What makes an ecologist? That question may sound simple enough, but the answers can be surprisingly complex and fraught with misconceptions. Kay Garlick-Ott, an ecology Ph.D. student at University of California, Davis, and former research supervisor at the Seabird Institute, wrestled with disillusionment early in her career. That experience shaped how she approaches the field now that she spends a lot of time teaching undergraduate students.
Garlick-Ott always had an interest in environmental work. But when she got to university, she quickly soured on the field because most of her classes prioritized textbooks over experiential learning. Once she was able to take advantage of the school’s field station in Costa Rica, though, the pieces starting coming together.
“I think being in this abundance of nature, which of course you can find in cities in a different way, but being so close to old growth forests generated a different feeling,” Garlick-Ott said. “Not only is your brain stimulated, but also every single one of your senses, and I feel it made me realize what I was missing when I was just in the classroom. It really brightened everything for me.”
But it was a conversation with one of her professors at Pomona College that really set the ball rolling. “My professor told me that field jobs were a thing and that you could spend years jumping between field jobs, which was wild to me,” says Garlick-Ott. “That professor had a connection with Audubon and Project Puffin, and recommended me for the program.”
Garlick-Ott's first year as a research assistant was spent off the coast of Maine at Eastern Egg Rock, one of the largest colonies of breeding Atlantic Puffins off North America’s coast. For her second year, she moved on to Matinicus Rock, another island known for its colonies of breeding birds like Manx Shearwaters, and the most remote of the seven field stations in the Seabird Institute’s program. In those two years she helped monitor nests and collect data on the reproductive success of seabirds including Atlantic Puffins, Black Guillemots, and Roseate Terns.
After two years of hands-on fieldwork, Garlick-Ott said she felt ‘antsy’ and wanted to explore supervising many different research projects. The following year she was back at Eastern Egg Rock as the research supervisor, where she managed a small crew working to support several ongoing seabird projects. She and her team focused on training research assistants, helped with conducting data collection, and ensured that everyone was working in a safe environment for both people and the birds.
“It was harder than I had thought,” says Garlick-Ott of the fieldwork experience. “The research aspect made sense to me. [But] I was juggling five or six different projects, measuring the growth and reproductive growth of chicks, and the reproductive success of the adults that raised them. And then there were other things like conducting an island-wide bird census. It was like an ongoing sort of circus in your brain.”
As wild and busy as fieldwork was, the hardest part for Garlick-Ott was getting used to being with the same people, 24/7, for weeks on end. She says that, in her case, she was on the island with two or three other people all the time, which forced her to work on something they don’t teach at university: her people skills. As supervisor, she’d have to deal with workplace issues—but she’d also have to deal with personal ones.
Those experiences—as well as the ones she had as a young student just starting in ecology and feeling like maybe it wasn’t for her—have shaped how she approaches her work today. As part of her graduate program, Garlick-Ott works as a teaching assistant at UC Davis, helping teach laboratory sections for the ‘Intro to Ecology’ class. In those labs, she sees the same passion from when she first started out as a student, and still currently has. But she also knows that the labs are nothing like what it’s really like to work in the field, and she wants to make sure that even the frustrated and disillusioned students know that there’s more to ecology than just spreadsheets, and that one doesn't need to have been enmeshed in the outside world since their teens to be engaged with it as an adult.
“I am passionate about challenging the narrative that you have to have had a transformational nature experience when you were young in order to be an ecologist," says Garlick-Ott. "This is a classic narrative that, while it rings true for many people, can also be harmful and exclusionary. Engagement with nature can happen at any stage in the learning process and through lots of different media and environments.”