Spotlight on Supporting Diverse Voices: Bridgett vonHoldt

Spotlight on Supporting Diverse Voices: Bridgett vonHoldt

With Supporting Diverse Voices grants, Princeton University Press offer historically excluded and underrepresented scholars around the globe the opportunity to develop a book proposal in group or one-on-one settings with one of our partnering book coaches, each with her own approach to the collaborative development process. In this Author Q&A, we highlight the work of Dr. Bridgett vonHoldt, Supporting Diverse Voices grantee and Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University.

Her research utilizes the signatures of evolutionary history recorded in the DNA of wolves, dogs, and coyotes. With a long history of her work impacting the conservation of endangered gray and red wolves in North America, she was drawn to the opportunity to translate one of her research stories into a book proposal that highlights how a common, often overlooked underdog species is the key for the survival of a closely related endangered species. This is her story of the coyote and the red wolf.

What led you to propose this book?

BVH: At several points in my career over the years, I have wanted to reach a wider audience beyond those who read peer-reviewed scientific publications. Yet, scientists are trained to write in a specific manner that is devoid of non-scientific opinion and supported by a high standard of empirical evidence. Although I absolutely enjoy that writing process, I felt that something was still missing. Self-reflection also showed me that I had no understanding of what was possible for writing a book. After a few discussions with a colleague who has published a couple of her own books, I applied to PUP’s Supporting Diverse Voices grant opportunity. I received the grant and was under the guidance of an experienced mentor to construct a book proposal. It was eye-opening and confidence-building! After writing the proposal and signing a contract with PUP, I have really found a new outlet for all my thoughts that essentially do not find space in my scientific writing. I am energized to synthesize my research with my status as a concerned citizen and an informed member of a global community. The support of the SDV grant has provided me the support to explore additional ways to communicate my profession in words that I hope are accessible to an audience that I never thought would be available to me.

What is the most misunderstood perspective when people talk about “hybrids”?

BVH: My book is focused on challenging the world to redefine what they think the word “hybrid” means, especially in the context of protecting endangered species. Much of my time spent communicating science is defining words for the story. I find that most people think they know the definition of these seemingly “easy” words, but the iceberg is much larger and goes much deeper, with a richness that is often missed. Hybrids are not limited to the mating between two distinct species. Hybridization can also occur between two distinct groups of things, with the metric of “distinct” needing a clear justification (and likely often supported by a deeper evolutionary story). The other aspect is that hybrids, and their subsequent admixed offspring over the following generations of mating, are valuable to biodiversity and, even further, to endangered species conservation. My book tells the story of how a common species, the coyote, may actually hold the key to saving their close relative, the red wolf, from extinction. The oxymoron? The ubiquitous coyote carries genes of an endangered species. I explore the discovery of these unique coyotes that harbor a sometimes significant amount of red wolf genetics. Should these coyotes be rebranded as ghost wolves? How much genetic ancestry before one species turns into the other?

How do you balance your research program between application and theory?

BVH: My mentors and colleagues span the entire gradient from those who avoid the public spotlight to those who are obsessed with it. Yet we are all responsible for translating our esoteric work into consumable tidbits for a much larger audience. When our research has a potential impact on policies (for humans or nature), then our ability to communicate our findings is even more critical. My balance of theory and application is found in the research questions I ask. I am fascinated with the deeper evolutionary history of how species branch off to form new species and change over time with their environments. I am also fascinated with the trench that exists between research and the translation of findings into meaningful policy or application. Researchers can develop patents and then promote their product to the commercial community. I find the larger value in my research when I communicate its implications to government agency members and politicians. As a researcher, I value the ability to connect with anyone, regardless of their educational background. I accept any invitation that challenges me to adjust where I start the conversation with an audience. The part of my research that explores theory produces a wonderful challenge to explore what connects people to each other and respond to those that are looking to think more deeply about the world.

Do you get to play a role in saving endangered species? What do those roles look like for an academic?

BVH: Yes! This has been an amazing and challenging part of my career. Not being trained as a policymaker or lawyer, I am continually learning how to balance the scientific jargon with actionable goals and yardsticks with which to measure progress or outcomes. Our roles as academics come in diverse opportunities. My role takes the shape of sitting at a (virtual) table composed of a large community of educators, politicians, scientists, agency staff, private stakeholders, and citizens and being a part of the discussion for drafting an updated Species Recovery Plan. There are also opportunities to be a part of the discussion with the association that oversees the captive care and pedigree of endangered species; the discussion among NGOs that draft policies that will likely end up on a ballot that promote the protection and conservation of species; or the discussion more globally among the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

As a professor, your career carries a significant expectation to communicate your work to others. What do you find that is different from being a professor compared to that of a science communicator?

BVH: I frequently find myself surprising the people I meet when they learn I am a professor. The stereotype of scientists is outdated—inclusivity is the long-overdue priority. Diverse voices are the platform on which science will advance with richer knowledge and perspective. When I work to communicate science, my goal is to find a way to connect and find that common thread that hopefully engages the audience and show them something new. As we find ourselves surrounded by rapid ways in which information turns viral on social media outlets, thus emerges a need for diversity in academics.