Meet Mary Burak, an ecologist passionate about understanding how humans and carnivores can coexist in landscapes!

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?

I had a fantastic seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Maguire, who made learning about natural science one of my favorite hobbies. She motivated me to push myself – to ask more questions, to study harder. I remember truly enjoying pouring over class notes in preparation for in-class competitions or to earn extra bonus points on an exam. Mrs. Maguire helped to build a momentum for science within me that would continue for years to come. For that, and so many other reasons, she will always be a favorite teacher of mine!

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

Currently, I am working on research design for my doctoral dissertation: human-carnivore conflict and its effects on carnivore genetic connectivity in Tanzania. In other words, I want to understand how human-carnivore relationships influence the movement and reproduction of wildlife such as lions, leopards, and hyenas. I will be undertaking this research in the Maasai Steppe of northern Tanzania. Here, agriculture and pastoralism are the dominant ways of life – and this can spell trouble for the humans and wildlife that require resources from the same, shared land. One of the most popular examples is that of lion attacks on livestock. Lions will, periodically, come into contact with livestock when they are on the move to find wild prey or a territory to occupy. Livestock loss is a significant economic loss to the local Maasai agro-pastoralists, and the area has a history of retaliatory lion killings – something not ideal for the IUCN-designated vulnerable African lion. While retaliatory killings are less of a threat to lions today, it persists alongside a number of other challenges to carnivore ecology. This includes the installment of highways and larger, permanent human settlements in locations of prime carnivore habitat. I am interested in the tradeoffs to human development and carnivore conservation – things like the construction of necessary infrastructure versus the enhanced protection of wildlife corridors – and how the needs of both humans and wildlife can be appropriately considered, and blended, for the future of shared landscapes. Ultimately, my work will necessitate both natural and social science studies. I will need to undertake a population genetics study of carnivores in the area in order to determine each species’ genetic connectivity and its correlation with human activity. I will also need to look at the development needs of the local people in order to parse out how development and conservation can both conflict and work alongside each other.

My research plan came together through combining my personal interests with research experiences. From my research background, I knew that I wanted to study human-wildlife conflict and that I wanted to use genetics as a proxy for that. I also came to love the East African landscape, its wildlife, and its people during a semester abroad. I think many field ecologists can agree, once you find a study system that truly inspires and motivates you, you ought to stick with it!

Mary during tracking/ Mary Burak

What is a typical day like for you?

A ‘typical’ day depends on where in the world I am! I just wrapped up my first year as a Ph.D. student, so much of this year has involved coursework, granting writing, and field work planning. I wake up, go to the gym, and then trek up a big hill to my office space. If I’m feeling ambitious, I find a cozy nook to work in at one of my school’s other buildings.

So far this summer, my typical day has been much different. I’ve just returned from fieldwork in northern Tanzania. I slept in a tent, took outdoor showers, and did all types of work from scat identification to shadowing pastoralists. There was one morning where I thought I was going to catch up on emails but, upon word that wild dogs were seen in the area, I hopped into a Jeep and quickly went to check it out. It was my first time seeing wild dogs in person – they are beautiful!! Another day I changed the batteries on camera traps, checked out what was photographed overnight (a leopard!!!!), and went to bed… only to be woken up by a zebra eating right outside of my tent! Every day is an unpredictable adventure, and I love it.

Do you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings? What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?

Graduate school is funny because. some days, you feel on top of the world and, other days, imposter syndrome kicks in… big time. When I’m feeling low, it can be comforting to call home – even though my mom can’t exactly relate to graduate life. Thankfully, I also have an amazing support group at Yale that carries me through both my highs and lows. I joined my lab at the same time as another female Ph.D. student – she quickly became a great friend and colleague. We now refer to each other as work wives, which couldn’t be more true. It is comforting to have someone to relate to during both stressful and exciting times, be it when you feel like you “know nothing” or deserve a high five. On top of that, my boyfriend is an unbelievably amazing support system. Sometimes I don’t like to ‘talk shop’ after a certain point in the day. He’s there when I need to vent and when I don’t want to think about work. An understanding, supportive partner can make you feel invincible! I will also say that working out – whether going to the university gym, rock climbing, or to yoga class – is my #1 stress reliever. Feeling good about my work day starts with feeling good about my health!

In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?

