I have always struggled to describe the rise of my interest in ecology or how I became an ecologist. At this point, asking me why and how I became an ecologist is kind of like asking a backcountry snowboarder why he or she is checking the weather every 30 minutes. Ecological research and restoration have become a part of my identity – it’s just what I wake up thinking about. Oddly though, I never really anticipated that things would turn out this way. Eventually, I ended up in the woods, on the river and out in the muskeg. To narrate this I’ll focus on a few anecdotes that, in hindsight, determined the R-squared of how I became an ecologist.
Unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I’m confident that it wasn’t an issue of reinforced pedigree that led me to ecological research. While both my parents are college-educated, middle-class folks – a common denominator in educational and career achievement1 – there was no push from my parents to become a high-powered professional like a doctor, lawyer, dentist, or their underpaid status equivalent, a PhD researcher (e.g. faculty). My parents just wanted their kids to be happy. My gravitation to ecological research is a product of my environment and the people around me – call it applied “community” ecology.
I was born and raised in Northeast Ohio and grew up in a tight-knit Irish-American family. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time learning skateboard tricks and wrestling moves, both individual sports that require a lot self-teaching and patience. I spent a lot of time getting beaten up, dinged, scraped and bruised to land kickflips and score back points during my formative years. I didn’t dislike school. It was just too structured, and the hustle of trying to graduate with honors wasn’t very fun when I could be working out or skating a ramp somewhere.
As a junior at Mentor High School (the largest school in the state of Ohio at the time), I signed up for an independent study science course and participated in a regional science fair. I had earned a C in biology the year before. Unlike that class (but much like my sporting hobbies), designing, implementing and analyzing a science fair project was very independent. I had to want to achieve something and then set myself on a trajectory to achieve it. In contrast with the kids who wanted to go into business or law, there was a supportive environment among that science fair cohort, not the “crush all challengers” mentality that I was encouraged to take on the mat or at the skate park. I also had great mentors in that classroom. Mr. Woodman, whom had given me that well-earned C the year prior, and Ms. Pollak, a young, bright and enthusiastic biology teacher, were way ahead of their peers in letting students pursue their interests rather than nailing them to standardized curriculum.
I also had a faculty mentor from the Cleveland State University, Dr. John Holcomb, a professor of statistics. I calculated t-statistics by hand, thought about probability and learned about linear regression at age 16. With the support of John, Rich and Lori, I placed higher in the science fair than I ever did at the state wrestling tournament. When I received a partial wrestling scholarship from CSU, it was a no-brainer to attend and work on my statistics and biology chops along with my leg rides and front headlocks. Unexpectedly, in a painful turn of events, I incurred a spinal cord injury a few months after signing on to wrestle, and it was handed down that I was never going to roll (wrestle) again. My priorities had to shift – I was not going to be a student-athlete, nor would my identity be as a jock. I worked for Dr. Holcomb helping to revise a statistics text and took a few classes while living in downtown Cleveland. At age 19, with a few friends living in Seattle, I packed a suitcase (okay, a snowboard bag) and headed to Washington State to mix things up after a few semesters.
I didn’t re-enroll in school initially. I merely went to be out West and play in the Cascades. Eventually though, living in Seattle’s culture of environmental stewardship and (over)education, I found something that perked my interest: the University of Washington’s Restoration Ecology Network – an interdisciplinary organization that pairs UW students with community stakeholders to undertake applied ecological restoration across western Washington. I was infatuated with the idea that public service and research can work in unison via organizations like the Cascade Land Conservancy (now Forterra), the Green Seattle Partnership, local tribes, and government. In restoration, the scientific research informed the ecological prescriptions and the success of the prescriptions fed back into the science rather immediately. In a few short years I went from considering a career in renewable energy policy to working on retiring mining sites and directing succession in denuded forests. With the help of a few more great mentors, I decided that this ecological restoration and research business was more than a temporary thing.
While Lauren recently wrote on publicly funded research, I should emphasize that, as noted above, publicly funded K-12 and higher education laid the foundation for my involvement in science early on. I am a believer that a comprehensive public education system holds promise in resolving issues of class, gender and racial inequity both within academia/research and at much broader scales. Currently, I spend my spare time wondering how the recession that has slashed education budgets nationwide will affect society’s ability to inspire bold questions and to train the individuals who will ask and answer them. Will these cuts affect the retention of women and underrepresented groups in higher education and in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields? My guess is that the current generation of young ecologists will see these things play out in real time, and we will have to live with the consequences of the post-recession paradigm.
1. Blau, P.M. and O.D. Duncan. 1967. “The American occupational structure.” Free Press, 544 P.