Alumni Spotlight: Melody Mobley

A few months ago, we reconnected with Melody S. Mobley, who graduated from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) in 1979. Mobley was the first black American woman to earn a bachelor’s in forest management from the University of Washington, and though the landscape has improved markedly since she graduated, the importance of diversity in natural resource fields has never been greater.

Fifty-two percent of students at SEFS are now women, and almost 30 percent represent minority populations, including Asian and Native, among others. Yet there are still many underrepresented groups, and Mobley believes the stakes are too high to leave anybody out of the decision-making process.

Melody Mobley and her rescue pooch, Raina Elise, at Great Falls Park in Virginia.

Melody Mobley and her rescue puppy, Raina Elise, at Great Falls Park in Virginia. Mobley is part Cherokee Indian, and her middle name, Starya, is derived from Cherokee words that mean “stay strong.”

For her, the value of diversity isn’t about checking boxes or political correctness. Diversity is about being inclusive of different ethnicities, ages, regions, cultures, beliefs and ideas, and bringing all those variables into the discussion. It’s about mining every mind for potential solutions to achieve a sustainable balance with a changing climate and world. “It’s so important everybody contributes their voice, their brains, their perspective to formulating alternatives to managing the natural resources on our planet,” she says. “They have to. That’s the only way we’ll formulate the best plan.”

There’s also tremendous career opportunity in these fields. Starting as an undergrad in Seattle, Mobley worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 28 years. Her assignments took her from Skykomish, Wash., to California, Florida, Nevada and Washington, D.C., Intergovernmental Personnel Act assignments in Africa and South America, the Smithsonian National Zoo and the World Wildlife Fund, and exposed her to countless experiences and a life of constant learning. “There’s really something for everyone in natural resource management,” she says. “Attorneys, teachers, accountants, foresters, range managers, fire managers, hydrologists, soil scientists. You can find your niche.”

So while Mobley retired in 2005 and now lives in Arlington, Va., she has no desire to disengage. In fact, she’ll be giving the keynote address for the SEFS commencement ceremony on Friday, June 12. With incredible positivity and sense of purpose, she wants to share her story to help others achieve what she was able to achieve, and more. She wants to remove some of the barriers that made her own education and career more challenging, and to grow the diversity of people and ideas in the environmental community. “I wanted to just be myself and still be accepted and allowed to succeed,” she says. “I know we are strongest and bring the most to the table when we can be ourselves.”

Southern (Up)Roots
“My mother wanted to make sure we had the strongest educational foundation possible, and that we weren’t bored,” says Mobley, who grew up Louisville, Ky., in the 1960s and ‘70s. Her mom enrolled her in a predominantly white middle and high school, and Mobley—who is also part Cherokee Indian—excelled in her studies at an early age. She progressed so quickly that her mom pushed her to skip a couple grades, and she still ended up graduating third in her class of more than 500 students.

Before she finished high school, though, she had learned her mother was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. “I was crazy with grief and needed a diversion,” she says.

Mobley waiting for a bus outside of Terry Hall (in the background), her first dorm at the University of Washington. Terry Hall housed students from 1953 to 2013, and a brand-new residence hall bearing the same name is set to open this year.

Mobley waiting for a bus outside of Terry Hall, her first dorm at the University of Washington. Terry Hall housed students from 1953 to 2013, and a brand-new residence hall bearing the same name is set to open this year.

While she had initially planned to attend the University of Louisville, Mobley channeled her sadness into a more ambitious and far-flung dream. She had fallen in love with the films and martial arts of Bruce Lee, who had passed away before Mobley saw his first movie. Yet she located a martial arts instructor who had supposedly studied with Lee. With the hope of training under this instructor, she made the bold move to head west and enroll at the University of Washington.

Her quest to learn from a Bruce Lee disciple didn’t last long. “He was such a pompous buffoon and a braggart,” says Mobley, “and I knew more about Bruce Lee than he did just from my reading.”

She gave up on him after one class, but there she was, alone, across the country from her family. And since she had jumped ahead in high school, Mobley felt much younger than her fellow students, and generally out of place. “I was 16, just turned 17 when I graduated from high school,” she says, “and I felt too young, too black, too Southern, too everything.”

