Priya Nanjappa: From Wrangling Snakes to Regulating Oil & Gas
15 November 2021
Priya Nanjappa didn’t really have a career plan- she just followed her interests and was open to trying new things. That’s what led her to her current position as a commissioner for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, where she helps implement laws that govern oil and gas development.
We talked to Priya about her early love for the outdoors and birdwatching, which gave her an idea about where her interests lay when figuring out what to major in in college. We also spoke about the different classes she took, and how she narrowed down her interests, and about keeping your options open in your career, because you never know what opportunities are available to you.
This episode was produced by Shane M Hanlon and Nisha Mital, and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Karen Romano Young.
Shane M Hanlon: When I was in high school, my parents asked me what I wanted to go to college for. I knew it had to be something in science and math (there’s a saying in my family that Hanlon’s don’t do English…which I understand the irony of at this moment). So, they introduced me to engineers, MD’s, even architects because I always loved geometry. But growing up in rural America, spending most my time outdoors, I figured that perhaps I had a career in ecology. In college, when it came time to do some undergraduate research, the only professor who was studying animals (I tried with plants and it didin’t go so well), was studying frogs. I figured, sure, why not. I was picturing wolves, but frogs will do for now. Well, for now turned into a life-long passion. Turns out I love frogs, and salamanders, and turtles, and all sorts of amphibians and reptiles. And even though my career has shifted away from nature and towards people, I still find time to get out there and remind myself what started it all…
Shane M Hanlon: Everyone has a story, even, or maybe especially, scientists. Science affects each and every one of us. Let's talk about it. From the American Geophysical Union, I'm Shane Hanlon, and this is Sci & Tell.
Shane M Hanlon: Alright, my introduction today has less to do with anything specific our interviewee talked about and more about where she started her career, as a herpetologist, i.e., someone who studies amphibians and reptiles. There’s my background too so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little partial on this one. Nisha, can you introduce this episode?
Nisha Mital: On this episode, we talked to Priya Nanjappa. She’s had a long and diverse career, and is currently a commissioner for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Priya never really had a specific career plan in mind- she just followed her interests and kept her options open. Stay tuned to learn about her career journey, so far.
Shane M Hanlon: Thanks Nisha. Our interviewer was Paul Molin.
Priya Nanjappa: I am Priya Nanjapppa. I am currently a commissioner for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is a department within the Department of Natural Resources, or division, I should say, within Department of Natural Resources for the State of Colorado. In that role, we have been appointed by the governor, there's myself and four other commissioners. And we are to implement the law that governs oil and gas development.
Priya Nanjappa: And I was appointed, specifically, for my wildlife and environment expertise. And the other seats also have different specific roles. One of them is public health. One of them is land use planning. One of them is general policy understanding and implementation. And then the other one is oil and gas industry knowledge.
Priya Nanjappa: And so, the day to day, there really isn't a typical day. We have a lot of different issues that we deal with. But this commission it was created with an amendment to the law that governs oil and gas development in Colorado in 2019. But in 2020 was when the commission was officially seated. So, I just started this job in July of last year. So, something I never, ever would have thought of doing when I first got my biology degree
Priya Nanjappa: Really, I think I was just a curious, inquisitive kid. I love to be outside. And I liked the basic scientific type of experiments and things that you would do in grade school, even something as small as like mixing colors and creating new colors for artwork, and things like that that were just fascinating to me. And just understanding why these certain things occur or what patterns there are. And so, I think, I just was curious that way.
Priya Nanjappa: I think the biggest thing for me that brought me though towards this career path was that real fascination and enjoyment of being outside and seeing the animals outside. And so, my parents are both Indian immigrants, and when they came here, my dad came here to do his master's degree, he also traveled all around the country, just road tripping to especially national parks and scenic areas, and things like that. And so, he was really enthralled with the beauty of the outdoors. And he would point out some of the animals in the backyard.
Priya Nanjappa: We had some cardinals that would nest in the tree in our backyard growing up. And one year there were bunnies that had nested near the bushes of his office, and he brought them home in a box for my brother and I and. We ultimately decided it was probably best to return them, but had them, just observe them for a couple of days, and they were, of course, adorable.
Priya Nanjappa: So, things like that got me intrigued with animals and the outdoors. But my dad is not, I wouldn't really call him an outdoorsy person. So, when we would take family road trips, we would be just driving by places and maybe getting out to take a picture, but not really, not hiking, or camping, or any of those things. So, those were just interests that I developed later on in life for myself.
