Gabi Fleury (they/them) is a Fulbrighter, member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2021, conservation biologist, and technologist. They're currently a conservation team member at a small wildlife conservation nonprofit outside of Washington DC.
How did you first get interested in science, and what experiences led you to your current career path?
I always joke that I watched way too much Captain Planet and the Planeteers growing up (HEART!), but the truth is, as long as I can consciously remember I wanted to be a scientist and loved wildlife, adventure, and mucking about in a systematic way to try to answer big questions. As a kid, I was knee-deep in reading extensive wildlife conservation textbooks and my mother had strictly designated a "science microwave" versus an "absolutely not for science microwave," so science was always going to be my path one way or another, whether engineering or field biology.
My father is Brazilian of Angolan descent and is very proud of his heritage, so I grew up feeling strong ties to Southern Africa and Southern African wildlife as part of the Diaspora. My parents were supportive of my interests, which got supercharged when I was undergoing chemo for osteosarcoma (bone cancer) in my left leg as a kid—lots of time for reading about wildlife when you can’t get out much or run around.
However, as a kid from Boston, actually going to Angola, or anywhere else in Africa to reconnect with my heritage and do international conservation, felt like a big reach. Years of physical therapy and a clean bill of health later, I was determined to make it work. However, there was no way that I could afford study-abroad programs, and it wasn’t until I was in undergrad and received grants for my research, including a Rotary Ambassadorial Grant that ended up fully funding my Master’s degree at the University of Cape Town, that I was finally able to start working abroad.
Now, I’ve studied complex social-ecological systems in the Northern Cape of South Africa, worked in two counties in Kenya on lion-livestock conflict mitigation, run a human-wildlife conflict farmer response team and research squad in Namibia, collaborated with a carnivore education project based in Mozambique to beta test a video game I co-designed, and am currently planning future research in Botswana. It’s taken a lot of work and long hours and scrapping and scrounging and networking to get here, but I also feel very lucky to get to do what I dreamed of doing when I was 3 years old. I kept that original promise to myself.
What is your current research on?
I was recently awarded a Fulbright Study/Research Grant to Botswana to work in collaboration with two local NGOs, Botswana Predator Conservation and Cheetah Conservation Botswana, to test out several different nonlethal "anthropogenic" (i.e. light systems, sirens) and "natural" (lion scat, to simulate high lion density) deterrents to keep African wild dogs off commercial farmers in the Ghanzi District of Western Botswana. African wild dogs are one of Africa’s most endangered carnivore species, and Botswana as a country has almost a third of the entire global population.
Because African wild dogs sometimes take farmers’ livestock, they, like many carnivores, can end up being killed by farmers in retaliation. It’s trying to find that tricky balance of working closely with local communities to find ways to help protect their livestock, as well as trying to stop carnivores from being killed and causing trickle-down effects to ecosystem health. Carnivores are also very clever, and constantly figuring out different strategies to get around deterrents, so working in this space is a bit like being a chess player, a gadgeteer, and an interspecies diplomat all at once.
COVID-19 has delayed some of these plans, but my partners and I remain committed to continuing the work as soon as it is safe to do so. I'd like to expand this project into my PhD research, for which I applied for an NSF-GRFP Fellowship, and am applying to graduate school for Fall 2021!
You also have a YouTube channel, founded a game studio, and do a bunch of volunteer and advocacy work. Why is that work important to you, and what do you have going on right now?
I’m definitely a type of person who always needs to be tinkering and experimenting, so I tend to have a lot of projects happening concurrently. My best friend jokingly says sometimes I’m the "Tony Stark of conservation," and while Tony has MUCH better fashion sense, it is true that if I’m busy inventing, I’m happy.
Referring specifically to advocacy work, as a Black scientist I grew up feeling I didn’t fit the public consciousness of a scientist and I’ve always been passionate about working to expand the idea of who a scientist is. Representation is so crucial.
