Growing up in a small town outside of Ottawa, Raymond Saumure (pictured left) could never have imagined that one day he would be flying across the continent with 300 pound sea turtles in tow, from Miami to Los Angeles, and then trucking them in an 18-wheeler for a haul through the Mojave Desert to a Las Vegas casino. Yet that's exactly what this Canadian turtle researcher found himself doing recently.
"The whole experience seemed so surreal at the time," says Saumure. "But I think it really just reflects all the twists and turns that my career has taken over the last few years."
An Offer He Couldn't Refuse
Saumure believes that staying on your chosen career path sometimes means taking chances and grabbing opportunities when the chips are down. Five years ago, while Saumure was 2 years into his Ph.D. studies and struggling financially, he applied on a whim and landed a job as Senior Conservationist Biologist at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino's Shark Reef aquarium - an offer that was too good to pass by. But in 2003, after nearly three years on the job, he gave it all up and returned to Canada to finish writing his doctoral thesis at McGill University in Montreal.
It was a good move. "I had always thought that I could work full time and write my Ph.D., but now I know that if I had never left Vegas, I think it would have impacted the quality of my work, and made it impossible to pull it all together and wrap it up."
Twenty months later, with a 1 month old son, he got his degree and was ready for the next stage in his career. Unfortunately, after several months, funding for a postdoc still hadn't materialized, and he was living off of savings. But just as his financial reserves were at their end, life threw him a hanging curve that he pounded all the way back to Vegas.
Saumure now works as the wildlife biologist for the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, a 180-acre park run by the municipal water district featuring restored Mojave Desert habitat, complete with native wildlife and even archeological sites. Located near the very centre of all the glitz and glamour, the park is set to open to the public in late 2006. While his colleagues at the park concentrate on archeology and vegetation projects, Saumure is in charge of conservation and management of existing populations of wildlife, from mammals and birds to snakes and insects. "With rare species like the desert pocket mouse, I have to monitor their populations on site and make sure, since it's such a small preserve, to protect and help maintain the population," he explains.
Monitoring wildlife at the Springs Preserve. Credit: Stacy Campbell
Saumure has known since he was 15 years old that he wanted to specialize in reptiles and amphibians. That year--when he was 15--he volunteered at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Scouring high and low for turtles, snakes, and frogs, he often turned up with rare species, which excited museum staff and provided new records for species distributions in southwestern Quebec. "For 4 years, I was collecting and preserving specimens for the museum, doing all sorts of curatorial things, until I started university."
While he admits that he struggled academically during his undergraduate degree at University of Guelph in Ontario, he persisted, and eventually managed to publish four scientific notes based on his field observations while still an undergraduate. This he credits to what he learned from his early experience collecting and documenting his finds, and to reading scientific journals voraciously.
Saumure suggests that having even such small articles is a great lead-in to networking opportunities. For him it meant that researchers in the field, who noticed his work, contacted him and offered co-authorships. "It permitted me to get into graduate school and to keep my name out there," Saumure adds.
Throughout his studies, Saumure noticed that many of his peers shied away from taking chances and exploring new opportunities. Even asking questions, he noticed, is a frightening proposition for many. Working alongside senior scientists while volunteering at the museum had taught him that it is okay to question a professors' research, and important not to "put doctors on pedestals."
Tracking Wood Turtles in Quebec. Credit: Chris Shewchuk
In 1994, newly married, he began his Masters work at McGill University, featuring a comparative study of populations of wood turtles in agricultural and forest habitats. Looking back, Saumure finds that his most valuable lesson he learned from his advisors at this stage was figuring out how to apply to different funding agencies. "This was a great chance for me to learn the ins and outs of the business end of doing research."
By the time he started his Ph.D. in 1998, Saumure had managed to produce six more scientific publications while holding down a full time job as a zookeeper and interpreter at Montreal's indoor zoological park, the Biodome. "The job was definitely not ideal, but it allowed me to live and not be a starving student," he adds. While the university faculty did not mind him juggling his time between his work and studies, Saumure soon noticed that his field seasons were getting ever more intense, and that there was very little personal time left.
This increasingly stressful situation reached a peak in the Spring of 2000 when Saumure was temporarily laid off from the Biodome and left wondering how to pay his tuition and living expenses. But luck was on his side once again; he got a call from a former Biodome co-worker who was now a director of a newly built $50 million aquarium at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. He and his wife--a marine biologist--were both offered positions at the aquarium. With a sagging bank account and his field seasons all wrapped up, the decision to go was not difficult.
"We didn't have kids, I was laid off at the Biodome, and the position was substantial financial increase to what I was earning," says Saumure. "We were going to take the gamble and go on an adventure."
You Work Where?
Arriving in Vegas was an eye opener for Saumure. The transition from streets covered in sleet and snow to streets covered in glitz and glam in the middle of the desert took some time getting used to. "It was so different from anything else we experienced before," explains Saumure. "It was like we were on another world, like Mars."
Green Turtles arrive in Vegas. Credit: Cathy Saumure
Working at a for-profit venture like a casino had its pros and cons. The aquarium was run at arms length from the casino itself and was managed by the accredited Vancouver aquarium. While he set the zoological standards high for the facility, had large, healthy budgets to work with, and enjoyed many perks that only a company like a casino could offer, the academic community was always skeptical. The casino affiliation raised eyebrows at the conferences Saumure attended, and elsewhere in the academic world. "Since we were a casino, at the beginning our credibility was about -10 on the scale when we tried to acquire animals from other accredited institutions."
Now, exactly 2 years later, with an 8-month-old son, a newly minted Ph.D., and an exciting position back in Vegas, Saumure feels comfortable with the choices he has made so far. One advantage of his diverse experience is financial: "I've now developed a whole side career working and developing living collections in the private sector, which pays a whole lot better than academic positions."
Saumure holds to his dream of having an academic position as a turtle researcher someday. In the meantime, he hopes to keep expanding his opportunities by doing novel research and getting more publications whenever he gets a chance. As an expert on turtles, Saumure likes to put it this way: "Slow and steady wins the race."
Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at email@example.com.