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Member spotlight

We are continually inspired by our members and seek to highlight a mixture of social scientists from around the world working to improve conservation efforts as part of the Member spotlight feature! Please check out previous member spotlights here, and let us know by email at sswg@conbio.org who might deserve to be in our next spotlight.  

Dr. Kathayoon Khalil

Kathayoon Khalil, PhD is the Conservation Impact Manager for the Oregon Zoo. Prior to joining the zoo, Kathayoon was the Principal Evaluator for the Seattle Aquarium. She received her PhD in Learning Sciences and Technology Design from Stanford University, her Masters of Environmental Science from the Yale School of the Environment and her Bachelors in Organismal Biology from Claremont McKenna College. 

Kathayoon is a conservation psychologist and a social scientist. As such, Kathayoon oversees the creation and implementation of the zoo’s conservation strategy, as well as all evaluation, visitor studies, and social science research for the Zoo. Additionally, Kathayoon collaborates with colleagues from around the world on research projects to advance our understanding of learning in zoos and aquariums. Kathayoon is also a researcher for Fostering Empathy for Animals, a joint project among the Seattle Aquarium, the Woodland Park Zoo, and the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. In this capacity, Kathayoon participates in publications, public speaking engagements, and conducts workshops on empathy development and measurement.

Kathayoon started her career at as a teen volunteer at the Oregon Zoo and quickly developed a passion for wildlife and conservation. Through over a decade of work in zoo education, Kathayoon has implemented authentic approaches to evaluating visitor learning, including attitude and behavior changes that may have resulted from their visit. Kathayoon is an alumna of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders program as well as an instructor for Project Dragonfly at Miami University of Ohio. In her spare time, Kathayoon enjoys yoga, running, doing watercolor painting and calligraphy, and hanging out with her friends, family, and kitties, Catniss and Cuzco.

What inspired your interest in applying social science to conservation issues? 

I started out working at Oregon Zoo as a ZooTeen and fell in love with the passion of the people I worked with. This also sparked my interest in wildlife conservation, and from there I knew I wanted to work in the wildlife sciences. This led to me doing a bachelor’s degree in herpetology, where I spent a lot of time in the desert looking for various lizard species. Here, I realised that traditional field biology was not allowing me to use my strongest assets, such as my people/social skills and inter-personal skills. I spent my college years doing field work during the school year and spending my summers back at the zoo as a camp counsellor. After some time, I had a conversation with my then mentor, who was the Director of  Education at the zoo. We both realised that there was very little data around the impacts of zoo education and how people may be inspired by their experiences at the zoo, and a great deal of confusion around how to evaluate visitor learning, attitude, and action. Seeing this as a big gap in our work, I started doing evaluations for the zoo and moving in a different direction of the conservation sphere, focused more on the social sciences, where I’ve been working ever since!

How do you see social science being integrated into the work of Zoos and what is the potential impact of better integration? 

Conservation first and foremost is a people problem, which is something we need to be continually reminded of. Integration can be challenging because social science does require a different skill set, especially literacy around what good social science looks like. A lot of social science work is about asking the right questions and finding linkages between theory and practice. Zoos are one of the best places to do conservation social science work; we serve millions of people every year and are one of the largest outlets for conservation in the world, usually being one of the only places people can come to see wildlife. Given these audiences,  it is important to recognise all that we can offer to the field of conservation – which is more than traditional biological or ecological data.

I believe we are all evaluative thinkers and have inquiry skills from the moment we are born. The work then is to recognise and minimise bias and ask questions in the right way. Therefore, truly integrated social science is when the project is not driven by the biological sciences with social sciences as an after-thought, but when the social sciences and biological sciences come together to ask and answer those questions. The interdisciplinary approach to conservation will become more crucial moving forward, and without this approach we will not see the kind of results we want to see.

Also, quite often we see biological/natural scientists adding in a small portion of social science work into their projects and then subsequently doing this research themselves. However, many of them do not realise that social science research requires a distinct skillset, and they often do not have the skills to carry out an effective social science project. By co-creating and collaborating on these research projects, we can all offer our expertise to ensure that the products are useful, rigorous, and an accurate reflection of the phenomena we are trying to measure.  

In your work, how do you inform key scientific debates for conservation policy? 

I do not directly do a lot of the policy work myself. However, my work is trying to bridge the science world and the practical world – which is where a lot of the policy world exists. Often, there is a lot of work going on in the science world behind the walls of academic institutions, resulting in very little translation of this science in the practical sphere. Therefore, quite often we see, especially in zoos and aquariums, that the practitioners and policy makers need more information on what has been learned in the academic and research sectors. I went into my PhD knowing that I had no intention of going back going into the academic world, but instead I wanted to help to advance the goal of making sure that research and practice are linked in meaningful way.

What advice would you have for an aspiring conservation social scientist? 

The resounding theme that has helped me accomplish everything I have is community. All that I have done has been through having an excellent support staff and team beside me. This work is never done alone, so it’s important to embed yourself into your community and rely on them, as well as help whenever they need help too.

It is also important to be yourself, know your strengths and do what you really want to do. You’ll find that seemingly great opportunities will present themselves, but require you to work in areas you’re not passionate about or compromise on your goals. I firmly believe you’ll be much happier in the long run if you stick to what you love. It can be really tempting to say yes to every opportunity to come your way, but it is important to know when to say yes and when to say no, and when to walk away when something isn’t right the way you want it. There’s a difference between doing something new because it will help you grow and challenge you in new ways, and doing something that you won’t enjoy because you think you should. Don’t force it to make it fit.

What has been a highlight of your career so far?

One of the major highlights of my career is the time I spent work at the Zoo Camp at the Oregon Zoo. I worked for nine years in this enormous program where we saw over 4000 students a summer. I worked with an incredible team of people who loved what they did. It was fun and invigorating and stimulating. Every day brought new challenges, laughs, memories, and opportunities. I often misses my work there, but I gained skills that I hold and use to this day, like public speaking, management, and how to find the fun in every situation. Ultimately you have to move on, but the friendships and experiences of Zoo Camp are still so dear to me.

Who is someone who inspires you in the conservation field, and why?

I admire and respect anyone who leads with kindness. We often come across those who work aggressively; trying to get as many grants as possible, as many papers published as they can, to be the main voice in the room. However, it is equally valuable to boost the voice of others and make space for people who have different opinions or approaches. It’s so refreshing to find leaders who are just nice people – and incredibly accomplished!

I also really admire my first mentors, Anne Warner and Tony Vecchio, who took a chance on me as a 20-year-old kid who wanted to be a zoo leader. I am also inspired by my friends working in this field who believe in their institutions and our missions and are constantly pushing conservation forward despite the recent struggles. It’s so inspirational to work with such a committed, passionate, and warm group of colleagues – it’s the best thing about this field.

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