Undergrad Spotlight: Maria Gamman

“I’ve always felt that whatever you do without getting paid on your own time, that’s what you should try to do for your job,” says Maria Gamman, who is heading into her final quarter at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). “Particularly what you enjoyed doing when you were younger—something you had a natural pull or attraction for.”

Maria Gamman

From an early age, Maria Gamman says she has always felt a strong pull to work with wildlife (here, it’s a beetle!).

For Gamman, that meant trying to find a career involving animals. She grew up in Livingston, Mont., about 60 miles north of Yellowstone National Park, and enjoyed early exposure to the mountains and wild lands of Big Sky Country. She remembers asking her parents to order a series of pamphlets about wildlife, which would arrive every month—each one featuring a different species, and each mailing going into a binder Gamman could page through again and again. “I’ve been studying wildlife since I was about 10 years old,” she says. “I was always hungry for it.”

Of course, developing a passion for wildlife was the easy part. Channeling that childhood curiosity into a practical career—as you can hear the cynics harrumphing—is not as simple as it sounds.

Yet there’s nothing naïve about Gamman’s philosophy. She’s never relied on wishful thinking or idle dreaming to reach her goals. She’s had to will herself—through great resourcefulness and resilience—to overcome a number of personal and professional challenges, and there have been plenty of recalibrations and near-derailments along the way. But now, as she wraps up her degree, Gamman can look back on all her decisions and detours and see the journey has been almost as exciting as the opportunities ahead of her.

West, East and Back Again
After attending school in Livingston through 8th grade, Gamman earned a scholarship to attend the Madeira School, an all-girls boarding school in McLean, Va., just outside of Washington, D.C. Madeira attracts students from all over the country and world, and it was a dramatic East Coast plunge for Gamman. “It was a challenge,” she says, “and especially my first year, my freshman year, was very hard to be away from my family.”

Maria Gamman

Gamman, left, at Mount Rainier National Park.

Gamman quickly adapted, though, and took advantage of the school’s rigorous curriculum, which included spending every Wednesday at an outside internship. Her projects included volunteering at a retirement center, working with a Montana senator, and tutoring at a middle school in downtown D.C.—each experience feeding her love of hands-on, applied learning.

Yet the East Coast couldn’t compete with the mountains and wilderness of the West, or the proximity to her family, so when it came time to think about colleges, Gamman decided to head back across the country. “My older sister Réva had moved out to Seattle my sophomore year, so I had visited her out here,” she says. “We walked around campus, and I fell in love with the University of Washington. Then my senior year, my entire immediate family moved to Issaquah, so UW was the only school I wanted to go to, and the only school I applied to.”

After she was accepted, Gamman started working on the next hurdle: financing her education. “I’m one of seven kids in my family, and my parents didn’t have the money to put me through college,” she says.

She managed to secure grants to cover tuition and expenses her first year, but then her funding ran out. Gamman had initially chosen to major in biology, but she wasn’t feeling confident enough in her direction or finances to commit to another year of full tuition. So she withdrew from UW and enrolled at Bellevue Community College in 2005 to try studying business. It was a brief experiment. “That is not my thing,” says Gamman. “Not happening.”

At that point, Gamman decided to take some time off and work, and she found a position with a local moving company called Miracle Movers. She started as a saleswoman and quickly worked her way up to manage the office. But after six years at a desk, she was feeling pretty burned out from the routine. “At some point I just discovered I couldn’t handle working in an office for the rest of my life,” she says.

Back to School
Gamman had never lost her interest in working with wildlife, so she did some research to figure out the best program for her if she returned to UW. She ended up calling the SEFS advising office and connecting with Lisa Nordlund, who encouraged her to consider the Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM) major with a wildlife conservation concentration. It sounded perfect, so Gamman re-enrolled at Bellevue College (previously Bellevue Community College) to get her prerequisites in order, and then she returned to UW in winter 2013.

Maria Gamman

Gamman has thrived in the applied, hands-on field courses at SEFS.

There was still the issue of funding, and Gamman had pulled together enough grant and loan money to cover her first year back. It was a risk, and another big investment for her, but she quickly realized she’d made a terrific decision. “Oh, I love it—I love this program,” she says. “From that first quarter, I’ve absolutely loved my classes, and it’s not that they’re easy. Most of the classes I’m required to take are pretty challenging, but I love that.”

She especially enjoyed courses with large field components, including Wildlife Research Techniques (ESRM 351). “Really any class that has field trips is my favorite class every quarter,” she says. “I’m all about application, and field trips are the best method of teaching for me. I like to get out and do whatever it is I’m learning.”

A little less than a year into the program, though, Gamman lost her older sister Réva, who had been her closest friend. “She passed away last November from brain cancer when she was 38 years old,” says Gamman. “We’re about 10 years apart, and she was my best friend, as well as a mother figure to me.”

To spend as much time as possible with Réva, Gamman withdrew from the 2013 Autumn Quarter. “That was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” she says. “The more life I live, the more I recognize that relationships are the key to happiness. I am so happy I chose to spend that time with her without the distractions of school or work.”

