Perspectives: In Their Own Words
Dec. 11, 2020 | Interview by Berry Phillips | Photos courtesy of Heather Rolph
Heather, an outgoing Co-Editor-in-Chief, reflects on science writing, her time as Life editor, and wolverines. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“I’m an Organismal Biology and Ecology Major and Journalism Minor, which is a weird but pretty awesome combination. People always ask — How do you make Journalism and Biology work together? An honest answer is I haven’t really exactly, but I really would like to. I wrote one story for Cipher during my time at CC. It was about raising snails as pets and my fascination with weird life forms throughout my life, weird pets and animals and plants and stuff. And that was the first time that it really seemed possible to combine Biology and Journalism. Going forward, I’m pretty interested in environmental writing and popular science writing because I’m definitely a scientist by nature who loves the nitty-gritty details and studying the world. But I’m also really interested in translating for wider audiences because nobody reads scientific papers if they don’t have to. But people are discovering really cool things all the time so [I can make] these niche scientific discoveries really accessible to the public.
I’m hoping to write an investigative article into the wolverine as part of the Journalism Minor. Maybe get it published in some local publication — looking at the history of wolverines because they were pretty much wiped out of the whole U.S., the whole lower 48 at least by tracking and hunting and stuff like that. This fall I lived for a month and a half in Mount Rainier National Park. I was working with this small local organization studying wolverines, which just came back to Mount Rainier National Park in the last decade or so. And there’s still only a couple individuals. And so we were setting up monitoring stations, hik[ing] miles into the wilderness and off-trail and then climb[ing] these trees [to build platforms]. And it’s on these wooden platforms, wolverines climb up on [them] and [the platforms] have these little scratcher frames that wolverines get their hair snagged on and they get DNA samples from that. And then we climb a tree on the other side and set up a game camera and then the camera takes a photo of the wolverine so you can identify the individual based on that.
They’re still not listed as endangered, even though they’ve been petitioned to be on the endangered species list three times, I think. There’s so few of them, but they’re such a national phenomenon. There’s a movie character called Wolverine. There’s a football team called the Wolverines. So this is just such an elusive, weird creature that people are really enamored by but also don’t actually know that much about, and then there’s all these weird scientists who are out in the middle of the nowhere scaling trees and hanging dead carcasses in the trees.
I was [also] living in a fairly remote area this summer doing carnivore scat studies, just like backpacking in the wilderness all week. I did my first solo backpack, which was a big deal for me, because that’s scary. I have wanted to be a wildlife biologist, but I’ve never really done that stuff before, so really getting these opportunities and trying stuff that sounds crazy at first like hauling dead beavers up trees …
It was really hard for me when the pandemic hit to be forced to come home because coming back to my hometown and living with my family is usually such a treat. I only do it over breaks but somehow to be forced to come home was a much harder thing and made me really resent being home at first, [and] I didn’t want to feel like that. But the pandemic really made that a problem. So I was really proud about being able to settle into living at home and then also in spite of the pandemic, try out these really weird new possibilities.
I came to CC originally because both my parents actually went to CC. They met at CC. They’re both Biology majors like I am. So in a way I came to CC because I was following in their footsteps and I always accused them of really subconsciously making me go to CC just because they talked about it so much and all their great memories there and pressured me into going as well, although they deny that. The cool thing about coming to CC is that in many ways I’m doing exactly what they did. I’m interested in outdoor stuff and I’m a Biology major and I’m really similar to my parents in a lot of ways. But one thing that I’ve really enjoyed about journalism is it’s something neither of them did anything with, so it’s been my own thing to be proud of during my time in college, that is totally different from my parents and their history at CC.
[Perspectives] pieces are always my favorite because I think it’s so cool to get an insight into people that I see on campus every day and the people the perspectives are on are usually someone you’ve noticed around campus because they’re doing something out of the ordinary or they dress out of the ordinary or they’re part of something or they speak up about stuff. So it’s someone you’ve noticed, but you never know their backstory — where they grew up and their family and what they actually think about a lot of things. So I’ve always loved that the best, I think.
I was the editor for Life for a while and edited the first semester [of my junior year]. I think the first story I ever edited for Life was a [Storytime with Georgia] that was about a friend who is pet sitting in New York, but she was pet sitting because the dog was going to die and the family didn’t want to be around while that happened. And so her friend — it might’ve been a friend of a friend — so the dog died and her friend had instructions to get it cremated before the family came home. But for some reason she didn’t want to get a taxi. So she put the dead dog in a duffel bag and got on the public bus system or the subway. And then someone stole the duffel bag with the dead dog inside of it. That was the craziest story I’ve ever seen in my time at The Catalyst. It was quite the introduction.”