Major Insight Episode 10 : Saving all Species from Extinction with Environmental Science

Max Leveridge wants to protect all species from extinction. On this episode, he talks about connecting a variety of environmental and sociological factors including geological conservation, animal behavioral ecology, and sustainability to do it.

Featured Majors

Environmental Earth Science, Environmental Science, Sustainability, Geographic Information Science

Featured Organizations

Center for Animal Behavior, Undergraduate Research Committee, Miami University Sustainability Committee, National Association for Environmental Professionals, Phi Beta Kappa National Honors Society


Music: “Only Knows” by Broke For Free

Read the transcript

Announcer: Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase successful students, their promising new research, and its relevance in our world.

To understand what’s really happening in our world today, Max Leveridge says our knowledge of environmental science and sustainability are just as important as our knowledge political science and economics.

As an avid student researcher, Max studies the connections between a variety of natural and social factors. His work has explored the links between wastewater injection fracking and earthquakes. And he has also studies people's attitudes towards the Great Wolf in the world’s largest temperate rainforest in Canada.

And today Max speaks with Major Insight Host Jacob Bruggeman about how environmental sociology is leading him towards his greater goal of protect all species from extinction.

Jacob Bruggeman: All right, welcome to the podcast. So Max, could you give us a little bit of an overview of your research interests, and any outstanding or interesting experiences or achievements you've had in your time at Miami?

Max Leveridge: So at my time at Miami, I've participated in a wide variety of different research topics. In my undergrad, my big project was working on trying to figure out the relationship between injecting wastewater and earthquakes in southeast Ohio. I've also participated in research in a polar microbiology lab, looking at the interactions between iron on photosynthesis of psychrophilic algae. I've worked in a animal behavioral lab, where I looked at how mating calls influence mate preference of prairie voles.

Max Leveridge: And now I'm working on my master's thesis, which I'm looking at individual attitudes towards carnivores, in the Great Bear Rainforest , specifically in the city of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. I'm on the university undergraduate research committee. I'm on the university sustainability committee. I'm president of the National Association of Environmental Professionals, Miami chapter. I've spoken at the College of Arts and Science commencement ceremony. I'm in Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society.

Jacob Bruggeman: Awesome.

Max Leveridge: I think that's about it.

Jacob Bruggeman: Good deal. Yeah, it's a lot. So could you talk to us a little bit about how you first came to your research on wastewater, the prairie vole mating? Those seem to be the two that were exclusive to your undergraduate experience, right? Particularly the wastewater research project, which is somehow related to fracking, correct?

Max Leveridge: In a sense, yes. A portion of the wastewater does come from hydraulic fracturing, but not all the wastewater is solely from hydraulic fracturing. So for that research, specifically the wastewater and earthquake, we were trying to find the different pressures and volumes of injecting wastewater that might result in earthquakes, be it they're very small earthquakes that you can barely feel, about magnitude three at the most.

Max Leveridge: And we were trying to do this to identify certain pressures, and certain volumes that were the maximum efficiency for these companies injecting the wastewater, while making it so that we reduce the seismic activity, basically the earthquakes that would be experienced.

Max Leveridge: And through that I was able to present multiple poster presentations, both here at the university, at a national conference. I present in Washington DC, in Columbus Ohio, at the Posters on the Hill conference through Miami's governmental relations network. And I'm coauthor on a paper that was published, and have one that's in preparation right now.

Jacob Bruggeman: What was that paper that is published about? And then what's the one on the works about?

Max Leveridge: The one that's currently published is more on the geology of the area, with a slight focus on basically what I was studying about the interaction with the seismicity. That's published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. And the one that I'm working on now is more focused on the seismology, these are the volumes that are being injected, here's the injection history, and here's when earthquakes are starting and possibly migrating.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah, so these injections, how frequent are they? Because we hear a lot about hydraulic fracturing, or for different types of just wastewater in general. We like to put things in the ground. So could you talk a bit about the frequency of that in Ohio specifically, or in a broader sense, and then why this research is needed to be done?

Max Leveridge: So the injection frequency, it's relatively constant once they start injecting. More so where they're injecting is along the east side of Ohio, so Youngstown. The research I was doing was in Marietta, Ohio, or around Marietta, Ohio.