The Final Push
Determined to finish her degree, Gamman returned to SEFS for the Winter Quarter. She had won a School of Environmental and Forest Sciences Scholarship, awarded through the College of the Environment, to cover the 2013-2014 academic year, and she was able to scrape together enough extra money to stretch through her final quarter. “It’s just barely going to work, but it is going to work,” she says.

Maria Gamman

One of Gamman’s pillars of support for the past few years has been her fiancé Victor Martinez. “Victor has really been there for me, supporting me while I’m in school and after my sister passed away,” she says. The two met salsa dancing, and they’ve since competed in a number of competitions—including earning second place regionally in the Pacific Northwest in 2012 (in the amateur division).

Since she wanted to make the most of this investment in herself—and to make herself more competitive in the job market—she had also added a Quantitative Science minor. It seemed like a great idea to bolster her scientific credentials, but that didn’t mean she could sleepwalk her way through it.

“I struggled with math until my sophomore year of high school,” says Gamman. “I don’t know what I missed in grade school, but some things just didn’t click.”

Everything started falling into place when she took algebra, and especially when she discovered how much she enjoyed statistics and quantitative science courses at SEFS. Suddenly math made a whole lot more sense to her, and felt much more relevant to her studies—not to mention more applicable to her career goals.

Gamman has shrewdly sought out a number of internship opportunities, as well, to build up more field experience for the sort of jobs she’s thinking of after graduation.

For a week and a half last summer, she helped SEFS graduate student Laurel Peelle with telemetry for VHF-collared snowshoe hares and vegetation plots for kill sites as part of Peelle’s Canada lynx research. They were working on kill identification and how to systematically prove what kind of predator killed a snowshoe hare. Also, as part of a different project last summer, Gamman spent another week assisting with pellet plot surveys to establish population density baselines for snowshoe hares around Loomis, Wash.; she recently returned from doing two more weeks of those surveys this summer, too. “I’m a poop counter,” says Gamman, and she actually first got turned onto the wonders of studying animal scat through her friend and fellow SEFS student (and now graduate) Tara Wilson.

“I feel like internships are so important for learning what you want to do, and getting you experience for the job you want to have,” says Gamman. “Go out and try it. That was one of the reasons I did two different internships last summer—and they were very different—is because I wanted to see if I could really cut it in field work. You’re not going to know unless you get out there.”

Maria Gamman

Gamman and Martinez at a competition in Las Vegas.

What she’s learned so far is that she definitely wants to work as a wildlife field technician, and, if possible, preferably in the Seattle area or greater Pacific Northwest. Graduate school could be down the road, but right now Gamman wants to be outside and working hands-on with scientific research and conservation. In the meantime, as she tweaks her resume and starts applying for positions, she has already completed her minor and has only a few classes to go this fall, as well as her senior capstone project, before graduating.

Even with that job search ahead of her, Gamman can still savor a rare moment of relative calm: She has no regrets about coming back to school, she loves what she’s studying, her funding for this quarter is secured, and she’s worked hard to give herself a vast horizon of opportunity in a field she loves.

That’s a fine reward for her perseverance and optimism.

Photos © Maria Gamman.

Undergrad Spotlight: Sarra Tekola

If you want to see fierce incarnate, just ask Sarra Tekola to recite one of her poems—particularly a recent piece about climate change—and see if you don’t get tingles. You can feel her passion burn through every word.

Sarra Tekola

Sarra Tekola has her hands in scores of activities around campus.

“I’ve been accused to being an environmental evangelist before,” says Tekola, a junior at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), “but you never want to be too overbearing. It’s important not to push people away. There’s a happy medium with not being so extreme, and if we want to do something about climate change, we need to include everyone. Because it isn’t just a political agenda. It’s a global issue that every single person on this Earth needs to become involved in and do something about.”

Poetry plays into Tekola’s desire to make science more accessible and accepted. She doesn’t want to be a scientist who mostly talks to other scientists; she wants to be actively connected to her community and the public. Even when we have an abundance of evidence—as with ocean acidification and climate change, she says—there’s often a disconnect when trying to galvanize the community to accept and act on the available science. “I want to be able to relate to people and help find solutions to climate change, to be able to persuade people and politicians, to convince them.”

With verse, she gets to practice her art of persuasion when she’s reading poems at an “open mic” night on campus, where she often addresses different audiences and perspectives. “I get to talk to people I might not meet at a restoration event or seminar,” she says.

Another of her tactics for fighting climate change denial is connecting collaborators. So far, she’s set up a Facebook page called “Climate Change Crisis Council,” and she hopes to grow the page into a forum where activists, scientists and environmentalists share ideas, opportunities for environmental involvement and research, and also build networks to find solutions for climate change. (If you’re interested in joining, it’s an open group, and you can contact Tekola via that page). Her plan is to build enough momentum to form a campus club that would get students involved in environmental research, work on public outreach and complete sustainability projects at UW through the Campus Sustainability Fund.

