Southeast Asia has a great diversity of snakes, but we still have much to learn about them. Anne Devan-Song, currently a PhD candidate in the USA, shares some of her experiences of working with snakes in Southeast Asia and why this region needs more attention.
What is your current job or occupation?
I am currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oregon State University, and I study wildlife networks. Specifically, I use tools in disease ecology, conservation biogeography, and network analysis, to study properties of wildlife networks and how it applies to conservation.
Has your background always been in my wildlife?
Yes, for the most part. My undergraduate degree focused on molecular and cell biology, but I gravitated towards the environmental sciences. My Masters focused on wildlife management and human-wildlife conflict. My PhD incorporates field biology with quantitative tools using several different wildlife systems, including snakes!
How did you become interested in working with wildlife and more specifically, with snakes?
While many people that study snakes have always had this lifelong passion and had some kind of interactions with them when they were younger, I did not. I grew up in a high rise, urban area of Singapore and rarely went outdoors. My interest in snakes didn’t happen until my senior year at the National University of Singapore where I approached a professor, David Bickford. I wanted to work with monitor lizards, but he asked if I might be interested in a project studying reticulated pythons. They are the longest snakes in the world and are widespread throughout Southeast Asia. I fell in love with snakes after seeing my first wild reticulated python!
What led you to do a PhD in the USA?
That was just a happy accident. For my Masters degree, I was in Hong Kong, looking at the effects of translocation on a species of viper. My Master’s advisor, Dr Nancy Karraker, moved back to the USA during my project, and I moved with her. There is a great scientific community of herpetologists in the USA and an amazing diversity of landscapes.
Do you have any specific plans for projects in the future that you could share with us?
I would definitely like to focus more on projects in Southeast Asia, which is where I am from. One of my PhD projects involves unpacking the social, biological, and landscape factors that lead to inequities in snakebite mortality around the world. There are a lot of data gaps in the Asian tropics with few shared languages or shared databases, and this makes it difficult to make generalisations if we don’t represent as many countries as possible.
In what ways are you specifically involved in snakebite related work?
I am working on an integrative approach to studying snakebite envenoming, which is a neglected tropical disease. I also recently worked with an undergraduate student (Soyeon Kim) for her honours thesis at Oregon State University, where she explored mathematical models to characterize snakebite risk.
What are some of the challenges that you have faced?
One of the challenges I have faced working in tropical herpetology is the lack of baseline data. In the USA, it has been relatively easy to work on certain herpetofauna as there are decades of work to build upon. This also allows scientists to leverage existing knowledge and push the boundaries of their field. However, this is much more difficult in some tropical regions such as Southeast Asia. For example, for my master’s work, we didn’t even have basic natural history knowledge on my study species!
What are some of your biggest successes?
This is a difficult question to answer as a graduate student, but I have mentored over 30 undergraduate students and it is a constant source of enrichment in my life. Some of them have gone on to pursue careers in wildlife biology. The success of my mentees is particularly rewarding for me.
What challenges have you faced as a female in the herpetology?
My field work experiences have been very egalitarian. I have had great field crews and fantastic mentors. However, the gender disparities become more obvious at conferences and when speaking to other female herpetologists. Female herpetologists face far more challenges interacting within the scientific community than when working in the field, handling venomous snakes.
Can you tell me us a bit more about your STEM outreach work?
Sure, it is an important part of my life. People often think that science is objective, and that equity and inclusion are separate conversations. However, science is a social endeavour, conducted by individuals within a society, and both individuals and society are inherently biased. This has become apparent in the disparity of who gets to pursue careers in STEM. While many women are in a variety of scientific undergraduate degrees, we see a smaller proportion of women in higher education the further up the academic chain you go. Various societal and cultural factors push women out of STEM fields. In STEM, if we don’t have equitable representation of gender, gender identity, class, race, sexual orientation, and ability, we only gain one, skewed perspective. Our science is better when we are diverse. It also comes down to the basic human right that everyone should have equitable access to education. The composition of scientists needs to change but for that for that to happen, it needs to be systemic at every single level. You can see some of my STEM equity work on my website.
What advice do you think we should be giving younger women to pursue careers specifically in herpetology, and how do you think an organisation like Save The Snakes would be able to assist with that?
Symbolism is very important in getting the right messages across. From a young age, children are siloed into roles based on their gender, and this often leads them to make decisions in their life based on their experiences. To change this, it is important to show representation and diverse symbolism in any field and surrounding environments. Changing the way fields are portrayed and perceived can be a huge influence on young people, and people thrive when they have role models that look like them.
Some people argue that STEM gender disparities are due to ‘female choice’ or ‘female avoidance’. This is simply not true. There are examples of different fields that have been dominated by one gender that suddenly change due to historical and cultural reasons (such as computer science, math, and veterinary science). It often has nothing to do with choice, but it has to do with culture. You can help to change culture by changing the imagery that young women receive. This will determine if young women can envision themselves doing that work, provided they are also given the opportunities to do so. Save The Snakes is great at pushing this change in culture and decolonising science by funding and amplifying under-represented voices in herpetology.
Every single social interaction is a product of society and systems, so we must understand the systemic inequities that underpin STEM fields. My advice to young women, especially women with ethnic identities under-represented in STEM, would be to find great mentors to guide you, and understand that setbacks are a product of an inequitable field, not personal failure.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I am an American Association of University Women (AAUW) alumnus and I would like to acknowledge their funding of my PhD. They do great work with empowering women and girls especially in STEM fields.
Read more about Anne’s work on her website.