Outdoor Careers Part II: Interview with an Ecologist

Along with being drawn to the beauty of the outdoors, hikers are fascinated by the wildlife we encounter on the trail. Most hikers are ecologically minded enough to stick to the Leave No Trace principles during their experience. But for some, a fascination with wildlife can turn into a lifelong obsession with studying and protecting these species and ecosystems. I met a section hiker on my NOBO hike who was actually sending water samples back to her lab as she trekked along – now that’s serious dedication.

Today I’ll be talking with one of these devoted researchers, a friend who specializes in urban ecology, about how he got into the field, the wild places where he’s been lucky enough to conduct research, and what the average hiker can do to protect the places we love.

Meet Mikko. Butterflies and basketball are his faves.

What is your current job title?

I’m an M.S. student in the Graduate Degree Program of Ecology at Colorado State University. As a researcher, I’m interested in understanding how wildlife is being affected by rapid, widespread urban development, and how we can use this understanding to build cities that allow wildlife to persist.

When I say I study urban ecology, most people are pretty perplexed. People tend to think of cities as ecological dead zones, but wildlife is constantly adapting to and sometimes even thriving in highly urbanized areas. On the surface, cities don’t closely resemble the “natural” ecosystems that we have traditionally focused on in ecology, but the ecological processes in these urban environments are every bit as interesting and complex.

What’s your background and how did you get into this field?

I grew up in the suburban sprawl of Skokie, just north of Chicago, and spent a lot of my time in the city as a teen. I would often retreat to the woods for walks and spent a lot of time in Chicago’s nature preserves. But unlike many ecologists, I’ve always thought of the city as home.

My dad took me on a road trip to Yellowstone National Park when I was in grade school and it was one of the most formative two weeks of my life. It was the first time I saw bears, moose, mountains, and the night sky without Chicago’s light pollution. I know those may seem like simple experiences but, as an urbanite, all of those things were new and fascinating to me. Because of that trip, I have always associated the outdoors with adventure and wonder. Since then, I knew that I wanted to do something that allowed me to explore wild spaces.

I studied biology at Knox College, a liberal arts school in the tiny town of Galesburg, IL. I got pretty tight with one of my professors, Dr. Jim Mountjoy, an ornithologist and badass naturalist. With his guidance, I slowly realized how much I enjoy ecological research and how it seeks to unravel the mysteries of the natural world. After graduating, I moved back home to Chicago and interned at the Urban Wildlife Institute. It was here that I was first exposed to urban ecology, which melded my love for city life with my interest in ecological research. Through hours of fieldwork and data collection in the city, I began to view the place where I grew up through the lens of an ecologist. I began to see Chicago, and all cities, as dynamic, functioning ecosystems, worthy of ecological inquiry and exploration.

Where have you conducted research?

Standoff in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. Photo by John Hosmer-Quint.

One of my favorite things about ecological research is where it has taken me. I have studied giraffes in Tanzania, lived in the bison unit on the prairie of Illinois, studied woodpeckers in Green Oaks Biological Field Station, and helped run a camera trap project back home in Chicago. Currently, I coordinate a research project on urban birds and butterflies along the front range of the Rockies in Fort Collins, CO.

Is there a typical “career arc” in this field? What might that look like? Do you need specific education to advance?

To some degree, yes. Most people in my field finish their undergrad with a degree in biology, ecology, or environmental studies. After undergrad, some people may jump straight into a graduate program, but many people will live the “tech-life,” working as a technician and doing the leg work for a research project. Technicians work for peanuts, but it’s when young ecologists refine their research interests and learn how research is conducted on the ground. Eventually, some will move on to ask their own research questions and run their own projects in the form of graduate school. An advanced degree is pretty essential in this field if you want to have control over the research you are conducting.

After grad school, there are many different tracks a researcher might take. If you are interested in staying in academia, you will likely get your PhD, acquire a post-doc position, and pump out publications as you search for a faculty position. Alternatively, you can seek a government job and look to work your way up the ladder working for a government agency. Also, more and more ecologists are seeking less traditional jobs, working for NGOs or other private conservation organizations.

What do you want to do after you graduate?

Ah, yes—the frequently asked, dreaded question that graduate students are all too familiar with.

