From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.
Organization Oregon Department of Environmental Quality
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?
When I was in high school in Los Angeles, my scientific interests were mainly in physics and electronics. But in my junior year, a close family friend introduced me to backpacking and mountaineering, activities which got me out of the city exploring mountains and deserts throughout California, southern Nevada, and western Arizona. These numerous outdoor confrontations with “nature” shifted my scientific interests toward biology (“ecology” not being the household word it would later become). So, I spent two years as a biology major at a small college in Oregon (beginning an enduring love affair with the climate and mountains of the Northwest), then transferred to the University of California (Santa Barbara), graduating with a B.A. degree in geography. Why geography? Well, mountaineering taught me to love maps, the geography department was small and friendly (and not overrun with avaricious pre-med students), and its subject matter addressed larger, more holistic questions (well before the concept of “watershed” gained its current presence).
After graduation, I worked in a commercial research lab for a year, then went to graduate school at the University of Southern California. My M.S. was on an aspect of the physiological ecology of desert ants but, for my Ph.D. I shifted to aquatic toxicology, primarily because this seemed a more tangible subject. Graduate school gave me no driving interest in an academic career, so I was happy to find work with an oceanographic consulting firm shortly before receiving my Ph.D. We gathered and analyzed data on deep water benthic communities and I spent several months aboard a survey ship cruising off the U.S. East coast. Unfortunately, our project sank in rough political waters after only one year. Curious circumstances then led me to spend the next nine years in realms totally unrelated (or so I thought) to ecology. Finally, resolved to get back into environmental work no matter what, I interviewed for a job in “ecological risk assessment” and was surprised to find a field that needed a combination of ecological knowledge and risk-related statistics (which I’d learned in my “non-ecology” job). I’ve been doing risk assessments ever since, first with several consulting firms (which included work helping convert the old navy base on Midway Atoll into a National wildlife refuge), and for the last few years, with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Although most of my work has focused on risk posed to ecological receptors by chemicals, we’re now including risk posed by other impacts, such as habitat loss or loss of prey base. A year in Washington DC as an American Association for the Advancement of Science Risk Policy Fellow allowed me to broaden my knowledge of risk to include that posed by food-borne microbes and bioterrorism.
Risk assessment has continued to hold my interest not only because of its scientific and technical aspects, but because it is an important link between science and policy. When resources (time, money, expertise, etc.) for fixing problems are scarce (as they almost always are), considering risk can help us separate problems more likely to occur from those that, although dramatic (“…the sky is falling!”), are of such low probability as to be irrelevant to pragmatic policy making. Ideally, we’d like to direct limited resources toward more probable (and potentially more solvable) problems and away those that are seemingly dramatic (or agenda-driven) but otherwise improbable.
What key advice would you offer a student today?
- The academy is not your only career choice. Keep an open mind. Consider alternatives that may, on closer inspection, have hidden attractions.
- If you’re going to criticize, do it constructively, offer positive alternatives, don’t whine.
- When ecological issues are cast in terms of health and security (which people already accept as vital and necessary) then ecology becomes important.
- Always remember that science is not the only way to solve a problem.