Iris C-F. Yen
From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.
Position Assistant Professor
Department Department of Ecology Providence
Organization University, Taiwan
When did you get interested in ecology? Who was most influential in guiding you into ecology?
I got interested in ecology at a very early age. I grew up in a big farm house with my brothers, sisters, and cousins (total of 15 kids aged 4 to 16 – I was in the middle of the age group). We played after school until we graduated from high school and went to college. Our father was a good farmer who loved to walk in nature and he taught us many things. He taught us how to tie baits to fish in the river during each spring and summer. My brothers and I would have preferred to start learning how to fish by going out and catching a few, omitting entirely anything difficult or technical that we had to learn as we were introduced to our father’s art. Although we caught many fish, my father always made us throw them into the river again, simply because I didn’t like to see the fish suffer.
At that age, I was very sure about certain creatures and their role in the universe. To me, all good things –fish as well as birds – came by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy. During my childhood, I was also impressed by the beautiful farm land where the rice grew – we harvested it twice a year. We kids always took advantage of the “after harvest time” when nothing but the birds and cows walked in the empty farm land (but still full of insects like dragon flies, butterflies, etc.). I was most fascinating by the number of species I could find in the small ponds that formed after afternoon thunder-storms (common in Taiwan). When I was in the second year of a biological major at National Changhua University of Education (where I was trained to be a secondary school teacher) I got heavily involved into a bird watching club with a group of bird lovers, mainly biology majors from various universities. We went bird watching as well as photographing just about every weekend until I graduated from the university and become a junior high biology teacher. Besides my father, who inspired me a lot to enjoy nature, those people I went bird watching with played an important role in preparing me to have a better understanding of the beauty of any creature, even ones that might have seemed insignificant such as a tree sparrow. They can be beautiful through the scope of human eyes or a camera.
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?
On the last day before graduation from high school, each student was asked to talk about their dream or goal for the future, and I remember very well what I said… “I like science. .. ..and I also like to write to express my feelings…hopefully I can establish a bridge between them in the future, and I will be trained for that…” By January 1984, the first national park in Taiwan was born at KenTin, located around the south end of the island. I quit my job after a year of teaching in a junior high school and took a research assistant position to do animal recourses surveys in the first national park in southern Taiwan. As one of 10 pioneer research fellows responsible for wildlife conservation, I helped to design the kind of research the national park should pay attention to. During two years of working with an interdisciplinary team, I got to know the age of the rocks, the little stories of the animal, and the nice way that native people got along with nature . I wrote in my journal routinely, if not everyday. While I worked at the National Park, I became interested in further study of wildlife ecology. I applied at overseas institutions for my graduate work, and I made up my mind to study ornithology since birds were my beloved wildlife then. My formal graduate training at the masters level was in the breeding biology of the American robins, specifically in nest site selection and the breeding behavior of the birds.
It was a great experience to work as a teaching assistant in the Department of Zoology under the guidance of Dr. Erwin Klass at Iowa State University. I found a great context for conducting my research. I worked around the campus and my own backyard- much easier study sites for an independent professional with no research funding and still possible to do a good job! After working on the American Robin for two, I decided to continue to working in avian ecology and I moved to University of Florida and the wildlife ecology program in pursuit of a Ph.D. Unfortunately, I found I was severely allergic to chigger bite, and the physicians told me I should never walk or work on grass until…well, no one knew when. . . This was quite a shock for me, since I was ready to continue my journey to in avian biology, and hoping to find a job in an ecological institution to do research and teaching as well. I worked for the Veterinary College at University of Florida as a research associate scientist and five years later, I moved back to Taiwan for family reasons. Once back in Taiwan, I decided to go for Science Education training, and got a faculty position at Providence University afterwards.
How did you learn about ecological careers?
I learned about careers from a long-time friend who I worked with at KenTin National Park years ago. Working at different institutions helps to interconnect with many different people, which is a great source for the future job hunting later of your career. I also visited various institutions in person, gave many seminars, and attended as many ecologically related conferences nationally and internationally as possible. I do enjoy and appreciate nature and I work hard to spread the message through ecological education. My mission has been to help several prominent advocates of ecological education to establish the first department of ecology in Taiwan. Today, the first department of ecology in Taiwan is only one year old, and has 6 faculty, 4 staff, and 9 graduate students. The first undergraduates are scheduled to enroll in 2 years. I’m currently an assistant professor and spend 1/3 of my time conducting research on how students from elementary to college levels learn ecological concepts. One major challenge to me, as a college science educator, was being the first faculty hired in this field by the University. I needed to interest the National Science Council (major government funding agency equivalent to NSF in the USA) in research topics that were relatively new to them.
What key advice would you offer a student today?
When I was young, a teacher forbade me to be an art major because she said you don’t have the drawing talent to become a good artistic painter, and, she doubted I would pass the college entrance exam. Though I wondered about her critique for a time, I did not have courage to go for it then. It took me almost ten years to finish my higher education, and become an ecological science educator. I recommend that students who are interest in ecology or similar topic should take some science philosophy, art, and writing etc., in addition to studying only some closely related Science disciplines. After I have seen some of life and developed as an ecologist, I have regained my confidence in art. For example, I have realized I’m a good folk singer – I can sing any song I have heard one time. The point is that it is important to know that no matter what your major or what lies in your past, you can overcome difficulties and press on to a brighter world. Of course, there’s no right way to pursue your goals; there are many ways to go after your dreams. As long as you keep your dreams in view, you don’t have to listen to what others tell you what to do. And to reach your dreams, you may have to listen to yourself more than you can imagine.