Life lessons propel conservation biology graduate toward environmental law

Trust, mindfulness and interconnectedness as important as coursework

April 18, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Bailey Reynolds chose to attend Arizona State University for three reasons. First, it’s close to home. Second, its dedicated to inclusivity. And third, she figured with a school as large as ASU, she would have a lot of opportunities to find her calling. Bailey Reynolds Bailey Reynolds is earning her BS in biological sciences (conservation biology and ecology) from the ASU School of Life Sciences. Photo courtesy Bailey Reynolds Download Full Image

And find it, she did.

Reynolds is graduating with her Bachelor of Science in biological sciences — specifically in conservation biology and ecology. Two courses in conservation and sustainability, as well as study abroad experiences, confirmed her career path in conservation and expanded her world view.

“Both classes and my experiences abroad helped me realize that no one species, or social issue, or positive action taken is more important than the other,” Reynolds said. “Every moving piece is part of another and we cannot create equitable systems for all lifeforms if we do not acknowledge the interconnectedness of the economy, society, environment — everything.”

After graduation, Reynolds will be conducting research with a previous internship supervisor. The goal is to publish an updated version of her supervisor’s book on how new legislation has impacted the regulatory functions of government agencies.  

She’s also considering Americorps programs and will be applying to law schools with intent to enroll come fall 2020.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to pursue a career in your field?

Answer: In the fall of 2017, I was simultaneously taking Professor Sharon Hall’s Conservation of Biodiversity and Professor Dan Childers' Sustainable World when I was like, “Yeah, this is important to me, this makes sense.” Both professors are passionate about their work and good teachers in general, so I think it would be hard to take one of their classes and not care about protecting the Earth and everything that is encompassed within it.

It hit me even harder when I studied abroad in South Africa that I wanted to work in conservation, sustainability and environmental justice. You can’t just see a herd of elephants out in nature, or eat baobab fruit right off the "tree of life," or listen to children giggling in Tshivenda and not feel deeply connected to and protective over every single part of the natural world.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I learned recently that when urban development occurs in Arizona we tend to just build and worry about how we’re going to get water to people after the fact. That was definitely surprising and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. It kind of goes against the whole practice of systems thinking — which I found most perspective-changing. Systems thinking requires that we consider every alternative outcome to a proposed intervention. We could prevent so many externalities if we just considered whole systems more often!

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Sharon Hall taught me the ins and outs of conservation science and the importance of social sciences in this field. Seriously, everyone should take BIO 322.

Dr. Sabine Feisst taught me the importance of mindfulness and listening. She also helps her students blend art with nature and science and she challenges them to be thoughtful and creative whenever possible.

Dr. Molina Walters taught me to trust myself and my abilities. She also gets the message through to all of her students that as educated people, it is our duty to communicate what we know with others to ensure that we create the best possible future for all life that is to come.

Professor Jacob Gold taught me how to do my taxes, plan for retirement, and be a nice person! All of these people taught me to find purpose and passion in my work!

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Take care of yourself. School is important but feeling better than OK is more important.

It’s been said time and time again, but say yes to as many things as possible, as early as possible. Get involved, volunteer, apply for jobs and internships that seem cool even if you think you may not be qualified and ask the professors that you really like if they need help with any of their projects.

Don’t let the fear of rejection or the fear of not excelling at something right off the bat deter you from trying something new. Way easier said than done, but it was good advice when I heard it and it’s good advice now.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Wrigley: I just feel like there are a lot of good ideas and super bright people pulsing through this building at all times.

Social Sciences: The courtyard of this building is essentially a small garden and I dig plants — which is probably not all that surprising considering my area of study. Plus, I think all the vegetation and open ventilation make this building way cooler temp-wise during the warmer months.

Pathway between Interdisciplinary B and Discovery Hall: My friend Tyler Chleborad and I had a freshman math class (shout out Professor Banerjee) in Discovery Hall and every time I walk down that pathway, I’m reminded of my friend and all the good chats we had on the walk back to our dorms. Plus, it’s just pretty over there. Again, I’m a fan of green things.

Q: What’s something you are most proud of during your time at ASU?

A: I was really naive when I first arrived at ASU. That said, I am proud of how much I expanded my general bank of knowledge as well as my worldview. I’m really happy that I took the opportunity to study abroad in both Costa Rica and South Africa because those immersive experiences increased my appreciation for different cultures, environments and ways of life and allowed me to approach each moment thereafter with a new perspective.

