Meet the Editor: Carolyn Kurle

Last month, we announced Carolyn Kurle as our latest addition to the Ecological Solutions and Evidence Senior Editor team. With applications still open for our open call for Associate Editors, find out more about our new Lead Editor in this ‘Meet the Editor’ conversation.

What can you tell us about the first paper you published?

My first published paper was a nice study based upon my Master’s degree work investigating the foraging ecology of northern fur seals in Alaska using stable isotope analyses of multiple tissue samples I collected on the Pribilof Islands. The paper’s publication was a culmination of a wonderful field experience and my Master’s degree, and it was published in my first months as a research scientist at NOAA’s Marine Mammal Lab.

I remember my huge excitement when the paper was FINALLY in press. I was shocked at how many revisions were required before it was publishable. Ultimately, I was grateful for the difficulty because it improved my writing, helped me understand the publication process, and increased my appreciation for the work and commitment required to turn ideas and data into a publishable product.

What’s your favourite species and why?

I honestly could never choose a favourite species. There are simply too many amazing creatures on our planet. But I do especially love rats for their brilliance, razor clams for their incredibly fast methods for evading capture (they are also delicious when dug, chased, cleaned, and fried with my Grandma’s recipe), northern fur seals for being my first experience working with very large, very fierce animals, and Pacific salmon species for their amazing abilities to find their way home to their natal streams to breed just before dying. I could go on and on…

Who inspired you most as a student?

So many people have mentored me through the years and I’m grateful to them all. Mr. John Mickelson was the most extraordinary sixth grade teacher. Dr Tom Loughlin was an outstanding supervisor at NOAA’s Marine Mammal Lab and encouraged both my Master’s and PhD degrees. My time in Dr Graham Worthy’s lab as a Master’s student taught me I truly was a scientist, especially in my interactions with Graham and two fellow students – Drs Kate McFadden and Jon Stern. Dr. Bernie Tershy and Don Croll were truly remarkable PhD advisors, teaching me to become a well-rounded ecologist and human, and fostering my deep commitment to conducting practical and applied conservation ecology.

These days, I’m honestly most inspired by my own undergraduate, Master’s, and PhD students. They constantly impress me with their knowledge, commitment to excellence, brilliance, very hard work, and infectious optimism.

If you could wake up tomorrow with a new skill, what would it be?

I would love to have the skills, athleticism, and massive bravery required to compete in the Motocross World Championship series. These outdoor motorcycle competitions are full of hills, dirt, jumps, and dare-devilry, with participants racing lightweight motorcycles sometimes for days. It’s thrilling to watch and terrifying to contemplate as a competitor. For the foreseeable future, I’ll stick to the regular asphalt roads with my beloved road bicycle and my trusty Ducati Hypermotard.

Are you a good cook? What’s your signature dish?

I love cooking! It’s a wonderful creative outlet and I check cookbooks out of the library and read them like novels. I was happily stuck with 9 cookbooks I was unable to return during the COVID-19 pandemic. I make versions of Jim Lahey’s ‘No Knead Bread’ multiple times a week, am currently enamoured with Niki Segnet’s blinis for breakfast with my son, and I will do anything with vegetables. I planted a vegetable garden a couple months ago and my local farmer’s market are providing supplies for my many experiments. I don’t have a signature dish as I rarely write anything down, so my creations are frequently one time only experiences.

What’s your favourite sport and why?

I am a somewhat apologetic fan of American football and I root for the Seattle Seahawks. I grew up near Seattle and my family were all fans, so I inherited a love for the Hawks. They won the Superbowl for the first time ever against the Denver Broncos on my birthday in 2014, making that one of my very favourite birthdays.  

If you could recommend one place for people to travel to on holiday, where would it be and why?

I have had many opportunities for travel, especially for my work. I’ve loved all my destinations, but I especially loved Iceland, Japan, Western Australia, Italy and Germany. I also greatly love the beauty of Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington State, and visit regularly with my son for long hikes all over the mountain. The many islands in Alaska on and around which I have worked are also very special to me. You don’t have to be on a research expedition to explore the wilds of Alaskan islands. One can take a ferry to the Aleutian Islands from the mainland of Alaska and I highly recommend it!