Priya Nanjappa: But one of the big things for me was I had a friend in junior high in high school, who her dad was a birdwatcher. And so, there was one day when he had found an owl nest, and he took us out to go look at it. She asked me if I wanted to come, and I was like, "Yeah, it sounds cool." And so, we went out, and just sat and waiting to look at this where he had seen this owl nest, which was in this knothole in a big tree. And we just were sitting there with our binoculars, trained on the whole and waiting. And when it finally came out, it was just this amazing moment, but that whole time just waiting, I'm just happening to observe the leaves blowing in the wind, and the rustling sound that it was making. And we were sitting in some taller grass, and just all the little flitting around us, and butterflies and damselflies, and all sorts of other little beetles and things. And I was just fascinated by all of that.
Priya Nanjappa: And that's really the turning point moment for me where I can really say that that's when I decided, I didn't just want to be involved in biology in the ways that I think my parents were thinking that maybe my inclinations were taking me towards medicine, but I wanted to do something with biology outdoors. And I didn't really know what that meant or what kind of possible careers there might be. But that's what drew me to the outdoors in general.
Paul Molin: And how did you then begin to shape that career path or that education path, right? What you were going to study and what you're going to major, and how you are going to... What influences did you have, I guess, that helped you shape that path, and eventually ended up taking?
Priya Nanjappa: Yeah. So, I think I was always thinking of some sort of environmental science type of career, but like I said, I didn't know exactly what was available out there, and again, because my parents themselves were not really outdoorsy in those ways. And like my dad, maybe would go fishing now and then with his friends from work, but definitely was not into hunting and didn't really have friends that were doing that kind of thing. So, we didn't really have that classical background that people in wildlife ecology, a lot of them tend to have.
Priya Nanjappa: And so, for me, it was just this fascination and this interest in the outdoors, the animals, what's going on out there, the plants, et cetera. But my dad was an engineer, just a civil structural engineer. And he kept expressing concern about this interest of mine like, "Why not just go into medicine? Why not just take these classes?" And then at some point he said, "I was just realizing that maybe environmental engineering would be a good route for you." And so, he was encouraging me in that way.
Priya Nanjappa: And so, I decided also to just start out at a smaller college. So, I went to a small private school for my first two years. I mean, I was planning to be there the whole four years, but I was taking a lot of introductory, pre-engineering type courses. So, things like calc-based physics and analytical chemistry, and organic chemistry, and a few other types of linear algebra. And all of these courses, I just wasn't interested in them, so I didn't do as well as I probably could have, but I just wasn't interested in them, but I really loved my general biology class.
Priya Nanjappa: And then I started filling my electives with ecology and botany, and things like that. And at some point towards the end of my freshmen, or maybe the first part of my sophomore year, I realized, I probably just needed to transfer and go somewhere where I could get more of the specific wildlife type courses and things like that.
Priya Nanjappa: And so, then I transferred to Iowa State University, which was much more wildlife oriented. I grew up in Iowa. So, that's where that link came to be. But yeah, so then I decided to keep my degree in general biology, but to have an emphasis in wildlife conservation. And I ended up with a minor in environmental science as well. And it was through those courses and that coursework, that I really felt like I was finally in more of the niche that I wanted to be in, but I still didn't really know what careers were available to me.
Priya Nanjappa: What I realized is in talking to all these academic professors about my interests, they were just pushing me towards getting a PhD in teaching, which is fine. There's no problem with that. But I think it wasn't exactly what I wanted, but I didn't really know that until a little bit later on after doing some work that was less research oriented, I guess.
Priya Nanjappa: And so, I think, I knew I wanted, I still definitely wanted to be outside and to do the field work kind of thing, but I didn't think I also wanted to teach. And so, I was trying to figure out like, how can I do this field work and be a researcher, or do this field research, but not necessarily teach? And so, I started to look into the different options that were out there.
Priya Nanjappa: And I had an internship at a wildlife refuge in North Dakota. And so, I spent a summer up there. And I was primarily doing bird counts. I was a songbird counts, but also duck bird counts, and a few other surveys. And I did a very informal amphibian survey because I was starting to get into amphibians at that point. And so, I did a very informal survey for them. There weren't very many species in North Dakota.
Priya Nanjappa: But anyway, it was there that I started to realize, okay, there's these refuge biologists and refuge manager positions, and things like that. And then I learned a little bit more about where you look for those kinds of jobs. And then while I was doing that internship, there was a person that came to the refuge to do some invasive species management work. And he was with the National Biological Surveys. So now I'm showing my age a little bit. This was at the time just before the National Biological Survey got absorbed into the US Geological Survey, but was more affiliated, if I'm remembering all these details correctly, with the Fish and Wildlife Service at the time.
