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Dedication to the environment, career, and family – a story about being a mom and a scientist.

Find Your Passion in EE:

Dr. Daphne Mayes

Bee Ecologist, Xerces Society Ambassador, and Mom of Two

This narrative is part of a collection from professionals in the field of environmental education (EE). The collection seeks to highlight some of the ways in which Kansans have grown their love for nature into environmental literacy - leading them to the knowledge, understanding, and skills to become passionate environmental stewards. They share their stories hoping to inspire more Kansans to find their path working in or supporting EE.

Morgan Barrett Photography

As a child, I remember having tremendous empathy for animals. I once ran over a caterpillar on my bike and tried in vain to save it. Once it was clear that it had died, I placed it into a box and buried it by a tree. My lifelong compassion for nature led me to a career studying ecosystems.

After high school, I went to cosmetology school and worked for about a year as a stylist. Ultimately, I found that it wasn't a fulfilling career choice for me, so I switched things up and began studying biology at ESU. My mom shares my interest in life sciences, and also made a career change around that same time; she went to university for the first time, earning her Bachelor’s degree in Education to teach biology to high school students. It was such a unique experience earning my degree at the same time as my mom was pursuing hers, studying and taking college classes together.

While at ESU I was fortunate to find an influential mentor in Dr. Lynnette Sievert, who provided many opportunities to deepen my knowledge and experience in science. After hearing about my interest in the realm of herpetology, she encouraged me to seek out a K-INBRE (Kansas Idea Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) scholarship and work in her lab on reptile physiology research projects. It was a tremendous experience and opportunity, challenging me to conduct primary research, read and write scientific articles, and present the work to others. It opened many doors that enabled me to continue the path of research and deepen my understanding of the natural world.

After graduation, I was eager to apply my knowledge and passion toward conservation efforts. I really wanted to participate in a hands-on project, and came across the AmeriCorps program after looking through various opportunities online. I applied, and, following a lengthy phone interview, I was invited to join the crew in Maryland to work as an environmental educator in a program for a year! This was my first time being so far from home, and it provided me the opportunity to teach environmental topics formally and informally to diverse audiences of all ages, as well as to participate in conservation efforts across the state. 

I had a pretty broad concern for environmental issues and thought of many problems from a global scale. I assumed everyone had these concerns, but quickly learned that was a naive assumption. So, I decided to try and share my passion for the environment and wildlife with others through conservation work.

My AmeriCorps cohort and I worked as a team for the Maryland Conservation Corps to create environmental education activities for visitors at Assateague Island. A particularly memorable part of this experience included training to assist with the ‘Scales and Tails’ program in which live, non-releasable birds of prey and reptiles served to educate kids and adults about valuing and protecting native wildlife and habitat. This experiential part of the program combined many aspects that were, and still are, very important to me, including environmental conservation, protecting and helping wildlife, and educating the public about these issues.

Being away from home for that year taught me a lot, and it fueled my desire to continue my work abroad. I found out about the Peace Corps Master’s International program and immediately knew it was the perfect opportunity to continue traveling and learning. I had to apply for grad school and find an advisor willing to oversee my thesis work while abroad, so I applied for the graduate program at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point College of Natural Resources (UWSP) and the United States Peace Corps simultaneously. 

I spent a year at UWSP doing as much of my coursework as I could, and then awaited my Peace Corps assignment, along with my husband, who was also pursuing the same program. We were eventually invited to serve as volunteers in Zambia, a beautiful country in Sub-Saharan Africa, as LIFE (Linking Income, Food, and the Environment) volunteers. It was a very exciting time in our lives; my husband had recently graduated with his biology degree at ESU and we were ready to take on this adventure together. 

Doing both programs took some time, creative thinking, and networking while in Africa – not an easy task when you live in a mud hut with no running water or electricity! 

Although we were there to help teach people various skills (beekeeping, conservation farming, agroforestry, sustainable cooking methods, environmental education, etc.), there is no doubt that we were the students. During the first two months we stayed with a host family while going through intensive language, cultural, and technical training. Once the training was over, we were sent to our villages to live and work in those areas. 

We were assigned to the remote village of Mishingo (about 7 miles biking to the nearest town). We spent just over two years living and working there, providing training and education to locals interested in learning more about beekeeping, fuel-efficient cooking, and sustainable agriculture methods including agroforestry. We also worked with schools to promote environmental education and conservation. 

