Interview with Gwen White

Major

Biology

Current Position

Aquatic Biologist

GC Graduation Year

1984


Why or how did you choose your field? Were there specific experiences that influenced you?

My earliest outdoor experiences were as a toddler at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp where my father was doing conscientious objector service in the mid-1960s. Once I started school, we moved to rural Kansas and spent a lot of time helping out at my uncle’s dairy farm. My great uncle was a missionary in Ghana, and my great aunt was in Afghanistan and China. I was fascinated by their stories when they came home on furlough. We did a lot of tent camping in national parks on family vacations. I loved watching Jacques Cousteau, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and National Geographic specials about Jane Goodall on TV. I wanted to travel and work with animals, so I planned to go to veterinary school.

When I got to Goshen College, most of the other biology students were planning on medical school. I was enthralled by the marine biology class in the Florida Keys and really enjoyed working with Dr. Jonathan Roth, taking photographs through a microscope of the intricate structure of tiny crabs and sea shells. For my SST service, I was stationed at a very remote farm in the rain forest in eastern Honduras that produced food for Nicaraguan refugees. Hearing the stories of political conflict and witnessing the significance of natural resource management for the survival of the people was really pivotal for me.

These experiences led quite directly into a master’s degree in marine ecology at the University of Maryland, where I did my research on mantis shrimp at the Goshen College field station in the Keys. After that, I returned to Honduras to serve as an aquaculture volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps, raising tilapia, shrimp and oysters on an island off the Pacific coast. When civil unrest pre-empted my plans to conduct Ph.D. research in Rwandan forest streams, I had to quickly switch gears to use the same principles to explore a completely different system—the effects of rapidly urbanizing land use on streams in Indianapolis. By 1996, I completed my dissertation in conservation biology from the University of Minnesota.

For most of the next 14 years, I worked as a fisheries and lake management biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. I am currently a project manager with DJ Case & Associates, a small consulting firm out of Mishawaka that provides communications and public relations services for fish, wildlife, and natural resource management agencies across the country.

What’s exciting about your job or this field?

We live in an amazing time. The challenges of natural resource management include climate change, energy efficiency, and astounding technological tools for exploring our world. We have social networking capabilities that can create virtual communities without geographic limits and at the same time, we’re becoming more interested in local food production, community organizing, and reconnecting people to nature and a more traditional sense of place. Social and physical systems are either on the verge of collapse or at the edge of switching over into an entirely new paradigm. We have a lot of choices to make in the next few years that could lead to entirely different futures.

What has been a challenge in your career journey?

I can’t learn everything or do everything really well. I have to identify a few things and focus on those, but still be flexible enough to accommodate all the changes that are happening in the world. This is both a pleasure and a frustration. As a parent, I think it’s really difficult to figure out how to balance commitments to family with a career that takes me away from home a lot.

Looking back, would you do anything differently?

I would have made a greater attempt to understand economics.

How did your liberal arts education assist you in your journey? Are there specific examples you can offer?

Based on the last few decades, it’s clear that we can’t possibly anticipate the new combinations of skills and experiences that will be useful in the future. The work I’ve done has always required a really fascinating mixture of politics, communications and media, natural sciences, technology, and cultural understanding. A liberal arts education allowed me to take a very expansive range of coursework and to interact with other students and faculty who expressed themselves through really different ways of perceiving and learning. It was great preparation for the interdisciplinary approach to fisheries science and public policy that is necessary to solve sticky problems in today’s world. Mennonite theology and culture provide a basis for exploring what it means to live in community, to be intentional about choosing appropriate technologies that support cultural stability, to apply old-fashioned but quite sound philosophies in new ways, and to be thoughtful stewards of resources. That combination will serve us well in working through the social implications and conflicts that commonly occur in natural resource management.

What advice would you give to a young person just starting out?

Listen and explore. You can learn something from every experience you have and every person you meet. You never know what will be useful to you in the future. Don’t forget where you came from, figure out what unique experiences you’ve had that color the way you view the world, and use that background in new ways to create solutions to the complex challenges we’re facing.