Urban Ecology Center

This post is going to be rather different than my last with Great Basin Institute, which is admittedly a bit exciting (I think). This time, I heard from Jennifer Callaghan, who is the Coordinator of Research and Citizen Science at the Urban Ecology Center (UEC) in Milwaukee, WI.

Her responsibilities vary seasonally. April through Ocotober, Jennifer manages twenty research and monitoring projects. Outside this major chunk of time, she is in charge of workshops, creating blog articles, organizing and entering data fundraising, brainstorming revenue streams, working on advisory committees, and managing student interns. Because the UEC is a citizen-science focused organization, Jennifer also spends a good portion of her time managing volunteers.

Generally speaking, I wanted to understand Jennifer’s path that led to working with the UEC. As a result, this post might be more reflective that the last, as well as lengthy. I received whole lot of really interesting information from her. I really wish I could copy and paste it all because it’s very fun to read and she wrote it very well, but I should probably do my part and write an actual, fluid post while including a only couple quotes.

Jennifer juggled a career as a professional ballet dancer with school for 11 years, taking night, summer, and evening classes, including some gen-eds in three different states. She admits she didn’t realize it at the time, but having her early ballet career helped her build important skills she’d need in the future: work ethic, focus, drive, team work, and creativity.

At 29, she retired, but stayed involved in ballet, teaching for a decade, directing at the student ballet company, and choreographing performance repertoire. Notably, she created and led a pre-professional ballet program there. She believes staying involved in ballet also helped her along the way. Through teaching and advising, Jennifer learned “educational tricks” that helped her work better with the public, as well as volunteers and interns. Interestingly, memorizing choreography also helped her develop skills she carried over to aid her in memorizing biological jargon.

Around the time she retired, Jennifer also settled in Milwaukee and began attending school at UW-Milwaukee (UWM) full-time. Unfortunately, many of the credits she took in other states did not transfer, so schooling continued for another four years. While at UWM, Jennifer majored in Biology because it lacked a Zoology program. She also became involved in the Conservation and Environmental Science program, and decided she wanted to incorporate ecology and conservation into her hopefully animal-filled future. This led her into the exciting field of wildlife ecology!

At the same time, she worked with mentors outside the school who gave her some immensely helpful and valuable advise — to network and volunteer where she might want to work. She began volunteering at organizations working with animal husbandry and educational programs, leading her to intern at UEC where she researched small mammals at Riverside Park.

After finishing her internship at UEC, she continued participating in their other citizen science programs. She volunteered an amazing 500 hours a year while teaching ballet on evenings and weekends. She considers this volunteer experience to be an asset to her resume, especially because she doesn’t have a Master’s degree.

While she really enjoyed college, she decided to wait a year before going into graduate school. Jennifer pointed out that, while she did want to go, she didn’t want to put off working any further or it may be hard to progress in the field. She “decided to give it a year and see where [she] was at that point”.

After graduating, Jennifer took a teaching contract in Illinois. Coincidentally, after finishing the contract, she found a position for a research assistant at UEC. She, of course, loved volunteering there and applied for the position. She considers herself to be “incredibly fortunate” to have gotten the job and considers it “one of the best jobs in the world”.

As for research, she started with woodland passerines, which she has been banding for years and can identify them best by sight and song, but has diversified from there. She also studies snakes, turtles, and small mammales. She loves small mammals, partially because they are the first project she did. She finds herself especially fascinated by the often little understood and misunderstood voles and shrews.

As for the spineless bunch, Jennifer does study invertebrates, particularly favoring the dynamic and distinctive odonates, whose living members are dragonflies and damselflies. To share her passion for this group, she serves on the board of directors for the Wisconsin Dragonfly Society and promotes an education-focused agenda because she believes they can be a great tool for invertebrate education. “They are unbelievably colorful, acrobatic, and diverse. Plus, who doesn’t like a critter that consumes thousands of mosquitoes a day?!… They are [also] a little understood environmental bioindicator and tend to be a gateway to people becoming passionate about other types of invertebrates. These are the critters that get me excited about my work and make me want to stay outside in the field all day.”

I will happily agree with them being fantastic educational tools. I remember as an elementary schooler, I found a dragonfly during recess that was very grounded. My classmates and I couldn’t help but be fascinated by its massive eyes, long body, and beautiful wings before the teacher made us put it in a tree. For the record, it didn’t want to let go of my hand.

Aside from her very interesting background, Jennifer had some really fantastic advice to offer to people hoping to pursue a career in ecology and research.

She stressed that volunteering is extremely helpful to your resume. Volunteering should be used to try to get experience in areas you need to improve or to aid you in obtaining a similar job. It also shouldn’t be extremely generalized like an “experience vulture”. It is better to have one volunteer experience that allows you to understand the company and roles deeply than to “attend four different biology surveys one time where hands-on experience is limited”.

Jennifer is also often surprised by how few students have no experience when applying for internships, especially when they are in universities nearby where applicants could have gotten great experience that boosts their chances at getting the position.

She explained the hiring process really well from the employer’s perspective: if you don’t have any experience or haven’t researched the company properly, you are typically viewed as too risky to hire. As a result, she’ll rank references from people within her networks higher.

This is why she stresses networking. “The importance of networking is one of those things that your advisors tell you about in school, but that you don’t really grasp until you leave. It is so important to develop good networking skills and a professional network before you graduate.” She points out as well that the field is very small and competitive, compounding the value of networking further. Of course, the field is also very friendly, and often people are willing to help each other succeed in the field.

As far as I can tell in my (albeit short) experience in the field, this is definitely true. So how can you network in if you’re in school?

Of course, you can volunteer at organizations you find interesting or taking on an internship for credit (even if it’s unpaid), as Jennifer has in the past. Aside from that, she also recommends volunteering in a professor’s lab, getting to know them, and asking for career advice. It can be valuable to get involved in a school club and volunteer as a group, meet people in the field and find out how they started, or get to know people in your major (outside your year) and keep in touch after parting ways.

Keep in mind, the more you network, the more likely you will be to go into a new potential job well-informed and have an extremely helpful reference who can provide you with an “in”. Even if you don’t use them as a reference, however, Jennifer points out that you are just likely to run into them again in the future.

When applying for that job, she also points out that messy resumes and cover letters can get an immediate trip to the recycling bin, especially when going through a massive amount of applicants. So make sure you correct those typos, chuck that one cover letter you’ve been sending to every organization, and tailor that resume and cover letter to the job description itself. She specifically suggests to reference the job description in your resume and cover letter.

I know from experience that it can be hard to do all of that. It would be so much easier to throw a first draft at them and hope it’s good. There might be a bunch of jobs you want to apply to or a million other things you want to do. Keep in mind, though. The people in charge of hiring value their time, too, and are extremely busy.

One last bit of advice from Jennifer: This field is small and competitive, as mentioned earlier. There are only few jobs and low pay, despite overwhelming environmental issues (not the least of which is climate change). In order to be successful in this field, you need to be passionate!

“There are a lot of people out there looking for a limited number of jobs. If you are not excited about competing for a job that makes relatively little, then there might be other career paths out there better suited for you.”

I hope you enjoyed reading this post. I want to continue doing posts like these that highlight different companies or individuals. I was initially hoping to stick to companies, but I’m pretty happy with this “stray” spotlight. If you enjoyed this or have other questions you’d want me to ask , please let me know!


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