Ever since I experienced my first David Attenborough documentary and witnessed the profound dedication of conservationists like Jane Goodall, I wanted to help Earth’s most vulnerable species. So I pursued a degree in zoology and a career in documentary filmmaking to make an impact in conservation.
But the more I learned about the burgeoning field of conservation genetics and molecular tools, I realized my passion lay in finding solutions to help us study difficult-to-find species—because they often need our help the most. My Ph.D. with the Australian Antarctic Division led me to develop genetic markers to help track population differences and movement in humpback whales and Antarctic blue whales.
Many rare and shy species are seldom seen in the field, but their presence can be confirmed from locating and identifying the things they leave behind, such as droppings. Monitoring the presence or absence of DNA material from elusive species like snow leopards can help identify population declines and threats of local extinction, track individual movement, and assess the effectiveness of conservation actions.
However, these remains are often misidentified while being collected in the field, wasting limited conservation resources. Snow leopards, in particular, are misidentified more than 50% of the time (according to the research teams that study them), and you can imagine the effort it takes to find their remains in a vast and challenging environment like the Himalayas.
I decided to give up my promising career studying whales to pursue an idea: a handheld paper-based device, much like a pregnancy test, that can be used by anyone to identify an animal on the spot, and help scientists, government people, and local communities make immediate conservation decisions. But I quickly discovered that funding for projects often depends on political agendas and the scientific “weight” of the person applying.
It was a year and a half before I achieved my first breakthrough, and it came from somewhere unexpected: a biomedical research lab in Canada. Professor Yingfu Li and his team at McMaster University had developed an amazingly simple technique to identify bacteria in food and water and agreed that it could be adapted to help identify endangered species. Somehow my passion had opened his eyes to the importance of conserving species to our long-term health and survival, and he wanted to be a part of that vision.
Incredibly, Panthera also supported my vision—at a time when I was ready to give up, convinced I might have made the biggest mistake of my life. They provided me with just enough funding to survive and to make a start, giving me a chance to prove that the idea had merit. So I packed my bags and flew to Canada, giving up an income, a home, and a long-term relationship, and leaving my family behind.
I was now an independent scientist with no ties to government or universities—a complete anomaly in the scientific world. But this has opened up an opportunity to contribute and design a project in a way that was never possible based at a university. I now have the flexibility to take a more multi-disciplinary and holistic approach to a conservation project, involving local communities and the public more in the work, as well as collaborators from fields outside of biology. I also have the space and time to develop this idea into something big and truly adventurous, unlike academia, which can be restrictive in so many ways.
Our little team has now grown to include many amazing multi-disciplinary collaborators. The Centre for Molecular Dynamics in Nepal is a private lab big on holistic approaches to conservation. They have shown me the challenges of snow leopard field work and the importance of working with the local people to achieve sustainable conservation outcomes.
We also have a professor from the University of Calgary who studies wolves and caribou in Canada’s Arctic, a professor in chemical engineering at McMaster who specializes in nanotechnology, and a senior environmental coordinator with an energy resource company who is interested in methods that can assist and empower local aboriginal people in the Arctic to co-manage important species within local ecosystems. What an incredible turnaround—I still have to pinch myself!
We are 12 months into the project and are making very positive strides! We’ve been able to prove that our concept will work, that we can make many copies of a piece of snow leopard DNA on paper and link this to a color response. The method is also proving highly sensitive to very low DNA concentrations, which means that we will not only be able to detect terrestrial animals, but also marine and aquatic species with just a sample of water!
We still have a way to go, though—and it won’t be possible without the help and support of the public. It’s important for me that people can feel that this is their project, too.
To learn more about Dr. Schmitt’s project, make a donation, or subscribe to regular updates, click here.
Learn more about snow leopards and Panthera’s work to protect them here.
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