Life in the Field: An Interview with Kay Hajek and Mariah McIntosh

The (almost) complete interview with Kay Hajek and Mariah McIntosh, ecologists working for John Maron’s lab at the University of Montana.

Jenélle Dowling (MNHC Research Specialist and Wings Over Water Coordinator): Mariah, I’ll start with you. What type of “ologist” do you consider yourself?

Mariah McIntosh: I’m currently a graduate student in the resource conservation program, College of Forestry. I’m studying how plants respond to drought with a focus on improving ecological restoration. That makes me either one of three things – a plant physiologist, or a plant ecologist, or a restoration ecologist. All of those. Or I could make up a new word – ecophysiorestoration ecologist! Maybe restoration ecologist would probably be the best. I just started the program this fall.

Kay Hajek: I describe myself as an ecologist. I’m a researcher and a plant ecologist. I’m a post-doc, which means I completed my PhD, and am now working as an entry-level researcher.

JD: Post-PhD, working in the field.

KH: I think one way for people outside of science to understand what a post-doc is, is it’s an entry-level position. My cousins thought, “When are you going to get out of school?” And I am out of school. This is a job. But you’re low on the totem pole.

JD: Mariah, how did you decide on your career path?

MM: When I was a freshman at UM, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then I took Erick Greene’s general ecology course, and I learned about how researchers in the bioacoustics program at Cornell University installed listening buoys in the Atlantic Ocean to detect endangered right whales, and it’s been effective at reducing their collisions with ships, and that example struck me as a way that research can be used to solve critical conservation problems. And since then I’ve been focused on developing skills as a researcher and as a problem-solver, and integrating these two ideas.

KH: My decision came slowly, and it sort of came step by step. When I was in high school, I knew I was interested in science, and I knew I liked the outdoors, but when it came time to declare a major, the university I went to mostly had general degrees. So I just kept studying science, and I really loved science. I knew I wanted to work in science, but I wasn’t very interested in health sciences. What I decided I wanted to do towards the end of college was continue on using my knowledge of biology but trying to do that in some way that impacted the environment. So I knew I was interested in environmental issues, I knew I loved being outdoors, and I knew I loved science.

I got some jobs, first teaching students about environmental science. And I enjoyed teaching but was interested in something more science-y. I wound up working for the state park system in Delaware as a biologist. And that was a formative experience. I worked under a man named Rob Line, who to this day I talk about as my mentor. He was just as fascinated with the natural world as I was, and I ate up everything he taught me. We were working on a bunch of different projects, but specifically on a project trying to control invasive plants in the state parks. That was where I realized that not only am I interested in science and the natural world, but I’m really interested in plants. We would be faced with all kinds of management questions and problems in that job, and while a lot of people had knowledge about a lot of different things, it seemed that there must some way to sort of apply that knowledge more rigorously to solve those problems. So I decided to go to graduate school and focus on ecology and specifically plant ecology, and try to apply science to real-world problems. I’m interested in conservation and resource management issues, which I’m not currently doing, but I’m working on that!

It wasn’t a direct career path; I didn’t grow up thinking, “I want to be a scientist, I want to be a doctor or a lawyer,” I spent a long time having no idea, and just kept trying to follow things that interested me, and gain experiences in those things that interested me.

JD: What are your goals for your career?

MM: My ideal job – I’d be both doing science and solving problems. I want to improve how people are interacting with nature in some way. An example: what I’m focusing on right now is ecological restoration. About 50 percent of world forests are in some way gone or degraded, so there’s a large need to restore forests worldwide, and there’s also a need to improve methods used to do that, to be more effective. After I complete my master’s I plan to pursue opportunities doing science and solving problems either working for a government agency or a non-profit or pursuing a PhD.

KH: Mine are kind of general. I want my day-to-day work to have an impact on the community, whether that’s my local community or more broadly. Personally I want to feel fulfilled by that. Those are the broad goals. If I have some sort of intellectual fulfillment and also feel that that work I do is being applied somewhere in a useful way, then I’ll be pretty content. Eventual next steps – I’ve been pretty focused on research throughout my PhD and post-doc, and I am interested in pivoting back towards my roots in land management and natural resource management and conservation, to applying my technical knowledge to a more boots-on-the-ground, real-life scenario.

