Advice to undergrads: Doing is just as important as studying when you’re trying to prepare for a career.
That credo helped UWM alum Suzanne Rutishauser Yorke (’11 MS Biological Sciences) turn an enthusiasm for ecology and academic travel into a job with a nature TV series.
Rutishauser Yorke is a co-host of “Wild Scene Investigation,” which airs on Saturdays this month on the Nat Geo WILD channel. The show follows three hosts as they track “wildlife mysteries,” from haunted forests in Wales to missing jewelry in California and disappearing house cats in Vermont backyards. (You may even get to see what a coyote killed on the highway had for his last dinner.)
“When I was little, I never thought, ‘I want to be on television,’” says Rutishauser Yorke, although she admits being passionate about communicating science. “But when you’re in grad school and you’re teaching anyway, you focus on ways to get students’ attention and understanding.”
Stimulating the curiosity of the general public is just as important, she believes. And the bridge to understanding for this audience has to come wrapped in entertainment. “It has to be fun,” she says of the series. “Once you do that, then you can work in some of the science details.”
Rutishauser Yorke came to UWM in 2006 to pursue a master’s degree with Associate Professor Stefan Schnitzer.
She had met Schnitzer several years before, after completing her bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Dayton. He told her about his research on the ecology of woody vines called lianas, which he was conducting at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. He suggested she apply for a semester there working as a field technician.
The trip to Panama was Rutishauser Yorke’s first time traveling outside the U.S., and the trip transformed her. Immediately after her assignment at STRI, she signed up for the Peace Corps and worked in Malawi for a year.
Upon returning she took a job in Minneapolis working for a biotech company. By 2006, she was also involved with a group of young scientists who were making videos for K-12 students for science textbook publisher Pearson Education.
“When we started out, we would go on nature hikes and make short videos to put up on YouTube,” she says. “By the time I was in graduate school, we had made about 200 videos for Pearson.”
The same year, Rutishauser Yorke was ready to go back to Panama, where she worked for Schnitzer again, and decided to enroll at UWM. During this time and throughout her graduate program, she also continued her video work.
She traveled between the U.S. and Panama several times while doing her graduate research and teaching a unique “hybrid” course of Schnitzer’s that included part of the semester at STRI.
Out of the blue
Soon after graduation, Rutishauser Yorke received a surprise phone call from Icon Films, a production company in Bristol, England. Producers had seen her in some of the Pearson videos and invited her to audition for a nature series they were creating.
Her hunger for new experiences had paid off. She joined Brits Lorne Kramer and Daniel Huertas, filming in both the U.S. and Great Britain, but the show’s target audience is American, she says.
“She’s perfect for what she’s doing,” says Schnitzer. “When you meet her you just know that she’s got it together. She’s a natural teacher and that’s why she’s so good on the show.”
“One of the things I like about the show is we’re not telling the audience what to think,” says Rutishauser Yorke. “We’re showing them images and laying out the facts and letting them judge for themselves. Then they may realize that not all situations in nature are cut and dried.”
If the show is popular, she says, they may make another season. Newly married and now living in California, she has been doing some consulting work. This summer she will again return to Panama, and she continues to work for Schnitzer as a research associate.
For the budding biologists at UWM, she says, “My suggestion for students is to take advantage of the many resources at UWM that take you out of the classroom, whether it’s undergraduate research or study abroad. UWM has plenty of very cool opportunities.”
Although the first two episodes already have aired, six more, two appearing back-to-back, will be broadcast on consecutive Saturdays (April 7, 14 and 21) at 9 p.m. CT on the Nat Geo WILD channel. Follow Rutishauser Yorke’s live twitter feed on Saturday during the show – @WildScenesuz. Can’t watch? Check out some video clips at http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/nat-geo-wild/shows-1/wild-scene-investigation.