal story. I shared this idea with Dr. Itzue Wendolin Caviedes Solis during our hike at Arthur Pass, New Zealand in 2020, after we attended the ninth World Congress of Herpetology in Dunedin. Itzue and I first met at the eighth World Congress of Herpetology in China 2016 and we became best friends over the years. I then invited Dr. Sinlan Poo, who I have known for a decade, to strengthen our team later that year. The three of us met virtually in November 2020 to confirm that we are all on the same page for the project and to start making a concrete plan. That meeting marked the beginning of our journey for this book, which we finally published recently. Such a relief! We feel like we have just given birth to our “pandemic baby”!

What guidelines were given for the stories told in the book?

Initially, we wanted to give strict guidelines to maintain a coherent narrative throughout the book. However, we eventually decided on the opposite approach. We wanted to give the authors as much freedom as possible to choose what part of their story they wanted to tell. The only requirements we set were the word limit. Each author could decide how much personal information to share or which aspects of her career and life to focus on. This approach gave us diverse stories in the book.

How did you select the contributing authors?

Our main goal was to put a spotlight on the diversity of women in the field of herpetology. To do so, we thought of having 50 women from 50 countries and regions from all continents as these numbers could represent a quarter of the total countries and regions in the world. For us, it was essential to represent diversity in all its forms and dimensions. Thus, these 50 women should represent a diverse profession and career stages, as well as from different institutions. It seemed like a daunting task at the beginning because we did not even know how to find these 50 women with the above-mentioned categories in our field. We began collecting the candidate names through our networks, extended networks, and then later we did internet research to fill the gaps. It was quite challenging because we wanted to have equal representation from each continent, but for some regions, we barely found any female herpetologists to be added on the candidate list. On the other hand, in some countries we had so many female herpetologists on the list to choose one from. After a thoughtful process, we have a selection of amazing female herpetologists that represent 50 different countries and regions from all six continents with different professions, career stages, and institutions. Our book is the first project that brings together 50 female herpetologists and 17 female illustrators from around the world, highlighting wonderful collaborations between women in science and women in arts.

What story do you tell in the book?

Whenever someone asks me, “why do I study amphibians?” I usually answer: “I was trapped and then I trapped myself”. This is also what I generally shared in the book. The story on how I encountered my passion for amphibians and reptiles, and Indonesian biodiversity in general. When I was a child, I did not know what a scientist is and that it is a profession. Thus, I had never dreamed of becoming one. With my family situation at that time, my goal after obtaining a university degree was clearly to find a well-paying job so that I can support my parents. A very practical reason, which was very common in my hometown. I did not anticipate that my life changed significantly after I joined a three-month herpetological expedition on Sulawesi island of Indonesia with researchers from the USA, Canada, and Indonesia. Now I am happy to call myself a scientist who is studying amphibians and reptiles – an animal group that I used to dislike, which became my “lucky charm” that brought me to numerous places across the Indonesian archipelago and the world. Through my story, I want to tell the readers that a small event in someone’s life could change the course of their life. In addition, as life is always unpredictable, I believe that enjoying the process toward the result is much more important than solely focusing on the result.

Why did you become a herpetologist and choose this challenging career path?

I think it is simply because of my love for nature. Moreover, why amphibians? Maybe because of the three-month expedition I joined in 2004 that opened my eyes to what research on amphibians and reptiles is like. And because I learned that amphibians are often being overlooked as a study animal compared to tigers or orang-utans. I used to think that amphibians are disgusting and back then, I was fond of plants. I did not know so many things about amphibians before I saw them with my own eyes during that Sulawesi expedition and I ended up liking them. The more I learned about amphibians, the more fascinating they became to me. This situation reminded me of the Indonesian proverb “tak kenal maka tak sayang” (if you do not know, you won’t like them). By studying amphibians, I understand how fascinating Indonesian biodiversity is, and that so much more to be done to protect and preserve them. I also realised that for the same reasons, many scientists from overseas come to Indonesia to conduct biodiversity research. As an Indonesian, I thought, I should be the one who cares and understands more about Indonesian biodiversity than those who are not even from the region. That is why I decided to choose this career path, so that I have profound knowledge on Indonesian biodiversity and use it to contribute to the efforts for protecting and preserving them. I also think that transferring my knowledge on to the next generations is as important as doing research itself. In addition, although I am currently based in Germany, I am continuing my research focus on my homeland, Indonesia.

Is it common for women from different cultures and regions to work in countries like Germany, the USA, or other developed countries where there are large natural history museums or research institutes?

I think it varies greatly. I believe everyone has their own valid reasons why they choose to stay in their homeland or somewhere else to be able to do what they want to do. Either way is fine. I know some colleagues who are from developing countries but working in other countries and some who remain in their home countries. Moreover, those colleagues from both categories are doing excellent work. Nevertheless, why do we rarely hear about scientists who are based in less developed countries? The answer could vary too, but I guess because those scientists do not care much about being visible to societies and communities outside their regions or countries where they are based. They might only want to focus on doing good work for the society as well as communities where they are in. On the other hand, they might have various limitations that make them less visible to the world than others, not to mention the access to social media platforms. Thus, it was important to have them in our book. We want to help these scientists to be more visible to the world and get recognition they deserve for their contribution to the field. Additionally, we want to facilitate them to meet and network with others, so that they can exchange their knowledge or research interests as well as initiate collaboration with each other whenever possible. And most importantly, they could feel that they are not alone!

Gender equality is an issue not only in Germany. In many countries, it is even more challenging for women to pursue a research career. Does the book address these issues?

Indeed! Although it is generally improving, gender equality, including in STEM, is still a major issue globally. Looking back to my experience, it was not easy for me to get to where I am now, especially having fieldwork as an integral component for my research. And I am fully aware that the way further is even more challenging than before. So, what contributes to this issue? Societal structures, cultures, norms, and tradition might influence this gender inequality. Moreover, there is a lack of role models, especially those who look like us. When I started my journey in herpetology, I knew only two Indonesian female herpetologists. I wish I could have more Indonesian female herpetologists to look up to. We want to contribute to improving this situation through this book. Our 50 authors from 50 countries and regions kindly share their personal narrative that intersects their gender, cultural background, and professional journey while pursuing a career in the field of herpetology. We believe that every voice counts and every story matters. This book gives us hope that everyone can be whatever they want to be and that being ourselves is not only accepted but appreciated! Everyone should be evaluated based on their ability and competency and not because they are women or because of any other label that society adds to them. Therefore, we are going to use all profits from the book sales to establish a scholarship for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Our biggest dream is to create a world where repression and oppression is fought against and not perpetuated. A world where we all are welcome and where we all feel like we belong.

How did you finance the entire book?

When my two colleagues and I started this book project, we were aware that we have zero money for the project. We did it anyway because we believe it is a meaningful project. In addition, I guess our sincerity was contagious. We successfully gathered a total of 50 contributing authors from around the world to work together for this book project. Later, we managed to convince 17 of more than 100 illustrators who we contacted, to work pro bono for this project. In an ideal scenario, everyone who contributed to this book project, such as authors, illustrators, editors, book designers, proof readers and many more, shall receive compensation for their time and efforts. However, as Jess Jardim-Wedepohl our illustrator from South Africa said: “This book has been such a labour of love for everyone involved!” None of us received money for our contribution, except for the book designer who we paid from donations that we collected. Still, it was not comparable with the amount of work that our book designer has to spend on this project. Especially knowing she has donated five illustrations for the book. We, therefore, are very grateful to everyone who kindly donated their time to work on this project. This book was made possible by everyone’s contribution. Also, we published the book via a self-publishing company with a print on demand system. For this, we did not have to spend any money, other than for purchasing ISBN and copyright for our book.

How did you select the individuals to receive a scholarship?

This book is the result of friendships and networks that were formed during professional gatherings like conferences. Navigating the toxic world of academia as a minority is hard. Meeting others through these gatherings could make us feel that we are not alone. Representation certainly matters and meeting people in our field that look like us increases our sense of belonging and reduces stereotype threat. In fact, we, the three editors of the book, met at the conference. Attending conferences has increased our sense of belonging in our field and it has allowed us to meet collaborators and make friends from all over the world. For these reasons, we choose herpetological conferences as a venue to deliver the scholarship from the book profits. We want the students, who will receive our scholarship, experience the benefits we have. With the nature of the WCH that is rotating to different regions every four to five years, the eligibility for the candidates will depend on where the WCH is hosted. For the 10th World Congress of Herpetology in Malaysia (2024), eligible candidates include women based in Southeast Asian countries. Scholarships will be given to one undergraduate and one graduate student, who will present a paper or a poster at the Congress.

For more information about the book, visit www.womeninherpetology.com


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