Grad Student Spotlight: Cameron Newell

Few of our graduate students at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) arrive here by following the exact same script. After all, the very nature of pursuing scientific training—always asking questions, always refining methods and ideas—tends to favor detours over simple, direct routes.

That’s why many of our students make their way here more like a pinball than an arrow; not out of aimlessness or lack of dedication, by any means, but by seeking diverse experiences and allowing those to shape and guide them. These students come with an appreciation that some of the most exciting discoveries and decisions can happen on the go, firsthand and unplanned, and that being open to the world is often the best way to find your place in it. In many ways, that’s how Cameron Newell found his way to the Master of Environmental Horticulture program at SEFS a year ago.

Cameron Newell

Newell on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos.

Newell grew up about an hour northwest of Melbourne, Australia. After earning a bachelor of science with majors in botany and zoology at Monash University in Melbourne, he spent a few years exploring an assortment of jobs, from driving seeding drills and rouseabouting on farms in the west, to working for the Victorian state government one summer as a firefighter. “It was the wettest summer in 100 years,” he says, “so I ended up filling sandbags more than putting out fires. It was a good thing, I guess, but you don’t make as much money that way.”

For one 18-month stretch, Newell hooked up with a filmmaker who was looking for a camera assistant on a documentary. The project involved capturing a year in the life of crocodiles, following them from babies and nesting mothers on through to mating. Newell didn’t have any experience as a cameraman, but before he knew it he was spending weeks in the field filming up around Darwin and other remote reaches of the country. “It was kind of scary most of the time,” he says, “sitting in a little flat-bottom boat filming crocodiles.”

At the end of that string of jobs, Newell set off with his brother on a seven-month backpacking adventure through South America. They flew into Santiago, Chile, and then trekked through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador before spending a short time in Colombia. Near the tail end of the journey, while still in Ecuador, Newell met Susan North—his “soul mate, an amazing woman from San Diego,” he says. “My plans changed a bit from there.”

So after their last stop in Colombia, the brothers headed their separate ways, with Newell traveling up to the United States with Susie. From there, they would spend the next two and a half years dating long distance while Newell worked on several other documentaries—including films about kangaroos, flying foxes and red crabs—and applied for a green card to live in the country. When he was finally able to join Susie in San Diego full-time, he spent about two and a half years working in environmental consulting.


Newell, left, working on the documentary about crocodiles he helped film in Australia.

During that time, he’d been thinking about ways to get more engaged with environmental restoration and sustainable farming. “My parents had a nursery growing up,” he says, “so I was always growing plants. I had my own little side business doing small-scale stuff on farms, putting in windbreaks, things like that. But sustainable agriculture has become a bigger interest of mine through time and jobs, and I wanted to work out a way to pair agriculture and restoration.”

He started digging into potential graduate programs that would give him the flexibility and hands-on field application he wanted. That’s what attracted him to the Master of Environmental Horticulture degree program with SEFS, where he’s now working with Professors Kern Ewing and Jim Fridley. His research focuses on habitat restoration for pollinators in small agricultural areas in Seattle and surrounding communities, including Duvall and Carnation. “Pollination is a big thing at the moment with the collapse of the honey bee populations,” he says. “There’s going to be an increased need for native pollinators.”

Newell has just completed his first year here, and this summer he’s carrying out some pollinator surveys in a few local towns to determine which pollinators are around and active. He’s also gotten involved with the local project tracking the reemergence of Western Bumble Bees in the Seattle area, so he’ll be out chasing bees from time to time.

He has about a year left in his program, and after that Newell says he’d eventually like to work in Africa or somewhere else in the developing world. What happens in the meantime, of course, is all part of the adventure—and could end up leading him in another direction entirely!

All photos © Cameron Newell.

Traveling is still very much in Newell’s blood. In fact, he just got back from 10 days in Canada with his father. “My old man came out,” he says, “and we rented an RV in Vancouver and drove up to Banff and Jasper.”

Professor Bob Edmonds: A World Apart

“Never a dull day, never boring,” says Bob Edmonds—that’s the life of a professor.

That certainly seems true of Edmonds’ career, which has spanned an incredible spectrum of fields within the forestry community. In 37 years of teaching and research, his studies have covered everything from forest pathology and aerobiology to soil ecology and microbiology. He’s delved into water and watersheds, including a long-term project investigating the effects of air pollution and acid rain on forests and aquatic ecosystems on the Olympic Peninsula. He’s also explored the influence of biosolids on forest soils, as well as the ecology and management of root diseases.