JD: What do you like to do when you’re not working? What is something you’ve created or accomplished outside of work that you’re proud of?

MM: I liked to do human-powered outdoor activities like hiking, trail running, backpacking, and mountain biking. I also like gardening and cooking, preserving food. That’s pretty much all I do. I have a lot of apples, so lots of applesauce, jam, I freeze a lot of stuff. I make sauces, enchilada sauce, pasta sauce, etc.

I value accomplishment over enjoyment, I think. What have I accomplished outside of work? I’m proud of us for running the Double Dip.

KH: Mariah volunteers quite a bit with Five Valleys Land Trust – not in the past few months, but it’s been a big part of her life since I’ve known her.

MM: I did an internship with them two years ago where I assessed different types of weed monitoring plans for their Rock Creek property. I’ve also gone to some of their volunteer days. Now that I’m a little more settled into my schedule, I want to get involved in more side projects that are a little more volunteer-based.

And I like traveling internationally. One thing I’m looking forward to – Andrew (my boyfriend) and I are taking a long road trip over Christmas through the southwest, and we’re going to go climbing and backpacking and hiking at various places to be decided. We’re meeting my parents for New Year’s in Mexico, and trying to figure out logistics.

I also love dogs! I like to play with other people’s dogs, and I have weird interactions with people where I pretty much don’t interact with them, I just interact with their dog. I just like them.

KH: What I do for fun now is what I’ve been doing for fun my entire life since I was little kid, which is to go outside and get dirty. When I was a kid that involved playing in the creek, walking into the woods with my friends and pretending, building forts, riding bikes, that kind of thing. And I still do a lot of that stuff. Now it’s a little more adult-like, so I run on trails, and mountain bike. I especially love doing those things with other people – with my family, my friends, and as part of a community. Every week on Tuesdays I get together with a group called Montana Dirt Girls, and we either mountain bike or hike or cross country ski, and we do it every single week with a different group of women, whoever shows up. When we hike, we hike in the winter, and it’s pitch-dark and in the snow, and we all have a great time having an adventure together. I’ve been trying to create adventures throughout my whole life, and Montana’s a great place to keep doing that.

MM: Except you don’t wear your WonderWoman costume as often.

KH: I do wear it, still! Not as often, true, but… As a small child, my mom had to ban me from watching the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman on TV because apparently I’d get super amped up and would streak around the house fighting crime, and it was too much, and they eventually just channeled that energy into sports. I still have that energy, and I’m still trying to fight crime. And I do have a Wonder Woman outfit that I do occasionally wear mountain biking.

In addition to being involved in my community through Dirt Girls, I volunteer at the Food Bank in Missoula, and I really love that community and interacting with people in our community in that way. I also really enjoy being creative in some ways, and I’m not very good at being artistic, but I still enjoy throwing some energy into that occasionally. Mostly I do leatherwork for creative stuff.

Something I’ve created or accomplished outside of work that I’m proud of…that is a hard question. I also like gardening. And I’m proud of the skills that I’ve gained in leatherwork in recent years. That’s just for fun. I also feel like I’m pretty proud of the skills I’ve gained in the mountains in the last few years. Some of the mountaineering we’ve done in the Crazy Mountains was really, really challenging and pushed me in terms of pushing through fear of exposure, those razor-edges, the potential fall. I was really proud of being able to accomplish some pretty heavy-duty mountaineering.

JD: Mariah, were there any struggles you overcame to reach this point in your education and career?

MM: I’ve been working on publishing my undergraduate thesis, it has to do with understanding how plants interact with mycorrhizal fungi, and I joke that in this project, anything that could possibly go wrong, does, and everything takes way longer than it possibly should. The day that this project is done and published, it’s going to be a miracle. I’ve learned a lot about persevering, and to keep trying things, and also that it’s always okay to ask for help. I’ve had a lot of really great mentors on this project – coincidentally all of them have been women. I work with Lila Fishman in the biology department as well as Ylva Lekberg at the MPG Ranch for this project. Anytime I felt like giving up, one of them would come up with some kind of extremely reasonable and logical thing that I could do, and I’d think, “Well, I guess I didn’t do that yet, so I can’t give up, because I still haven’t done that!” I’m getting there, it’s almost done, and I will be submitting it for publication later this year.

