Elaine Caton (2004)
From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.
Degree Ph.D. 1996 (University of Montana)
Position Postdoctoral Fellow
Department Division of Biological Sciences
Organization University of Montana
When did you become interested in ecology?
I grew up on a beautiful farm in Missouri, which had a creek, hardwood forest, lake, river and fields that I spent most of my time exploring. My mother has always been interested in nature and biology and her enthusiasm stimulated my own interest in the natural world around me. spent much of my childhood catching minnows, snakes, and frogs, picking berries, and just absorbing information about local organisms. After completing my bachelor’s degree in zoology I had the great fortune to work in Glacier National Park for the avian biologist, Dr. Riley McClelland, who taught me so much about science and natural history. My experience with Dr. McClelland encouraged me to return to school for my Ph.D.
How did you learn about ecological careers?
I learned about careers mostly by meeting other people in a variety of positions, at professional meetings and simply through interacting with colleagues in academia, agencies, and private organizations. I think exposure to people in so many different types of ecological careers helped me realize that I didn’t have to consider only an academic or agency position, and that I was very interested in a more “alternative” career. My current position reflects that. I am the Education Outreach Specialist of Biological Sciences at the University of Montana, but I am funded by and on contract with a local watershed conservation organization, the Blackfoot Challenge, to coordinate their education programs. I have a 2‑year‑old daughter and work half‑time.
Describe your route to a career in (or using) ecology. What challenges did you need to overcome? What was your training, and what positions have you held?
I finished my B.A. in Zoology at the University of Montana in 1984 and spent 10 years working as a seasonal biologist in Glacier National Park, with some winter work in other places. This gave me lots of experience with ecological research in different systems, and interaction with other ecologists. I entered graduate school 8 years after receiving my B.A., and worked with Dr. Richard Hutto, whose great enthusiasm for learning further stimulated my own interest. After completing my Ph.D in Organismal Biology and Ecology, I was able to work with Dr. Carol Brewer at the University of Montana in the Schoolyard Ecology for Elementary School Teachers (SYEFEST) Program. An NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship in Science, Math, Engineering and Technology (with Dr. Brewer as my mentor) allowed me to pursue my interest in facilitating teacher‑ecologist partnerships and develop a program for this at UM. Following this, I received an NSF grant to extend this work partnering teachers with research ecologists in Montana. I think this varied experience in both research and education has allowed me to create my own niche as an ecological educator. I think the greatest challenges for me have been to resist feeling that I needed to pursue a permanent, full‑time academic or agency position, and to be willing to be flexible and pursue my own funding sources.
What advice do you have for communicating ecology to diverse audiences?
As much as possible, communicate by involving your audiences in seeing things for themselves firsthand‑‑by getting them to participate in ecology, even through a “virtual fieldtrip” if you can’t take them to a field site or lab. Share your own enthusiasm for ecology, and the intellectual curiosity that spurs us to learn more. Encourage them to make their own observations about the world around them.
What key advice would you offer a student today?
I would suggest that you get some good research experience before starting graduate work, and that you remain flexible and think somewhat outside the box in terms of career opportunities.