People in the woods looking at birds in trees

Celebrating Hispanic-Latino Leaders in the Outdoors

Raleigh Parks supports diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors. Through our nature programs and more, we strive to make the outdoors accessible to all.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we feature interviews with local Hispanic-Latino outdoor leaders to learn about the important work they are doing for wildlife conservation. This article features:

Why did you choose to work in natural/environmental science?

Liani: As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a scientist. Even in kindergarten, I knew I wanted to study the natural world, although, at that time, I wanted to be an oceanographer. Being outdoors, watching and protecting the natural world, has always been an integral part of who I am. As a child, I would watch the anoles on the trees outside the dining room window. There are home movies of me trying to “save” young blue jays that I believed had fallen out of their nest (which I now know were just young fledglings). In middle and high school, I was most interested in earth sciences, environmental sciences, biology, and that interest and passion never really diverted; and was supported by some incredible out-of-school programs that allowed me to meet real scientists and other teens who held similar interests. In some ways, I found nature to be most accepting and less judgmental than people; being around trees and animals, I felt at home. That connection made it an easy leap to pursue a career that, in a small way, helps to protect the natural areas and finds avenues for others to engage with and enjoy the natural world as well.  

Jaime: Initially, to join academia at the University of Puerto Rico, but as my training progressed, my interests changed to conservation in island ecosystems in the Caribbean. Eventually, that interest broadened to conservation regardless of geographic extent.

Sara: I developed a passion for ecological sciences during my undergraduate career when I took a trip to Peru with my father (who is Peruvian). We traveled around the country, including the Amazon forest, where I fell in love with tropical ecosystems. So I knew at that point I wanted to work in the tropics and then eventually narrowed my interests down to tropical insect ecology.

Oscar: I have always had an interest in nature and the outdoors since I was young. Initially, I was going to pursue a degree in Business; however, I had a summer job with the State of Texas when I graduated high school doing endangered species breeding surveys in a state natural area in West Texas. Being able to spend time outdoors, assisting with park operations, and working with wildlife quickly made me change my mind. In addition, I had also been leading guided birding tours in Texas and parts of Mexico, which for me was the perfect job; I was getting paid to do something I loved. So I ended up going for a Park and Recreation Administration degree from Texas State University, and I have been in the park and recreation/environment field since I graduated with my degree in 1997.
 

Liani Yirka is the Assistant Manager at Walnut Creek Wetland Park.

"Professionally, I get most excited with what I call “lightbulb” moments, when I am able to see people become excited, engaged, or interested in the natural world." - Liani Yirka

I think in some ways I found nature to be most accepting and less judgmental than people; being around trees and animals I felt at home. That connection made it an easy leap to pursue a career that in a small way helps to protect the natural areas and finds avenues for others to engage with and enjoy the natural world as well.  

Liani Yirka

What is the most exciting or interesting part of your work?

Liani: Professionally, I get most excited with what I call “lightbulb” moments when I am able to see people become excited, engaged, or interested in the natural world. Whether they learn a new bird song, understand the value of snakes in the ecosystem, or go on a walk in nature and see a beautiful flower. The moment people get “hooked” into nature is always the most rewarding. Personally, I am most excited about my own learning. While I was a good student in school, the best and most fun learning I do is from the natural world. I love studying animals and ecosystems and then being able to share that new information and knowledge with others.

Jaime: Discovery through the targeted questions to address conservation needs and witnessing how graduate students become the next generation of natural resources management and conservation professionals.

Sara: Traveling to the tropics and doing fieldwork. I love working in hot and humid climates, connecting with mother nature in the middle of nowhere. Writing is my least favorite part, but my second favorite part is being able to share the information with those who can benefit from my research (e.g., farmers or policymakers), and writing comes with that.

Oscar: In my current role as Director of the Raleigh Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources Department, I tend to be in a position where I am in the office more working on strategic initiatives, budget, and work plans, so I really don’t spend as much time in the field. However, I know that my work helps provide the direction and needed resources for the talented Raleigh Parks team to carry out programs, provide facilities and experiences that enrich the lives of those that either call Raleigh home or are just visiting. It is great to hear that people think that Raleigh has one of the best park systems in the United States. But, at the end of the day, being a part of the team and seeing the positive impact it has on people’s lives is what makes this job exciting.

Dr. Sara Prado is a Research Associate at North Carolina State University.

"I love working in the hot and humid climates, in the middle of nowhere, connecting with mother nature." - Dr. Sara Prado

What support did you have to follow your career path?

