What Girl Scouts Means to Me: Dr. Kristen Lear
From Girl Scout Night Hikes to Worldwide Bat Conservation
Night hikes were always my favorite part of Girl Scout camp: the darkness surrounding us; the reflective eyes of hundreds of tiny spiders; the nearly silent wing beats of owls. And my favorite nighttime sound: the subtle clicks of bats as they echolocated through the sky in search of prey.
I had always been intrigued by bats in spite of their misrepresentation in popular culture. They were an underdog: an animal critical to ecosystems around the world, but often ignored or needlessly feared. So when I was in 6th grade as a Cadette Girl Scout trying to figure out what I wanted to do for my Silver Award project, the spark came to me: I could build bat houses to help bats!
I researched bat house blueprints and set out to build four houses to install in a local park in my hometown of Cincinnati. I was quite apprehensive; I was never the most mechanically-inclined growing up, and was nervous around power tools. Despite my self-doubt, I spent an afternoon with my mom (my troop leader), my dad, and my grandpa assembling the houses and climbing up a ladder to install them.
I was immensely proud of building something with my own hands that could help bats! While the project didn’t go as I had planned (someone later came by and vandalized my bat houses, much to my 12-year-old dismay), it solidified my passion for bats and was the gateway to a career in bat conservation.
After my first bat experience during my Silver Award project, I went on to study Zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University and had my first research experience with bats when I spent several summers working as a field tech studying the pest control services of bats in Texas pecan orchards. My Silver Award project skills came in handy when I built bat houses (this time 18!) for my Honors research project, investigating species preferences in bat house design. Bats moved into the houses within weeks of installation, and one of them even became a maternity colony where the mom bats raised their pups! I recently visited Texas and checked on the bat houses, and they’re still full of bats calling them home. What a fantastic feeling it was to see the skills and passion I developed as a Girl Scout making a difference!
More than 20 years after my Silver Award, I’ve earned my PhD in bat conservation and traveled the world to study and protect bats. I’ve squeezed deep into Australian caves to study their bat inhabitants. I’ve climbed the mountains of Mexico searching for endangered bats. I’ve traipsed through deserts and chased bats through Texas pecan orchards. I’ve pulled many all-nighters sitting under the stars listening to bats fly overhead. And now I have my dream job working as an Endangered Species Interventions Specialist at Bat Conservation International, all because of my experiences as a Girl Scout that launched me on the path of my passion!
One of the best parts of my journey is that I can now use my expertise to give back to younger Scouts. As a Lifetime Member, I’ve helped troops with their own bat projects to earn their Bronze and Silver Awards. Seeing the girls light up when they learn cool bat facts and build bat houses with their own hands reminds me of building my first bat house, and I can see that spark of budding bat biologists. Girl Scouts instilled in me a deep desire to make the world a better place, and that’s really what I strive to do as a bat conservationist, one bat house and one Girl Scout at a time.
Dr. Kristen Lear is a bat conservationist and Endangered Species Interventions Specialist at Bat Conservation International. She grew up as a Girl Scout with Girl Scouts of Western Ohio, earning her Silver and Gold Awards, and is now a Lifetime Member. She is also a National Geographic Explorer and AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador, promoting women and girls in STEM. Find her on Instagram (@batsforlife_kristen) and Twitter (@BatsForLife).