Binbin Li: nothing is “unsuitable” for a girl to do

Interviewer: Ziyi Zhang; Translator: Riley Peng @ Animal Dialogue

First Published on Animal Dialogue, 07/22/2017

Interviewee Profile

Binbin Li spent her undergrad years at Peking University School of Life Sciences, obtained her master’s degree from School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, and got her doctorate at Duke Nicholas School of the Environment. She has participated in multiple research projects on panda habitats, taken photos in the Mountains of Southwest China, and completed her journey across all seven continents last year. She is currently an assistant professor at Duke Kunshan University.

1460556349©Binbin Li

A Dream-Chasing Girl

Binbin’s interest in conservation began in middle school. Like many kids who grew up in cities, she did not have many opportunities to contact nature as a child. In middle school and high school, she found biology fascinating and thus signed up to participate in a biology competition. While preparing for the competition, she got a chance to visit Teacher Zhi Lu’s conservation center. Seeing pictures hanging on the wall of scientists studying pandas in the wild, she was pleasantly surprised. Before then, she had never considered how what she had seen people in documentaries do – living among wildlife – could translate into a real occupation. Pining for such a life, she aspired to work in conservation. Afterwards, she had been striving tirelessly to pursue her dream, proceeding down a winding but colorful road.

After her biology competition, Binbin had been granted a spot at Peking University School of Environmental Sciences, where she interacted with soil and plants every day. Knowing this was not where her interests lie, she tried every method she could to transfer to the School of Life Sciences, where she hoped to study under Teacher Zhi Lu’s guidance and conduct research in wildlife conservation. Thus, during her first year, besides courses required by the School of Environmental Sciences, all the other ones she selected were those that could also be taken at the School of Life Sciences. During her second year, she successfully transferred to the School of Life Sciences and acquired a grant to participate in captive panda research. Now, Binbin Li also started getting to know the students and faculty at the conservation center, learning about what kinds of things she could get involved in. Thinking that she could just fearlessly stride towards her dream, she never imagined that the frustration she felt and the denials she received during a few conversations with others would almost make her give up.

2099940205©Binbin Li

Although the Binbin then was timid and sensitive, she finally gathered enough courage to ask her teacher for an opportunity to participate in field studies. Nevertheless, knowing that she had type 1 diabetes and required daily insulin injections, one teacher frowned, “If I had known your condition, I would have never even mentioned this opportunity to you… You can’t go.” Struck with sadness and frustration after hearing her teacher’s harsh reply, she broke into controllable sobs as soon as she’s out of her teacher’s sight. In her phone call to her parents, she wailed, “ They said I can’t do this.”

Luckily, she managed to find an internship at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to study Przewalski’s Gazelle at Qinghai Lake with Teacher Zhigang Jiang . Initially, she was filled with excitement upon her first outdoor expedition. When she mentioned her goal to pursue a career in conservation, however, her elder colleague threw a basin of cold water over her face: “Girls can have no future in this field. They can’t run faster than boys in the wilderness, they can’t withstand the hardships of working in the field, they also can’t find jobs both domestic and overseas. Consider switching to another field.” These words appeared to be friendly admonitions now, ten years after they were said. However, to the nervous, soft-hearted girl who had a big dream, they were a fatal strike. Back then, she seemed to see the door to her future slam shut. To Binbin, none of the hardships she experienced in her outdoor expeditions felt as vehement as these words did.

Nothing is unsuitable for a girl to do.”

Things started to turn around in her junior year, when Hongya Gu, a teacher in evolutionary biology, invited her mentor Peter Raven to give a talk at Peking University. That talk rekindled the sparks of hope in Li’s heart. When Peter’s talk ended, she waited until everyone had finished asking questions to speak to him. She asked Peter, “I would like to work in conservation, but many say that it’s unsuitable for girls, and my health conditions might also prevent me from doing so… I really don’t know what to do, and whether I should continue or not. I also want to study abroad, and find out whether I will face the same obstacles overseas.” Peter cast an earnest look into her eyes, “Nothing is unsuitable for a girl to do.” In fact, many of her colleagues are women, who all excel at their work in the conservation field. Peter thinks that people should not be prejudiced against women. Afterwards, Peter gave Li the contact information of three other professors and introduced her to them. One of these three — Stuart Primm, a pioneer of conservation biology — became her future doctorate advisor. When Li emailed Stuart to seek advice, Stuart told her that more than half of the researchers in his lab were girls, who often did a better job than guys did. He also heartily welcomed Li to join his team. To the confused and bewildered Li, such simple encouragement sufficed to strengthen her hope.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 12.57.33 AMWith Prof. Peter Raven (second left) and Prof. Stuart Pimm (first right) ©Binbin Li

In her senior year, Li earned an opportunity to write her senior thesis at Shaanxi Changqing Natural Reserve, where she could study Qinling pandas. This was her first time really getting to explore the wilderness, under the guidance of Teacher Wenshi Pan , Teacher Zhi Lu, and Teacher Dajun Wang. Along with them came her fellow students from Peking University – Fang Wang, Sheng Li, and Xiaoli Shen. Within such close distance to the teachers she looked up to, she broke into tears again when raising her cup to propose a toast. After her teachers had left the natural reserve, Li spent most of her time conducting independent research in the wild. She would go into the wild during the day and come back to chat with the natural reserve staff at night. Although she had to work under harsh conditions, she still derived joy from it. Her experience spending time with the staff at the natural reserve led her to especially admire these front-line conservationists; this experience also formed the basis of her subsequent more in-depth research at natural reserves.