It would be rewarding to know that my doctoral work provided useful information to better wildlife conservation in Tanzania – ideally by providing the background knowledge for conservationists and developers to work together in satisfying both wildlife and human needs in the landscape. Perhaps this means pinpointing areas where the construction of roads will impact wildlife less, or perhaps this means highlighting conservation areas that require stricter protection. In terms of a career, I am open minded about what Mary-in-ten-years is doing. My hope is that I will kick off my own laboratory as a newly hired university professor. However, I know that these career preferences may change and I am okay with that. Perhaps working in the NGO world or as a research scientist at a national park is in my future. The most important thing will be that I am happy – with both my work life and personal life – and am surrounded by people that I love!

Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?

There are so many scientific topics that deserve more attention (and funding)!!! Stage IV cancer research is the first that I think of. I am also passionate about pushing for more social science and socially-driven research to be incorporated with the natural sciences. Social science has always been in there, somewhere. But it needs to be more apparent. The human-nature divide isn’t real, and I believe this should be embraced more. For example: Why do I study what I study? There certainly is a motivating social factor. What agencies give me funding and why? Again, a social factor. How do locals perceive, and influence, my work? Etc., etc., etc.! This is all important information, and does not exist in a bubble outside of my ecological and genetic interests.

Just a biologist being excited about lion scatterings./ Mary Burak

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

Yes, yes, and yes. I struggled a lot as an undergraduate biology major. The department where I attended college specialized in advising pre-health students. While there were some other resources (a botany or animal behavior course, here and there), these opportunities were not as advertised – nor where they as respected amongst my pre-health peers. I dragged my feet for the first couple of years as an undergrad. I took unfulfilling courses, and it showed. I was not happy, and I was not earning as good of grades as I could have. After a few years of wistfully dreaming about ecological adventures, I decided that enough was enough and decided to take part in a field-based study abroad where I learned about wildlife ecology and management. I traveled to both Kenya and Tanzania, and this experience gave me solid evidence that I did, in fact, have a passion for ecology and field work.

I was timid to return back to my undergraduate college after my time abroad. Thankfully, I immediately joined an ecology-focused research lab led by Dr. Jonathan Richardson. He quickly became the best mentor I could’ve asked for. Whenever we discussed my research interests, he listened and allotted research responsibilities fitting for me. Jonathan served as the backbone for my preparation for applying to graduate school – a process that would’ve been much sloppier and misguided without him. He also encouraged me to apply for an NSF GRF, which I was later awarded. This is truly something I would’ve never done without his guidance. I have a lot to thank Jonathan for!

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

I always enjoy telling the story about final exams during my semester abroad in Kenya. Whenever our field station became a little too quiet, it would be overrun by yellow baboons. Thankfully some clapping or a warning fired from a slingshot would do the trick in scaring them off. During the final examination period, we took our tests in the dining hall. Most of the staff were gone, as they had this time of the day off, but one professor supervised our exam. Our professor stepped out for a break about halfway through the exam, and we continued on in silence. After a few minutes, a subtle tapping noise in the background grew louder – and closer. We were all looking up from our exams, confused about this noise but trying to be respectful and not talk. One of my friends happened to look up, and let out a scream. We all looked to where she was pointing… baboons were directly above us in the rafters!!! I counted three in total but the prime suspect was the one holding a big bundle of bananas, stolen from our pantry next door. In hindsight, it’s funny to think about how the baboons were looking down on us in total shock and fear for being found out while we, the students, were looking up also in total shock and fear for finding baboons. Both primate species were exchanging bug-eyed glances! Needless to say, the baboons made away with the bananas and our professor returned to the dining hall wondering why, and scolding us for, making so much noise during an exam.

Elephants!/ Mary Burak

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

Outside of work, I really enjoy cooking… or, at least, trying to get better at it. I will knit on occasion, and my most recent craft-adventure involves teaching myself how to reupholster furniture. I played a lot of sports growing up, and continue to find exercise a fun stress reliever. I joined my department’s intramural volleyball team. Not to brag, but we did win the winter championship this year(!!!). My boyfriend introduced me to rock climbing, which I have really enjoyed getting better at. With the warmer weather will come more outdoor adventures that I enjoy: hiking, kayaking, and biking.

Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?

I am a huge advocate for work-life balance. Granted, it’s something I constantly try to figure out. Managing graduate school and a ‘personal’ life is important, and very much the trick to staying sane in the process of obtaining a degree. Exercise is something I prioritize. I usually work out in the morning before I even start my work day. Unlike my undergrad days where I would easily stay up until midnight doing homework, I try to treat grad school like a 9-5 job. Every grad student knows 9-5 are loose terms: sometimes you’ll be in lab until 2 am, and some days you miraculously call it quits by 3 pm. To me, the most important thing is to recognize when I stop being productive for the day, embrace it, and recharge. I also prioritize hanging out with friends – socialization really helps. In addition to all of this, I try my best to put little bits of my graduate student stipend into a ‘vacation fund’. A change of scenery every once in a while does me some good, especially because ‘home’ for me is not far from Yale and therefore doesn’t feel like a true getaway. Over winter break this year, I saved up enough money to fly to Colorado. I crashed on a friend’s couch, did some sight-seeing, snow-shoed for the first time, and came back home feeling fresh!

