Dr. Christopher Schell in his lab

About Dr. Schell

Dr. Christopher J. Schell is an urban ecologist, Afrofuturist, father, and writer. His research sits at the intersection of animal behavior, physiology, urban biodiversity conservation, environmental justice, and One Health to investigate how carnivores—namely coyotes, foxes, and raccoons—adapt to life in cities.

In addition, Schell’s lab integrates critical discourses on how structural oppression (e.g., redlining, pollution burden, and socioeconomic disparities) directly shape the very urban features associated with human-wildlife interactions, conflict, and adaptation. This transdisciplinary work aims to disentangle how environmental injustices have structured our urban ecosystems and how we can harness those lessons to build more just, biodiverse, and resilient cities.

We had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Schell, a trustee since 2022, to learn more about his journey, what drives him personally and professionally, and what inspires him most about the Academy’s mission and work.

Read the Q&A below and for more details, listen to his recent talk: Living for the city: Exploring the convergence of wildlife, society, health, and justice in urban environments.

Q: How did you get into your field of study?

I attended Columbia University for undergrad and was actually on the pre-med track. I had a volunteer position with St. John’s hospital near campus, and quickly realized that I did not want to be in healthcare. This (the medical profession) was a path that others wanted me to be on and not the path I wanted to take for myself.

During the summer after my freshman year, I had an immersive environmental science experience through the Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Science (E3B) Department at Columbia that took me to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. There, I was able to do an independent research project with spiders in the region. I compared the behaviors of a tarantula and an orb weaver that lived in the forested areas around us and even under our student housing. This work served as a launching pad for me to explore more work in the animal behavior field.

Q: Can you please share your latest work and what you’re most excited about professionally?

I’m currently focused on addressing how environmental health and inequities are impacting the behavior and physiology of wildlife in cities. This (environmental health and the cascading outcomes for wildlife) is intimately connected to human health and well-being. It is thus essential that we improve environmental health; everyone depends on it.

We need to understand that societal inequities and structural oppression (e.g., redlining, pollution burden, and socioeconomic disparities) serve as palpable barriers to us improving environmental health. If more folks are able to see how humans, wildlife and the environment are connected, perhaps more people would be galvanized to take action to conserve species, mitigate the climate crisis, and bolster justice globally.

Q: Can you please share specific examples of how you and your team are doing this research and work?

We use coyotes as well as racoons and other urban carnivores as our bioindicators and conduits to better understand the ways in which we are connected to the landscape and how as a society we can collectively come together and start making some impactful, positive change.

We’re examining how social heterogeneity and environmental health shape the ecology of urban wildlife within our cities. We do that through three incredibly simple means: cameras, carcasses, and collars. And certainly I’d like to add communities, which reigns supreme over all three of those; none of this work is possible without community support.

We can use cameras to document which wildlife inhabit cities and how they use urban spaces. We can use carcasses and every part of the carcass to understand what the animal is eating, its structure, how stressed they were, was it exposed to heavy metals, etc. And of course GPS collars provide information on how these species navigate our cities, as well as provide a platform to tell their narratives.

Q: How and why did you become an Academy trustee?

I got in touch with Dr. Scott Sampson, who was keen to hear my perspectives on urban ecology and cities more broadly. Coincidentally, I knew of Scott from his PBS show Dinosaur Train. My kids loved that show! I had to pause and ask myself “Wait, is this the same Scott??”

I was immediately interested and drawn to the Academy’s mission and focus on having scientists on the board of trustees. I also looked at this as an opportunity to give back. I have worked at museums since I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and grew up loving museums. The Academy is a leader in sharing the wonders of the natural world through their exhibits and community-facing programs like iNaturalist. It’s truly the place for community and participatory science.

Q: What inspires you most about the Academy’s work and mission to regenerate the natural world?

I believe in the approach the Academy has taken: to decenter themselves in the process. There’s been a strong focus from the Academy’s leadership on questions like: how do we do this for our community?; how do we lead by creating opportunity and then taking a step back?

This change is what I think will pay dividends tenfold.


Spotlight snippets

Favorite Academy animal: I love the marine mammals within Giants of Land and Sea; they’re all so different and it makes me want to geek out on why they’re all so different.

Favorite Academy memory: Anytime my kids can come. They’ve been to the Academy enough now that they have their own routine. My boys, Cairo (7 years old) and Dakari (5 years old) love the electric eel shock in the aquarium. They say: “Daddy, this is so fun!” I honestly don’t feel the shock, but I get joy out of them getting joy.

First job: I was a courtesy clerk for Vons supermarkets. I learned how to converse with all peoples from all walks of life with grace, compassion, and willingness to help. My wife, sons, and I live by this creed.


About the author

Sarah Fahey is associate director, development communications, media, and engagement.