I’m still figuring this one out. I know that I want to continue to do field research and that I want to apply what I know. I want to better understand the ecology of urban ecosystems and use that understanding to help guide urban development. The applied nature of my interests is probably most compatible with working for a conservation NGO or local government.

What are your coworkers and other students like? Working environment? Bosses?

Ecology is a field of inquisitive, adventurous, well-traveled people who are usually happiest after a pint or two. There are a lot of eccentric characters. Graduate school is a particularly engaging environment. It mixes the flexibility of undergraduate life with the rigor and independence of the research world. I’m constantly learning with and from my peers, both formally in the classroom and informally over drinks.

As a grad student your bosses are your advisers. You work under faculty and get to know them on a personal level. It is, in a word, awesome. You work down the hall and attend happy hour with people who have made huge contributions to what we know about the natural world. It’s kind of intimidating at first, but once you get past being star-struck, you realize that all prolific researchers are also people who drink beer, play sports, have kids, and have social lives outside of ecology.

Of course, the research world can feel competitive—there is only so much funding and it’s easy to start comparing your publication record to your peers. The gravity of that competitive atmosphere seems to vary from institution to institution, but you can always control your level of involvement in it. I love the graduate student community here at CSU and, more broadly, I’ve always enjoyed the company of fellow ecologists.

What is the balance between outdoor time vs. lab and study time?

Ornithology time.

It really depends on the time of year. During the school year I’m a student: I attend classes, write papers, grade papers, and try to make progress on my thesis when I can catch my breath. During the summer field season, I collect data. I’m up at 5 a.m., conducting bird and butterfly surveys, and sampling vegetation outside.

The intensity of the fieldwork differs depending on the research project. By nature, ecology will often drag you out to remote areas; some projects I’ve worked on required living out of a backpack for days at a time. On the other hand, all my research sites for my current project are in the city limits of Fort Collins and I can drive to them. Both have their perks and drawbacks…. getting paid to backpack is great, but so is taking a shower after a long day in the field.

What are essential qualities for a person working in this field?

I have yet to meet a dispassionate ecologist. Ecologists must be curious, self-motivated, adaptable, creative and, perhaps most surprisingly, able to work well with others. Ecology is an increasingly collaborative field. If you’re looking to retreat to the woods and do your best Thoreau impression, ecology is not really the field for you.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

Whether you’re a master naturalist or have never slept in a tent, everyone has questions as they walk the trail. Every ecosystem is like a never-ending puzzle. I love having an avenue for answering those questions and gaining some insight into how and why ecosystems function the way that they do. I also love that every ecologist focuses on something slightly different and I enjoy being surrounded by people who can add to my understanding of the world.

Least favorite?

Dealing with the challenges we face as a conservation community often feels like a daunting, nearly impossible task. To quote Aldo Leopold (a common move in ecology):

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”   

The problems we face are wicked and massive, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. It gets a little disheartening at times.

What do you think people who are outdoorsy and thinking about getting into this field should know about the job beforehand?

Bird gazing, Colorado.

The work is often its own reward in ecology and the benefits are untraditional. You won’t make a fortune and, at best, you’ll be famous to a small group of people who are interested in your work. However, you’ll travel to incredible places, see indescribably beautiful things, and always have an interesting response when someone asks what you do.

Any parting words?

As an urban ecologist, I often conduct research in public areas. People frequently come up to me to ask me what I’m doing. When I tell them I’m an ecologist, they almost always excitedly jump into an anecdote about an experience they had with the local wildlife.

What becomes clear when you dig through urban ecology literature (and all ecological literature) is that humans deeply influence the wildlife around us. I think everyone sees the value of conserving natural spaces, but not everyone understands how they can help. For me this means applying ecological principles to city life. If I’ve learned anything from my short career in ecology, it’s that the conservation community’s success will hinge upon its ability to pervade spaces that we have not traditionally occupied.

Whatever work you do, I urge you to find ways to incorporate your land ethic into your actions. If you are a business owner, you can use sustainably-sourced products. If you are an investor, you can invest in companies that are environmentally conscious. If you’re a backpacker, you can practice Leave No Trace principles.

Conservation, by nature, must be a collaborative effort.

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