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Brian Henen, ecologist, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs, has been involved in conservation his entire life and studied various tortoise species for more than 20 years. Throughout his career, he has learned about the various species of tortoises and contributed to scientific tortoise literature when he survived a Desert Tortoise attack. (Official Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Levi Schultz/Released)

Photo by Lance Cpl. Levi Schultz

What I’ve Learned: Brian Henen

13 Jan 2016 | Cpl. Medina Ayala-Lo Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms

I’m passionate about biology, science and trying to make a difference.

When I was a child we lived in the Midwest in a county next to a lake. We had snakes, turtles, squirrels, birds and fish, so I had an early exposure to wildlife and when I came to Southern California with my family I continued to explore that as much as possible.

I started off in high school interested in just about everything so I took any courses possible. By the time college rolled around I had to make a decision and pick a major so I picked biology. I stuck with that and became more and more fascinated.

I didn’t know I would be working with tortoises at that point in time, but when I went to graduate school I learned more about tortoises and chose them as my research subject. It was in that time interval that I realized I really liked science.

I went to graduate school and continued on to become a scientist. After graduating I received a lot of opportunities to work in the field and work with tortoises of different species in Uzbekistan, South Africa and Madagascar.

My interest in tortoises was mostly because they had some very interesting adaptations that helped them survive here in the desert and I became more and more curious about how they do that.

My environmental awareness actually started when I was a little kid. My parents, even though they both worked and were raising a family, on their free time would take took us alongside the roads by our house and make us do roadside clean up. This was about 50 years ago, before the endangered species act, and at the time stuff like that was almost unheard of.

My parents set me up with an understanding that we need to look after our environment, otherwise our quality of life would [degrade].

I was always interested in conservation but understanding the tortoise was important as well because if we don’t understand how it works then we can’t understand how to protect it.

I was one of the people who noticed that female tortoises will defend their nest during the first week after they lay their eggs.

I had a tortoise attack me and at the time it had not been published in the literature. It wasn’t common knowledge that this is something they would do. So when it happened to me I was shocked, surprised, intrigued and wanted to understand why they were doing this.

There’s actually quite a bit of creativity involved in being a scientist. You get to deal with a lot of ideas by trying to evaluate those ideas and see which ones have more value.

I love being able to do field work, and be out there with the wildlife and the plants. Being a scientist, there’s quite a bit of reward in coming up with findings that are important and then publishing those. A lot of the reward of a scientist is being able to take knowledge we already have, applying it to a new set of data and presenting that new data to others in a way they can understand too.

Being a scientist is exciting because it’s a learning process. I not only learn by being out there in the field and observing but also by testing certain hypothesis and being able to go out and make the measurements to help explain ‘why’ in a scientific way.

After I came back from South Africa I helped build the headstart facility aboard the Combat Center and landed a position here at Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs. It was interesting to come full circle, by studying the Desert Tortoise in California and having opportunities to work overseas on other species. Traveling overseas to see the other species and how they do things helped me to better understand our species here.

Something I feel very fortunate about is being a biologist, and being a biologist here I’m still able to learn every day.

People want to know what they can do to make a difference. One of the simplest things we can do is continue to learn every day and share that information with our kids or our neighbors, so we all can improve. We must all take steps toward improving the quality of life for everyone, I think that’s what it’s all about.

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Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms