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: Julie Hower

Julie Hower, a senior Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM) major, split her childhood between the two coasts: first out west in the Los Angeles area, and then back east near Tampa, Fla., for her high school years. By the time she started looking at colleges, though, she felt the call of the West once again.

“Because I grew up in LA,” she says, “my dad would take me to Yosemite and Sequoia, so I really missed the West Coast.”

She considered a number of schools, including a few in California, but a University of Washington campus tour in 2008 sealed it for her. “It felt like a great fit,” she says.

Julie Hower

“Each national park is different, but Yellowstone is something else,” says Hower, who has also worked on summer projects at Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks.

Hower arrived on campus originally interested in studying marine biology and fisheries, but later in her freshman year she attended a seminar with Professor Aaron Wirsing involving his research with tiger sharks and dugongs, and wolves and elk. She loved the concept of predator-prey ecology and quickly shifted her focus to the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). “I knew I wanted to be a wildlife major,” she says.

In the next few years, she took advantage of a wide range of field courses, including Spring Comes to the Cascades (ESRM 401) with Professor Tom Hinckley, and Wildlife Research Techniques (ESRM 351) with Professor Steve West. Then she took “Wildlife Conservation in Northwest Ecosystems” (ESRM 459), which begins during spring break with an intensive week in Yellowstone National Park. Led by Professors John Marzluff, Monika Moskal and Wirsing, the course focuses on a range of wildlife and management issues in the park, including corvid distribution and wolf predation.

The experience really resonated with Hower, and this past winter she signed up to take part in a long-running study of the wolves in Yellowstone as part of the Yellowstone Wolf Project.

Back in 1995 and 1996, after decades of wolves being completely absent from the ecosystem, 31 were reintroduced to the park. Since then, the Yellowstone Park Foundation has worked with the National Park Service (NPS) to research and closely monitor the wolves, including carrying out two 30-day winter surveys every year—one at the start of the season, and one at the end. Technicians receive a small stipend and free housing, and they operate as volunteers for the NPS.

Julie Hower

Hower sizes up a wolf track in Yellowstone.

This year marked the 19th winter of observations. From the beginning, one of the project leaders has been Rick McIntyre, a biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project who’s been involved with monitoring the park’s wolves since 1996. McIntyre is famous for the countless hours he’s invested in these observations, at one point logging more than 3,000 consecutive days heading out to look for wolves. The survey crews who work with him don’t quite have to match that standard, but they don’t fall too far off that pace.

Each volunteer is assigned to follow one specific pack. Hower and the other members of her crew—which included two graduate students, one from South Dakota and another from Wisconsin—were charged with tracking the seven wolves of the Junction Butte Pack.

For 30 days in March, their weekly schedule involved six days in the field and one day off. Using radio telemetry, they’d drive through their pack’s territory along the main park road and try to locate the wolves, and then hike out for a closer view when they zeroed in on the pack. Their job was to record a number of behaviors, including monitoring interactions with elk, bison and bears, as well as predator-prey encounters: the chase and the attack, noting which wolves did what, whether it was a pup that initiated or the alpha took the lead. They also performed field necropsies of prey to determine the age, sex and condition of the individual.

Julie Hower

Her crew once spotted a grizzly and a wolf in the same area, and Hower says they were jumping up and down with excitement—albeit from a safe distance.

They’d routinely put in 13-hour days, topped off by some paperwork at the end of it. “It’s not a glamorous job,” says Hower, “and the days get very long and tiring. But it’s an awesome and rewarding experience seeing these amazing animals in the wild.”

Of course, finding the wolves in the first place was no easy task. “A lot of people have this ideal that you’re going to see wolves every day,” she says. Yet you’re talking about tracking 80 or so wolves—or actually seven, in the case of this one pack—ranging through Yellowstone’s nearly 3,500 square miles.

Numbers aren’t the only challenge, either. During Hower’s first week in the park, the temperature was about -22 degrees, and the wind was howling with 50-60 mph gusts. Toting their equipment, her crew spent hours hiking to the top of a ridge in pursuit of the wolves, and they didn’t get their first glimpse until the third day. They set up their tripod and spotting scopes, hands shaking in the bitter cold, bracing against the wind and hoping they weren’t blown off the mountain—but they had finally located the pack. “It was a grand introduction,” she says.

From then on, Hower never got tired of seeing the wolves. The excitement was fresh each day, because during the undisturbed quiet of a Yellowstone winter, you never know what’s lurking around the next bend.

“On my very last day, I was getting ready to leave the park and drive back to Seattle, and I decided to reminisce with a drive out to the Lamar Valley,” she says. “Right as I made the turn out of the Tower Ranger Station, a wolf crosses in front of my car about 10 feet ahead of me.”

Julie Hower

After a winter of surveying the wolves from a distance, Hower got to see 889F saunter across the road right in front her on her last day in the park.

It was a female, 889F, that used to be part of the Junction Butte Pack but had separated in February to go with a lone male, 755M. “I was just in shock and laughing,” says Hower. “I couldn’t believe it was happening as I was ready to leave the park.”