Bob EdmondsThrough all of his interests and inquiries, he says, runs a passion for forest health, and trying to understand and manage healthy forest ecosystems. “What am I?” he asks with a wistful smile. “I’d probably say I’m an ecosystem ecologist.”

Edmonds, professor emeritus with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), began his academic work the early 1960s. He grew up in Australia and earned a B.S. in Forestry from the University of Sydney in 1964. Two years later he moved to Seattle and enrolled at the University of Washington to study forest pathology. He earned his master’s in 1968, and then his Ph.D. in 1971. Initially, he figured he’d return to Australia afterwards, but when he met his future wife—who was from Juneau, Alaska, and also in school in Seattle—he decided to stick around.

A postdoctoral position at the University of Michigan soon had Edmonds studying aerobiology with the US/IBP (International Biological Program Aerobiology Program. “It was pretty interesting work,” he says, “because it involved a lot of international travel, lots of meetings, going to Washington, D.C., and serving on national committees.”

When the Michigan program ended three years later, he managed to secure a staff position back at the University of Washington, and then shortly after he became a member of the research faculty and associate director of the US/IBP Coniferous Forest Biome Program.

Some of that early biome research contributed greatly to the global understanding of how ecosystems function, and the importance of old-growth forests. Many of the practices they came up with—involving the management of wildlife and other elements of the forest ecosystem—are still respected standards today. “You can’t predict where you’re going with life, but it was very interesting to be involved in big science at the time.”

One of his first research projects at the College of Forest Resources in the 1970s involved some dirty work with soil science with fellow faculty member Professor Dale Cole: an experiment to figure out whether the city’s treated sewage sludge—now called biosolids—could be repurposed as fertilizer to improve forest soils. Using several stands in Pack Forest as test grounds, Edmonds and colleagues discovered that the sludge, which had a consistency like “chocolate cake mix,” worked marvelously with some plants and trees but was disastrous for others, like hemlock. (“Douglas-fir responds like crazy,” he says. The evidence is still on display at the front desk of Anderson 107, where you’ll find a cross-section of a young tree with rings that explode with growth after the introduction of sludge.)

Bob EdmondsAfter a few missteps, including an occasional mini-mudslide of sewage, their work led to the design of an ecologically safe, sustainable program for the disposal of large quantities of biosolids. “It was an example of how the work we do here [at SEFS] is used around the world. We were the first to use these biosolids in a forest environment. It was successful, and many of the people who run the program in Seattle today are grads from our program—and they’re still putting it in forests today.”

During his long career at the University of Washington, Edmonds says he had the privilege of working with 48 graduate students and teaching hundreds of others in his many courses. He is now officially retired, and while he doesn’t necessarily miss the big classes he taught (survey courses like “Forest and Society”), he absolutely loved the smaller groups. “The nicest classes to teach have about 20 students with a lab, and everyone wants to be there. They hang on every word you say, and then you have field trips where you can go show them what they’ve been learning in class. That’s really satisfying teaching.”

One of his regular field excursions involved a trip to the east side of the Cascades to examine forest health issues. “We’d explore stressed forests that had damage from insects, fire and disease,” he says. “You could actually show students what was happening on the ground.”

Another favorite trip, he recalls, was a tour along the Interstate 90 corridor. On a Saturday, he and his students would make seven stops to mark changes in the different forest ecosystems as they traveled east through urban, suburban and forest environments. “It was usually a big hit.”

Next up for Edmonds? He’s planning to tackle a new history of SEFS. He’ll draw from The Long Road Traveled, written by Henry Schmitz in 1973, yet Edmonds wants to expand the narrative to include more personal stories and anecdotes from the many talented people who’ve passed through the college and school since its founding in 1907.

“Things have changed over time,” says Edmonds, “but this place has had a very big influence on what’s going in forestry throughout the world.”

*If you want to see Edmonds in action, he’s giving a lecture tomorrow, January 15, as part of the Water Seminar series. His talk, “The Role of Trees in Modifying Water Chemistry,” starts at 8:30 a.m. in Anderson 223. It’s open to the public, no registration necessary, so come check it out!

Photos courtesy of Bob Edmonds.