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Dickinson College Alumna Works With Dogs to Help Conserve Wildlife

poisson alumni in action photo

Mairi Poisson ’16

Former biology and Spanish major Mairi Poisson ’16 achieved her goal of working in wildlife conservation, becoming a field research scientist for Rogue Detection Teams. Using specially trained former shelter dogs to find scat samples, she travels the country collaborating with researchers from diverse organizations in this noninvasive form of scientific research.

Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education helped you along your career path?

Having a liberal-arts education has helped me take on different tasks in my current job. I’m a field research scientist, but in a small company you have to be able to adopt many roles. In my three years in this job, I have helped build our social media platforms, I am a primary correspondent with interested applicants/clients/media, and I develop reports post-project for the researchers we work with. I am also an education outreach specialist, and I am helping to develop materials that can be delivered to students of all ages that tie together local and global conservation topics, diversity in science and dogs. My time at Dickinson College, studying in both the sciences and humanities as a biology and Spanish major helped me to develop the skills and knowledge to jump into these roles without hesitation.

What was your favorite activity/organization at Dickinson?

I spent a lot of time in the Department of Biology, specifically as a student researcher with Associate Professor of Biology Scott Boback. Studying the American toads meant I got to spend a lot of time at the Dickinson College Farm when no one else was around, and I loved it! It was such a great experience to be involved with research firsthand and to help bring other students into the lab and field.

What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?

All of my closest friends majored in different things while at Dickinson. Some of my favorite memories center on the group of us having a conversation which flowed between our different backgrounds and interests. I remember one night, a new Kendrick Lamar music video had just dropped, and two of my friends (an English major and an Africana studies major) came over to my apartment to watch it. We sat on my floor with a bottle of wine and discussed the video in depth. I loved nights like those.

How do you stay involved with/support Dickinson? Why do you think it’s important?

As a young alum, it’s difficult to be a financial supporter. Finding other ways to support Dickinson, though, is important because the college awarded me such wonderful opportunities throughout my time. I hope to be a resource for students who are interested in a career in biology that might not be the typical route of doctor or microbiologist.

How did you get interested in your work, and what about it excites you most?

In my final year at Dickinson, I had that familiar dread of the unknown that so many seniors about to graduate experience. I highlighted my interests and they boiled down to wildlife conservation, and I decided to pursue that in any way possible. On a whim, I googled “dogs in conservation,” and a few programs popped up that trained dogs to do wildlife detection work for applications in conservation. I applied to all of them and only heard back from one. So I kept emailing them until they finally asked me to do a field visit, and then they offered me a job! It was a long process, but I knew I wanted it.

I am most excited about how many different ways we can use this method for conservation. Detection dogs are still a relatively novel idea in conservation research, but more and more researchers are moving toward this and other noninvasive methods. Plus, having dogs as coworkers is pretty incredible!

What does your work entail?

Rogue Detection Teams adopts high-energy, ball-obsessed shelter dogs and trains them to be wildlife detection dogs! Most researchers want us to find signs of the animal rather than the animal itself, so we train our dogs on scat (poop). Researchers can then analyze the scat samples for DNA, hormones, toxins, etc. My job takes me all over the country with my dogs, and I get to collaborate with researchers from many different types of organizations—governmental, academia, private corporations and NGOs.

What is the most challenging part of your work?

Field biology is notoriously tough for young professionals. You move a lot, and your schedule is always changing. That was really tough for the first year or so until I learned how to communicate better with my family and friends outside of my job, and how to create more personal time and space for myself.

What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?

Last year, I put together a two-week long education outreach tour in rural northeast Washington. With one other coworker and two dogs, we visited 14 schools in 10 days. Some schools served less than 50 students; others had us giving lessons to 200 second-graders at once. It was a whirlwind tour, and I felt exhausted at the end of most days, but I loved talking with younger kids about conservation in their own backyards.

If you could have dinner with anyone famous, living or dead, who would it be?

My favorite author (currently) is George Saunders. I’ve read almost all of his short stories and am always shaken by what he conveys to the reader. Maybe he’d want to sit down and chat about the state of our world.

You just built a time machine: where and when do you go?

I’d love to see what forests looked like before the agricultural and industrial revolutions. So I think I’d go to New England (where I’m from) and see what nature looked like without large-scale farms and machinery.

If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?

I’m studying for the GRE right now ... I wish I’d had the foresight in college to take it then rather than waiting until now!

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Published December 17, 2019

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