Dr Kurle with her son Jeremiah at Paradise in Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington State

What was the first album you owned?

I don’t remember! But I do remember asking my mom to repeatedly play her old Neil Diamond and Simon and Garfunkel albums on a record player as a little girl. I’d sit and listen with headphones. I still like those old songs. These days, I’m partial to Krishna Das and anything my 13-year old son requests from our music service to play on the speakers in our kitchen.  

If any fictional character could join your lab, who would it be and why?

Reynie, Sticky, or Kate from the Mysterious Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart. They’re all brilliant in their own ways and I could learn so much from any of them. Constance is also brilliant, but too much of a handful!

If you had one superpower, what would it be and why?

Telekinesis. After many in depth discussions with my son on this matter, we have decided telekinesis wins as the very best superpower. Telekinesis means you can move anything with your mind. Including yourself, meaning you could fly. You get many “superpowers” for the price of one!

Now to the more slightly more serious questions – what are the greatest differences in the challenges now facing ecosystems compared with when you first started your academic career?

Growing human populations across the world are intensifying already escalated pressures on natural ecosystems, as are the associated increases in fossil fuel use, deforestation, large-scale animal agriculture, and other major contributions to human-caused climate change. In addition, conservation scientists and managers are increasingly called upon to act in response to expanding threats but decreasing funding for applied research forces us all to triage habitats, species, and priorities, and we lose opportunities to act more broadly. These were all problems when I started as an ecologist, but they have grown much worse in recent years.

What do you think are the biggest opportunities or potential opportunities for ecology in the next decade?

One of the biggest opportunities for the field of ecology in the coming years is to expand the ranks of biologists, managers, and conservationists via actions designed to increase inclusion of people from all backgrounds.

To facilitate that, we must acknowledge the reality that effective conservation and management of wild places, species, and habitats is a luxury for those of us lucky to have our most basic needs met. Mitigating multiple social difficulties so that basic needs are met for all humans across the globe will free many to shift their focus from basic survival toward becoming active stewards of the Earth. Once that occurs, then everyone will have the time and energy to view ecosystem restoration, management, and conservation as simple requirements for everyday life.

Dr Kurle with her son Jeremiah in Iceland on a trip she co-led for UC San Diego undergraduates that was sponsored by the UCSD Alternative Breaks Program. The field trip was designed to promote Earth Connection to undergraduate students without regular access to wild places

In addition, many people world-wide lack basic access to nature. My philosophy of Earth Connection is such that human beings given the opportunity to experience and explore wild places, and truly connect with the Earth, will naturally be more inclined toward actions designed to manage and conserve the environment. Many of us are educators, field biologists, and researchers with access to incredible wildlife, landscapes, and ecosystems. We can work to create Earth Connection opportunities, inviting our students and others to work with us, thereby potentially inspiring more people to become better protectors of our planet. 

Carolyn grew up near Seattle where her family’s frequent camping trips in the western United States and Canada taught her a love and appreciation for the outdoors. She has Zoology and German Literature degrees from the University of Washington where she cemented her ambition to be an ecologist during a field quarter in the San Juan Islands at the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories. Carolyn earned a MS from Texas A&M University, then worked as a Research Biologist for NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory before returning to school at UC Santa Cruz for her Ph.D. in Ecology. She did her postdoctoral research at UC Santa Barbara and started at UC San Diego in 2010. She prefers to work in marine systems but is open to most foraging ecology research that informs community ecology and population trajectories, and has a strong conservation application. Her lab currently has projects studying the effects of natural and human-induced warm water events on the food availability and population trajectories of California sea lions, the potential for dietary shifts undergone by killer whales in the North Pacific over the last 100 years, the foraging ecology of endangered hawksbill turtles in Baja California Sur, Mexico, changes in oceanographic and foraging patterns experienced by northern fur seals in Alaska since the 1940’s, plus many others. Her website is:

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