How do I face challenges in my work today? I like to face challenges head-on and be proactive so that I can reduce the number of challenges that I face. Trying to ask for help when I need it, really trying to work with people I feel help me reach my potential and help me realize what my potential is.

JD: What have you done so far in your career to build your confidence and overcome doubts? Or advice other people have offered to you?

MM: I’m usually pretty confident once I make a decision; I don’t necessarily often doubt what I’m doing. But again, trying to interact with people I find inspiring and that I find do good work and that have qualities that I aspire to have.

JD: What has built your confidence?

MM: Being able to do my own research and being able to take the lead on a project from start to finish, from designing an experiment to conducting it to doing the analysis, and that’s really shown me that I am capable of doing all of the parts of science, and that it’s really rewarding when all of that work pays off, even if it requires a lot of persistence, knowing that you’re responsible for the outcome. I’d also say, as a plug for the University of Montana, that I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do that here, that not every university is a place where undergraduates and even freshman are able to be in a lab and start to research. That was extremely transformative in my experience as an undergrad, just getting in a lab immediately and starting to do my own research.

KH: I’ve got two answers for the first part. They’re a little bit different. One struggle that I can identify in terms of my career is not knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t have good examples of what I’m doing now, what I’m interested now. I grew up in a solidly middle-class family, middle-class neighborhood, and my parents didn’t go to college. And my friends’ parents – some of them went to college, but their jobs were very typical. A dentist, a teacher, things that people interact with quite a bit and know about. And because my interest was a little bit atypical for where I grew up – in Cleveland, Ohio – there aren’t a lot of ecologists and foresters running around. That meant, too, that my teachers didn’t know anything about the types of things I was interested in. People would suggest environmental science or environmental studies, but that wasn’t exactly what I was interested in, either. So that was honestly a real struggle. Over and over I knew what I didn’t want to do, but it was kind of hard to whittle it down to what I did want to do. In terms of that challenge, I just kept following my interests, and trying to get experience in my interests, and worked my way to the point I’m at right now.

The other major struggle is a specific event, and that was that during my PhD I had to take some time off before finishing, and that process of going back and finishing was one of the biggest struggles of my life. It was terrifying to have to do that. I had a lot of support from my family, but I didn’t necessarily have a lot of support from my advisor and the institution that I was with. They said “fine,” but I finished on my own entirely. I’m so glad I did that and just kept muddling through and just kept going forward and doing it until I finished. That was a real big struggle and I’m happy that I was able to face that struggle. I think during that period of time I felt a lot of shame about not having finished yet, and because of that I was afraid to have to show my face there again, but once I got there, all of the faculty that I interacted with, whom I had relationships with prior to that, immediately told me “Congratulations!” for being back. They were really supportive, so that was great. I learned that sometimes you’re harder on yourself than other people are. So that’s good.

So, challenges today and generally speaking in my field—I do think that oftentimes being the only woman in the room has been a challenge. It’s not a challenge that I’m afraid of, but it is something that definitely affects me from day to day. I think it’s good to recognize that, that this is just one of those fields where you’re not surrounded by women all the time.

JD: It seems like you’re constantly made aware of the fact that you’re the only woman.

KH: It’s important to acknowledge it, and I think I’m comfortable acknowledging it.

JD: That’s interesting to think about, because I haven’t really experienced that, because all of my mentors have been women.

KH: In my undergrad, the biology department was filled with women professors. So I almost feel like it was a shocker to me once I got out of college. I had a lot of women mentors in college, but then that wasn’t the case once I got into resource management and sciences. It’s not to say there are no other women, but at the authoritative level there are very few, and you’ve been lucky to work with a bunch of them. That’s really cool.

JD: The women I have worked with have the attitude that something as insignificant as being the only woman or working with all men is not going to stop them from doing what they want to do, and that’s really awesome. I grew up thinking I can do whatever I want if I work hard enough, and no one has told me otherwise…and I keep going with that mentality and so far haven’t run into any major obstacles.