Mary in front of the Kilimanjaro/ Mary Burak

If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?

Breathe. Everything will be okay. I know, it sounds corny, but seriously. I, mentally, had a very tough time during my undergrad years. It would’ve been so helpful for someone to tell me not to settle for a field of study (or job) unless I am happy – to not do what I think is the socially acceptable thing to do. Part of this means realizing you’ve got more time than you think. Wait for an opportunity that you like. Graduate school is a commitment. A job is a commitment. You need to be passionate about it in order to live it. And, as always, good mentors are priceless. Try to find a mentor amongst your professors, coworkers, or peers. It will help, so much.

What kind of prejudices as a woman in science, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?

The older I get, the more aware I become of what it means to be a woman in science. The gender gap is seen less and less amongst bachelor’s and master’s programs, but there continues to be a significant gap in Ph.D. programs and beyond (tenured professors, etc.). There are undeniably all-male social circles that progress into all-male work collaborations – a social barrier that can be awkward to break, or even to point out amongst peers. Several times since starting graduate school, it has been joked within these circles that to become a ‘true ecologist’ one must have a big burly beard. While I recognize these jokes were innocent in origin and made in appreciation of the ‘great’ field ecologists of the past, it is often alienating to non-white, non-male ecologists.

I recently swapped stories with a female professor who has spent 30+ years working in conservation. I was most appalled when I heard that her undergraduate advisor wrote in her letter of recommendation to Ph.D. programs that she must not be accepted because she recently married and ‘clearly wasn’t serious about science’*. What!!! Things like this happen much less frequently today but are still present. I attend women-in-science get togethers, and we discuss the seriousness of deciding whether to let your marriage or family-life be known when applying to post-doctoral jobs. It’s a shame that these options need to be weighed. Thankfully, the professor that I spoke with had a great mentality towards being a woman in science: Point out when things are discriminatory, don’t let it get you down for too long, and be a badass with your own work! I recognize that this mindset also requires the confidence to shake stuff off and speak out. I know that there are many others who have faced tougher challenges yesterday, and will continue to face today and tomorrow. I hope we all get there – somewhere positive – together. Certain social dynamics of work would be easier as a man, but that is not who I am. Quite frankly, I am happy doing work as my authentic female self. Field ecology has historically been a male-dominated field, but social media has been an excellent resource to put me in touch with fellow badass female (and transgender, non-binary, etc!) scientists.

*Needless to say, she earned her Ph.D. and has become an internationally renown, respected conservationist.

Camera traps are crucial for Mary´s work/ Mary Burak

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

So much needs to be done!!! Progress has been made in breaking career barriers for women. Yet, the biases as well as gender- and pay-gaps remain serious issues. I don’t have a magical solution. Social and structural changes are most obviously needed. We need to do a better job of speaking out when something is not right, in regards to sexist jokes in the workplace or bringing attention to diversity (or lack thereof) in departmental hiring. Whatever the situation, we need to make it more socially acceptable to point out when something uncomfortable and/or discriminatory is happening. This fosters a more comfortable environment for women (and minority groups) in science and helps remind those which parts of their seemingly *normal* daily behavior is not so accepting towards other people.

I believe that things like childcare should be improved at universities for the benefit of those already in graduate school and those deciding to go to graduate school. While pregnancy is looked on much more kindly today, I can still hear the biases against it whispered behind closed doors. I see my peers deliberate whether to allow their relationships and family to enter their public image, especially when applying for a job. Families should not count against a scientist, and increasing support for families would alleviate some associated social and financial pressures.

Lastly, breaking barriers in science starts from the very beginning. In addition to additional opportunities for women, more opportunities are needed for people of color as well as LGBTQ and other minority groups. This starts early. I’m talking elementary school. Getting children to become interested in science is important. Providing children with examples that science is not for one particular cookie-cutter type person is critical. This calls for more graduate students to volunteer in local school systems, for more funding within school systems, and for science education programs to make a stronger effort to diversify their outreach.

I know I’m preaching to the choir to some, and certainly have only scratched the surface on these topics, but I can’t stress enough how important these things are!!!


You can contact Mary at and follow her on Twitter!