MES students within the same cohort tend to form close bonds as they tackle core classes, candidacy papers and thesis research. Students in different cohorts have some opportunities for interaction in electives, “late night seminars” and MESA activities. However, I heard from MES students last year that they wanted even more collaboration and conversation between cohorts.
We started the school year with an ambitious experiment: taking both cohorts on a three-day field trip to the Olympic Peninsula! Our caravan—80 people, 9 vans—departed one early Thursday morning for the Elwha River. (We left on time, which bodes well for the next two years, especially given the number of students who were in electives until 10 the night before!) We spent the day touring key sites on the Elwha River dam removal project—learning about revegetation at the former Lake Aldwell, salmon habitat restoration at the former Elwha Dam site, and research on sedimentation and ecosystem changes at the mouth of the river.
We spent the next two nights at the Olympic Natural Resources Center in Forks, where the staff worked with us to expand their “maximum capacity” of 50 by converting conference rooms to dorms and allowing us to pitch tents along covered patios and walkways. For those of us who camped outside, this covering was a blessing when we were hit by heavy wind and rain.
We split into two smaller groups the next day. One group visited the Makah Museum, where students were impressed by a gray whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling, and Cape Flattery, where students were mesmerized by a gray whale swimming back-and-forth just off the rocky coastline below them. The other group hiked the Ozette Triangle, which includes a three-mile stretch of rugged beach and steep headland.
Our field work on the third day was cancelled because of high winds. We stayed inside, discussing William Dietrich’s The Final Forest and hearing from a Washington Department of Natural Resources biologist about experimental forests and habitat for threatened species like the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl. As we drove back through the hard rain, I was thankful for two days of decent weather in early October and the can-do attitude of our students—essential for making possible this kind of logistical adventure.
Our robust enrollment (44 first-year students, 34 second-year students) speaks to the continuing relevance of MES as a pathway to environmental work. To meet this continuing student demand, we are in the midst of hiring three permanent faculty dedicated to the MES program. Last year Dr. Erin Martin, who has taught in MES since 2012, was hired for the first position through a competitive national search. Erin has expertise in biogeochemistry, climate science, chemical oceanography, and freshwater ecology. She also brings tremendous enthusiasm for teaching and mentoring graduate students. This year we are conducting a search for an ecologist; next year we plan to search for an environmental social scientist. This faculty team should provide a nucleus of excellent teaching, mentoring and leadership in MES for years to come.
Equally important to our continuing success is the MES alumni network. One upcoming event, our third annual Thesis Idea Fair, is a great example. Dennis Aubrey, MES 2013, approached me two years ago with the idea of an event where local government agencies and NGOs could pitch their most pressing research questions to students who were thinking about topics for their candidacy papers and thesis projects. He offered to organize the event; I embraced the idea. This year’s event took place on November 10, 2015, and included representatives (many of them MES alums) from more than a dozen environmental organizations. We look forward to this continued event and other similar MES alumni partnerships.