KH: One thing that was useful to me in my early career and in grad school, was that I do remember really identifying with the women I ran into that were working in resource management and working as ecologists. I can picture these women – I didn’t get to interact with them every day, but they made an impression on me. And they definitely gave me an idea of where I would fit in. Part of it’s just about fitting in, I guess.

The last part – what have you done to build your confidence? It’s been two things. One thing is to communicate with other people you trust about your challenges, to talk about those things. But it can’t just be about talking, it’s got to be about action, too. So it’s not just about complaining to each other in the back room about whatever challenges you’re facing, no matter what they are. It’s okay to vent, but it’s also important to pick things apart and figure out, “What can I do to overcome this challenge and this struggle?” And I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of confidants in that way, people that I went to grad school with, friends who are also colleagues who are professionals, in particular professional women. We’ve had different experiences, and we can say, “I’ve had this experience, and it worked this way.” Both communication and action build your confidence. Also keep doing stuff you’re afraid of, I think. And overcoming doubts – don’t overanalyze what other people are thinking of you. Trust that if you’re doing a good job and you know it, keep doing that job.

JD: These next two questions are kind of similar – more generally, what are the positive aspects of your education/career, and more specifically, what is your favorite thing about it?

MM: I’m really excited about the fact that I get to spend all of my time thinking about complex problems, but also learning about how the world works and how nature works, because it’s so cool. And also finding ways to solve problems. One example – recently Dr. Megan Parker came into our lab meeting, and she is the cofounder of the organization Working Dogs for Conservation. Their organization uses dogs for conservation to collect samples. They found that dogs can identify invasive plants and find them way more effectively than humans. I thought that was so cool!

KH: Did you know they can identify scat, too, of different species?

MM: They can identify different species of fish in a stream, too! The example Megan used is they can identify Dyer’s woad on Mount Sentinel. It’s one of 40 species of mustard, and it’s hard for people to tell them apart, but the dogs can pretty much do it every time, it’s no problem for them. It’s such a good and creative way to solve a number of different problems and collect samples for conservation, and find invasive species. And it incorporates dogs! It’s a great example of how people are creative and use science and problem-solving skills to do something really cool.
That would be my favorite thing – how smart and creative people use science to solve real-world problems.

JD: Do you feel like another part of that is that you will be able to do that?

MM: Yeah. I just like thinking about creative ways to solve problems, and I get to do that.

JD: What was it like for you personally to do research for this project in the field with Kay?

MM: I really loved hanging out in the Blackfoot doing research. It was the best way to spend the summer, getting to be outside and be observing the changes of the landscape both across space and time. Across space in that we had a lot of different sites across the valley, and we could see how plant communities were different. And also across time, because we were there through the whole season.

JD: A lot of people think that scientists work in labs, so it’s good to show them, “You get to have friends! You’re on a field crew!”

MM: And we were outside all the time. We spent all of our time at different sites throughout the valley, doing different things, from identifying plants to collecting seed to setting up experiments. And we spent the rest of the week there, so when we were done with work we’d all be hanging out at the field house at the Blackfoot Game Range. Some of our favorite things to do there – we would go running. Well, Kay and I would go running. Sometimes other people came. And we would also do workouts on our back porch – that was my favorite thing to do. I slept in my car, which I really enjoyed, because when I had to get up in the morning, it was bright and sunny out and all the birds were singing, and I would be like, “I’m ready to go!” It was really nice.

If the weather was bad, we’d watch movies inside. We ended up watching the entire extended versions of Lord of the Rings, the entire trilogy, both years.

KH: We turned Mariah into a nerd.

MM: We cooked all of our meals together. And we have some good stories. There was a grizzly bear hanging out in front of our field house, and it was eating camas, hanging out and being a bear, and we decided to name him, and we also named his imaginary or real (depending on how you see it) family. So his name is Pancake, and his wife’s name is Princess Lady Butterball, and his kids are Sausage, Eggs, and Syrup. They have a breakfast-themed family. We just watched him for hours. We were close enough we could see him, but he was also far enough away that we could be outside of the house without being too scared. We were at a safe distance. We liked to name a lot of the animals. All of the ground squirrels are named Cyril, and all of the tree swallows are named Travis, and all the badgers have their own names. They’re individuals.

