Collabra is fortunate to have an impressive roster of senior editors in Life & Biomedical Sciences, Ecology & Environmental Science, and Social & Behavioral Sciences. As part of our ongoing series, we’ll be profiling each of the senior editors in the coming months to give you an idea of their work and research, as well as what inspired them to be part of Collabra.
Next up: Oliver Pergams, PhD, Ecology and Environmental Sciences.
From Wolf of Wall Street to Conservation Crusader
A currency trader walks into a bar.
Bartender says, “What can I get you?”
Without missing a beat, the trader says, “Purpose.”
Ten years later, out walks a conservation biologist.
His name is Oliver Pergams,
and yes, there’s an unconventional story here — one that includes Wall Street and Congress, and lands here in the present, with the sometimes heartbreaking, always inspiring, reality of mentoring at-risk students of color at Olive-Harvey College in his hometown of Chicago.
It begins when five-year-old Pergams discovers the hidden living world beneath the urban streets of his Illinois neighborhood.
“The sewer mains got replaced outside our apartment, leaving the dirt excavated maybe 10 to 15 feet down,” recalls Pergams, a first-generation German-American and Smith Fellow with the Society of Conservation Biology. “The workmen left sawhorses and yellow tape to keep people from climbing in, but as soon as they left for the day I climbed in anyway. What I saw was a cross-section of life under the street, under the sidewalk. There were beetles and snakes and a multitude of different organisms that I was unaware of. I decided then that I wanted to understand why they were there and how they lived.”
Fast forward to college. He’s a biology major at the University of Chicago, eager to fulfill his childhood ambitions. To support himself, he works the night shift at a paint company, juggling school and socializing. But the latter wins out, resulting in mediocre grades. In order to graduate, he changes his major to Germanic Languages. “I was young, into partying. I hadn’t figured it out yet,” admits Pergams. “At that point, going to grad school for biology was out of the question, so I was pretty rudderless.”
Then he meets a foreign-exchange recruiter at a party, and she hands him a novel, Traders, a fictional account of the high-stakes, fast-paced world of commodities trading. He thinks, Huh, that sounds exciting, and she gets him a job interview. “That book was my only prep for the interview,” he says. “Back then, all you needed was ambition, big cajones, and instinct. It also didn’t hurt to be white.”
“It’s possible to forget what you really want to do. I know I did … It wasn’t until I walked through that zoo that I remembered I wanted to be a biologist.”
It’s the 1980s,
the days of Wolf of Wall Street. Pergams move up the ranks quickly, becoming an options trader, is headhunted by The Bank of New York, where he meets his future wife, then is recruited by the feds to deal in foreign currency, ending up vice president. He then leaves to launch his own trading company, which, after a seven-year ride of success, he loses to a hostile takeover.
“I think that most people fall into careers by accident,” says Pergams. “If they are reasonably competent, they can do many different things, but that doesn’t mean they’ll like them. I was a good trader, but I didn’t fit and I didn’t like it. In retrospect, this [the takeover] was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
That’s when he walks in to the proverbial bar — which, in Pergams’ case, is actually Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska — his wife’s hometown.
“It’s possible to forget what you really want to do. I know I did. I got sidetracked. It wasn’t until I walked through that zoo that I remembered that I wanted to be a biologist,” says Pergams, who by then was 38. When he drove out of the parking lot that day, Purpose was riding shotgun beside him and hasn’t left his side since.
Despite a false start, Pergams proved more than
reasonably competent as a student and powered through his masters and PhD in biology, both earned by 2002 at the Univerity of Illinois, where he would later teach.
“The first time I applied to grad school, I wasn’t admitted because of my undergraduate grades,” says Pergams. “The director of graduate admissions, Dennis Nyberg, was especially against my admission. I responded by taking his notorious course, Population Biology, and getting the first A in history. He then approved my admission and eventually became my PhD advisor and one of my best friends.”
Although Pergams’ initial research focused on evolutionary biology and its implications for conservation, he was more concerned about what was happening right now between humans and nature and its implications for conservation in the long-term. As with his success on Wall Street, instinct, tenacity, and intelligence propelled his success in science, but the commodities were different, the stakes higher: nature, human well-being, and the stewardship of both.
It was around this time that other researchers were beginning to document the growing disconnection between people and nature, particularly among children. It was termed Nature Deficit Disorder, and it was having a noticeable impact on children’s well-being. Pergams, along with co-investigator Patricia Zaradic, decided to quantify people’s changing relationship with nature. It was clear that new media technology was competing for peoples’ time. But was there a correlation?
Their work proved groundbreaking. Not only was there a link, but their multiple studies showed a distinct correlation between time spent in front of a screen and diminished time spent in nature — especially among the young. Put simply, people were glued to their computers, televisions, and movie screens. Nature was not riding shotgun with this generation. Attendance at National Parks was down, as were hunting and fishing licenses, wilderness permits, almost everything. And it all pointed to the burgeoning growth of new screen technology.
The lines on the graph were clear, and people took notice. The phenomenon was termed “videophilia” — a counterpoint to E.O. Wilson’s concept of “biophilia,” which is the bond between humans and nature (versus video screens).
Other than the negative impact this new normal has on human well-being — physically, mentally, spiritually — how is it bad for nature? Aren’t fewer people tramping through the wilds better? No, says Pergams, and here’s why.
“Aside from consumerism, this is one of the greatest challenges to conservation,” says Pergams, whose research was funded in part by The Nature Conservancy. “If the trend continues of young people spending their time on electronic media rather than outside in nature, these people will not care about nature when they become adults and will indeed not understand it. We don’t support what we don’t understand, and that will be it for conservation. If people stop caring about nature they will no longer support it through taxes, votes, or contributions.”
With his background in negotiating deals, Pergams was a natural choice to lobby early environmental education in public schools. He and Zaradic founded the Red Rock Institute to both study the paradigm shift and to lobby for proactive solutions to bridging the gap. He worked with Congressman John Sarbanes to write legislation (H.R. 2547, the No Child Left Inside Act of 2011) mandating environmental education, and was called as a witness to testify before Congress in favor of the bill. Unfortunately, it didn’t pass, but Pergams was inspired. He decided to put his money where his mouth was and took a teaching position at a notoriously underserved inner-city community college where 87% of students live in poverty and 95% are people of color.
Nearly every semester, a student is killed on the streets: mostly gunshots, but also drugs and abuse. He is a common sight at funerals.
He brought his rigorous biology standards from the University of Illinois to the halls of Olive-Harvey College, spreading the gospel about the value of nature and why it matters, even in urban areas. He began a district-wide mentoring program to encourage and expand faculty mentoring of students. He also started a successful wetland restoration program that involves these same students — many of them single working mothers of color trying to make a better life for their children.
He has changed lives, but there is only so much he can do. According to Pergams, nearly every semester a student is killed on the streets: mostly gunshots, but also drugs and abuse. He is a common sight at funerals. But this ability to give back to others, to introduce science and nature to people who might otherwise see it as an anomaly in their urban landscape, is what keeps him coming back, in spite of the losses. Person by person, he is making a difference. Purpose is alive and kicking.
“At a late-career stage, I’ve been given this great gift,” he says. “I’m utilizing not only my academic experience, but also my life experience. It’s an enormous gift to reach undergrads here.”
As for his role with Collabra? “Access. It gives more people access. And I’m a great advocate of that.”
— Merrik Bush-Pirkle