I am also happy that the projects I worked on outside of class were interdisciplinary in nature. I interned with the state of Arizona where I worked with data, communications and finance experts to write grants for sustainable initiatives within agencies and promote reductions in single occupancy vehicles on the road. I also measured socio-cultural perceptions of water in rural towns when I interned with Arizona Humanities, a nonprofit whose mission is to build a just and civil society by creating opportunities to explore our shared human experiences through discussion, learning and reflection. 

Moreover, I worked with students and teachers from science, technology, business and arts backgrounds when working on research projects pertaining to helium extraction and acoustic ecology. I just feel like I learned so much and grew a lot as a person over the past four years and I’m much happier with who I am today than with who I was back then.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Climate change, poverty and biodiversity loss. I don’t think we can talk about one of those things without the other. Socially vulnerable people and animals usually contribute the least to increasing rates of climate change yet feel the effects more strongly than other populations. It’s just not right.

Q: Describe some challenges or hurdles you faced while earning your degree, and what you did or what took place to overcome them.

A: My house got robbed about a month ago and I lost a whole semester and a half’s worth of thesis progress, but I powered through and passed my defense anyway!

I’ve struggled with my mental health since I was a teen, so there were many times when anxiety and depression took a toll on me and my ability to do my best at school and work. I’m stubborn and for the longest time I thought that my body and mind would just work themselves out, but when I finally took actions to address those issues I was so much better off. That’s kind of heavy and dramatic, but I think it’s important that we continue the recent trend of talking about mental health more openly and destigmatizing mental health issues. In talking about this stuff we’ve started to realize that it’s not all that uncommon and that there are people out there who can relate to feelings that some may think are only unique to them.  

Q: Are there any particular people (advisers, family or friends) who really supported you on your journey — and what did they do to help?

A: I love the saying “a person is not a person without other people” because I really feel that I would not be the person I am today without the support and guidance from all the influential people that have entered my life or even briefly passed through it.  Here are just a few of the people that have shaped me and helped me grow:

Mom, Dad and Danielle: literally the best family imaginable. They are truly my best friends and confidants. I don’t know what I would do without them.

Nichol Brown, Maria Brunacini and Sawyer Treese: each of these people have been blessings to me in one way or another during my time at ASU. They listened to me when I was stressed out or just plain emotional, encouraged me when I doubted myself and continually challenged me to be a better human. I respect all of these people intensely and consider them role models.

Nichol was my suitemate freshman year, Maria was my first official college friend, and I’ve known Sawyer since we were kids and it’s been cool to see him evolve into the wonderfully self-actualized person that he is today.  

Q: Looking back, is there anything you would go back and change?

A: I like to say that I don’t regret anything because I think I made the choices that I did for a reason, but I do think that I was unnecessarily insecure for like the first two years that I was at ASU, which is silly because nobody really has it all together. I still struggle with confidence on a daily basis; so I guess if I absolutely had to change something I would have spoken and acted with humility rather than insecurity.

Q: What did ASU provide to you that you think you could not have found anywhere else?

A: Maybe I just know a lot of really motivated people, but I have not met anyone at ASU who has not interned some place, worked on some cool research project or studied abroad. I think ASU does a pretty nice job of setting us up to do well if we take advantage of all the pathways that are available to us.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


image title

Storytelling gives Navajo poet a way to 'glitter'

The transition from poetry to music was natural for ASU prof Laura Tohe.
Laura Tohe's work reflects her Navajo heritage and her personal family stories.
April 18, 2019

ASU Professor Emerita of English Laura Tohe honored with award ahead of the international premiere of her second libretto

The acronym DOWM is a trope many scholars of Western canon are familiar with. It refers to the argument that the body of literature, music, philosophy and art that represent Western culture is disproportionately dominated by the work of “dead, old white men.”

Looking back on her life, Arizona State University Professor Emerita of English Laura Tohe sees evidence to support this.

As a child growing up in the remote community of Crystal, New Mexico, in the Navajo Nation, Tohe relished trips to the library, the main form of entertainment in a household with no television. She devoured works by Edgar Allan Poe, Nancy Drew mysteries and “Batman” comic books — a literary weaning on stories about white people, written by white people.

“When I was about 12 years old, I wanted to be a writer,” Tohe recalls. “But I didn't know how I could do it. … I thought only white people could be authors.”

Later, at the University of New Mexico, she took a writing course with Rudolfo Anaya — author of the renowned Chicano coming-of-age novel “Bless Me, Ultima” — who encouraged Tohe to look to her own family’s stories for inspiration.

