Few of our graduate students at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) arrive here by following the exact same script. After all, the very nature of pursuing scientific training—always asking questions, always refining methods and ideas—tends to favor detours over simple, direct routes.
That’s why many of our students make their way here more like a pinball than an arrow; not out of aimlessness or lack of dedication, by any means, but by seeking diverse experiences and allowing those to shape and guide them. These students come with an appreciation that some of the most exciting discoveries and decisions can happen on the go, firsthand and unplanned, and that being open to the world is often the best way to find your place in it. In many ways, that’s how Cameron Newell found his way to the Master of Environmental Horticulture program at SEFS a year ago.
Newell grew up about an hour northwest of Melbourne, Australia. After earning a bachelor of science with majors in botany and zoology at Monash University in Melbourne, he spent a few years exploring an assortment of jobs, from driving seeding drills and rouseabouting on farms in the west, to working for the Victorian state government one summer as a firefighter. “It was the wettest summer in 100 years,” he says, “so I ended up filling sandbags more than putting out fires. It was a good thing, I guess, but you don’t make as much money that way.”
For one 18-month stretch, Newell hooked up with a filmmaker who was looking for a camera assistant on a documentary. The project involved capturing a year in the life of crocodiles, following them from babies and nesting mothers on through to mating. Newell didn’t have any experience as a cameraman, but before he knew it he was spending weeks in the field filming up around Darwin and other remote reaches of the country. “It was kind of scary most of the time,” he says, “sitting in a little flat-bottom boat filming crocodiles.”
At the end of that string of jobs, Newell set off with his brother on a seven-month backpacking adventure through South America. They flew into Santiago, Chile, and then trekked through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador before spending a short time in Colombia. Near the tail end of the journey, while still in Ecuador, Newell met Susan North—his “soul mate, an amazing woman from San Diego,” he says. “My plans changed a bit from there.”
So after their last stop in Colombia, the brothers headed their separate ways, with Newell traveling up to the United States with Susie. From there, they would spend the next two and a half years dating long distance while Newell worked on several other documentaries—including films about kangaroos, flying foxes and red crabs—and applied for a green card to live in the country. When he was finally able to join Susie in San Diego full-time, he spent about two and a half years working in environmental consulting.
During that time, he’d been thinking about ways to get more engaged with environmental restoration and sustainable farming. “My parents had a nursery growing up,” he says, “so I was always growing plants. I had my own little side business doing small-scale stuff on farms, putting in windbreaks, things like that. But sustainable agriculture has become a bigger interest of mine through time and jobs, and I wanted to work out a way to pair agriculture and restoration.”
He started digging into potential graduate programs that would give him the flexibility and hands-on field application he wanted. That’s what attracted him to the Master of Environmental Horticulture degree program with SEFS, where he’s now working with Professors Kern Ewing and Jim Fridley. His research focuses on habitat restoration for pollinators in small agricultural areas in Seattle and surrounding communities, including Duvall and Carnation. “Pollination is a big thing at the moment with the collapse of the honey bee populations,” he says. “There’s going to be an increased need for native pollinators.”
Newell has just completed his first year here, and this summer he’s carrying out some pollinator surveys in a few local towns to determine which pollinators are around and active. He’s also gotten involved with the local project tracking the reemergence of Western Bumble Bees in the Seattle area, so he’ll be out chasing bees from time to time.
He has about a year left in his program, and after that Newell says he’d eventually like to work in Africa or somewhere else in the developing world. What happens in the meantime, of course, is all part of the adventure—and could end up leading him in another direction entirely!
All photos © Cameron Newell.