That was a fine send-off after five incredible weeks in the park, and she’s now back on campus wrapping up her final quarter before graduation this June. Graduate school might be down the road, yet for now she wants more field experience. In fact, she just accepted a position as a Wildlife Biological Sciences Technician with Helena National Forest, where she’ll be surveying wolverines, Canada lynx and snowshoe hares. She’ll be living in Lincoln, Mont., and can’t wait to get started shortly after graduation.

Given her many field courses and hands-on research training, as well as field tech jobs and internships at Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park, Hower has put herself in an excellent position to thrive as a wildlife researcher—and she’s already well on her way!

“I’m so happy I came up here,” she says. “It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Photos © Julie Hower.

Julie Hower

Undergrad Spotlight: Haley Lane

It’s not easy to get a close-up of Haley Lane. Between her sailing and surfing and skiing, you’d wear out a good GPS unit just trying to keep up with her. True, some of her passions are more earthbound—gardening, for instance—and Lane doesn’t consider herself a thrill seeker (you won’t find skydiving on her to-do list). But whether she’s taking a year off school to live in Maui and sell shave ice and surf every day, or bobbing in the waves off Westport or Port Angeles, or knifing through the Columbia River in her sailboat, one thing is abundantly clear: Lane is rarely at rest.

Haley Lane

Lane rips along in her Tasar sailboat.

So as she approaches her final quarter at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), we thought we’d share what she’s up to before she slips away to the next adventure!

When School is In
Lane is majoring in Environmental Science and Resource Management at SEFS, and her favorite courses have involved field trips, including tree identification with Professor Emeritus Tom Hinckley. Four or five days a week this summer, as well, Lane has been squeezing in a few hours working for Professor Stanley Asah in the Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management Lab. She’s helped with a few projects, and at the moment she’s involved in assessing and social acceptability of wood-based biofuels.

She started out transcribing conversations from focus groups and working on surveys to find out what community members and family forest owners think about biofuels. Having grown up around Seattle, Lane says you can feel somewhat insulated from strongly divergent perspectives, particularly when it comes to political and social issues. The biofuels project, though, has provided an unvarnished education in the state’s regional and ideological variances. “It’s been really interesting to hear different sides to the story and really see where people are coming from,” says Lane.

Haley Lane

Unless she’s in class or in the lab, you will almost certainly find Lane, left, somewhere outdoors.

The survey work has also inspired her senior capstone project. Lane hasn’t finalized the scope of her research yet, but she definitely wants to focus on responses to the first question community members answer with each survey: What do you think about biofuels made out of wood? It’s purposefully broad and open-ended, she says, to let participants share their unfiltered thoughts and interpretations. As a result, the responses capture a wealth of information about preconceptions, emotional and economic stake, and other reactions to biofuels.

When School is Out
“I first started sailing when I was little kid on my dad’s boat, and then on my own at 10,” says Lane, who grew up on Bainbridge Island. She loves the physical and mental challenge of sailing, especially in small boats, and pushing herself in friendly competition. “Plus, it makes the beer taste better at the end!”

These days, she races a 15-foot Tasar sailboat, and starting this weekend, in fact, she and her boyfriend, Anthony Boscolo, will be competing in the 2013 Tasar World Championship. Hosted by the Columbia Gorge Racing Association, the weeklong racing competition takes place August 10-17 in the Columbia River near Cascade Locks, Ore. It will be Lane’s first time racing in this regatta, and she’s expecting about 60 boats from around the world to be there. It’s a spectacular setting, if a bit windy, and they’ll be sailing three hour-long races a day.

Haley Lane

Lane has been gardening for two years, and this year she hopes to expand into more flowers and ornamental plants.

As a final tune-up, Lane and Boscolo headed down to the Columbia Gorge this past weekend for their last regatta before the Worlds—and they won! Not all of the competitors had arrived yet, but quite a few international teams were already down and testing out the waters. “The out-of-towners will start to figure out the local conditions this week,” she says, “but it was a very satisfying win nonetheless, no matter how we place at the Worlds!”

Next Up
This fall, Lane plans to finish up her coursework and graduate. She’d like to find a job related to her major, but she admits her career future still looks pretty hazy—and isn’t likely to sharpen too much before she’s out of school. Far more tangible on her horizon, though, is a February trip to Mexico for a wedding. A friend down there has a few extra boards, she says, so she hopes to sneak in a little surfing!

Photos © Haley Lane.

Haley Lane

Lane, in sail #505, turns a corner in first place during a Tasar race in the Columbia Gorge.

 

 

Undergrad Spotlight: Tara Wilson

“It’s amazing how much you can learn from looking at poop,” says Tara Wilson, a junior at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). “It totally blew my mind. You can know everything [about the animal]—if they’re malnourished, if they’re breeding, if they’re stressed in any way, what they’re eating.”

Tara Wilson

Tara Wilson working on the Pack Forest Summer Crew in 2012.

Wilson grew up in Detroit and transferred to the University of Washington to start the Winter Quarter in January 2012. She had already earned an Associate’s Degree back home, and she moved out to Seattle with her husband, Shane Unsworth, after he found as job as a data security analyst in the city.

