“Ecology is so much harder than engineering, despite what the majority of the population might think,” says Christina Galitsky, who recently earned a Master of Science from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). She would know: After nearly a decade as an engineer, Galitsky moved to Seattle in 2009 to begin graduate study in wildlife ecology—trading factories for field work, and lab goggles for binoculars.
What prompted this turnabout was many years in the making, and it started with a simple desire to feel more energized by her work.
Originally from Allentown, Pa., Galitsky moved to California in 1996 to attend graduate school at Berkeley. She had always excelled at math and science and felt it was a natural fit to study chemical engineering. After school, she spent the next nine years as a full-time engineer, first with an environmental consulting firm in Oakland and then with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Her work involved solving basic engineering problems for some of the poorest people in the world. No question, she says, the projects were immensely important and rewarding. Yet she got to a point where she’d be in a meeting and watch her colleagues be giddy and raving about a tiny engineering tweak, like getting a minute increase in efficiency, and she realized she wanted to share that same pulse of excitement with her job someday—and it wasn’t going to happen as an engineer.
Galitsky decided to take some time off work to figure out her next move. She spent a summer interning with the U.S. Geological Survey on the Olympic Peninsula and researched graduate programs and professors studying wildlife biology, conservation and related areas.
She soon discovered SEFS and was particularly attracted to the work Professor Josh Lawler was doing with climate change and landscape ecology. She wanted to be involved in research that would directly influence policy or on-the-ground management, and when she met Lawler and visited campus, she felt a strong connection. “At first it was his research, and then our conversations,” she says. “I really liked his lab and the way he has his students weigh in on potential next students, which I think is really unique and special. Josh was clearly passionate about what he does and wanted to make a difference in the world. I liked all of those things about him.”
After so many years in the workforce, Galitsky wasn’t eager to take out new student loans and debt, so she was relieved to find that Lawler had funding for another Master’s student. Plus, he was open to her doing field work, which became the heart of her graduate program.
For her thesis, “Effects of Local Vegetation and Landscape Patterns on Avian Biodiversity in the Threatened Oak Habitat of the Willamette Valley, Ore.,” she spent several field seasons meticulously documenting birds, learning to recognize species by sight and sound, patiently listening and watching for long hours.
“I found field work really hard, frustrating and amazing, all at the same time, every day,” she says. “Getting to see the sunrise every day and hear the birds in the morning was great. But having to get up at 3 a.m., not so good.”
The stress of field work, too, was different from her previous office deadlines. If things don’t go right in a field season—if your research doesn’t come together, or you need to adjust your methods—you’re in school for another year. “There’s more urgency to figure out how to make it right,” she says.
Galitsky persevered, of course, and she credits her committee, which included SEFS Professors John Marzluff and Aaron Wirsing, for their critiques and encouragement in building her confidence as a researcher. Above all, she’s grateful for Lawler’s support as her advisor. “Working with Josh was the highlight for me,” she says. “He just blew me away with how understanding, helpful and encouraging he was. He always seemed to have time for me, and he really helped me through grad school, probably more than he knows.”
Now, her transition from engineer to ecologist is complete: As of May 1, 2013, Galitsky is the program coordinator for Tree Kangaroo Conservation at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.
Not quite two months into her new gig, she says she feels privileged to have found a home at the intersection of so many of her interests. “The tree kangaroo program has both a wildlife and a people component, which was exactly what I wanted,” she says. “I think that’s why this project hits home to me. It’s been really fun working in a place where everyone has the same passions about animals and conservation.”
Tree kangaroos are found only in one small region of Papua New Guinea, and Galitsky hopes she’ll get a chance to travel there in the next year or two with her boss, Dr. Lisa Dabek. Her current position, though, is not as a field research biologist, and she’s been focusing on fundraising, program management and outreach. “I’m probably most excited about the outreach,” she says. “We scientists aren’t always the best communicators, and I enjoy the challenge of being the link between scientific research and the public.”
As she settles into her new role, Galitsky has no regrets about her past career. Her new work, she says, isn’t more worthwhile; it’s just more her. Unlike her years spent in cement plants or steel factories, where she felt invested if not inspired, these days she finally has her passions and profession in tune. How can she tell? This time, the line between work and play is awfully fuzzy.
“I still love going out and watching birds and trying to identify them, probably to the dismay of my boyfriend and everyone around me,” says Galitsky. “I can’t shut it off!”
Photos of Christina Galitsky © Matt Gerhart; photo of tree kangaroo © Bruce Beehler.