“This light bulb went off in my head and I realized, ‘You know, he's right. I've always been surrounded by storytellers,’” she said.

Today, Tohe is an award-winning, critically acclaimed poet who has written and co-authored five books, several essays and two librettosA libretto is the text used in an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata or musical., the most recent of which, “Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World,” will premiere at the Rouen Opera House in France on Tuesday, April 23.

The premiere comes on the heels of her participation in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, City-County Library’s Festival of Words in March where she was honored with the Tulsa Library Trust’s “Festival of Words Writers Award,” joining the ranks of such past recipients as Leslie Marmon-Silko, Vine DeLoria Jr. and Joy Harjo.

The award is the first and only such given by a public library to honor an American Indian writer. Teresa Runnels, coordinator for the library’s American Indian Resource Center, said Tohe was chosen as this year’s recipient because of the variety and scope of her repertoire.

poet Laura tohe

English Professor Emerita Laura Tohe, Navajo Nation Poet Laureate, poses for a portrait at her Mesa home. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The purpose of the award, Runnels said, is “to give recognition to American Indian writers in the hope that more will come along, because there’s not a whole lot. And also to recognize the hard work that these writers go through to tell their stories.”

Tohe attended the daylong festival in Tulsa with her son, Dez Tillman, who accompanied her on guitar for a spoken word performance of some of her rain-themed poems. Before that, they were welcomed by a traditional drum group and a chorus of Pawnee Public School children singing renditions of The Beatles’ “Let it Be” and the theme song to “Rocky” in their native tongue.

Tohe called it “an incredible, moving and beautiful experience,” adding, “I'd never been honored quite that way before.”

Having a poet as a mother never fazed Tillman when he was young, even though he often went along with her when she led writing workshops and taught at the university. It wasn’t until he became an adult that he realized she was doing something special.

“It’s really cool to see her blossom on this journey,” he said. “It’s like she’s been planting seeds since I was a kid, and now it’s all coming to fruition and she’s being recognized for her work as one of the main voices for Native people in this country.”

Tillman sees his mother as an inspiration for American Indian writers to join in and add their part to the narrative of Native people in America. And he’s not wrong; as the Navajo Nation Poet Laureate, for the past two summers Tohe has participated in a weeklong writing institute for Navajo youth at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico.

“For the younger generation of Navajo writers, this is their first real opportunity to have teachers who are Navajo, who are published, who are giving these workshops, and they’re embracing that and participating in it,” she said.

Like Tohe’s most recent publication, “Code Talker Stories,” an oral history book about the remaining Navajo Code Talkers, almost all of her work is influenced by her cultural history, and much of it is influenced by her family.

Visits with her relatives were always punctuated by stories.

“When you visit family, that’s the first thing you do, is start telling stories, even if it's something minor, like, ‘On my drive into Gallup I saw a prairie dog standing on the side of the road,’” she said. “This is a way that we share our lives with each other, through storytelling.”

The first creative writing piece Tohe wrote in college relayed a story her mother told her and her siblings on childhood trips from the reservation into town for supplies. It was the tale of a brother and sister who, neglected by their parents, turned into prairie dogs; hence the animal’s human-like penchant for standing on its hind legs.

Animals often play a role in Tohe’s work. The upcoming presentations of the oratorio “Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World,” a sort of small-scale opera for which she wrote the text, will feature live animals, including an owl and a wolf.

“Nahasdzáán” translates to “Mother Earth” in Navajo, and according to their culture, the “glittering world” is the age we are presently living in. The piece confronts the Earth’s current state of climate change-induced distress and the need for it to heal.

“Animals are an integral part of this world that we live in and Native peoples have always revered them as relatives,” Tohe said. “Humans have caused a lot of destruction to the air and water and to the ground, and we need to stop and also look at how this affects not just humans but the animals as well.”

“Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World,” is her second libretto, having been commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony in 2008 to write the text for “Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio.”

The transition from poetry to music was a natural one for Tohe.

“Poetry is a lot like writing music,” she said. “You have to listen to the sound of the words, and you're concerned with line length and with the rhythm of the language.”

The realm of music is one she intends to explore further, through future collaborations with her son. Right now, they’re looking to record Tohe reading her poetry against a backdrop of original music composed by Tillman. They hope to have something completed within the year.

Top photo: ASU Professor Emerita of English Laura Tohe at her home in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now