Her adventures in scat began soon after arriving on campus when she attended a wildlife seminar about conservation canines that are specifically trained to sniff out animal droppings. For this particular talk, the dogs were snooping for orca poo. There’s only a small window to locate such scat, apparently, as it floats to the surface briefly before sinking out of reach. So the trainers would hold the dogs at the bow of the boat to locate the floaters as quickly as possible.

“You don’t often see that in a seminar,” says Wilson. “It’s just so out-of-the-box and creative to me—really innovative.”

Inspired by the science of that seminar, Wilson soon landed a weekly lab position with Professor Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology in the UW Biology Department. She and the other volunteer technicians are working on a host of projects, from extracting hormones to analyzing dolphin and polar bear scat.

“What’s special about the lab is that we use non-invasive techniques,” she says. “You don’t have to trap or tranquilize or stress out the animal. You can just follow them around and then collect and analyze their scat.”

Tara Wilson

It didn’t take Wilson long to get into the swing of things at SEFS, and she’s already looking ahead to a graduate degree.

The material they isolate enables scientists to explore a wide range of questions, says Wilson, and there are numerous applications for the research. In one case, an oil company in Alberta, Canada, is having the lab analyze caribou scat from oil sands to make sure the oil drilling isn’t endangering the health of the caribou population.

For Wilson, her lab and course work have quickly cultivated a strong career interest in conservation work, and she’s decided to focus on the wildlife conservation option as an Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM) major. Her favorite courses so far have been a class on Pacific Northwest ecosystems with Professor Emeritus Tom Hinckley, and also “Wildlife Biology and Conservation” with Professor Emeritus Dave Manuwal. “You could just tell [Professor Manuwal] is passionate about what he does, and he’s excited to get us passionate.”

She’s been so excited about school, in fact, that Wilson says she feels “like a big dork” for all the lectures and seminars she wants to attend around campus. “I’m the first one in my family to go to college, so sometimes I feel a little embarrassed because I’m very much a kid in a candy store here!”

Hard to blame her, as the pickin’s are good at SEFS when it comes to course offerings and research opportunities. Indeed Wilson is already looking ahead to potential graduate programs at UW, and she’s keeping an open mind about where her studies might lead her. “Anything I can do to help wildlife conservation,” she says. “I’d be thrilled to be part of that community in any way.”

Photos © Tara Wilson.

Undergrad Spotlight: Megan James

Megan James, left, and other members of the student TAPPI chapter during the November 28 papermaking project.

Dating back to the 2nd century AD during China’s Han Dynasty, and possibly earlier, the ancient art of papermaking helped transform the way people kept and transferred knowledge, records and language. Gallop ahead a couple thousand years, and that proud tradition is still alive today at SEFS—though with some modern upgrades.

Every fall, using the pilot paper machine in Bloedel 014, several students in the Bioresource Science and Engineering (BSE) program roll up their sleeves to produce a few rolls of handcrafted paper. Organized by the student chapter of the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry (TAPPI), the annual papermaking fundraiser helps cover student conference fees and support other events. “It’s a social event just as much as a learning event,” says Megan James, a senior BSE major and president of the student chapter of TAPPI. They also host barbecues and bowling events, as well as a resumé café to help students fine-tune their applications.

Papermaking

Students add plumosa ferns to the slurry to create some festive accents in the paper.

James first participated in the papermaking project as a freshman. Now, her favorite part is seeing everybody get a chance to get their hands dirty in the various stages of production, from stock preparation and the pulping of materials, to the final messy day—in goggles—using the paper machine. “It’s a great opportunity for students who are leaning about these things in the classroom to see everything take place, and actually participate,” says James. “Some students have never seen the machine run before.”

The paper itself—which is 100 percent non-wood—is composed of a giant reed (arundo domax), bagasse from sugarcane, and Washington-grown wheat straw. As a holiday flourish, students also added some plumosa ferns to the slurry during production, so you’ll find some festive accents in the paper. (The reeds are native to Egypt, but in this case the materials came from Mark Lewis’ lab; he’s the faculty advisor for TAPPI.)  This year’s crop was produced on November 28 and featured several styles and weights, including card stock, regular 8.5×11-inch copy paper, and greeting cards.

Paper Roll

One of several rolls of paper the students produced.

Papermaking is only a small part of the BSE experience for a handful of students, yet this kind of hands-on training has broader applications in the field. Many BSE graduates go on to work for chemical vendors or pulp and paper companies, and since the curriculum has expanded to include biofuels, students are finding additional opportunities with research positions or graduate school. “The great thing about this major is that it prepares students with a specific skill,” says James. “We’re kind of like specialized chemical engineers, equipped to go into pulp and paper and the emerging biofuels field.”

James is a perfect example of the market value of this skillset, as her papermaking career won’t be ending with graduation. Following a successful internship with Procter & Gamble last summer, James has received a job offer to continue on full-time starting this summer. She’ll be working as a process engineer at a brand-new plant in Bear River City, Utah. The plant, located about an hour and a half north of Salt Lake City, produces toilet paper and paper towels for brands such as Charmin® and Bounty®.

Congratulations, Megan, and the rest of the papermaking crew!

Photos by Dustin Cardenas/BSE