Megan Owen

Conservation Program Specialist in the Applied Animal Ecology Division
Institute for Conservation Research, San Diego Zoo


General Career Information…

What is your educational background?
My educational path was somewhat unconventional, and it took me a while before I discovered conservation biology. I have a BS in Biology from the City College of New York (CCNY) and a Masters in Biology from the City University of New York (CUNY).

How did you end up in the field you are in today?
As an undergraduate in Biology following a pre-med program, I had the opportunity to do an honors research project studying Arctic nesting birds. After about two days doing field work in the Arctic, I fell in love with wildlife biology and the Arctic and redirected my studies toward wildlife and conservation.

What are some of the different career opportunities associated with the work you do?
As a conservation-focused wildlife biologist, I have had the opportunity to do fieldwork in some incredibly beautiful and remote locations. While there, I have had the opportunity to see wildlife and wild places that most people only get to see on the Discovery Channel. I really enjoy working outdoors and getting dirty, so doing fieldwork in the Arctic has been an amazing experience for me. As my career has progressed, I have gotten to spend less time outdoors, but I still get to spend most of my time thinking about wildlife and trying to come up with research ideas that will help us better understand what wildlife needs to survive and thrive.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
Never forget that science is a very creative process; always be willing to think outside the box. It is also imperative that scientists are able to communicate their work to other scientists and the general public. Writing and public speaking are just as important as the experiments that scientists conduct.

On Polar Bears…

How and where do you conduct your work on polar bears?
Much of my polar bear work takes place at the San Diego Zoo and other zoos in North America. We are also about to embark on a study that will take us to the North Slope of Alaska. It will be cold, but I am very excited about it.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work on polar bears?
Some of our work is quite high tech while other aspects of our research are not. For our work in acoustics, we use microphones, sound-level meters, computers, wave form generators, amplifiers, and more. For our work in olfactory communication, we simply use materials such as q-tips, cardboard, duct tape and plain pine-wood boards. This is where creativity comes into science: once you’ve identified the question of interest, and designed your experiment, you have to figure out how to make it all work. For this to be a successful process, you have to be willing to use anything, no matter how high- or low-tech.

What research projects related to polar bears have you worked on in the past?
Most of my research revolves around the sensory ecology of polar bears. Sensory ecology is the study of how an animal uses its senses. For example, we are studying the hearing sensitivity and acoustic communication of polar bears because we need to understand how important sound is in their lives. Once we define this, we can then estimate how human made sounds (or noise) might disturb them. This is especially important during the period when polar bear mothers are taking care of young cubs in their snow dens. We also want to find out how polar bears communicate with one other over long distances. We think polar bears leave behind a scent trail as they walk along the sea ice. When other polar bears come along, can they determine if the trail was left by a male? A female? A sub-adult? A mother with cubs? We think they can, but we have to prove it!

What research projects related to polar bears are you currently involved in?
All the research I described above is ongoing.

What have you learned so far from your research?
We have learned that polar bears hear quite well.

Why is it important to study polar bears?
Polar bear habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. We need to understand everything we can about polar bears in order to make good conservation-based management decisions.

What threats are currently facing polar bears?
The biggest threat to polar bears is the loss of sea ice due to climate change. This is hands-down the biggest threat polar bears face. Sea ice loss results in habitat loss and reductions in the availability of prey species that the polar bear needs to survive. As prey species become scarcer, and individual polar bears are weakened as a result, they may become more susceptible to other negative elements in their environment such as human disturbance and chemical pollution.

How is climate change affecting polar bears and their environment?
Polar bears depend on the Arctic sea ice for their survival. Ambient temperatures in the Arctic have increased more due to climate change than in any other region on Earth. As a result, the sea ice is melting, and during the summer, when sea ice normally recedes to a certain point, it is melting earlier and to a greater extent than has ever been seen before. Without sea ice, polar bears cannot hunt their main prey species (ringed seals and bearded seals). Some sub-populations are suffering from the effects of this reduced food supply.

Have you participated in any research collaborations with native communities? If so, please explain.
I have not, but I feel this is a very important aspect of doing research in polar bear habitat.

What is the most interesting or exciting thing that has happened during your research?
We have always suspected that polar bears are smart, but our work on the hearing sensitivity of the bears has really cemented this suspicion.

What follow-up research related to polar bears would you like to do in the future?
I would like to continue to study the sensory ecology and behavior of polar bears. As the world’s climate changes—along with polar bear habitat—I want to get a thorough understanding of polar bear biology and how human impacts will affect them.

What actions can kids take to help protect polar bears and their environment?
The good news is that there are lots of things people living all over the world can do to help save polar bears. Conserving energy and resources are the first and most important step toward polar bear conservation. Walk, turn off unneeded lights, and make good food choices to help polar bears.

On the Arctic…

In what ways do you feel that humans affect the Arctic environment (positively and/or negatively)?
Humans affect the Arctic by contributing to the loss of sea ice and permafrost due to the warming environment. Greenhouse gases are responsible for the changes we are witnessing.

What are the most common misconceptions that people have about living or working in the Arctic?
Some people see pictures of that vast open space and see it as bleak. It is an incredibly rich and biodiverse biome.

What do you like the best about doing work in the Arctic?
I love working in remote locales where wildlife is king and people are few!

What do you like the least about doing work in the Arctic?
Sometimes it is really, really cold!

What changes—if any—have you noticed in the Arctic over the past few decades?
More people! 

What one thing would you most like kids to learn from studying the Arctic?
Kids should learn about the diversity of habitats in the Arctic and the wide range of species that call it home. Kids should also learn about the marine life of the Arctic.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in protecting the Arctic?
Reduce, reuse, recycle!

On Being a Kid…

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why?
I love books about other cultures and people. History has always fascinated me.

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?
In middle school, I loved art. I always thought that I would be some sort of artist.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
Of course that depends on at what age you asked me that question. Generally speaking I thought that I wanted to do something in the arts such as painting, graphic design, or photography.

What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
You can be whatever you want! There is no goal that is too far. Hard work will get you anywhere you want to go.

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
I admire anyone who is passionate and doesn’t waste time complaining or making excuses. My personal heroes are the conservationists who never tire of telling the world about why it is important to save our wildlife and wild places, but who also understand that human beings around the world want the same thing: a good and safe environment in which to raise their kids. Effective conservation does not come from finger pointing—it comes from engaging other people.

What do you like to do for fun?
I have three kids, so most of my fun revolves around them. I love to listen to music, watch soccer games, and go to the beach. If I’m close to the ocean, I’m having fun.

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
Albert Einstein once said, “Creativity is more important than knowledge.” I agree, but would go one step further: Creativity coupled with knowledge is an incredibly powerful force. Kids can make great changes in the world around us and create a better future for all of us.

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic