My journey from geologist to wildlife biologist to writer all began with a single YouTube video.
It was the second semester of my junior year at the University of Michigan and I felt lost. I was registered as a biopsychology major, and I enjoyed my classes, but the career prospects left me feeling cornered.
I had, on a whim, taken an ecology class at the university’s field station in northern Michigan as an incoming sophomore and loved it. I was obsessed with animals as a kid. I donated allowances to the World Wildlife Fund, spent summers working in an animal clinic, and went long stretches where “veterinarian” was my professed vocation of choice. But in high school I developed other interests and veered away from wildlife science because I was afraid of the math and chemistry courses it would require (face palm).
And even though I had loved my field ecology course I was still afraid I didn’t have the chops to be a real scientist.
So, there I was, Christmas break looming, final exams at hand, and I just didn’t feel good about my path.
I sat at the desk in my dorm room, procrastinating, and found a video—probably click bait—of an orca swimming with a great white shark overturned in its mouth. The water in the video is murky but you can clearly see the black and white torpedo with the white belly of the shark shining up through the water. According to the video, nothing like that had been witnessed before, and I was pinged.
“Man, I thought. That’s the kind of thing I want to study.”
At virtually the same time I had been texting with a friend about how lost I felt and he texted back, “I know you’ll find what you were meant to do.”
What I was meant to do.
I am in no way prone to rash decisions, but three days later I had dropped all my psychology classes for the next semester and re-registered as the only wildlife-adjacent major I could still complete on time: environmental science.
It was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
Eager for any experience in natural science I could glean before graduation, I approached the nicest-seeming professor in my new major to ask if I could work in her lab. She was a paleobotanist, and while it wasn’t wildlife necessarily, it still sounded cool and I just wanted experience. Two semesters later she offered me a position in a funded master’s program, which I accepted.
For my master’s work I studied fossilized soils to determine what kinds of plants were growing in southeastern Montana around 33 million years ago. The climate was changing dramatically 33 million years ago and we wanted to know how the ancient vegetation communities responded to that rapidly changing climate. Thankfully for us plants leave tiny calling cards in the soil in the form of phytoliths. A phytolith is a microscopic piece of silica that plants deposit in or around their cells. Grasses tend to have lots and lots of silica in their cells and this is why ungulates like zebras often have continuously growing teeth; so that the abrasive silica doesn’t wear them down to the gums.
I didn’t just learn about phytoliths though, I also learned how to read scientific literature and critically think like a scientist—a skill I’ll be forever grateful for.
I loved paleoecology, but I still had a strong desire to jump into more modern environmental work. So I joined the National Park Service after completing my master’s, where I’ve been working as a wildlife technician ever since.
Through my work in the parks I have attached radio transmitters the size of sunflower seeds to bats, surveyed falcons, tattooed tiny endangered toads, counted elk, collared moose and now I manage black bears in one of our largest national parks. Through the National Park Service I was awarded a grant to complete my wildlife education, which I did through Oregon State University, and am proud to say I am now qualified as a wildlife biologist.
I have had an nontraditional career path, but I’m not done yet.
My experiences have taught me that in order to make a difference for our planet, we must communicate with one another about what is going on.
That is the purpose of this blog. I am by no means an expert on almost anything (except bears and phytoliths from 33 million years ago!) but I do know how to do research and I want to share the cool and important environmental topics that are continuing to peak my interest.
I hope you enjoy this blog, and if you have any suggestions for topics that are interesting to you, please reach out!