WHAT DO YOU THINK?
On Tattoos, Costa Rica,
and Saving the World
A Conversation with Dr. Emily Hollenbeck
Sometimes it can feel like the world is collapsing all around us. Our cup is overflowing with problems we have to fix. Did I mention we have a time limit? While this can feel overwhelming at times, Avenues Online is the home for teachers who are more than willing to hold your hand through it all. Dr. Hollenbeck is the epitome of that teacher. Always open to talk and digest difficult information, she will go out of her way to make sure we are not only good students, but also good people. It is no surprise that students naturally gravitate towards her kind nature, but how much do we know about her?
Y: What was your childhood like? Where did you go to college and eventually earn your PhD?
EH: I was born in Boston and spent my childhood going back and forth between Massachusetts and Indiana. Now, we all have teenage trauma and that was mine. My parents, who were both biology professors, were great. An interest in science runs in the family. For college I went to The University of Pennsylvania, which was a lot of fun. Then I got my PhD at Brown, which was also a great time. I first came to Costa Rica, where I now live, back in 2011. I came for a study-abroad course; and at the time I did not know anything about ecology. I just saw that I could earn a biology credit for one-fifth of the price by taking this course and so I said, "Sure." It was here that I fell in love with ecology and the environment and decided to change my major from lab biology to field biology and ecology. I was also really into genetics and evolution. My first tattoo was of a double helix on my foot. I definitely miss it, but I also love learning about ecosystems and environmentalism.
Y: In your spare time, what do you enjoy doing?
EH: What spare time? (laughs) I am very active. I used to be a competitive runner and still do a bunch of flexibility and acrobatic workouts. I also travel a lot. Here in Costa Rica, I own my house, but I’m only here half the time. I like to travel everywhere, however I particularly love Peru. Peru is by far my favorite travel destination. It was the place I wanted to go the most. I went back in 2019, and I would go back again. However, I don’t really have free time outside of teaching at Avenues. It’s a lot of work, but I love what I do.
Y: Have you always wanted to become a teacher? Or is it something you discovered later in your life?
EH: I consider myself to be both a biologist and a teacher. I never sacrificed one for the other. I’ve known I wanted to pursue biology since I was young, and I started to gravitate toward teaching when I was in high school. I began tutoring others and saw that I learned the information better when I taught it to someone else. So, I continued to tutor in college and then decided that I wanted to pursue it outside school. Also, I never really wanted to become a scientist full time after school because doing science is a lot of fun for me while writing science can be strenuous and really boring. So now, being in a classroom with students is the best part of my day.
Y: Do you complete any scientific research outside your job as a teacher?
EH: I kinda do. Not so much anymore because I spend all my time teaching, but I’m in the process of publishing a few papers I wrote back in graduate school. I worked on one during spring break. So, if you’re wondering what I do during breaks, that’s about it. However, here in Monteverde I am president of the board of directors for the Monteverde Conservation League. I do not work for them. I am part of the advisory board that helps the full-time director make major decisions. I did promise to dedicate myself to helping conservation in this place, just in a way that takes advantage of my unique skill set. That includes telling people what to do, organizing Zoom calls, and helping guide the research programs.
Y: Why do you dye your hair and what was the craziest color you ever dyed your hair?
EH: The reason that I dye my hair goes all the way back to the fall of 2020 when I was living in England where it's very dark and cold in the winter. I moved from this really bright and spacious house into this tiny, narrow apartment at the end of November. One day, I was working at home teaching and we went back into lockdown in the month of December in England. I was working inside, and there was no sunlight. It was really dark and really miserable and really gloomy, and I just cracked. There was no color anywhere in my life; and all of the sudden, I was putting color on my head. The craziest color was probably the peacock color scheme I did over the summer which no one saw. It was green and purple and blue, and it kinda looked like a peacock. I haven't done it again, but I may do it when I come to New York for graduation. You’ll just have to wait and see.
Y: Why do we need to start teaching students about environmentalism and the effects of climate change?
EH: I think that's really important when people learn about something from the time that they're little because it just becomes part of their mental model of the world. You might call that ideology; but in Costa Rica, they teach about nature conservation from the time kids are in kindergarten, and everybody grows up with that knowledge. That's just in their national consciousness. When I came for the first time, I was staying with a family and I went to watch the youngest daughter in her school play. The play was about nature conservation, and the little kids were dressed up like a tree or a butterfly or a ladybug. They held up signs that discussed climate change, and I was blown away. Some people call it an ideology because environmentalism is a strict view on life; but from a purely scientific standpoint, the task of the next few decades and for the next few generations is to figure out how to adjust human civilization so that it can exist and prosper within planetary boundaries. Children are the ones who are going to be affected the most by climate change, but they will also have the capabilities to make the most change. We have to teach kids now about these important issues so that the future of the human race can prosper. This is it, this is our chance.
Y: How would you go about teaching climate change to those who refuse to believe it exists?
EH: Honestly, I wouldn’t even try. I am not going to presume that I personally can change the opinion of someone who is so insistent on keeping their beliefs. That's a bigger problem than me and them, that's a systemic problem, and personally I don't like to argue with people. I don't like to tell people what to do, I don't try to change people's minds about stuff. I kind of figure whatever has gotten into their mind and makes them feel that way is way bigger than the conversation that I'm going to have with them. I like to focus on the systemic reasons for people's ignorance. The structures, the institutions, and the systems that have created this strange phenomenon which has made science political. It makes sense to look at where it came from. That's the problem, and I don't think it's any one individual's ignorance. Ideologies, I think, are imposed on you based on your experiences.
Y: What would you recommend Avenues students do if they want to save the environment?
EH: I think that we all can and should feel like we are saving the environment. As I said before, this problem is so big that we need all hands on deck, and that means every little action matters. I would recommend someone to get to know something specific really well, and do it to the best of your ability. We need a million things all over the world done really well. Right now, we need every single little slice of the world to be addressed, so every single person that throws their hat in with a project that's helping to make the world a better place is being a part of that change, and we can't do this without them. The other thing that I think is important is to not be judgmental or critical with people who disagree with you because that attitude is a big part of why we are where we are right now. Work to detach yourself from those judgments and to detach yourself from thinking that you're better than other people. The more we make people feel bad about themselves, the less likely they are to help contribute to change.
Y: Do you have hope for the future of our planet?
EH: It’s a long shot, but I think we can do it. What I see in the classroom with young people right now gives me hope because you guys are absolutely not taking any BS. I hope that you guys know that you don't have to wait decades and be in the upper echelons of power to make a difference. At least you have millennials behind you. It's going to require really independent, unique, and innovative thinking about really complicated problems. It's going to require a lot of unity and a lot of courage, but I think we’re up to the task.