GoAbroad Interview

Katherine Comer Santos - Director

Katherine Comer Santos

Katherine’s early career involved working as a biologist for the City of San Diego and serving in the Peace Corps in Honduras in 1995. In 2006, she founded The Science Exchange. Currently, Katherine works as an Adjunct Research Associate at San State University in the biology department, where she coincidentally earned her master’s degree in geography. During her graduate studies, she spent time studying sea turtles in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and she has continued doing research ever since.

You began your academic pursuits studying psychology and Spanish literature. What sparked your interest in science and biology? 

Like many undergraduates, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I wanted to be a psychiatrist, but when our lab work involved doing experiments on live animals that then needed to be euthanized, I knew I needed to find something else. However, I still use concepts from psychology while teaching and training our interns.

 I began to focus on conservation of wildlife while working in Honduras in the Peace Corps planting organic coffee farms. I continued this interest at the San Diego Zoo, where I had the opportunity to volunteer with the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species researchers in the Caribbean on a few field trips. In Puerto Rico, we stayed at a turtle camp and the biologist told us that a hawksbill turtle would be nesting at 9 p.m. that night. How did he know?! He led us straight to my first nesting turtle and I knew then that I wanted to have that kind of bond with nature and these animals.

The Science Exchange students with locals in Mexico
Training students and locals in Mexico

Why are you passionate about supporting conservation on an international level?

There are no boundaries in nature, only the ones humans create and enforce. The only way to work on conservation issues is internationally, especially with migratory species such as sea turtles.

How did you come up with the idea for The Science Exchange? Why is it unique?

In graduate school I was a teaching assistant, so I was not fortunate enough to have a thesis project handed to me by my department and instead I had to come up with my own project. I used my network from working as a Zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo and asked around until I hit the jackpot - Dr. Allison Alberts needed to analyze a stack of sea turtle nesting data and was leaving for the field in two weeks! 

Looking back, I realized that some of my colleagues did not graduate on time or at all, because they did not know who to ask for help on coming up with a thesis topic. Also, when I was an intern at the University of Barcelona in 2003, I petitioned for credits at my university and realized that not many students knew how to do that. 

Finally, in 2006 I was in Loreto Bay, Mexico at a sea turtle conference and kept hearing speakers say “we need volunteers” over and over. I found very few study abroad programs that offered academic internships in conservation fields, so I thought, why not create a program where students can complete their research requirements, earn academic credits, and contribute to sea turtle conservation? 

We are unique in that interns complete their own research project from start to finish, and have the opportunity to publish or present their findings.

Students at a fundraising event for The Science Exchange
Fundraising event with students

What was your biggest challenge in establishing the organization?

Our biggest challenge is still finding funding for students who cannot afford to study abroad; we want diversity in our cohorts. Grants and donations are not as consistent as we would like. Many foundations only want to fund projects that occur in their own country. 

Why do you believe in the mission of The Science Exchange?

My generation and the ones before us created environmental situations on our planet that are extremely complex. I believe that it is our responsibility to provide the next generation with the tools and skills that are necessary to tackle global conservation issues, like climate change, ocean health, and species extinction. One of the most important of those skills is the ability to work on international teams, and we provide that experience.

What do you feel your greatest impact is? 

After reviewing our student comments and journals, I believe our greatest impact is the individual transformation of interns from students who are curious about the environment to confident adults who take responsibility for the environment and know how to get things done. One intern said, “I not only grew as a scientist and as a student, but it also helped me grow more as a person and as an activist for sea turtle conservation.” Another said, “This has definitely been a very humbling experience that has not only taught me about another culture and way of life, but has also taught me a lot about who I am and who I want to be.”

Girl snorkeling with turtles in Panama
Doing research in Panama

You spent two and half years with the Peace Corps working in sustainable agriculture. How does this experience help you in your current role? 

Our program is modelled after the Peace Corps, with a few adjustments. After a shorter training, interns go to the field and work independently (for two months instead of two years). We check on our interns, but they are supervised by a local researcher and immersed in their communities (whether in volunteer camps, fishing villages, or on university campuses). We use similar methods: we gain trust with local people by living like they do. Instead of telling local residents that we know the right way to do things, we exchange knowledge. A lot of the time we learn better methods from the locals. If we find that we have something to offer, we demonstrate our new methods through actions.

We use basic research methods that can be replicated by locals after we leave. An example of this is that although we do have a GPS, we triangulate sampling points on the beach using permanent landmarks so everyone can find them later. Before leaving a site, we leave behind all the research equipment and data we collected. We teach the local supervisors and volunteers how to continue the data collection independently. Ultimately, they are the stewards of the resource we study - sea turtles. If locals are not involved in conserving these sea turtle populations, the turtles will not survive.

Do  you have any insider tips for participants considering joining one of your programs? 

Like many situations in life, raised expectations can cause you strife. Before you leave for your research site, we try to prepare you to live like the local residents. However, this means you will often be out of your comfort zone, physically and mentally. An intern wrote, “It has been hard for me to get used to not having electricity, showering outside, not having a fridge, microwave, or oven, and having to walk almost a mile just get Wi-Fi. This place is definitely very different than any place I have ever been to before, but it is so beautiful and I feel like I can really connect with nature.” Nevertheless, you do forget the mosquitoes and heat after a while. 

Boat ride down a river
Traveling with local turtle supervisors

What are the benefits of having international experience in conservation?

Almost every intern so far has remarked that the internship was life changing and made them stronger. Many are still saving turtles and doing field work today. Almost every intern has used this internship as a stepping-stone to a job, vet school, med school, and grad school. 

What can we look forward to in 2017 from The Science Exchange?

For the first time, our interns will be coming together as a cohort during training AND for analysis of the data they collect. We will graph our data and run statistics as a team, and afterwards we will present our results to local supervisors and interested stakeholders.

We are also starting an in-water snorkeling study looking for hawksbills and evaluating fish populations at a marine reserve. Lastly, we are excited to welcome our first PhD student who will be evaluating the efficacy of our program in meeting its mission. We can’t wait to disseminate these results.