For this installment of the SSAR leadership profiles, Student Participation Committee member Jessica Tingle interviewed Dr. Brad Shaffer, the current chair of the Herpetology Education Committee. Several other individuals also provided information on their involvement with the Herpetology Education Committee and its Herpetology Hotline project: Dr. Alex Krohn, outgoing student member of the Herpetology Education Committee, who recently defended his dissertation; Dr. Michelle Koo, co-chair of the Web Oversight Committee; Gregory Watkins-Colwell, who ran the Herpetology Hotline for several years; and Jessica Tingle, former Herpetology Hotline responder.
The Herpetology Education Committee exists as a joint venture between the SSAR and two other major herpetological societies, the Herpetologists’ League (HL), and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH). This committee promotes society interaction with the public to answer herpetological questions. It also bestows the Meritorious Teaching Award in Herpetology.
Activities throughout the year, including at the annual meeting
The committee established the Meritorious Teaching Award in Herpetology to honor society members for a body of accomplishment in herpetological education (information on the SSAR, HL, and ASIH webpages). The award takes a broad view of education, including current best practices for teaching, advising, and mentoring both undergraduates and graduate students. The Herpetology Education Committee solicits nominations each year, due in the spring. Nominations remain active for three years. After the deadline for nominations, the committee meets to discuss all active nominees and decide who will receive that year’s award. Although the award’s guidelines do not explicitly state how many people will receive the award each year, the committee generally aims to narrow it down to a single recipient. The committee chair announces the winner of the Meritorious Teaching Award at the annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (JMIH), presenting the winner with a plaque to recognize their contributions to herpetological education and a $500 check.
To fulfill the goal of educating the public, the Herpetology Education Committee created the Herpetology Hotline several years ago. The Herp Hotline allows members of the public to fill out a form on the SSAR website with their herpetology-related questions, which are then answered by the hotline’s response team. Made up primarily of graduate student volunteers, the response team typically answers several questions each week on a variety of herpetological topics. The team aims to respond to every question within two weeks. Hotline responders have had particularly gratifying conversations with K-12 students who want to know how to become herpetologists, parents of very young children who want to foster their kids’ love of nature, and members of the public who want to know how to coexist with rattlesnakes in their yard or tadpoles on their pool covers. The Herp Hotline gives responders the opportunity to represent the field of herpetology while educating the general public.
Interactions with other SSAR committees and leaders
Because the Herpetology Hotline is hosted on the SSAR website, the SSAR Web Oversight Committee manages the online form and recruits new volunteers for the response team. The Herp Hotline response team regularly interacts with the Web Oversight Committee to resolve technical and other issues that come up.
Both the Herpetology Education Committee and the Conservation Committee share a goal of interfacing with the public. They each have a different focus, so they do not formally work together, but the Herp Hotline response team occasionally puts people in touch with the Conservation Committee.
Path to joining the Herpetology Education Committee
Presidents of the three participating societies (SSAR, HL, and ASIH) take turns appointing members to the Herpetology Education Committee. One new member is appointed each year, terms last for three years, and each member becomes chair of the committee during their last year. In addition to the three members appointed by society presidents, the committee also has one student member at any given time.
Two of the current committee members received the Meritorious Teaching Award prior to serving on the committee. Having received the award made them good candidates because committee members should have clearly demonstrated skill and commitment with respect to herpetological education. In addition to a commitment to education, the three appointed committee members generally have a track record of active engagement in at least one of the societies. For example, Shaffer previously served as president of the ASIH, which gave him insight into how the societies and annual meetings work.
The student committee member joins by a less formal process. Generally, the three appointed members discuss students who might fit well with the position, and after consulting with the current society presidents, they invite the chosen student to join the committee. The current student member, Alex Krohn, joined when some of his colleagues suggested he attend one of the committee’s meetings to see if he might want to participate. As the only student to attend the meeting, he became the official student committee member. Krohn has enjoyed the opportunity to interact with senior herpetologists on equal footing, and he has also found it rewarding to offer a student voice in the committee’s decisions, as the student member is a full voting member of the committee. Now that Krohn has defended his dissertation and moved on to a postdoctoral position, the committee is searching for a new student member.
Students can also get involved in the Herpetology Education Committee by joining the Herp Hotline response team. The Herp Hotline provides a relatively low-stakes way for students to get a taste of professional service while also providing outreach to the general public. Interested students should check out the hotline webpage and get in touch with the SSAR Web Oversight Committee for more information!
Future of the committee
Right now, the committee mainly focuses on the Meritorious Teaching Award and the Herp Hotline. In the future, the committee’s role could expand to include more society organization of local education activities. Individual society members already do a lot of local educational outreach, for example by giving presentations in nearby schools. Expansion of the Herpetology Education Committee’s role could promote coordination of these efforts.
The committee would also love to get more students involved in the Herpetology Hotline. The Hotline has seen a big uptick in the number of questions recently, and it would help to recruit a few more students with a strong commitment to interacting with the general public.
Finally, the current committee plans to discuss some structural issues that they might alter in the future. Revamping the process for appointing the student committee member ranks high among these.
SSAR members, especially students, with an interest in getting involved should contact Brad Shaffer (firstname.lastname@example.org), current chair of the committee. Those with a specific interest in the Herp Hotline can contact Michelle Koo (email@example.com).