My path to ecology

Why did you pursue a career in ecology? Is it something you decided early? Was there a key person or experience that inspired you?

I think about these questions fairly regularly, in part because I get asked them fairly regularly. Yesterday, I was asked about this by someone from NSF’s Public Affairs office as part of a campaign they’re planning in honor of women’s history month. Ideally, according to the email I received, my answer would be tweetable.

People, especially undergrads*, often expect that I have wanted to be an ecologist and/or a professor since I was really little, and that my entire life was spent in pursuit of this goal. But, as a kid, I didn’t know that there was a field that was called ecology, and a career in academia was completely off my radar. I liked playing outside and enjoyed grossing my sisters out by sticking my toy lizards in their beds, but I don’t think either of those indicate a high likelihood of a future career as an ecologist.

When I started as an undergrad at Cornell, I was a biology major in large part because it was possible to be a bio major through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and that was much cheaper as a New York State resident than any of the other majors I was considering (which would have required enrolling in one of Cornell’s private colleges). That’s not the most inspiring explanation for why I became an ecologist, is it?

I could tell early in my freshman year that I was grossly underprepared compared to many of my peers – they had clearly had much more rigorous science education in high school and some of them had started doing scientific research as high school students. I made it through that year with grades that were okay but not great, and stuck with bio as my major. At that point, though, I still didn’t know what I was going to do with that degree, other than knowing that I had no interest in going to med school.

During my first semester of my sophomore year, I took genetics. I discovered on the second exam that I really liked population genetics. Someone (I can’t remember who) told me that if I liked population genetics, I might like evolution, too, so I decided to enroll for that in the spring. (If not for this suggestion, I probably would have waited until senior year to take evolution.)

That evolution class was undoubtedly a key in me becoming an ecologist. My TA for that course, Colleen Webb, may hold the record for most former discussion section students who went on to pursue graduate degrees in ecology and evolution. She also is responsible, in many ways, for me working on Daphnia. Near the end of the semester, I told her that I was interested in doing research, and she put me in touch with a grad student in Nelson Hairston’s lab. That ended up being a life-transforming experience, but it didn’t start until my junior year. So, that summer, I went back to my parents’ house and coached basketball all summer, as I had the previous year, still having no idea what I was going to do after I graduated.

My junior year in college was when I got the ecology bug (though, really, I had started catching it the year before, in part thanks to having become friends with some outdoorsy folks who took me on my first backpacking trips). I was doing research in Nelson’s lab and loved it. I took ecology. I liked doing research and heard there was a program I could apply for that would let me stay in Ithaca to do research for the summer. That sounded like it would be fun, so I did it. I still don’t think I was really thinking about what to do after I graduated – I was still just sort of bumbling from one thing I liked to the next. As I got more immersed in research I realized that I loved it and wanted to keep doing it, which is why I applied to grad school.**

Once I was in grad school, my path to my current position was fairly straightforward, though not to my family. Coming from a non-academic family, there were many family gatherings spent answering questions along the lines of “You’re still in school? But I thought you were smart?” and “So, your father tells me you row around in a boat all day – is that really true?” or, from my mother, “Tell me again: are Daphnia fish or plants?”***

So, while I love being an ecologist and now find it hard to imagine having a different career, it’s hard to say exactly how I became an ecologist. Good teachers and mentors, natural interest and aptitude, and luck. Hey, that’s less than 140 characters. Maybe I’ll go with that.

* I get asked this the most because of one particular assignment here at Michigan. Freshman living in a dorm for women interested in STEM are told to go ask a professor about how she got where she is. Being a woman who teaches freshmen-level courses, I get asked a lot.

** I was definitely naïve about what this career path involved. I didn’t know anything about the odds of getting a job in academia or what I would do if that path didn’t work out. I do wonder sometimes if telling students about how bad the odds are will dissuade students like me, who are just kind of fumbling along.

*** I eventually answered this one by giving her a tube of Daphnia. For people who aren’t familiar with Daphnia: they are small shrimp-like animals (in other words: they are neither fish nor plants!)

16 thoughts on “My path to ecology

  1. Thanks, Meg. Your story is quite similar to mine in that I had no idea I wanted to end up in academia when I started college. And our experiences are why I am such a proponent of undergrad research. Not to make more academics, but to open up the world of science and its varied options to students.

  2. While I was in grad school, I was investigating starting a project on black locust trees on previously mined areas. My mom was worried about this, given that “locusts only come out every 17 years!”. Trees, mom, not insects. 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing, Meg. I, also, had no idea that ecology existed as a kid, and only started to get an inkling of it in college. I took my first biology class (ever) at night for fun after I graduated college and had a job. I wonder if, with the Internet, kids these days can more easily discover that something they enjoy (say, being outdoors) can be combined with something they’re good at (say, science generally) in a viable career. I certainly had no idea.

  4. Awesome post, Meg! Not too dissimilar to my path either – I wonder if this is actually more typical for most eco-evo types than deciding as an 8 year old. We’re simply not exposed to this career possibility from an early age in the same way as cosmonauts, nurses, train drivers and athletes are. And what with the death of natural history as a valid subject, all those people who were collecting wee beasties as kids don’t have a career path to follow now.

    • Yes, I agree with this! Most people don’t know about ecology and evolutionary biology as possible career paths, so they don’t have it as a goal. I watched Andrew Read’s TED talk recently and he also indicates that he was thrilled when he realized that he could actually make a living doing this sort of thing.

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  6. Good teachers and mentors — so important! I’m in evolutionary biology graduate school now because a professor my first year of undergrad said “hey, you’re really good at this, maybe you should consider more science classes next semester.”

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