After graduating from Peking University in 2010, Li went to the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment. During her master’s studies, she researched the impact of wild cats on local biodiversity on a Greek island. Back then, Li still remained uncertain whether she would stay in the academia or work at NGOs. Therefore, besides research, she also found an internship at an NGO during her vacation to work at WWF’s China office. During her internship, she worked on tasks related to sustainable development certification. She contacted government departments and seafood processing companies for surveys and published a book discussing the viability of FSC, MSC, ASC, and RSOP certifications in China, as well as the significant place China – a large-scale processing location – occupies in the entire certification chain. After getting her master’s degree, invited by the WWF, she went to its office in Washington D.C. to investigate Chinese and American meat industries and propel sustainable development in the marketplace. During these two internships, Li gained the diplomacy skills to interact with NGOs and government departments. At the same time, she realized that effective conservation not only requires outdoor research but also a push in consumer markets and co-operation among different fields. Li saw with more certainty that her future belongs out in the wilderness, not inside an office.

Traversing Forests and Mountains

In 2012, Li graduated from the University of Michigan and won a national public grant to do research as a member of Stuart Primm’s team at Duke Nicholas School of the Environment. Stuart’s prior research mainly focused on South American, African, and North American regions, but never China. To him, China offered many opportunities for conservation. Because of language barriers, international conservation workers could not conduct in-depth research in China, making China a relatively blank-slated and appealing area for research. During her discussions with Stuart, Li thought that since she already had experience doing conservation research overseas, and considering that she would like to return to China in the future, she hoped to use her bilingual advantage to execute a comprehensive research project in her homeland. Thus, she decided to mainly concentrate her doctorate research on conservation in China. Then, Li began traveling back and forth between China and the United States. She started to conduct long-term, consecutive research in China, and communicate long-distance with her advisor.

1394062030Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 1.00.00 AM©Binbin Li

During her doctorate studies, Li completed four research projects in total. The first one was a study on the distribution of Chinese endemic species in hot spots, along with a quantitative analysis of giant pandas’ umbrella effect on other species in the habitat, investigating how it protected China’s most important species distribution regions. The second one was a similar study in Southeast Asia, which considered the impacts of rubber forests, palm trees, and other commercial crops. By categorizing them into natural and artificial forests, she redefined the distribution of Southeast Asian endemic species reserves, pointing out that these endemic species’ actual habitat ranges may be much smaller than the habitat ranges provided by IUCN and Birdlife International; moreover, these species also face more severe threat than previously believed. Her third project focused on the impact of livestock grazing in the Wang Lang Natural Reserve on panda habitats. By combining ecological research with social sciences surveys, she ascertained the main reasons behind grazing in local regions, proposed a possible solution, and constructed quite a comprehensive conservation plan. The fourth one involved using technology to study individual pandas through their footprints. All four projects were mostly completed by Li herself – from applying for grants and managing research funds to establishing a research team. While the first two projects mostly involved running models on computers, the latter two heavily relied on co-operation with the staff at the Wang Lang Natural Reserve, the assistance of field survey volunteer teams, and support from her teachers at Peking University. Thankfully, everything fared smoothly. During her time conducting field research at the reserve, Li traversed mountains, forests, and waters, going as far as 30 kilometers every day, becoming the top mountaineer among all outside researchers. In May 2017, Li successfully obtained her doctorate degree. Two months later, she started teaching at Duke Kunshan University, simultaneously resuming her independent research.

1253054805©Binbin Li

Don’t set boundaries for your life

So many years later, Li is no longer the timid girl she used to be. In her years abroad, her undefeatable and adventurous spirit allowed her to break countless boundaries to achieve many things others thought she could never achieve. In her spare time, Li dances, acts in plays, takes photos, travels around the world, and writes scientific articles. She also got certified as a National Natural Educator, became a photographer of the Mountains of Southwest China, and held a wedding before completing her doctorate degree. Looking back on those discouraging words, she realized that in such a large social environment as China, people tend to be easily prejudiced against women based on various preconceived notions. However, women shouldn’t limit themselves because of these prejudices. Throughout her journey, Li met many extraordinary women in the conservation field who excel at their work; their examples encourage her to keep trudging on. Thus, she also wishes to inspire other girls to be braver and chase after their dreams.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 1.00.10 AMA recent conservation trip to the Arctic ©Binbin Li

In an article she wrote for her Wechat public account, she says,

“There are many ways of evaluating beauty. You can still be an enviable girl without always trying to keep up with others’ standards. What’s most important is not to become the most highly praised, but to find where your interests and dreams truly lie, and become an interesting person. People around you hardly stay, and brilliant people are rare; however, if you are always filled with fascinating stories and experiencing endless surprises, you can stand higher and have conversations with outstanding individuals. This is the only way for you to attract interesting people, with whom you can have stimulating conversations and build longer-lasting friendships. Commit acts of kindness whenever you can, and derive joy from helping others. You should continue to become your better self, whether or not your future path is conservation, whether or not you will spend days traversing the field, whether or not you are that outlier…You will find your place in the world.”

Lastly, here are some cute photos of wildlife taken by Binbin:

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The original interview was published on our WeChat platform. Read its Chinese version here: We would like to give our sincere gratitude to Ms. Li for her time and patience during the interview process, and for sharing with us her remarkable photos of nature and wildlife. Ms. Li reserves all the copyrights to the photos used in this article.

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