As she tried to find her footing, Mobley ended up gravitating toward a long-time love of animals and the outdoors. “My mom got me interested in nature,” she says. “She would always take us out for rides in the country instead of being in the city so much.”

Mobley wasn’t sure how to direct that interest until she discovered the College of Forest Resources. She’d been waffling between majors from zoology to wildlife biology, but financial concerns from home—where her mother and grandmother were struggling with cancer—convinced her to be as practical as possible. A degree in forest management, she decided, would keep her active and connected to the outdoors, and also give her a strong opportunity to find permanent employment.

Even with her studies decided, Mobley still felt stranded and lonely as an undergrad. “I’m 57 years old and have never gotten married,” she says. “When you’re 17, 18, 19 years old, you would like to have a date every once in a while, but no one wanted to date me, and that was hard.”

Mobley modeling her uniform while for her first position with the Forest Service. This photo was part of a series taken for a promotional brochure.

Mobley modeling her uniform from her first position with the Forest Service. This photo was part of a series taken for a promotional brochure.

She survived through invaluable friendships with several faculty members. One of the first to help her settle into the city was Professor Stewart Pickford, who had earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from SEFS—the latter in 1972—before joining the faculty. She found a friend and mentor in Professor Emerita Linda Brubaker, and Mobley especially enjoyed working with Professor Kristiina Vogt, with whom she remains good friends. “My family when I was up there was Kristiina,” she says. “I worked in her lab for a few years, and she was with me on my 21st birthday. I even got flowers from her on my last birthday. I love her with all my heart.”

Mobley credits those three professors with guiding and motivating her through school. “I would never have succeeded, or been able to graduate, without Stewart and Kristiina and Linda,” she says. “They were instrumental to my success. I’m so grateful to them.”

Forestry Futures
In addition to helping Mobley feel more at home at college, Professor Pickford introduced her to his friends Diane and Al Becker, who immediately took an interest in helping her career. One night they took her to a Society of American Foresters meeting, where she made a connection with Lyle Laverty, who was a district ranger in Skykomish at the time. That night, Laverty decided he was going to recruit her into the Forest Service, he later told Mobley.

“Until I moved to Seattle, I had not even heard of the Forest Service,” says Mobley, “and I had never intended to be a forester.” Yet soon she had a job offer to join the agency in 1977, and she would end up working there for nearly three decades.

Armed with a machine gun, Mobley tracks down illegally grown marijuana—which you can see behind her—in Nevada’s Toiyable National Forest.

Armed with semiautomatic rifle, Mobley tracks down illegally grown marijuana—which you can see behind her—in Nevada’s Toiyable National Forest.

She spent her first five years in Skykomish, including the first two while still finishing up school. Those were tough years, she says, juggling her work and studies, bouncing between the extremes of a big city and a tiny community—all with no car or easy way to get around on her own. After Skykomish, though, Mobley began exploring the country through a variety of posts, from a public affairs position in San Diego with the Cleveland National Forest; to a temporary assignment as an assistant district ranger with the Klamath National Forest in northern California; to a stop with Florida’s Ocala National Forest; and then to the national headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Along the way, she spent time as a trainer, doing public speaking, working on program and performance reviews, and representing the Forest Service at a number of events. She was promoted multiple times, and during one stint in Nevada’s Toiyabe National Forest she even had the memorable opportunity to participate in helicopter marijuana raids. (Mobley was part of a team assigned to find remote, hidden sites where people were illegally growing pot on national forest lands. “Oh, they were fun,” she says, “and I got to carry a semiautomatic rifle—I couldn’t believe it.”)

Race and Role Models
Throughout her education and career, and nearly everywhere she moved or traveled, Mobley felt the weight of her identity, and how often she stuck out from her peers and surroundings. She remembers when she arrived in Skykomish for that first job with the Forest Service, and being told she was probably the only black person within 70 miles. Or several years later, when she attended a reforestation workshop in Darrington, Wash., and was informed she was probably the first black person ever to spend the night there.

