Connection - Conservators Center
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3 August 2018
Going with the Flo
23 September 2018

How a Scientist, Professor, Volunteer, and Animal-Enthusiast Found Connection at the Conservators Center

Dr. Kim Epting

Professionally, I am an educator, a scholar, a psychologist, a scientist. Beyond my profession, I am a Conservators Center volunteer, tour guide, and lifetime adopter. Over the past several years since beginning as a volunteer at the Center, I have consistently said that it is my “favorite place,” and that it seems to have a special force field around it that keeps “work thoughts” at bay while I’m there.

Kim has been an adopter of Naja Caracal since shortly after her birth in September 2013, and even named her! Naja is an African name which means “stoic and strong.”

I still feel that way largely—it is my safety, my restoration, my peace, my connection to nature and to my nature. But work has penetrated the force field now, which isn’t really a fair conception, as I invited it right on in one day, and I rather like the new extended connection that has developed. Connection really is at the heart of it all.

I describe my research in psychological science at the broadest level as the connection between language and thought. That research takes many specific forms and questions, but it’s thinking about this connection—between what we say, think, and do—that is professionally of greatest interest to me. Connection, as it turns out, and perhaps not surprisingly, is a theme that extends well past my research, yet also invites my research into new places.

Connection in Context

When I am at work, teaching classes or mentoring and conducting research, I am connected to the need for education, to the reaction of my students to course material or research design and findings, or to their surprise and captivation in their own developing academic interests.

When I am at the Center, I am also connected. I am connected to the ground, to nature, to the animal-ness and biological-ness of myself and the interesting, complex, individual nonhumans in front of me.  I am connected to our similarities and differences. Being there, in the presence of those creatures reminds me, perhaps more than any other experience, that I am a biological entity. That’s easy to forget in our industrialized, urban, and increasingly automatized and digitized world: We are biological, natural entities. We are….animals.

And then, especially as a tour guide, I am connected to how we talk about these nonhumans, about conservation, and about ourselves, as well as to how the human visitors react—verbally and nonverbally—to how we talk about these things. In such a context, it is impossible to completely detach my psychological scientist and volunteer identities. And thus, with time, the possibility of making yet another connection—by doing scholarly research at the Center—became something of a no-brainer.

Intellectual Connection

With its commitment to connecting people with wildlife and serving conservation through education, the Conservators Center welcomed my language-focused research ideas and the opportunity to have students help lead that research. To date, we have conducted five studies (the fifth currently underway), some on site at the Center and some mirrored in the laboratory, on how language chosen for donation requests influences likelihood and amount of visitor donations (i.e., linguistic framing effects).

Patrick Snowden (left) and Tess Walker (right), 2018 graduates,  presented research at Elon University’s most recent Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.

So far, four of these studies have been presented in local (Elon’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum/SURF), regional (Southeastern Psychological Association/SEPA; Colonial Academic Alliance/CAA Undergraduate Research Conference), and national (Association for Psychological Science/APS, an international organization) professional venues.

I see numerous benefits to this work, all of which rely on making connections—intellectual and/or practical. My students gained invaluable experience in designing and conducting experiments, working with community partners, and presenting our work professionally. And I can attest that the presentations of the work at each venue garnered considerable interest. It also gives the students (and me) valuable experience working with the imperfect balance between better-controlled laboratory studies and applied research in the field, not to mention learning how to balance research and experimental design needs with the needs of a community partner running a living, dynamic organization.

Kimberly Brown (left) and Annie Phelan (right), both 2017 graduates, helped conduct the initial three research studies at the Conservators Center.

And in turn, as researchers, we are able to give back to our community partner by sharing the results of our scientific inquiries that may have direct and immediate impact on their efforts as a nonprofit organization. It has been and continues to be a win-win situation for me as a faculty member, for undergraduates who work with me on research, and, I believe, for the Conservators Center.

This ongoing research project has enhanced my connection with my students as well. They have learned about an organization and causes that matter deeply to me as a person, independent of my status as their professor or research mentor. I have been able to share this vital part of my life with them, and thus have modeled for them how to use one’s professional interests and expertise to bring new meaning or opportunities in your personal interests. Indeed, the connections here are very personal too.

Personal Connection

The short version of the Conservators Center’s mission is to “reconnect people with wildlife,” and certainly the Center has done that for me. WIthout question, I feel more intimately connected with wildlife—the individual animals at the Center, their species as a whole, and extended to other wildlife I encounter both in life and virtually. But it turns out that the connections the Center has fostered go well beyond that immediate mission.

After a while, Kim decided to begin adopting a lion. Hannah’s “sassy and classy” personality drew Kim in and she has been her Lifetime Adopter since February 2015.

Becoming involved at the Conservators Center has forged connections to a group of people (some who remain there and some who have moved on) that are a type of family. The Center has fostered my connection to volunteerism, enhancing my understanding and personal definitions of nonprofit work and activism as well.

It has connected me better to nature overall and to conservation needs and efforts. It has connected me to resources, to other people and entities at my own university. With it, I have forged connections between my professional work and my personal interests, and have furthered connections with my students through research, classes, and simply sharing with them a place that means something to me.

Ultimately, it has connected me more to myself; I am a fuller human in part because of the Center and the connections it has fostered.

Dr. Kim Epting is one of the Conservators Center’s staff-level volunteers.