Becoming interested in ecology was another happenstance occurrence. One spring, the university registrar changed the rules for students on scholarship, and everyone had to bring a piece of paper to the Registrar in order to have all tuition paid on time. It was due right before spring break, and I simply forgot about that piece of red tape and happily went on vacation. When I returned, I found that my entire registration had been canceled and I had to start my schedule from scratch. I did enough begging to professors for some to let me back into their classes, but I was still short of credits. I tried to find someone who would give me an independent study. I ended working for a professor, Mike Moulton, who opened the door for me to enter ecology, and to go on to graduate school. He eventually became my master's advisor and I worked in the field of community ecology and was first introduced to the wonder of birds. I still study birds to this day. I tell the students I advise, that they will have happy accidents like I did, and that their primary role is to open themselves up to the possibilities these "accidents" present. Sometimes it may not be clear exactly where you are going with your life, or what job you may get in the end, but that will all come in time if you follow your instincts and do what you love.
Nothing in my childhood indicated that I would become an ecologist. I grew up in a very suburban area outside of Atlanta where strip malls were going up left and right. I was not a science geek or a bird person. I only liked playing sports, and I did decently well in school. The one thing that I think made a real difference for me was that my parents loved to travel. While they each were growing up, they did not travel much, if at all, on vacations. So, when they had the chance, they threw us kids in a little VW bus and we drove to Seattle from Atlanta. Our trips got more elaborate as time passed; we even made it to the Bahamas. I think these trips really opened up the world to me in terms of what was out there for me to explore.
In addition, my parents really valued education. My mom once said that she would "sell the farm" to put me through college if that was what it took. My parents were not well off, growing up. My dad was born in West Virginia and he moved often with his family as my grandfather searched for work. My mother is from a long-time farming family outside of Atlanta, although her parents worked in retail and as a mechanic. My parents knew enough about being poor that they felt education was the way to get you through hard times. My dad supported my mom's decision to go to college to become a teacher after having had us three children, and her teaching degree turned out to be very important to our financial stability. My dad was extremely encouraging of my mom's ambitions and took care of us kids while she went to classes. He has told me stories of falling asleep standing in the shower after a long day of work on the construction site and an even longer evening taking care of three kids by himself -- all so that my mom could get her college education. It is hard not to soak up this level of commitment to education, and I had no doubt growing up that I would go to college.
As I continued on to my PhD, my family joked that I was going to be in college forever. And they were right! I love continually learning, and I love the pervasive atmosphere of discovery on a college campus. I've found that it is difficult for me to stop working because I like what I do so much. I have two children and I have to say that taking care of kids is much harder than working! I think one of the most important aspects of keeping women faculty in their jobs is the availability of childcare.
I have been extremely lucky in my career to have only had glancing brushes with sexism. I can think of two examples from my time in graduate school in the early 1990s. Before I went to the University of Tennessee for graduate school, I went to Louisiana State University for a brief stint. It was clear that not many women had successfully gone through their Wildlife Biology graduate program. There was nothing overt in the actions of the faculty but it was obvious from our field trips and other excursions that many of the activities were not geared to deal with two genders. Another example came from my time in graduate school at the University of Tennessee. The bathrooms on the first floor of our very old biology building had signs on the men's and women's restroom doors that said "faculty" under the Men's sign and "staff" under the Women's. I suppose the graduate students complained loudly enough that the school finally removed the faculty-staff signs.
I stayed at the University of Tennessee after my PhD to do a Post-Doc and then made the move to California to start my first faculty position at the University of California at Santa Cruz. California was gorgeous but expensive and my partner and I were struggling to make ends meet. We do not have any family on the west coast, and thus had no real reason to be out there except my job, so I started to apply to other faculty positions with the goal of moving us back to the east coast. Rutgers was the perfect move, in hindsight. The Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources department is full of extraordinarily good faculty, staff, and students; and I've found Cook Campus to be a wonderful place to work.
During my career I have seen many of my former graduate students and undergraduates become successful either in academics or in professional careers, which gives me a great amount of satisfaction and pride. I really like to teach field classes and I have found those classes turn students on to new ideas and often set their career path. I'm also proud of my professional collaborations that have resulted in ideas that have had some impact on my field of study, or in well-received books. I value these colleagues also as friends. Its great to be able to produce fresh ideas that people appreciate. I am thankful for all of the happenstance occurrences in my life that have led me to where I am; I can't imagine being anywhere but in academia.