Max Leveridge: In a broader sense, it's more applicable to Oklahoma, because that's where earthquakes have skyrocketed. The magnitudes are starting to increase and increase. And if just completely left to what we're doing, it may have an effect even on bigger fault systems. So first of all, on the top of my head is the San Andreas Fault. It could cause that to slip as the different pressures in the earth are changing.

Jacob Bruggeman: What about the mating calls for the prairie voles, is that correct?

Max Leveridge: Yes.

Jacob Bruggeman: Tell us about the nature of that research. It's something that I think it sounds like a very interesting topic, but how does one research that topic?

Max Leveridge: So funny enough, that was supposed to be my original master's thesis, but was not able to come to fruition for time and financial reasons. But we had prairie voles that we collected from the field. The way that you go about it is you have pretzels in the container with ultrasonic microphones set up so you can record their calls.

Max Leveridge: And we tested for a specific gene in these voles that we were trying to see, that's been linked to good parenting, since these are monogamous creatures. And we would have played back these different recordings to see if that gene or micro allele had any influence on the mating calls or the preferences of the voles.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah, one of the things I don't think people at the outset of a research agenda realize, particularly new students, is that sometimes projects don't come to fruition. And you just mentioned that. I have had many research ideas and abstracts that have never gone anywhere. And I think that coping with the reality that research is that dynamic process, and it evolves, is something that can make students uncomfortable. So what advice would you give students at the outset of putting together a research question and a research agenda, in regards to dealing with that uncertainty of whether or not a project is viable?

Max Leveridge: Whenever I start a new research project, I go in wholeheartedly. I put in as much effort as I would if I knew for certain that the research project would come to fruition. But you just have to keep in the back of your mind that your schedules might not work out, because the prairie voles were on a certain schedule that I wasn't on, because I had classes and other work that I had to do. You might not get funding from all of the grants that you applied to, and then you're not able to purchase the equipment necessary. And you just have to keep that in mind, but still put in the effort, because if you don't, you're less likely to get these opportunities than you are if you put all your effort in.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah, so both of those projects somehow prepared you to do the master's, or at least made clear, I assume, that this is the area of research you want to be working in, and perhaps have a career in. So can you describe the relationship between your undergraduate research projects and then your master's research. Where they foundational in terms of methods or interest, and do you see them bleeding in at all to your current research?

Max Leveridge: So the seismicity research was... I came in as a freshman in fact, even before I started my first day of freshman year with the idea in mind that I want to conduct research, because I've done more minor research projects in high school, and have just loved them.

Max Leveridge: So I came in wanting to learn how to create a study, how to lay out the methods, how to analyze results, all that kind of stuff. And that has set me up for my thesis, whereas the prairie vole research was more, I would like to go into conservation biology specifically with endangered species. And I was trying to get more of that experience researching actual animals, as opposed to rocks and earthquakes.

Max Leveridge: And that's led me to my current thesis, because I picked this specific area because it's recognized as the world's largest, relatively intact, temperate rainforest. And unlike the US, species like the gray wolf have not been extirpated, or forced out of the area. And they've been there for essentially the entire history of since they have been on this continent. So I'm trying to figure out why attitudes there have not forced them out. Whereas attitudes in the United States basically have gotten rid of them since the 1930s. And when they were reintroduced back in the 1990s, why there's such a controversial attitude towards them.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah, that sounds fascinating. So are you building in a survey component? What's the methodology there? Is it more of a historical project?

Max Leveridge: I, this past summer went up to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and conducted around 30 interviews, essentially asking people different socio cultural factors. So their education level, their ethnic origin, if they were an indigenous population, or if they were a European settler, an Asian settler. Different factors like that, different activities that they do, income, to see if any of these factors played a role in their attitudes. Do certain aspects of conservation, are you more favorable about these over others, such as protection of the rainforest itself, or protection of the carnivores themselves?

Jacob Bruggeman: What did you find? What are the attitudes, if you had to summarize them? I'm sure there are different types of attitudes that you observed. I'm sure some people were not in favor of the wolves. But yet could you describe for us what your findings were?

Max Leveridge: Surprisingly enough, they were all relatively common responses, in the sense that they were all generally positive towards carnivores, regardless of experience. And generally positive attitudes towards the conservation of the rainforest, because 85% of it's protected from industrial activities like logging. And that was surprising in the sense that other studies have found that, for example, in I believe Sweden and Norway, the closer you are to these carnivore populations, the more negative the attitudes were. Whereas in my study, the closer you were to the carnivore populations, the more positive they were.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah, do you think it has something to do with the rootedness of the people in the environment around them? That's a theme we've talked about before on this podcast. Do you think it has something to do with local traditions? Does it have something to do with a more like communal cultural attitude towards the environment around them? Is it something that people just in British Columbia perhaps inherit? Like it's there. There's this unconquerable wilderness. As you said, the largest temperate rainforest, right?