I'm involved as part of the organizing committee for Black Mammalogists Week, which is an awareness campaign to highlight Black contributions, both historical and current, to the field of Mammalogy. It’s a great team. I’m also planning to start up my YouTube channel again in 2021 as well, and continue the "Breaking Bio" interview series as soon as I have a clear spot in my schedule to fit it in, around a bunch of new papers I’m excited to co-author!
I tend to do a lot of mentorship work where I can with folx starting out in conservation, especially BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ scientists. As I’m also still early-career, I may be a bit more accessible than scientists who have been in the game longer, but I also have several years, degrees, and experiences under my belt that may be (hopefully!) helpful to others. I learn a lot, too, from these conversations and love meeting other people in my field! I’ve recently started up a few Zoom happy hours over Twitter, open to anyone interested, for early-career conservationists to meet up, trade tips, vent, problem-solve, and connect.
It’s tough out there—wildlife conservation is overwhelmingly well-off in terms of background, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly straight, overwhelmingly cisgender. Although it’s a highly competitive, demanding field to break into for anyone, especially international conservation, if you don’t fit into one of those majority buckets (or, if you’re like me and fit into absolutely none of them), it’s even harder.
Trying to break into conservation in my early 20s often felt very lonely. I don’t want anyone else to ever feel like wildlife conservation isn’t for them, or that they’re not welcomed. I want to try to help create a community to offer the support that I wished I had when I was first starting out.
You were recently named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Science list—congrats! What’s the backstory, and how does it feel to be chosen?
Yeah! That was a trip, for sure. Very unexpected. I was lucky enough to get to a finalist round last year, and got to the same stage this year. At that stage, an editor from Forbes reaches out by email and you have to fill out a detailed questionnaire about why you should be on the list, links to media, website, etc. What I didn’t know is that they don’t tell you that you’ll be on the list, so when the list went live, I figured I wasn’t on it as I hadn’t been notified. So, I went on to check what cool scientists made it this year, and there I was!
It’s a huge honor, and especially so that there are three wildlife conservationists on it this year. Traditionally, you see a lot of people in engineering, start-ups, physics, so the fact that we had not one but three conservationists was like, YES! Very exciting to be part of that, especially as I was on the list with several other folx involved in Black in STEM advocacy. The fact that I knew of so many people on the list this year from my circles was just ... really fantastic, and I feel so humbled to be included alongside a lot of people I admire.
Being on the list was actually the way that I came out to many of my friends and family as transmasc and nonbinary, with my pronouns front and center. It was a scary move at the time, but I figured that it was better for representation’s sake if I was out as my complete self, and making a strong statement: I’m Black, I’m trans, I'm a field scientist, and I’m proud of myself and who I am. By being open, I hope to show folx on the fence about wildlife conservation or STEM that they can do this, too.
The impact of being on the list so far has definitely been a lot more interviews, which is great, a lot more connections, networking. I will say that I have had to tackle things like being misgendered more than once in interviews even after making the list as an out scientist. Painful as it was, it reminded me how important representation is—how important it is to normalize the idea that there are all types of people in STEM, and to not make assumptions, to do good research and ask questions.
I hope to use my platform to highlight conservation work, share the spotlight with other amazing practitioners, and smash scientist stereotypes—to get into "good trouble" (and have some fun and do some exciting research, of course!)
Why was it important to you to contribute your story to the 500 Queer Scientists project?
500 Queer Scientists was a very important part of my journey—I posted my profile on it while I was still living in the bush in Namibia. Being LGBTQIA+ in the field can often feel (and be) very scary. I mean, when I’m abroad, there are some real-life concerns, and I have to make the trade of not being open, and not being myself, to be able to do some of the work that I do and keep myself safe where LGBTQIA+ identities are not as (or not at all) tolerated. It’s a tricky balance, and it does take a mental toll on me to have to not be open about my identity in some circumstances in the field. For me, it’s worth it, because I love what I do, but it’s a real trade-off. Being able to be "out" on 500 Queer Scientists when I was first figuring out my identity, when I was first trying out pronouns, was so freeing. Sharing my story here feels a bit like coming full circle and coming home.