Sarra Tekola

One of Tekola’s projects is to mitigate run-off from a gravel road into a salmon stream near her parent’s home in Maple Valley.

Organizing the Climate Change Crisis Council is only the tip of the iceberg for Tekola’s campus activities. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking she cloned herself when you realize all the research projects she shoehorns into her schedule.

Tekola, whom you might see riding her motorcycle around campus (she drives it to reduce her carbon footprint; she gets 75 mpg!), was born in Seattle and grew up in nearby Maple Valley. She began her college career at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash., and transferred to the University of Washington (UW) to start her junior year this past fall. She’s now working toward a major in Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM), and she’s been sopping up the program’s research opportunities and field trips.

“I like that it’s really hands-on here,” she says. “I had taken a number of environmental courses, but most of them were textbook-based.” It’s one thing to learn about equipment in the classroom and interpret data others have recorded. “But going out in the field and using the equipment, and being able to do it with your own hands—that’s really fun.”

A few weeks ago, Tekola got her hands plenty cold and dirty in Yellowstone National Park as part of the annual spring course, “ESRM 459: Wildlife Conservation in Northwest Ecosystems.”

With a crew of three SEFS faculty members and 15 students, and using the northern Rockies as their staging ground, Tekola’s class explored patterns of corvid distribution, elk anti-predator behavior and wolf vigilance, among other research tasks. “It was awesome,” she says. “The Yellowstone trip is something I’d want to do on my own, and to be able to do it for school was really amazing. We got to see a lot of cool things.”

The “coolest,” she says, was when they got to watch—from a safe distance—a wolf pack attacking four bull elk. Three of the elk still had their antlers, but one didn’t, and the wolves had separated him from the others. One wolf ran out ahead and tried to bring down the elk, drawing blood on the run, and Tekola was sure the elk was going to fall. Yet the wounded bull stayed on its feet and staggered into the freezing Lamar River with two other elk, where the three lined up, rump to rump, staring at the wolves on the banks (the wolves wouldn’t enter the icy water, apparently, to avoid water freezing in their paws and injuring them; the warmer months are a different story). The fourth elk had turned to face the wolves, which feinted in and out at him, but the bull managed to ward them off with antlers brandished for about 20 minutes. The wolves ultimately gave up and retreated. It was an incredible display of survival tactics that worked—this time—and the class had front-row seats to the show.

Sarra Tekola

Tekola and other ESRM students investigate an elk kill site in Yellowstone National Park.

On another afternoon, they were heading out to investigate a recent wolf kill site. The elk carcass was only two days old, and Tekola remembers several students asking if they might be disturbing the site—or risk interrupting wolves at meal time. Their answer came right on cue: When they walked within 300 or 400 meters of the kill, a wolf was gnawing on the carcass, and binocular range was as close as they got to the carnage.

These field experiences have been a feast for Tekola, a research hound who’s been devouring every opportunity since she transferred from Green River Community College. “I always try to tell my friends and peers and people in the field what a great opportunity we have here at UW,” she says, “and how they should get involved in research as much as they can.”

Thanks to that hunger, her list of involvements is long and varied.

As part of Professor Tim Essington’s lab at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Tekola is studying hypoxia in the Hood Canal in Puget Sound. Her research includes seeing how fish are adapting to naturally occurring hypoxia. “It’s been a really fun project, especially dissecting stomachs and trying to identify the contents,” she says.

Tekola is also interning with Friends of the Cedar River Watershed, a nonprofit whose work impacts her hometown. The Cedar River forms in North Bend, eventually flows through Maple Valley and out into the bottom of Lake Washington in Renton. “I sometimes help them write grants or lead restoration projects,” says Tekola, and she especially enjoys sharing how the river contributes to the larger Lake Washington watershed, and also salmon spawning and habitat. “It’s my connection to the community.”

Sarra Tekola

“If time wasn’t such a limiting factor,” says Tekola, “I’d be involved in more stuff!”

For another project she’s spearheading close to home, Tekola recently scored a prestigious scholarship to help complete her research and final year at UW.

In Maple Valley, her parents live on a gravel hill in a rural area. Anytime it rains heavily, the run-off washes into a nearby salmon stream. Tekola’s plan is to create a rain garden to reduce the run-off and protect the stream, and in her spare moments she’s already started monitoring sediment and run-off in her test zone. But the project got a major boost recently when Tekola was awarded a one-year scholarship from the United Negro College Fund and the Merck Company Foundation for the 2013-14 academic year.

The 2013 UNCF-Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship Award will provide Tekola up to $30,000 in funding to cover her independent research expenses, a summer internship and tuition for her senior year. It’s big honor—one of only 15 nationally!—and helps ensure that Tekola can keep pursuing her many ideas and inspirations.

About the only thing slowing her down, in fact, is the turn of a minute hand.

“If time wasn’t such a limiting factor,” she says, “I’d be involved in more stuff!”

Photos of Sarra Tekola © Sarra Tekola; photo of elk kill site © Professor Aaron Wirsing/SEFS.