Max Leveridge: Yes.

Jacob Bruggeman: So it seems like there might be something unique about that location.

Max Leveridge: So a lot of the responses that we found were, a lot of people either mentioned or recognize the significance of these animals in the environment to the indigenous populations, which in Canada they're referred to as First Nations. So in asking questions like, "Do you believe that these species are culturally or spiritually important?" A lot of people, whether they were First Nation or not mentioned the First Nations. So I believe there's that, and the sense that a lot of Canadians identify Canada as pristine wilderness, and believe that's very key to their culture. And that's what I believe is coming through in a lot of these responses.

Jacob Bruggeman: It sounds like this, the preliminary findings, suggest that maybe there's a link between pro conservation attitudes and belonging in a community. I don't know if that's fair to take out from what you said?

Max Leveridge: That is absolutely fair. It's one of the key findings that we have, is a sense of place, which is generally how an individual identifies with a specific environment. And we went into that, not considering it, but it came out, a lot of individuals referred to the animals and the territory as it's the animals territory. And for example, trophy hunting would be akin to killing another human in killing those animals.

Jacob Bruggeman: Really? Wow. So that's the local attitude toward that. So there's a protectionism almost as well as the conservationism. What do you think that the Miami program that you're now involved in, which it's like a professional oriented program, correct?

Max Leveridge: Yes.

Jacob Bruggeman: What do you think it is doing for students, in terms of preparing you for a career in conservation policy? What are the strengths of such a program? And what would you say to younger students still in their undergrad, in the position you were in just a couple of years ago, considering doing the MA?

Max Leveridge: I think the Master of Environmental Science degree is a great program, in the sense that the courses that you have to take prepare you, and have transferable skills across the board, regardless of what discipline you go into. So for example, project management is of course that we have to take, and that's applicable. And whether you go into consulting into environmental management and endangered species like I am, I have friends that are going into urban planning, into working with the Center for Disease Control, and this is a skill that will help them on any project that they go through. We have a core sets problem solving that walks you through different steps of problem solving, different methods of gathering input from an entire group. And before coming to a solution, analyzing all your alternatives, all your possible alternatives, to come to your best solution, instead of just jumping the gun.

Jacob Bruggeman: Yeah. You know the MA program comes to an end for you in a couple months here. So what do you think are your next steps? Where would you like to be in five years in terms of career? And how do you think Miami's preparing you for that prospective career? Of course it's hard to forecast where you'll be, but walk us through that thought process that you surely have been having as graduation approaches.

Max Leveridge: I a 100% have. So in the next year or so, I'm planning to go work, because I have all this textbook knowledge, but I don't have the real experience a lot of employers are looking for. And after that I've been accepted to another master's program at the University of Bristol for global wildlife health and conservation. And after that I'm planning to probably pursue a PhD. And if that happens before five years, then ideally start working with endangered species, working on recovery plans, working on restoring these populations in places where they may have been extirpated.

Jacob Bruggeman: Excellent. So thank you for coming on the podcast. We appreciated talking with you. And we hope the best for you and your efforts to conserve, and protect, and repopulate some of the natural areas that many people hold dear.

Max Leveridge: Thank you very much.

Announcer: Max Leveridge earned triple degrees in environmental earth science, environmental science, and sustainability, and he also earned a Master’s in Environmental Science. Going forward, he plans to work with, and continue to protect, endangered species.

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Featured Majors: 

Environmental Earth Science, Environmental Science, Sustainability, Geographic Information Science

Featured Organizations:

Center for Animal Behavior, Undergraduate Research Committee, Miami University Sustainability Committee, National Association for Environmental Professionals, Phi Beta Kappa National Honors Society


 Major Insight

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Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase our students and how they transform academic subjects into lifelong passions. Join us wherever you listen to your podcasts and discover these students journeys.

Host Jacob Bruggeman

Jacob Bruggemam

The Major Insight podcast is hosted by Jacob Bruggeman. Bruggeman, a Miami Honors student and double-major in History and Political Science created the podcast to feature stories of students navigating 21st century academic life.

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