Mari N. Jensen
From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.
Position Science Writer
Organization Tucson, AZ
When did you become interested in ecology?
My interest in ecology actually began when I was four or five years old. We lived in a house in the Pennsylvania countryside that was surrounded by fields and woods. I was constantly poking around at the kid-sized critters caterpillars, toads, snakes and salamanders—that were in the woods and in the rock garden. Aside from the animals themselves, my mom was the key person who fostered my interest in the natural world. She was always observing bits of the natural world and pointing them out to me. She thought it perfectly reasonable for girl children to play with snakes and salamanders and other creepy-crawlies and to litter the house with mayonnaise and peanut butter jars filled with various animal treasures. And yes, she made sure I punched holes in the lids. Although neither of my parents are scientists, both of them encouraged my desire to be a biologist by buying me books and equipment for my natural history projects. I was particularly keen on insects, and I remember they bought me a butterfly net and display cases. It must have taken some work on their part—this was long before there was a Nature Company in every mall.
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?
For me the major challenge was realizing and accepting that I didn’t want to be a research scientist. I like learning about animals, I liked the intellectual challenge of graduate school, but I saw research as lonely work that took years to get results. One of my early advisors once said I was interested in too many things to ever get a Ph.D. That comment hurt me at the time, but in retrospect he was right. My broad-ranging interests were a deadly liability for a Ph.D. student but turn out to be exactly what’s required to be a good science journalist. My path to becoming a science writer is pretty long and crooked. Here’s a partial non-chronological list of positions I’ve held. I’ve been a laboratory technician in several nutrition labs, worked on aphid research, dropped out of two Ph.D. programs (got a master’s each time, one in 1983 and one in 1996), started up and run a multi-high-school program to encourage underrepresented minorities to pursue math and science, been the admissions officer for the University of Arizona Graduate Library School, been an agricultural policy associate for the National Audubon Society, worked in the Public Affairs Office of the Ecological Society of America, coordinated several conferences on science topics, and edited reports for the National Science Foundation and the National Park Service.
Then, on my third try, I got an American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Fellowship and worked for a summer as a science reporter at the Albuquerque Tribune. I returned to Arizona, applied to science writing programs, left that second Ph.D. program and went off to get a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. I then had science writing internships at the Dallas Morning News and Science News, came back to Tucson and freelanced for three years, and then took a job at the Tucson Citizen as their science writer. My newest venture is working on a political campaign. My freelance work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and websites, including Science, BioScience, The Economist, the Arizona Daily Star, the San Jose Mercury News, Zoogoer, ABCNEWS.com, BioMedNet, Discovery.com, ScienceNOW, and WebMD.
Right now I’m doing two disparate things. I’m a freelance science writer and editor and am also working on communications for Mary Judge Ryan’s congressional campaign. Although my favorite things to write about remain ecology and natural history, my freelance work spans everything from editing manuscripts on natural resources economics to doing an article on elder abuse for a National Academy of Sciences magazine. Mary Judge Ryan’s top three issues are economic security, education, and health care, so now I’m learning and writing about those topics also.
How did you learn about ecological careers?
Haphazardly. When I went to college in the early 1970s, internships were barely invented. I didn’t have a clear picture of how my book-and-laboratory learning about ecology could translate into a career other than that of a college professor. At the time I didn’t have a clue what to do with just a bachelor of science in ecology. Being a professor required graduate school—which, given my happy-go-lucky behavior in college, took me a while to get to. I think undergraduate students now have many more opportunities to get their hands dirty in research. Internships with ecology-based nongovernmental organizations are also more common. I’m envious, actually. But I’m happy to report there’s life beyond academia.
What key advice would you offer a student today?
Remember that, with some exceptions, your professors have spent their lives training to be college professors. So that’s what they know best. If you want to do research more than anything and are willing to fight for those grants and put up with teaching to do so, go for it. Or if you are really into teaching on the college level and want to do some research, do that. But that’s not the only work for ecologists, and these days there’s more acceptance among ESA’s ecologists that non-academic careers have merit. Sample other options. Try internships and summer jobs with agencies and NGOs. Consider government. Apply for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s congressional fellowships or science diplomacy fellowships. Contact people whose jobs you’re curious about. Go to their talks here and chat them up afterwards. Or email them. If you know exactly what you want to do, go for it. If you want to study bees or beetles more than anything, do it. But if you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up, zigging and zagging may help you figure it out. Have fun on the journey, and write when you get work.