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Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. features UMaine scientist Bob Steneck

Written by Carly Dickson

As an environmental enthusiast and hopeful conservation biologist, you can imagine my outrage against the new administration.

So, of course, I booked a ticket to Washington, D.C. to join the March for Science. A week before the march, however, I encountered a brief article in Zoogoer magazine about an event being held from April 21 to April 23 called the “Earth Optimism Summit.”

The summit was a giant gathering featuring scientists, artists, philanthropists, leaders and citizens invested in promoting sustainability and restoring natural places. The Smithsonian, National Geographic, Discovery and others sponsored the event so that people around the world could share what is working in conservation.  

After I read the article and entire website inside and out, I knew I had to go to the summit and skip the March for Science. As excited as I was, I was also extremely anxious. I’ve never been to anything like this, so I didn’t know what it’d be like to go, especially alone. Where would I sit at lunch? Do I approach people? What do I say if I get the courage to speak?

It was obviously a wonderful networking opportunity for a want-to-be scientist. However, walking up to someone and introducing yourself is one of the most terrifying things for a millennial, I think. Not only that, but I have idolized some of these scientists since I was a little girl. If I got the courage to introduce myself, I had to keep my cool together and make a good impression.

The summit was two days long. It was scheduled so that there was one plenary in the morning and smaller sessions (called “Deep Dives”) in the late morning and into the afternoon. In the evening, there was one more plenary followed by a reception. There were also information tables in the atrium from different organizations to hand out information about themselves in between sessions.

Since I am interested in conservation biology, I chose to attend the Deep Dives about revitalizing endangered species and community engagement. However, the talks ranged from a wide variety of topics including food, energy, engaging communities, overfishing, communication and more. More importantly, each speaker was chosen to address an accomplishment of their work.

Dr. Bob Steneck from the University of Maine gave a talk on collaborating with locals in Bonaire and restoring the first seaweed reef back into a coral reef. Each talk left you with just a little bit of hope and Dr. Steneck’s was no exception.

At my first Deep Dive, one of my idols was speaking. He works on restoring black-footed ferrets back into the great plains. All black-footed ferrets in the wild today are descendants of 18 individuals caught in 1987 for captive breeding. Before that, they were believed to be extinct.

Since 1991, they have been released back into six states and have been reproducing on their own. They are a success in conservation.

Some other scientists spoke about the success of the California condor, Prezwalski’s horse, sea turtles and plants on the Hawaiian Islands. I wanted to meet them all, but I chose to speak with the black-footed ferret expert. It was really nerve-wracking. I awkwardly approached the front of the room to shake his hand, but someone beat me to it. So I tried to catch him on the way out. I didn’t feel like I gained anything from the interaction, but I am glad I got over my anxiety and did it. It made talking to others feel smoother.  

Over the course of the summit, I chatted with four more scientists whose work I found enticing. Some were intimidating and some were overly-friendly. Some gave me powerful advice for applying to graduate schools, others gave me simple life advice about growing up. Some even handed me business cards.

The attitude inside the Ronald Reagan Trade Center was radically different than the attitudes of all the scientists marching down the streets of Washington.

Even though there is a lot of environmental chaos with the new administration, there are many brilliant minds that span the entire world striving to conserve this planet. I was fortunate enough to stand in the same room as them and now I am inspired to join them.

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