Scholar Spotlight - Keir Chauhan

Laidlaw Scholar Keir Chauhan, Explores the Power of Birds in Bridging Humanity and Nature.
Scholar Spotlight - Keir Chauhan
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Keir Chauhan, a University College London Laidlaw Scholar, Explores the Power of Birds in Bridging Humanity and Nature.

Leadership-in-Action Research Project: Together for Birds - Volunteer Research Intern at the American Bird Conservancy

My research was/is about looking at the intersections between people, place, and environmental justice. It’s a project exploring how we connect to places and how we could potentially heal our relationship with the natural world. The idea is that we live in closer harmony and in greater connection rather than separating the human and natural worlds. This research was hands-on and differed from my first Laidlaw project as it involved more fieldwork than I previously had undertaken before. It was also very reflective asking me to question my own role within society and conservation.

The piece I am writing for the American Bird Conservancy explores my reflections on people, place, and environmental justice and how we can use birds to connect more people to the natural world. It explores the work of others working to address environmental justice as well as the voices of people who have found nature. I believe the work to be incredibly important in addressing the inequalities in the conservation sector, particularly the issue of neo-colonial organizations, lack of inclusivity in diversity plans, and the creation of a truly global and equitable environmental/conservation movement. While my project in no way solves these problems it advocates for the celebration of people and birds (an envoy of nature) to bolster engagement in conservation and the natural world. This work is particularly important for personal reasons as I found that going outside walking helped me significantly with my mental health following the Covid-19 outbreak. The project came about because of my conversations with the Chief Diversity Officer at the American Bird Conservancy. The project was built on the idea of how meaningful and long-lasting change can be made through the amplification of a diverse set of voices. The intention is to showcase this as part of an eBook.

A photo I took of a Mockingbird.

Where did your passion for this research originate?

I struggled when I was at secondary school to make friends and found learning as a form of escapism. I found it exhilarating and somewhat intoxicating at times even though it would prove problems for me.  I would often doubt myself and question my abilities. The reality is I still do. Yet, this passion and desire to learn was somewhat insatiable. So, I have found that I have really been drawn to research and stories. The idea of the narrative is important to me as I think the stories we tell each other and ourselves really do shape our lives. The other reason I got into research partly explains why I struggled to make friends for so long and that was coping with illness. Research, learning, and making a meaningful impact is about me feeling my life is worthwhile. It gives me a sense of purpose and has allowed me to have a greater understanding of myself, the human condition, and others around me. I personally believe that going outside and experiencing a more natural world is important for mental health and I believe that engaging everyone in the natural world is important. Hence my research project explores human connections to the natural world. I find it through birds and want others to also find peace in the natural world. Birds are the envoy of nature; they are visible when so much is not. So, I wanted to work and showcase them.

View of DC my first night.

How have you applied your leadership skills in real life?

I think for me the very idea I would be considered a leader was at first somewhat laughable. I lacked so much confidence in myself, but I also knew that for some reason people did respect me in the areas in which I worked. That people thought I was kind and easy to talk to. So, if anything the leadership skill I have learned and has been most important is about knowing myself, accepting myself, and using that to help me understand others. I have called my leadership style, Observational leadership. This is because the way I learn and interact with people often comes from observing the behaviour of those around me and trying to understand from their perspective.

As a neurodivergent person, I have learned to embrace the unique way in which my brain processes information. I have also learned to be powered by my lived experiences and how to make my story a successful one. I spent such a long time putting myself down (let’s call it the loser narrative) and now I really want to embrace that survivor narrative instead. It’s a narrative that accepts where I have come from but crucially focuses on the current journey I am undertaking. I use the bits of my past I want to build the present and its future. One of my mottos is 'To Live is to Die and Live Again'. What I mean by that is that without constantly changing and being active in our surroundings we cannot truly be living.  In that, a bit of us must constantly die so a bit of us can be reborn. We don’t grow unless we are willing to change. I also really resonated with Grace Lordan’s speech on Cognitive Diversity as I think it got the root of what is meaningful diversity.

What are your top leadership tips?

  • Be true to yourself
  • Be kind to yourself and others
  • Ask "is what I am doing meaningful?"
  • Challenge yourself and your views
  • Keep a journal for reflection
From the Robert Houle Exhibition.

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

I think of my life now and I know that I will be forever grateful for the opportunity of Laidlaw. My acceptance email was one of those moments that really changed the trajectory of my life and who I am. I think that anyone who gets the opportunity to become a Laidlaw Scholar should be proud to be part of such an amazing program. The work I have done with Laidlaw has made me more determined to make the most out of my life, to embrace opportunities and new challenges. It has made me really embrace who I am and what I can bring to the table. It’s also been about challenging myself, meeting new people, and really channelling my own agency. My own ability to do things and make a change. After all, if you do not give something a go, why should anyone else?

Which leaders inspire you the most and why?

I am really inspired by those who you would not think of as conventional leaders. I think of people like Dr Jon Chandler who has been a fixture of my UCL History degree. I really appreciate the kindness with which he approaches his work and the energy he has for students. I feel especially grateful because he made me aware of Laidlaw. He was the only academic I felt comfortable speaking to when I arrived at UCL, and I emailed him about how to do more research one evening. He sent me the details of the Laidlaw scholarship and the rest I guess is history.

Naamal De Silva who supervised me when I was in the States was incredible. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor, who helped me reflect on things and challenged me. I have learned so much from her and again really appreciate her kindness. The ability to go out of your way and help others, but also to see the potential in them. Naamal believed in me so I could believe in myself, and I feel very lucky for that. I also believe she is a visionary who meets the challenge of the Anthropocene.

Me and my Boss Naamal.

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

A kind world where we live in greater harmony with the natural world. I believe that would greatly reduce the pain and suffering that humans have gone through. The pain that the natural world has gone through. I think the more ethical leaders that step up to the challenge, that are awakened by the Laidlaw Scholarship and other organizations, the more we can face the problems built into our societies. We can truly learn from the past to build the future that we want. That is rather than the future that is predetermined by the problems of the past. I think we can reverse that. We can learn to live in harmony with human history, human failure, the limits to our knowledge, and the problems of knowing too much. I think we can embrace humanity as a part of nature and embrace our power to be active agents for change.


Quick-fire Questions

📺 Currently binging: The Bear Season 2

📚 My top book recommendation: The Home Place by J. Drew Lanham

🎶 My anthem: Pure Comedy by Father John Misty

🎵 Podcast obsession: Anything with Dr Grace Lordan in it!

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Going to Battery Kemble Park in DC during the night and watching hundreds of fireflies!

❤️ A cause I care about: American Bird Conservancy: Bird Conservation Results Across the Americas (abcbirds.org)

Anything else you’d like to add? Thanks to everyone who has made my life since Laidlaw so great.


 

You can find Keir on LinkedIn. If you are interested in learning more about Keir's research, check out his research reports and articles.

Keir is a History Undergraduate and Laidlaw Scholar at University College London. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.

Find out more about the Laidlaw Scholars Undergraduate Leadership and Research Programme.

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