MA/PhD Student in Experimental Psychology/ Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Lab Member (MS, USA); Seasonal Character Performer at Walt Disney World
MA/PhD student in Experimental Psychology, Beri has taken a “unique” path to academia beginning her career following her passion for dance as a character performer at Walt Disney World. Realizing a passion for working with marine mammals early on in her career, Beri worked toward making her dream a reality and doing behavioral and cognitive research with marine mammals. Beri is a positive, bubbly, and energetic woman who exemplifies the power of discovering and developing your passions professionally and personally.
1. What was your first job?
A character performer at Disney World.
2. How did you decided to go cognitive research on marine mammals?
When I was an undergrad, and right after I graduated, I did some animal training internships, and I realized that training might not encompass everything I wanted to do. Research opens another door. Several of the facilities that house marine mammals say that animals under human care should serve as ambassadors to their neighbors in the wild. And I like that. I believe what we learn about animals should be used to make their habitat the best we can.
Wasn’t sure how to get there. One of my professors at BU, a marine bio professor, was the first one to give my interests in marine mammal behavior and cognition a name~ he said I should look into comparative psychology programs, but that there aren’t a lot who offer that per-say, so I was still pretty confused as to what path to take. Then, in a cognitive psychology class, I saw a documentary on Ron Schusterman’s lab at UC Santa Cruise where he preformed sea lion cognition research. I freaked out. This does exist! That was the moment where I learned this was a legitimate career and degree, and I began truly looking into it.
3. How difficult was it to transition from a performer to a research student in experimental psychology? What were your greatest obstacles?
The greatest challenge was that I didn’t have anyone to talk to who had done what I wanted to do. The people around me who were encouraging me were animal trainers, but did not have the degree I wanted and didn’t work with anyone who did. It was difficult for me to make that decision, especially knowing that if you have an advanced degree, sometimes you can no longer be a trainer because it will be ‘too much schooling.’
That’s part of why I took some time to think about my career. I had these different passions pulling me in opposite ways. I loved dancing, and I wanted to say I’d tried it, and then I was ready to move onto something different.
Working at Disney meant that I was still around many people who didn’t have graduate degrees, and it’s definitely easier to have friends with similar background who can be a friend on, not just a social level, but an academic level as well. This became even more apparent as I faced the challenges of being in a southern state that is sort of stuck on some of the gender stereotypes. Being a well-educated female can be a challenge, and it’s nice to have friends who have encountered similar opposition and can help coach you through it.
4. What do you consider to be your greatest success post-collegiately?
Making the decision that I was going to pursue my graduate degree. I was happy at Disney, and it’s an easy place to stay. One of the best things I did for myself was walk away- even though I haven’t completely walked away (works seasonally).
I’m fortunate that since leaving, I’ve had so many experiences: classes, diving, teaching, and working with different animals. I have also been fortunate to work out a way to pursue my career while not giving up the other side of my passion, dance and performing.
In teaching, I have [also] found passion and success. When one student comes up to you, and gets excited about the material you’re covering its so rewarding. One video in a class changed my career path, and you never know what one thing you may say or do that will change things for your students.
5. What is the biggest risk you have ever taken? Do you think it was a positive one?
Dropping my status at my job at Disney. When I started a marine mammal research internship I realized that I had a much different experience than most of the people in the lab had. But, it was a risk that paid off.
I was accepted into grad school and became a part of that lab, after taking my unique path. I didn’t have the typical lab experience my peers did. When I took my first exams I remember thinking, ‘its been 6 years since I’ve taken an exam, and I’ve been dancing on streets and performing. I hope I remember how to do this!’ But it was very exciting.
6. What are your passions? How do you find a way to incorporate them into your daily life?
Dancing or yoga, or some fitness is really good for me mentally and physically. Something I have learned about myself is that I am not as happy of a person without a dance class. In one fashion or another, I need some sort of creative/active outlet so that I can do that.
I always had a passion for teaching, whether it be academic classes, dance classes, teaching something new to a friend, or just asking somebody, “hey, want to hear about dolphins?” I am an outgoing person, and I put my whole self out there. If I’m enthusiastic about something, I let you know.
Just recently, I was passionate about getting my non-academic life to be happier, and I made the decision to work from Houston. I guess that was a risk. It allowed me to be closer to my family, which is good for my well-being and overall happiness.
7. How do you feel that being a woman has affected your career path?
I am on the girl-ier side for a scientist. I am very outgoing and bubbly; traits that aren’t necessarily associate with being a scientist or being intelligent. I enjoy that I am this way, and I look at it as an opportunity to be a role model for the girls in my classes and dance studio.
The female stereotypes exist. If you look like a girly-girl and tell people, ‘I’m a teacher,’ they automatically assume you are an elementary school teacher as opposed to a PhD in science.
It’s fun that I don’t fit into a stereotype. I sometimes joke that I am the Elle Woods of my field. Although, that’s very far from the truth! I do believe, and want to communicate, that you can you can wear heels and get dressed up and still be a scientist. You can also, despite some stereotypes, be a dancer or performer and be intelligent.
8. What is the most fun experience you have had since graduating from college?
Going to Honduras to do marine mammal research. I got to see a naturally derived dolphin research facility, which was really impressive and unique and I got to scuba dive in the gorgeous reef.
Another amazing experience was when I got to visit Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in California, where I made really good friends with some of the incredibly talented trainers who worked with impressive animals. It was also the first time I was able to implement a research project on my own, and that was very exciting.
Being back around animals is a reset button for me. It reminds me why I am doing the research I do, which I don’t get sitting at the computer. It makes me think, ‘oh yeah, I can do this.’
9. Do you have any other words of wisdom that you think could be of value to recent and up-coming college graduates?
Just that your path is not always a straight line- there are zig-zags. Your path may not be the path that someone else took, but it doesn’t make it any less valuable than theirs. Sometimes you’re unique perspectives are what make you stronger professionally. If everyone had the exact same experiences and perspective in science and research, then we wouldn’t progress very far.
Also, always remember that just because you experience something a certain way doesn’t mean that the person next to you is having the same experience. Sometimes someone is doing something and it seems like you should be doing that too. However, a situation that works really well for the person next to you might not work from you.
Remember, not everyone’s path is going to be the same, but its your path and your story. Other people may not see how it’s relevant, but there is always something you took from that experience to get to where you are. For example, being a character performer at Disney helped me to feel really comfortable in front of a crowd, which is great for teaching. In retrospect, you can always pull something positive from your past experiences.