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Desert Life Up Close
Excerpt from It's A Living! Career News for Girls

by Ceel Publishing

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Claudia Luke came home from her fifth-grade class one day and asked her mother, "What do you call a person who studies animals?" They looked it up in the dictionary and found zoologist.

Today Claudia is a zoologist and co-director of the Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center in California's Mojave Desert. She studies rare desert tortoises and other animals. Claudia is also a university professor. Her specialty is herpetology—the branch of zoology that studies reptiles and amphibians such as snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, and salamanders.

When Claudia was a girl, her family liked to go backpacking. Claudia always wanted to learn about the mysterious lives of animals. "I thought if I was just sat still enough, I could be part of the animals around me," she says.

Claudia's mother helped her find a course on how to identify birds. Her mother always believed in Claudia's dream to study animals. But getting her education wasn't always fun for Claudia. High school biology class turned out to be "boring, dry, and flat," says Claudia. So she decided to get some experience with people who were already studying animals. She studied one year in junior college and worked as a laboratory researcher. That's one job a zoologist or biologist might have, but Claudia didn't like lab work. She wanted to study animals in their natural environment.

Then Claudia went to the University of California at Berkeley. She paid her own way to spend a month in Kenya, Africa, to study the black and white colobus monkey. Claudia loved it.

The next summer she went to western Texas to work with a professor who studies a special kind of lizard. Claudia found lizards and then shot crickets through a straw to feed them. The professor wanted to find out if those lizards that got extra food lived longer.

Another professor at Berkeley asked her to work with him as a graduate student and study herpetology. She spent six years in graduate school- the average time for students in her field - making her living by teaching part time. Teaching made her nervous at first. But when she stopped worrying so much about what students thought of her, she got good at it.

To earn her doctorate (PhD) degree, Claudia decided to do research on lizards in the desert. She found the desert really is the place for her. "I like the extremes in temperature, the exposed honesty of the landscape. I like the feeling of being small, of being a part of something bigger."

After graduation, Claudia worked as a consultant in the San Francisco area. Companies that wanted to develop land and needed to know about rare animals that lived there hired Claudia to look for these protected animals and write reports. It paid well, but Claudia wasn't satisfied, because she would write a report and never hear about the project again.

After about four years, she and Jim Andre, who is her partner in work and in life, got the chance to be co-directors of the Desert Research Center in the Mojave. The center is one of 32 reserves managed by the University of California Natural Reserve System. Claudia, Jim, and two other people live in the desert, where the wild, undisturbed natural habitat is protected for education and scientific study.

Claudia loves every part of her job. "Everything I do - whether it is administrative, research, scheduling, or fundraising - all relates back to protecting the area for research and education. I like to see the results of my efforts." As a field station director, she doesn't have a daily or weekly schedule; her job changes as new research projects begin. Claudia says the biggest reward about a career in research is knowing that "once you get the answer to something, you've got it for the first time ever."

The Desert Research Center is in such a remote area that the nearest grocery store is more than 75 miles away. In the summer, Claudia says, she misses ice cream. She also misses going to restaurants and having friends drop by. But people do travel that far - friends, scientists, students - and they usually stay awhile. In her spare time, Claudia writes songs and paints. She and Jim like to run with their dog Brewer.

by Stephenie Overman


Start your study of nature near home with a place that is relatively wild - it could be the nearest park or your back yard. Read field guides and join outdoor groups. Observe and keep notes in a journal describing what you see.

CHECKLIST - This career is for you if you...

  • Love the outdoors, even when it's hot or cold or dirty.
  • Like to be the first person to find out something new.
  • Are willing to do the same thing over and over to be sure the experiment is right.
  • Are determined to keep studying to get a master's degree or even a PhD.


Starting pay PhD: $13.37 per hour, $27,800 per year
Source: Encyclopedia of Career and Vocational Guidance (1997).

Excerpted from It's a Living! Career News for Girls

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