Catching up with our Conservation Scholars: Lillian Dinkins

In this series, we'll periodically check in with former and current scholars on their experiences with the Scholars for Conservation Leadership Program, as well as what's next for them in their careers. Today: Lillian Dinkins, 2020 scholar and former fellow at Conservation Florida.

By Corey Himrod January 17
A young Black woman holds a small amphibian in her hand to count on a preserve home to critical Florida scrub habitat and scrubby flatwoods.

The Land Trust Alliance's Scholars for Conservation Leadership Program is a career and leadership development program designed to expand opportunities for students to pursue careers in natural resource management and conservation, with an emphasis on engaging underrepresented students and students of color. And each year, one of our scholars is selected for a paid year-long fellowship (post-graduation) with a land conservation organization to gain on-the-job experience at a critical time in their academic and early career.

In this series, we'll periodically check in with former and current scholars on their experiences with the Scholars for Conservation Leadership Program, as well as what's next for them in their careers.

Today: Lillian Dinkins, 2020 scholar and former fellow at Conservation Florida.

Corey Himrod: Lillian, we’re grateful that you’re willing to join us and share with us a little bit about yourself. Before we get into the scholars program and your experience, tell us a little bit more about Lillian — your background, your family, your role models?

Lillian Dinkins: Well, I was originally born in Savannah, Georgia but grew up in Decatur, Georgia. I like to say I am a city girl at heart who just fell in love with nature. As a child my dad and I would walk Stone Mountain or sit in the backyard, and I would look at the trees and hear the various birds that would call that place home. In the summer when I would go to my grandparents’ house I would spend time in their backyard watching the squirrels and birds, playing around the oak tree, and I think these experiences are what really sparked my curiosity for nature!

CH: How and when did you first become interested in issues like climate change, natural resources and conservation? Was that interest developed over time as a student, or did you arrive at college with an idea of what you wanted to pursue?

 LD: Throughout middle school and high school I just knew I was going to be a veterinarian. My parents really helped mold my interest and found opportunities that sparked my interest in science. For a few years I interned at Coral Sands Animal Hospital to really see what it took to be a veterinarian, but I also attended the AG Discovery program at South Carolina State University where I was first really introduced to environmental science, wildlife, forestry and natural resources. As I went on to college I first began as an animal science major, but my great mentor Rodney Stone, a 1890 USDA liaison, told me about the environmental science program, and the next day I changed my major and never looked back! [Ed. note: This refers to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s 1890 National Scholars Program, established in 1992 as part of the partnership between the USDA and the 1890 Land-Grant Universities.]

CH: You graduated from Tuskegee University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental, natural resources and plant sciences — are there specific experiences from those four years, things like internships, volunteer opportunities or events, that you will take with you as you pursue your career?

 LD: Yes! Throughout my years at Tuskegee, I had several great experiences that have gotten me to where I am today! I was a part of the George Washington Carver MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture Natural Resources and Related Studies) as well as the Wildlife and Natural Resources Conservation Club. My very first internship was with the Eastern Montana/Dakotas District Office of the Bureau of Land Management in Miles City, Montana, where I worked as a range aid/technician. This was the first time I was far away from home, and the first time I experienced working with a woman in my field. My boss, Cindy Tusler, trained me the whole summer! By the end of that summer, I gained experience doing hands-on surveys inventorying species richness, canopy gap estimates, soils stability and fuels, got my first hands-on experience with GIS [geographic information systems], uploading electronic data, preparing gear for monitoring and camping, and I assisted wildlife biologists to enhance habitat monitoring program through data stratification using ArcGIS (just to name a few). My next internship experience was with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Coast Survey’s Pacific Hydrographic Branch in Seattle, Washington, where I worked as a hydrographic survey intern. Throughout the summer I had the opportunity to review hydrographic surveys and bathymetric grids, including reviewing and editing archived hydrographic surveys in high priority areas — Long Island, New York, and Puerto Rico.