Mobley with F. Dale Robertson, chief of the Forest Service from 1987 to 1993

Mobley with F. Dale Robertson, chief of the Forest Service from 1987 to 1993

Those memories are hard to shake, she says. They make you acutely aware of your skin color, and what it feels like to be singled out and in the overwhelming minority. As a result, she felt a constant pressure to push herself to succeed, and to give no one an excuse to doubt or deter her. “I moved nine times in 11 years, because I wanted to learn a lot,” says Mobley. “I didn’t want anybody to honestly be able to say I got promoted because I was a black female. I got promoted because I knew my science.”

Now, she wants to encourage and inspire more women and diverse students to pursue careers like hers. One of the biggest hurdles to expanding diversity, after all, is drawing students into a field where they might not have recognizable role models. Mobley wants to make it easier for them, to give them confidence and let them know there’s a place in natural resource fields for everyone—and for everyone to make a real impact. “I didn’t have a lot of black people or people of color who helped me, because there weren’t many black people or people of color in a position to help me,” she says. “My goal is to make a difference so there are 1,000 Melodys.”

Photos © Melody Mobley.

Melody Mobley

“Don’t ever try to get by on being a unique gender, race or ethnicity,” says Mobley. “Have the strongest work ethic, and be the best student you can possibly be.”

 

Alumni (and Staff) Spotlight: Wendy Gibble

While volunteering with the Falcon Research Group in the San Juan Islands a number of years ago, Wendy Gibble remembers repelling down a cliff to reach a peregrine falcon nest. She’d been taking part in a raptor study for several years, and her job was to put bands on the young birds. With each subsequent season visiting a nest, Gibble says the adult falcons grew less tolerant of the intruders—and also far less timid. At first, they would swoop nervously yet stay about 10 feet above the researchers’ heads. After a few years, though, some of them would actually make contact. “You’re hanging on a rope, banding a young falcon, and all the sudden you get this “thwack” on your helmet,” she says.

Wendy Gibble

Before returning to graduate school after 13 years in environmental consulting, Gibble volunteered on a wide range of conservation projects, including several raptor studies.

Armored with that helmet and a sturdy jacket, Gibble didn’t feel in danger, and in fact she loved the excitement of working hands-on with wildlife research and conservation. So much that she regularly sought out similar volunteer projects with several organizations, including Hawkwatch International, and ended up participating in raptor studies at far-flung sites around the world, from Cape May, N.J., to Chile and the Falkland Islands.

She managed all of that, incredibly, on top of her full-time career as an engineer. But her side passions were increasingly elbowing for more room and attention.

Gibble had grown up in Chatham Township, N.J., about 30 miles west of Manhattan, and later studied civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University in New York. She briefly returned to New Jersey after graduation before heeding the call of the Pacific Northwest and its many natural offerings.

“I came for the mountains,” she says, and ended up working in environmental consulting for 13 years, splitting time between a couple firms, including Herrera Environmental Consultants. Some of her work involved construction management for water resource projects, such as drinking water supplies, fish rearing and passage projects. Gibble did some flood modeling and work on landfills, as well as projects on the Columbia and Snake river systems designing hatcheries and fish screens (to prevent fish from getting sucked out with irrigation withdrawal). She also spent time designing water treatment plants, pipeline transmissions, pump stations and other infrastructure related to our drinking water system.

Through she generally enjoyed all of those projects, Gibble felt a growing desire to spend her days working more directly with habitat management and conservation. She’d experienced that world firsthand through her volunteering, but only for a few weeks a year. The tease was too much to keep ignoring.

Wendy Gibble

Getting to do field research across the state, including recently in the Wenatchee Mountains (above), is one of Gibble’s favorite parts of her job with Rare Care.

“I had that moment of, ‘What am I doing?’” she says. “I was running into people all over South America who were doing really cool research projects and wildlife studies, and I just thought it was time for a career change.”

Since she didn’t want to leave the West Coast, Gibble started researching potential graduate programs in California and Washington. She says she had a really good feeling about coming to the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) and ended up pursuing a master’s with Professor Kristiina Vogt as her advisor. Within her overall emphasis on plant ecology, Gibble studied plant invasion in the Puget Sound prairies for her thesis (her other committee members included Professors Charles Halpern and Peter Dunwiddie). She got to be in the field. She got to organize her own research program. She’d found a shared outlet for her personal and professional aptitudes.

