I have always been fascinated by water environments. When I was a kid, I collected tadpoles and crawfish at our neighborhood creek and dreamed about becoming a dolphin trainer after my first visit to Sea World. Hamilton College provided me with the framework to explore opportunities in Marine Biology and Environmental Studies, which opened doors to new adventures and career opportunities. My current job as a Wetland Scientist may not seem as sensational as a dolphin trainer, but I get to work outside in the wetlands and rivers at the base of the Teton Mountain Range in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. My career path has meandered from marine biology to wetland science, but I have continually focused on conserving aquatic resources and critical habitats.
When I started college, I already had a passion for biology and understanding how the natural world worked; but I was not sure about what I wanted to study, and I especially did not know what I wanted to do after college. Even if you don’t know what you DO want to study, it is just as important to rule out what you DO NOT want to pursue. At the suggestion of one of my professors, I interned on Great Gull Island in Long Island Sound where I weighed, labeled, and counted tern eggs as part of a greater study. When I first arrived, I was given a straw hat with fake flowers sewn to the top because “terns dive for the highest point” - which is exactly correct! My work as a research intern trying to help these gull populations was met by birds dive- bombing my head, fingers and even back when I bent over to weigh the eggs. After a week of bird-soiled clothing, beak-inflicted wounds, and a strong distaste for gulls, I ruled out ornithology as a career path.
I decided to follow with my childhood passion and amazement with life under the water. Thanks to a liberal arts education, I explored a range of courses from Paleontology to Environmental Politics to Biochemistry and even received my scuba diving certification as one of the physical education requirements. On a cloudy weekend in late November, after plunging into the frigid and murky waters of the Skaneateles Lake in a leaky drysuit for my open water exam, I vowed to use my newly acquired license only in tropical waters. This may have seemed like an unrealistic goal for a student in upstate New York, but despite its location, Hamilton has a plethora of study abroad, research and travel opportunities. I traveled with the Outing Club to Costa Rica, spent a summer in Turks and Caicos studying coral reef ecology and went on a weekend trip to the Mystic Aquarium for a Marine Biology class. During the spring of my junior year, I studied abroad in Tanzania for a semester and spent a month boating along the northern coast with a group of local fisherman to monitor the health of their fish populations and coral reefs. All of the surveying was done in Swahili and I still remember how to count and the word for butterfly fish, “kikipepeo”.
Just a couple of days after flying home from Tanzania, I returned to the Hill to spend a summer conducting butterfly research in the Rome Sand Plains. Even though this work diverted from my passion, I gained key research tools and skills that I then utilized for my senior thesis. In hindsight, this experience was a baseline for my later research in graduate school and environmental consulting. If you are interested in a career in science, I would strongly recommend spending a summer of research at Hamilton.
Life Beyond the Hill
After graduating with a major in Biology and minor in Environmental Studies, I spent four months working at the Cape Eleuthera Research Institute, a branch of a placed-based school called The Island School, in the Bahamas. My work as an aquaculture intern focused on rearing cobia - an open water fish similar to tuna - for sustainable offshore aquaculture. My daily tasks consisted of monitoring and maintaining the wet lab facilities, but in my free time I swam in the clear aqua waters, biked around the island in search of lagoon snorkeling spots, and took classes to receive my rescue diver certification. Despite living in paradise, I was homesick for Hamilton, with the change of seasons and a close knit community. That was a key turning point for me when I realized that perhaps my passion for tropical marine biology was less important to me than community. I came to the conclusion that I could still travel and scuba dive for recreation, but continue a career in a place that felt more like home.
I was inspired by the place-based curriculum at the Island School in the Bahamas, but generally just wanted to continue to work outside and use my biology degree, so I decided to teach environmental education for a few years. I taught in coastal Maine for a semester and then joined a fellow Hamilton friend out west in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where I worked at the Teton Science Schools learning and teaching about the local flora and fauna. My Jackson Hole community paralleled my Hamilton family, so I became determined to figure out a way to make a career there. However, I soon realized that if I wanted to pursue my dream in research science and conservation ecology, I needed to go to graduate school. With the help and advice from my Hamilton professors and other coworkers, I narrowed down my research focus and a list of schools. Without the small class sizes and close relationships with my professors, I would have not received the instrumentive counsel and letters of recommendation that helped me get into graduate school.
Time for Graduate School
After applying to schools across the country, I decided to stay in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and embrace researching mountain rivers and wetlands at Montana State University (MSU) in Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. After four years out of school, I was ready to dive in again. I know some recent college grads magically know exactly what they want to study in graduate school. This was definitely not the case for me, and I needed those four years to try different jobs and realize what I wanted to commit to researching.
My undergrad experience definitely contributed to my success at MSU. Even more than my hard skills in science, what I valued and utilized from Hamilton was my confidence to actively participate in class discussions, give presentations, write well, and think critically. My master’s thesis focused on riverine response and resilience to historical land use in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which meant I got to explore the tributaries in and around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and surrounding forests to investigate how the rivers have changed over time.
As a wetland scientist for an environmental consulting company in Jackson Hole, WY, I am able to apply my research background and passion for protecting natural habitats while still getting to play in the water. I do a mix of field work and report writing to comply with local and national regulations to protect critical habitats like wetlands and waterbodies. Field work often involves determining wetland boundaries or important wildlife habitat by identifying plants, analyzing soils, and collecting water samples. My company works with a range of clients to provide a connection between the natural sciences and land-use management. We specialize in services and solutions for water resources, wetlands, environmental land use planning, wildlife, regulatory permitting, and GIS mapping needs. Working for a small company, I get to tackle lots of different projects, which adds to my range of experience versus specializing in one skillset.
As far as advice for a Hamilton grad trying to decide what to do with a degree in Biology or Environmental Studies - the world is your oyster. Find the topic that thrills you and then explore the different career and travel options involved. Study abroad, spend a summer interning at Hamilton or elsewhere, try different jobs, take chances in new places, and talk to as many people as you can in your field of interest - your network is key. Don’t be afraid to take changes - every job does not directly line up with your degree. Over the course of my career I have been a research assistant, environmental educator, stewardship associate, office manager, and even a production director for a start-up company. However, all of my jobs have been linked by the common thread of conservation. Find your passion, discover your path and remember to have fun!