Liani: My parents have always been my biggest cheerleaders, and they allowed me to follow my own path, although it may be very different than what they would have chosen for me. They also realized their shortcomings in what they could provide and teach me themselves, not being nature people. They found volunteer opportunities with organizations that could guide me to a career in this field. Along the way, I have had some great colleagues and peers that have supported and mentored/taught me a great deal of what I know but mostly taught me that it is okay to be curious about the world around us constantly. I didn’t realize that missing most of my life was a role model that actually looked like me. It was easy for me to think I wanted to be like Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, or even Miss Frizzle from the Magic Schoolbus, but none of these people look or sound like me. It took me until graduate school to see a Latina scientist and to feel like I was not alone in this field. That was a game-changer for me and truly inspires me to be that person for the next generation if I can be.

Jaime: When I grew up, the field of conservation was not on the forefront of anyone's professional aspirations shortlist, but my parents supported my decision. Part of the challenge was that conservation, as a science, was still emerging in the late 60s and early 70s, and it was not part of my undergraduate curriculum. These days, students have a better notion of the diverse options available to them.

Sara: Growing up, I always knew I had to pursue higher education. At one point, I wanted to become a baker, but my mother convinced me that that should remain a hobby. I'm glad she did. I'm also very lucky that I could travel with my father to Peru and discover my passion. Albeit, they weren't very happy about me traveling to the jungle on my own as a teenager, but if they hadn't let me do it, I wouldn't be where I am today.

Oscar: My parents were very supportive of my endeavors growing up. Although we did not have much money to work with, my parents always supported my birdwatching hobby by taking me to places I wanted to go and encouraging me to pursue this hobby as a potential career option. I would be the first college graduate in my immediate family, which was a proud moment for both of my parents. I could not have asked for better support. In addition, I had many friends and mentors over the years that gave me opportunities for the summer job with the State of Texas and encouraged me to pursue opportunities in the field. These people acted as references for me as I pursued career opportunities and kept in touch with me as I advanced.

Dr. Jaime Collazo is a Professor at North Carolina State University.

Dr. Jamie Collazo interests include conservation in island ecosystems in the Caribbean.

It took me until graduate school to see a Latina scientist and to feel like I was not alone in this field. That was a game-changer for me and truly inspires me to be that person for the next generation if I can be.

Liani Yirka

What is one piece of advice for others interested in nature but may be hesitant to get involved?

Liani: Stay curious and be nerdy. It is okay to be excited, passionate, and curious about the natural world—or really any field you are interested in. It may be an indirect path to where you want to go, but curiosity is a great motivator. 

Jaime: It needs to be what you believe in, not a fallback option, and strive to do your best.

Sara: Give it a shot! You won't know until you try. I used to be scared of spiders as a kid, and now I work in an environment surrounded by spiders and all sorts of other critters. If you like adventure, being outdoors, and exploring new environments, then this may be the field for you. It isn't always glamorous, as the weather can be uncooperative, or experiments may not go as planned, but it's all part of the fun in the end. The data collected and the new information brought forth through research is an amazing reward. 

Oscar: Pursue a career doing something you love, not what pays the most. In the end, if you are not happy in a career, you will most likely not be happy in life. On the other hand, there are many opportunities in the field, and if you are passionate and do a good job, others will notice, and there are opportunities for advancement. The main thing to remember is that your work enhances the quality of life for others, whether it be providing them a clean and safe place to enjoy a leisure activity or allowing them the opportunity to see a rare plant or animal.
 

Oscar joins a youth program for birding at Walnut Creek Wetland Center.

What is a fun fact about yourself?

Liani: Like many people, I learned a new hobby during the pandemic and have become an avid baker. I have always loved making sweets (cookies, pies, cakes) but now love baking different kinds of bread and giving them away to friends and family.

Jaime: I love the outdoors for work and recreation. I am about to retire in two years, and I have been privileged to serve as a Faculty Member at North Carolina State University.

Sara: I was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, but I hate the cold and would much rather be sweating in the humid heat than standing in the cold.

Oscar: During my time working in the park and recreation/environmental sciences field, I have experienced the following: been bitten by snakes at least 10 times, found myself between a mountain lion and a mule deer while standing in a dry river bed in West Texas, have written 4 articles in major birdwatching magazines, competed in a big day team where I spotted 223 species of birds in a 24 hour period (was a US record for about 6 years), I once rescued a drowning sloth in Costa Rica, I speak Spanish and have a 22-year-old son back in Texas.