As it happened, a few months before Gibble had even earned her M.S. in March 2006, the program manager position opened up with the Washington Rare Plant Care and Conservation Program, or Rare Care, with the UW Botanic Gardens. Gibble had taken a seminar with Professor Sarah Reichard, the director of UWBG, and knew a little bit about the Rare Care program. The timing was hard to beat, and Gibble knew positions like this one didn’t pop up every day in this field, so she jumped at the opportunity and started working while she wrapped up her thesis.

The Rare Care program, housed at the Center for Urban Horticulture, is dedicated to conserving Washington’s rare native plants. It has four main areas of emphasis: researching rare native plants and engaging graduate students in those studies; organizing statewide citizen science monitoring of rare plants (including more than 200 volunteers who do around 5,000 hours of work each year); managing the Miller Seed Vault, a seed banking effort that preserves the seeds of rare plant species; and conducting other outreach projects.

Wendy Gibble

Gibble, center, at the 2014 SEFS Alumni Spring Gathering, held April 27 at the Center for Urban Horticulture.

A big part of what Gibble loves about her role as program manager is that she gets to have a hand in all of these activities, and a couple years ago she took on the additional responsibility of managing the education programs and a seven-person staff. She especially enjoys working closely with students, and getting to spend a lot of time traveling to field sites around the state. “I really like going new places,” she says, “and that’s one of the things I really love about my job. I’ve gone to places I probably never would have seen.”

Some of those excursions include gathering collections for the seed vault, or leading a range of research and monitoring projects. Gibble recently spent a week in the Lake Quinault area working with the Forest Service to map populations of the rare Quinault fawn lily. She’s also been collecting seeds with the Bureau of Land Management out in Washington’s shrub steppe regions, and monitoring Whited milk-vetch south of Wenatchee. “It’s all very cool,” she says.

Of course, even the most satisfying work week still leaves plenty of spare hours, and Gibble isn’t one to wear out a couch. “If I’m in the wilderness, I’m a happy person,” she says, and that means hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, bird watching, gardening, skiing, canoeing, kayaking, you name it—including rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Wendy Gibble

Gibble on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.

Two summers ago, she added salmon fishing. Gibble and some friends chartered a boat on the west side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where she hooked her first Chinook salmon. She doesn’t remember how long she fought the 28-pounder—it was a bit of blur—but she definitely recalls the thrill of the catch, and then the four or so months it took to work her way through all the meat. “It was a ton of fun,” she says.

Not to limit herself to terrestrial and marine adventures, Gibble used to have a pilot’s license, as well. “It was a bucket list kind of thing,” she says, and she flew herself to a number of local destinations, including to Portland, Ore., and out to the San Juan Islands. Yet since flying requires a lot of time and money to stay current and safe, Gibble didn’t keep her license up to date. Plus, as fun as it was to cruise through the sky, she says most of her outdoor passions involve closer contact to nature. “In the end,” she says, “I just want to be on the ground.”

For all the ground she’s covered so far—New Jersey to Washington, Cape May to Chile, engineering to ecology, and countless trips along the way—Gibble knows there’s plenty yet for her to do and explore in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. Best of all, she no longer has to wait for vacations and volunteer projects to get there. With Rare Care and the broader SEFS community, she gets to travel regularly and work at the leading edge of environmental research and education every day.

And that, says Gibble, is a rare find indeed.

Photos © Wendy Gibble.

Wendy Gibble

Thesis Defense: Lauren Grand!

Lauren Grand

One of the red-legged frogs Grand found in the field.

This coming Tuesday, May 28, fresh off the holiday weekend, you should leap at the chance to hear Lauren Grand give the public defense of her Master’s Thesis, “Identification of Habitat Controls on Amphibian Populations: The Northern Red-Legged Frog in the Pacific Northwest.”

Join Grand, her committee chair Kristiina Vogt, and committee members Daniel Vogt and Marc Hayes to discuss Rana auroa‘s population controls and habitat needs in an urbanizing landscape.

Her talk begins at 8:30 a.m. in Anderson 22. Refreshments will be served, so come with a hungry tummy!

Photo © Lauren Grand.