CH: How did you first learn about the Scholars for Conservation Leadership Program and what would you tell other students out there that are considering applying?

LD: I happened to see the email from our listserv that was sent by Dr. Zakiya Leggett about the program. In my studies at the time, I never dealt with conservation and had no idea what a land trust was, but I knew I needed to apply and learn more about the organization and conservation. If students are thinking about applying, I would tell them to go for it! Whenever you run across an opportunity that sparks your interest or curiosity there is no harm in applying. When you put yourself out there to explore paths you learn that you love that thing or hate that thing — regardless, it helps shape your future knowing you want to do it in the future or don’t! 

CH: I think a lot of times, when the public thinks about “conservation,” it’s often within the context of national parks, forests or wildlife refuges, or threatened or endangered wildlife. Why is it so important that we also focus on issues like urban farming, urban forestry, and climate and environmental justice?

LD: Our world is becoming more urbanized each year, but having our greenspaces is really key to a balanced life! There are a number of studies that show the benefits of having urban forests, urban gardens and greenspaces in communities. There’s pleasure in being able to experience nature in your own backyard. People need to know you don’t have to travel far to experience nature. The same experiences I had in the backyard or walking a mountain made me realize the importance of those spaces. I hope to be that advocate, to unite people in the outdoors, to make people feel comfortable, but overall to let people know that outdoor spaces belong to us all and should all be kept not just for us but for generations to come. 

CH: In 2021 you completed your one-year Scholars for Conservation fellowship with Conservation Florida — tell us about that experience and the type of work you did?

LD: First I would like to say thank you to Dr. Leggett and Dr. Spence for allowing me to have this opportunity to be the first student to have this fellowship. I took this fellowship very seriously and I am glad for the team at Conservation Florida for trusting me in this role and position. During this one year I was able to experience and step into various roles. I was responsible for monitoring Conservation Florida’s six conservation easements with help from senior team members. I also assisted with management and restoration-related duties associated with D Ranch Preserve. I was involved in reviewing and contributing to land protection policy updates. I also started an outreach program of monthly trivia games to connect with the community in a safe and educational way as well as assist with our bioblitz by guiding people around D Ranch Preserve. [Ed. note: Conservation Florida describes a bioblitz as an immersive research event where participants find, identify and record all the plants, animals, microbes, fungi and other organisms that live within a specified area.]

Two women examine wildlife at a Florida preserve containing 149 acres of critical Florida scrub habitat and 60 acres of scrubby flatwoods.

CH: After your fellowship ended you went back to school, enrolling in a PhD program at the University of Florida. What are you currently studying, and do you have an idea of what you want to do after graduation?

LD: Overall I am studying urban forestry. I am looking at programs that promote tree canopy such as tree giveaway programs in the state of Florida. After graduation I would love to work for the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program at one of its research stations, or possibly with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative on its urban and community forests work.

CH: You recently attended Rally: The National Land Conservation Conference, held in New Orleans, Louisiana. What was that experience like?

LD: It felt so great to be back in person for the Rally! I was able to see a lot of familiar faces but also meet a lot of new people. It felt really good to meet the past and newly selected scholars. The students who I met are extremely talented and have bright futures with their prospective careers. The highlight of my experience, just as in 2019, was the welcome dinner. Incorporating food and mingling is one of my favorite things about conferences!

CH: Look into your crystal ball and help us finish this sentence: In ten years, Lillian Dinkins will be ___________.

LD: Wow, in 10 years I will be Dr. Lillian Grace Dinkins (that’s so nice to say!)! By then I hope to be working with the U.S. Forest Service or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, focusing on standards or projects that help tree diversity and canopy especially in underrepresented communities. I would love to also have my own program that focuses on helping students learn about climate change, natural resources conservation, agriculture, wildlife and forestry, or be able to help in any way I can with the Scholars for Conservation program. I think it is very important that I help out in the ways that I was helped and sharing my knowledge and opportunities with the next generation is huge to me!

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