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.

Pileated Woodpeckers in Suburban Seattle?

This Friday, October 18, the Olympic Natural Resources Center (ONRC) in Forks, Wash., will be hosting the second presentation as part of its new monthly speaker series, “Evening Talks at ONRC.”

Jorge Tomasevic

Jorge Tomasevic

Each month, a graduate student or other regional expert will give a public talk to engage members of the Forks and surrounding communities in exciting research projects throughout the state. SEFS graduate student Laurel Peelle kicked off the speaker series on Saturday, September 21, to great success—and an enthusiastic round of questions afterward!

This next event, which will begin at the ONRC campus at 7 p.m., features Jorge Tomasevic for his talk, “A New Neighbor on the Block: Pileated Woodpeckers in Seattle’s Suburban Areas.”

Part of the Wildlife Science Group at SEFS—and currently working toward his Ph.D.—Tomasevic originally came to the United States as a Fulbright Fellow from Chile. From the cold forests of Patagonia to the arid desert of Atacama, from the native forests and struggling exotic pine plantations to the heights of an island in the Pacific Ocean or up high in the Andes, Tomasevic has participated in several research projects dealing with the ecology and conservation of forest birds and endangered species in Chile—and now in the Pacific Northwest.

“Most of us think of the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) as a mature or even old-growth forest species, right?” says Tomasevic. “That’s why we use them as indicators of forest health. However, they are also using suburban areas in the Greater Seattle region. Why is this? How are they doing? Are they successful, or it is just the remains of a past population that are using what is left of the forest not taken over by housing development?”

Come out this Friday to learn more about what this woodpecker is doing in such an unusual environment!

“Evening Talks at ONRC” is open to the public and is supported by the Rosmond Forestry Education Fund endowment. For more information about the program, contact Ellen Matheny at ematheny@uw.edu or 360.374.4556.

About the Speaker Series
In addition to bringing speakers and interesting research out to ONRC, the speaker series also provides a great opportunity for graduate students to gain experience presenting their research to the public, and to a generally non-scientific audience. For participating speakers, ONRC will cover travel expenses and provide lodging for the night, as well as a stipend of $200. The specific days of the events are flexible, and there will be openings coming up for January, March and May. If you are interested in giving a talk or know someone who would be a great fit for this series, please contact Karl Wirsing!

Photo © Ross Furbush.

Laurel Peelle to Kick off New Speaker Series at ONRC

This Saturday, September 21, the Olympic Natural Resources Center (ONRC) in Forks, Wash., is organizing a community potluck and evening program, which will highlight the research of Laurel Peelle, a graduate student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS).

Laurel Peelle

Laurel Peelle and a captured lynx.

The program is the first in a new speaker series out at the ONRC campus. Each month, the plan is to have a graduate student or other regional expert give a public talk to engage members of the Forks and surrounding communities in exciting research projects throughout the state.

For this initial lecture, the Friends of ONRC group will be meeting before the program at 5:30 for a potluck dinner (ONRC will be grilling up barbecued ribs and providing potato salad, and attendees are encouraged to bring a side dish or dessert to share). Then, at 6:30 p.m., Peelle will give a talk about her ongoing research into the predation patterns on snowshoe hares by the endangered Canada lynx and other predators of Washington’s boreal forests.

Working with Professor Aaron Wirsing in the Predator Ecology Lab at SEFS, Peelle recently completed field work that included three years of snowshoe hare live-trapping, deploying radio collars on hares, monitoring survival, documenting predation events, measuring habitat features at kill sites, and attempting to identify the responsible predator species at each kill site using physical evidence, tracks and modern forensics. She hopes her research will help identify the features of successful lynx foraging habitat in comparison to the surrounding landscape, as well as in comparison to “kill sites” attributable to other predators (e.g., coyote, bobcat, pine marten and raptor).

If you happen to be in the area on Saturday, feel free to hop in and catch Peelle’s talk, which is open to the public!

For more information about the potluck and program, contact Ellen Matheny at ematheny@uw.edu or 360.374.4556.

About the Speaker Series
In addition to bringing speakers and interesting research out to ONRC, the series provides a great opportunity for graduate students to gain experience presenting their research to the public, and to a generally non-scientific audience. For participating speakers, ONRC will cover travel expenses and provide lodging for the night, as well as a stipend of $200. Future opportunities for SEFS graduate students are coming up in November, January, March and May; the day and time for each event is flexible and will depend in part on the speaker’s schedule. If you are interested in giving a talk or know someone who would be a great fit for this series, please contact Karl Wirsing!

Photos © Laurel Peelle.
Snowshoe Hare