Priya Nanjappa: And so anyway, in talking to that person that was going out with us and that we were helping and assisting with some of their invasive species management work on the refuge, I learned about how he got his job and where you look for those kinds of jobs. And so, it was really just this networking for lack of a better word, but finding these different types of jobs that were out there that were more just like doing the actual field work. And I didn't mind writing it up or doing some of that analysis kind of thing. But yeah, so I started to learn about the types of jobs that were out there that allowed you to be outside and do cool things with critters, but not necessarily have an obligation to teach and come up with lesson plans and all that.
Priya Nanjappa: That's actually, that's exactly what I say now when people say, "What's your advice?" I say, try to be aware of what you like and what you feel like you're good at, what your strengths are, but also be really open. Don't feel like, "Okay, I love this, so I'm going to go down this..." Just to use it as an example. "I really love biology. And I like understanding how cells work. So, I'm going to go into pre-med and I'm going to do this, and I'm going to take this next step. And then I'm going to be in this type of research. And I'm going to study cancer. And I'm going to become..." And then you have your whole path planned out. And then some deviation occurs, and then you feel like you failed.
Priya Nanjappa: But really, if you just keep your options open throughout the timeframe and, you know what kinds of things you like, there's other opportunities out there that probably fit your interests and your skills. And just be open to them and see where it takes you. And I think that's really, truly how I ended up where I am today, is because I didn't really have a clear set path. I was just kind of looking at like, "Well, that sounds interesting, let's look at that, or let me learn a little bit more about this." And then in part with that was also starting to recognize where my strengths were and what kinds of duties and things would highlight my strengths.
Paul Molin: Well, it's a good point too. I mean, an 18 year old, well, even now, right? There's so many people that do jobs that you've never heard of, that you may or may not find interesting. Right? And when you're 18, 20 years old, there's no way you've heard. You've just never been exposed to it.
Priya Nanjappa: Yes.
Paul Molin: So, it's like, yeah, exactly.
Priya Nanjappa: Exactly. And that's part of, what I was saying with, if you're talking to folks who are your professors, which it makes sense, you would ask them like, what are the kinds of opportunities that are out there? They may not really know about these other jobs that are out there, unless it happened their research or their work happens to be more in that type of direction, or maybe if there are conferences or things that they tend to go to where they know you can meet other people outside of academia.
Priya Nanjappa: But for me, it wasn't until grad school, and some of these experiences just before grad school, that really opened the horizon of opportunities, or the landscape of opportunities that I didn't realize were out there. And I was not really getting guidance on how to find them. A lot of, it was just stumbling on things on my own, or just asking people question and recognizing, "Hey, what you do is... Oh, okay. So, you're not an academic professor. Why are you here? What are you doing? What's your job?" And those kinds of things, when I started going to conferences, or like I said, at this internship, when this other person happened to come and be doing work there and being like, "So, tell me how you got your job? How did that come to be?"
Priya Nanjappa: But yeah, I mean, I guess, that would be my... For me personally, I didn't really have a lot of guidance for my interests during my academic pursuits. So, I had to figure some stuff out on my own and just kept thinking like, "This isn't exactly, this is not what I'm looking for. How can I find it?" And just knowing that something different was out there, but not knowing where exactly to look.
Paul Molin: Got you. That makes sense. You talked about, you never really had the typical path or a path set out in your mind where, "I'm going to do this, this, this, and this." But that being said, were there times when things didn't go quite as planned, where you maybe ventured down a path thinking, "Okay, maybe it's this." And then you had to do a reset mentally or through the process of an experience. And so, can you talk about those and how you react to those things?
Priya Nanjappa: Yeah. I think there wasn't anything catastrophic, I don't think, in terms of my specific career path. One of the big ones that I can think of is, as I was finishing undergrad, I decided I wanted to take a little time off and pay down some of my student loans. And so, I just worked for a year in a very completely unrelated position, but it was just good money and occupied the time.
Priya Nanjappa: But I was applying for grad schools during my senior year and even during this other time, and I wasn't getting in to the wildlife schools, like the big wildlife schools that everybody knows like South Dakota State and Colorado State University. Those are the ones that I really wanted to go to, but I didn't have the right GRE scores. And my grades were okay. They weren't stellar, but they weren't terrible. So, then I was like, "Okay. I don't know what I'm going to do."
