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Her free time is for the birds

Her free time is for the birds

October 14, 2021 at 12:51pm

What free time Steffanie Munguía has is for the birds.

The student in FIU’s Institute of Environment sets aside her own Ph.D. research for a few hours every week to volunteer at Cape Florida Banding Station in Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.

Thousands of migrating birds find refuge in this wooded-area, resting before continuing their long journey south for the winter. Munguía helps document important information about species, age, sex, and overall health.

This chance to work hands-on with birds is a way for Munguía to stay in touch with an important part of who she’s been since childhood — a self-described ‘super bird nerd.’

Munguía has found different ways to make a difference for birds — through volunteer work, research and also with National Audubon Society. After more than a decade volunteering and working with the organization, Munguía’s now a national board member — the youngest person ever to hold this position and one of the very few Latinas. She’s excited to help spearhead decisions around equity and inclusion, issues she’s passionate about in conservation.

Munguía’s love of birds is something she inherited from her nature-loving father.

“I’ll never forget when I was in 3rd grade, my dad was looking at eBird — a citizen science platform where birders record their observations,” Munguía said. “He saw an article about a congregation of white pelicans in Lakeland, Fla. He said we should go check it out. So, we packed up and went. It was so adventurous, spontaneous and so mind-blowing.”

The small lake was blanketed in white. About 800 pelicans floated on the surface. There was no space for anything else. It was like Munguía was witnessing a migration straight out of National Geographic.

There was never any doubt in her mind what Munguía wanted to do with her life. Her future was tied to the environment, to the outdoors and wildlife. When she was 11 — and thought she was finally old enough to be taken seriously — she developed her own curriculum for an environmental education program. Munguía’s program was adopted by a local nature center by the time she turned 14.

Munguía started participating in research the first chance she got at the University of South Florida. A stand out moment was at the end of her freshman year — a summer research experience at Kansas State University. Before sunrise every morning, Munguía headed out into the grasslands to study the breeding behaviors and territoriality of the federally endangered grasshopper sparrows.

She enjoyed every minute. But she returned changed.

“I had to come to grips with the fact that I love spending time with the birds, but if I had to put my energy into one thing for the rest of my life it would be putting my energy into protecting them,” said. “Not studying them until they go extinct.”

Munguía wanted to create real changes that would protect birds, and shifted her focus to environmental policy. She earned a master’s degree in international environmental policy from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California.

At FIU, Munguía’s dissertation is on coastal wetland management in the Caribbean. She examines how the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat is implemented in Panama, Northern Cuba, Jamaica and Trinidad. Specifically, the human factors of management issues — like policy, economics, and social contexts.

When she has a chance to travel to her study sites, she brings along someone always down for a little adventure and some bird watching. Her father, of course.

“I’ve been lucky that he’s been there to guide and help me as I’ve defined who I’m going to be as a researcher and scientist,” Munguía said. “Now, I can be there to show him this other side of my work — and that the passion I grew up with for environmental education and advocacy, has taken me in this direction where I can make a difference.”

Munguía knows that whatever the future holds, it will allow her to continue using science communication or teaching to make a difference. 

“I can say that it was undeniable that this is what I was meant to do with my life,” said Munguía. “Environmental education has been a thread running through everything I do. I love sharing my passion with other people about the things I’ve had the privilege to learn about and experience.”

To keep up with Munguía (and the birds!) follow her on Twitter and Instagram