KH: I’m going to echo Mariah’s comment about problem-solving. I do and always have found problem-solving to be very satisfying. My favorite thing about what I do right now is getting to interact with and mentor undergraduates. That has been a surprising awesomeness of this position that I didn’t expect. The science is really good, it’s what I’m trained to do, but getting to interact with people who are just on the verge of figuring out what they’re interested in, career-wise, and also changing and growing up and maturing a lot personally, has just been great.

One of the reasons that’s great is that working with all the students reminded me that science is fun. It’s easy to get super focused and be serious about the work I’m doing, but they name the animals, and we laugh all day. Their curiosity, too—I remember talking to you about my mentor Rob, who shared a fascination for the natural world with me. And I’ve gotten to do that with these guys the last few summers. We’re not solely focused on the data we’re collecting, but we’re also noticing the things around us, the components of the ecosystems, looking up gee-whiz things in the field guides. Some of these guys know more about some of these things than I do, which is cool. Sometimes I don’t know anything about a certain organism, and it’s fun to have them contribute to the conversation. That’s super cool. That’s my favorite thing about this job.

JD: As you move in that path toward your career, there’s so many things to look forward to. Early on, you’re inspired, and later on, you can be an inspiration.
Next, let’s talk about any challenges you had during the field work.

MM: One of the major challenges was just that it was summer, so it was hot, and we had to work somewhat brutish long days sometimes. One day it was really hot and we’d been doing hard work, we’d been removing a rodent enclosure so it involved a lot of digging, and I ran out of food and drank all of my water, and I also had Christmas songs stuck in my head, and I was so grumpy! We get through days like that by making sure we bring lots of Gatorade and water. I never believed in drinking Gatorade until then. We listened to music and joked around and stuff, we all laughed, we all knew that all the rest of us were also feeling the same way (although maybe not everyone else had Christmas music stuck in their head…). I still think I had it the worst. I had to rake. It was so hard.

KH: She didn’t come back and complain or anything, she just did that job.

MM: Eventually I came back and said, “I don’t have any water, and I have Christmas music stuck in my head.” And someone gave me water. But I was really grumpy. Sometimes it also dumps rain, so that’s another challenge. The extremes of Montana summer weather: we get thunderstorms, we get snow (though I don’t think I’ve personally experienced snow).

KH: Not on us, but one day the snow line was pretty far down.

MM: It can be pretty cold and rainy, we always have to be prepared, we always have to have our rain gear, no matter what. Even if it’s 100 degrees, never take the rain jacket out of your backpack.

KH: You learned the lesson early in your career. It was very early in the first season – we worked half a day, it was far away from where we were living, we got the data we needed, then went home and processed that data indoors watching movies and drinking hot tea and being warm.

MM: I think I had all my rain gear that day, but it was just so bad that even though I had my rain pants and raincoat it was still not comfortable. That was a very cold day.

JD: Can you think of any examples when you used creativity to solve problems in the field, when you were working independently?

KH: I have one for Mariah if she can’t think of one. Mariah’s good at this – she regularly solves problems. With the data we were collecting during the second field season, the data sheet wound up being really clumsy, and I could not reorganize it to make it useable. The data sheet has to be really useable in the field so that it’s easy to record data, but then it also has to be in a format that’s easily entered. You’re just trying to avoid having mistakes on both ends. And I couldn’t figure out how to organize it so both those things could be accomplished. So I gave it to Mariah – in frustration I looked for the person in the room who was the most organized and the best problem solver, and I just dumped it on her. And within maybe 15 minutes she had it perfect. And it’s the one we’ve always used and continue to use.