Priya Nanjappa: And then it was, I guess the summer before I graduated, I think that I did that field school for the whole summer. And one of my professors there at the end of it, said, "Hey, you have some strengths in writing, and I think you would be great to have as a student. And if you would like, I'd like to invite you to come and be part of my lab." And he said, "I don't have funding, but we'd have to find it. We could work on some grant proposals together, and you could be a TA or whatever." And so, I thought about it and I was like, "Yeah, okay." I appreciated that, but it wasn't the school I wanted to go to. So, I kept trying.
Priya Nanjappa: But then after that year or so, I thought, "Well, maybe it's not the worst thing to just go to this school and have this opportunity with this professor that I had gotten along well with during the field course." So, I wrote to him again and just said, "Hey, is this offer still open? Would you be willing to take me on?" And ultimately, ended up my masters with him. And I think ultimately, it also, it ended up not being a very good fit, both the school and him as a mentor. And so, I had even worse thoughts towards academia after that.
Priya Nanjappa: And so, I was really unsure what to do, but there were some opportunities that arose through the networking that did occur. So, I am grateful for the whole experience. He was pretty well connected in the amphibian world. And so, we had you a lot of opportunities for networking with some of the conferences we attended. And so, I'm grateful it did lead me towards some different opportunities that I might not have otherwise considered.
Priya Nanjappa: But so, then my first job out of grad school was with the US Geological Survey with a new initiative. And this was just one of these several different types of things where it's like, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, where that was a program that was just beginning, and so several positions were open. And I was applying for several different ones. In fact, I applied for one in Maryland and one in Oregon, and I was offered them both. And the one in Maryland just happened to pay a little bit better, so I took that one.
Priya Nanjappa: But what that helped me realize is that it didn't matter where I went to school, but what matters mattered was the type of work that I could accomplish and the people that I met along the way, and the types of work that I could do or the types of partnerships I could establish. And so, that's where, again, that's where really the networking I think, started to become clear to me as a way to better open up opportunities. And so, I didn't really know the people that I was applying to, but through some of the connections that my professor had, and he either knew them or knew people who knew them. And of course, he was willing to write me a reference letter.
Priya Nanjappa: And so, I feel like the whole experience overall turned out to be positive, but going in, it was not what I expected, not what I thought my path would be in terms of going to a bigger wildlife school and working with large charismatic megafauna or something. But it was a great experience overall. And then I really enjoyed my time at the US Geological Survey. And that was an opportunity where I was doing field research and writing up our work, but not having to teach, so that was the first opportunity of finding a job like that. But yeah, I mean, a lot of this was just really good fortune too.
Paul Molin: Perfect. And my last question, we talked about this a little bit earlier. But what advice do you give to young people when you talk to them, who are looking at a career in the sciences and in research, or just thinking about their career path in general?
Priya Nanjappa: Yeah, yeah. Going along with what I said before, it's about keeping your options open. But the other thing I always say, I've been invited to give talks to certain ecology classrooms or different programs and give seminars, and one of the things I always end with is that you're more qualified than you think. As a graduate student, you're learning project management skills, you're learning budget management skills, you're learning overseeing teams, and maybe even some sort of aspects of supervision and management managing people. And those are all really important soft skills that you can be putting on a resume when you're applying for jobs. And so, if you are thinking maybe research, academic research or that kind of specific pathway is not what you're looking for, remember all of these things that you're gaining in your program. And you're more qualified than you think.
Nisha Mital: Hey, I was an English major in college, and here I am working on a science podcast. You might not realize it, but you are absolutely picking up on important skills in every job you hold, and that can carry on wherever you go next, no matter how different the job is from the previous one. Like Priya said, you are definitely more qualified than you think.
Shane M Hanlon: I couldn’t agree more and that’s especially true for you Nisha as this is our last episode with you. Nisha is moving on to bigger and better things. It’s been a real joy to have you. I couldn’t have done this without you, frankly. It’s been a lot of work. Folks might not realize the amount of effort that goes into making what we make. So, thank you Nisha for everyone you’ve done for us. I really appreciate it.
Nisha Mital: Yeah.
Shane M Hanlon: Special thanks to NASA for making this episode possible and to Paul Molin for conducting the interview.
I just want to note here, for all y’all hanging around for the credits, that is our last planned episode of this season. We set out to do a dozen, we did, and I’m really proud of what we accomplished. But the stories are going to keep coming. Stay tuned for some special episodes coming up and news about the future of Sci & Tell because there will be a future of Sci & Tell. You can subscribe to Sci & Tell wherever you get your podcasts and find us a sciandtell, all spelled out, .org.
From these scientists in our respective home studios, to all of you out there in the world, thanks for listening to our stories.