In 2006, news about the honeybee ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ was really making headlines, and I became very interested and concerned about the health of all pollinators.To complete the requirements for my master’s degree, I conducted research while in Zambia, comparing farms using conservation methods to those that were not. This work was published in the Journal of Kansas Entomological Society. In addition, I recognized the need to educate stakeholders in Zambia about the importance of pollinators and worked with others to create an education manual.

The more I learned about bees the more curious I became about them. They are so important, yet so little is known about many species. Many are hidden in plain sight – now that I know about them, I see them everywhere. (I even counted 13 leaf cutter bees nests along the small holes on the outside of my house this summer!)

The cross-cultural exchange that we experienced in Zambia - which only truly happens during full immersion - is something that we will always be grateful for. We, as Americans, shared what life is like in the U.S. as we learned about life there in Zambia. We learned the local language the best we could, and it led to much laughter and kindness shared by our friends, neighbors, and community. 

Many people in Zambia speak English, but it was less common in the rural areas. We lived next to a family who spoke English and helped us with translations. They became part of our family – we were even asked to name their newborn son! We were very close, and had many, many conversations with them at night around the fire. We miss them tremendously, and are grateful for their generosity and kindness.

They became part of our family – we were even asked to name their newborn son!

Being away from home for these experiences made me homesick, and also curious about the bees found in the tallgrass prairies of my home state of Kansas. Upon graduating from UWSP, I continued learning about bees for my doctoral studies at the University of Kansas Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.

I started in the program at KU during the fall of 2012, and had my first son on July 23, 2014. I had to have an emergency C-section, and so ended up taking a break during fall semester to heal and have time with my son. I continued the following spring semester with my studies and working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for the Introductory Biology labs. I loved working in this area, and eventually, in the summer of 2016, was given the opportunity to work as a full time laboratory coordinator. I had done my field work, so felt that I could continue the degree work and also take advantage of this great opportunity (knowing these positions do not come up very often!). While I worked and studied, my son went to an amazing child care program at KU, next door to my building. Every day I could go and check-in on him as I worked for the labs and on my dissertation.

My second son came December 22, 2018. I had hoped to finish and defend my thesis ("defending the thesis generally incorporates presenting your main argument to an academic faculty and supporting your primary points with clear, convincing logic that lends credence to the fundamental concepts being advanced within the body of the work") that winter but ended up pushing it to the spring of 2019. Ultimately, trying to work full time and raise two young boys while working to finish the PhD became too stressful, so I quit my position as a lab coordinator at KU.

This was a really hard thing to do, because I loved the job and the people that I worked with. But I knew I needed the time to fully focus on completing the degree, while nursing my newborn son, and getting our four year old adapted to having a baby brother. 

In May 2019, seven years and two babies later, I finished my PhD at KU. In those seven years I was fortunate to spend more time focusing on the intricacies of bees in remnant and restoration tallgrass prairies, and bee size changes in response to land use. I gave numerous talks about native bees and bee diversity. I really enjoyed the outreach component, and have continued that work as a volunteer ambassador for the Xerces Society.

Since the spring of 2019, my focus has shifted to being mom to my two young boys. I was, and still am, astounded by the tremendous diversity of bees in our world. It’s a journey that continues today working as a volunteer outreach ambassador for the Xerces Society.

In my journey as a parent, I take all of the incredible life experiences that I’ve been fortunate to have, and hope for a brighter future. With all the issues we are facing right now in our society and environment, I definitely feel a heavy weight; I see my two boys and want so badly for things to be better for them. My husband and I continue to demonstrate for our kids the importance of caring for and respecting the natural world; for example, we will be planting much of our yard space with native plants in order to provide resources for pollinators, while demonstrating that yard space can be both beautiful and eco-friendly.

In the future, I hope to continue this path of educating others about the surprising and amazing invertebrates that are so integral to the health and future of our world.

But today, I’ll be teaching my 6 year old to be gentle with insects, and my 2 year old to identify a bee.

Bee Ecologist, Ambassador for Xerces Society, and Mom of Two

PhD Ecology and Evolutionary Biology | University of Kansas

M.S. Natural Resources & Conservation | University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

B.S. Environmental Biology | Emporia State University

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