Part of our job was not scientific in nature, it was construction work. We had to do some things that were pretty much physical, manual labor. Of all of the students I worked with, I saw Mariah adapt to that the most of anyone. And part of that is not that it’s just hard work, because Mariah’s a super-hard worker, but there is skill to manual labor, and if you haven’t gained those skills yet it can be a difficult thing. I have a lot of background doing that sort of thing, and Mariah would frequently ask me questions, like “This is silly, but I don’t understand, how are you getting the dirt out of the hole when you’re digging the trench?” And I would show it to her, describe it to her, and watch her get faster. So by the end of the season, Mariah could do things as quickly and efficiently as I could. Maybe not exactly the way I did it, but in her own style, but she was actively trying to gain those skills, which I thought was really impressive. Some people do it with brute force, but that’s not always available to you or always the best. Mariah really did use her problem-solving skills to gain that skill.

Field work is a constant problem-solving activity. Small things range from having our rodent exclosures fail, and having to tinker every year until you figure out how to make them rodent-proof again. There was nothing huge, but lots of little things, and you’re constantly tinkering.

JD: One of the things emerging in a lot of these responses is that you’re not afraid to ask for help, and I think that’s great. Especially with manual labor things, people just tend to power through them, without thinking and asking, Is there a smarter way to do this?

KH: That’s a good thing to emerge. Never be afraid to say you don’t know something. Just be confident. I say all the time, “I don’t know.” If I don’t know something, I just barrel through and learn. A piece of that is Mariah’s confidence, her being confident enough to ask for help. And a piece of that is us just being good at working together.

JD: In your own words, how would you summarize your research work?

KH: The work we’re doing is trying to understand the patterns of plants that we see in Montana’s grasslands, and studying the reasons why we see different species growing in different places, and why a lot of these species are able to grow right next to one another, even though they’re using the exact same resources. If these plants are competing, how is it that we see different species and not just one winning? In real life all of these different species have different characteristics, and one of these characteristics is the size of their seeds and the number of seeds that they produce. And what we think is that species with big seeds are better competitors, but the seeds are also more likely to be eaten by rodents. So competitive abilities and the influence of other organisms like rodents might explain why we see all these species able to grow right next to one another.

JD: How do you personally think plant ecology research will have a positive impact on the world?

MM: I think there’s a lot of applications for plant ecology. One way that I can connect it to the work I’m doing now, is that plant ecology is more or less the basis for restoration ecology and understanding how plants form communities and how those change over time, as well as how plants interact with each other and other biotic and abiotic things. It’s really important to being able to use that process to repair ecosystems and to do ecological restoration. We’re always thinking about the dynamics of how things work or should work in order to put them back together from this sort of deconstructed situation that we have now in a lot of places, where we’re trying to restore ecosystems, restore native landscapes.

JD: Just for the sake of people reading this, why is it important to restore landscapes?

MM: Right now there’s a huge global push for restoration, there’s a lot of funding available, it’s included in a lot of global-level initiatives. There’s a need to improve restoration practices and policies, so that the restoration we’re doing is effective. There’s a need to integrate human and natural landscapes, and restoration is a way to do that. Right now we kind of have this paradigm of preserving these intact places separately from human landscapes, the landscapes we interact with. There’s a lot of opportunity to integrate these things and the landscape that we interact with to help achieve our conservation goals and preserve biodiversity and ecosystem services that we and other living things rely on. Restoration is a good way to integrate those things, and that’s something that I think about a lot, improving that relationship and how we’re interacting with the landscape.

KH: I value our natural resources and our public lands on a personal level, and I think a lot of people in Montana agree with that. It’s not just about recreation for a lot of people in Montana; we live here, we care about the land that surrounds us. We use it for hunting and fishing, a lot of people use it for their livelihood. Where we work in the Blackfoot Valley in particular, there’s lots of active ranching and those ranchers have taken a super-active role in conserving that resource. The Blackfoot Challenge is a great example of the community really wanting to conserve the resource that they have. In terms of plant ecology and the research we’re doing, when we’re managing land and conserving resources it’s really important to understand how those ecosystems function. It’s important to understand the patterns and the functions that are going on in those ecosystems. So we are whittling away at that. The information that we generate through this project and other, similar, projects helps us have a better understanding of how grasslands and shrublands function. All of that informs management and restoration.

That’s the basic idea of science. Asking one little question at a time – it all adds up and impacts the world.