Connections in Environmental Conservation: A Conversation with UW Oceanography Alumni Gwendolyn Hannam
"I hope that you and all the other undergrads or graduates at UW reach a point in your careers where you can see how all of these random different tracks that you’ve taken and extracurriculars or volunteer experiences all come together and led you to be the place that you’re in now."
Interview conducted in October 2023 by Nicole Reynolds, UW Oceanography Class of 2024
Gwendolyn Hannam is an Environmental Planner with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, where she is the Stillaguamish Senior Restoration Specialist and lead for the Stillaguamish Integrated Conservation and Rebuilding (SICoR) project. A lot of her work involves creating and maintaining relationships with the indigenous tribes connected to the Stillaguamish River watershed, as well as planning and coordinating “boots on the ground” habitat restoration efforts. She was recently involved in a video project titled “Paddling Together”, which documents some of the projects and relationships she has cultivated in her position.
What inspired you to enter the field of marine sciences/ oceanography?
As a child, I grew up sailing with my dad, going in and out of marinas and ports and going to the beach. Additionally, The Little Mermaid came out, and really fed this whole obsession with the ocean. Since I couldn’t be a mermaid—I realized the next best thing was being Jacque Cousteau. That passion really carried me through my childhood into the next steps of applying to college.
I had applied and been accepted to UW, and interviewed two departments: Biology and Oceanography. It quickly became very clear to me that I was more of a ‘whole picture’ kind of person than a ‘single focus’, and the School of Oceanography appealed to me in that way. After talking with Michelle Townsend, the academic advisor, I realized I wanted to go through Oceanography. I also worked with her to help plan my double-major in Music, which morphed into a minor [as the quarters got harder].
What specific discipline did you choose? Did you do any extracurricular activities at the UW that you think helped your academic or career journey?
After learning about the magic of phytoplankton in second grade, I decided on the Biological Oceanography discipline, which led me to focus my senior thesis on the ‘Relative Abundance and Distribution of Phytoplankton in Glacier Bay, Alaska’. That project was exciting, as it was the first project to document the diatom population, abundance and distribution in the area. In terms of extracurriculars though, I was involved in the Student Oceanographic Society’s leadership team, joined the US masters swim team, had music extracurriculars (like singing the national anthem for Silvertips and Seahawks games!) and worked in Dr. Gabrielle Rocap’s lab.
Working in Dr. Rocap’s lab really helped me understand how to apply science from academia. Being an undergraduate, I made mistakes but learned a lot. I worked with a graduate student that was very patient [and supportive, which helped me through the process]. I didn’t end up using much of the skills that I learned from the lab [as most of my research is bigger picture and field-based], but what I learned from the lab helped connect some of the dots from what I learned in my academics. That really helped me as I was developing my master’s thesis, and those skills have helped me to this day.
What was your journey after you graduated from the University of Washington and before your current position with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife?
After graduating from UW, I had a position with the Army Corp of Engineers, and was a lead biological scientist. I was in charge of the water quality associated with the dams, an area over 99,000 square miles. Since what we do upland anthropogenically makes a huge impact on our nutrient flows, it can really impact phytoplankton blooms and then has a massive domino effect through the food web. I became really interested in upland bio-indicators, specifically bryophytes and using those as chemical bio tracers.
Wow—first job out of undergrad, that’s a lot!
Yeah, it was. It was an amazing opportunity—sometimes I think I shouldn’t have left it, but you know, I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t. The reason I left that position was to get my Master’s Degree from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The official title is ‘taxonomy and biodiversity of plants’, but really it’s botany, and I focused my masters thesis specifically looking at phenotypic plasticity and how environmental factors change biological responses and therefore environmental indications.
After my master’s, I had an environmental consulting company in Scotland, then moved back to the United States and opened an environmental consulting company until recently. I saw myself more of a steward between the land and the people. For my clients learning about the land, I would say here’s your designated land, here’s your vision of what you want to do with it. But here’s what your land looks like, here’s the hydrology and geology of it, and here is the law. [Let’s see how we can figure out what is best to do and where based on all of these parameters.]
How do you think your undergraduate background in Oceanography helped you during your master’s program?
When I was in the oceanography program, it was a smaller program and an open major (i.e. you don’t need to apply for the major compared to more competitive majors), and it took me until my senior year to figure out why. It’s because it’s one of the hardest flipping programs in the university. I think next to chemistry—and part of that is because it’s not single-focused. In order to understand the ocean and oceanography, you need [this interdisciplinary lens and need] to look at the physics, chemistry, biology, geology, ecology, etc. It’s all-encompassing like a Venn diagram.
Even though I’m now in a field that is very heavily focused on fisheries, I use oceanography every day. The skill set I learned from the Oceanography Department still applies to my everyday life, my job, and everything I see and do in the world. It’s helped shape how I see things and further my understanding about the complexity of life.
How did you get your current position and what do you do?
After a few years of working in private consultancy and at a Conservation District, I was open to new positions and this one came across my desk. Once I saw it, I knew that it was for me. It combined all of my different experiences and extracurriculars into one position.
My job now is a lot about maintaining relationships, building relationships and being a listening ear. My management likes to explain my position as a bowtie—one side is the Stillaguamish Tribe, the other side is WDFW, and in the center is me. As much as my aim and desire is to do as much ecological recovery in the Stillaguamish watershed for the purpose of salmonids as possible, we also have to look beyond the specific goal and look at the entire web of people involved and build those relationships. While a lot of my job is desk work, the icing on the cake is when I get to be a part of projects and get some boots on the ground.
What is it like working with tribal communities and maintaining those relationships?
To me, it is 100% an honor and a blessing and something that I feel so grateful that I get to do. When I was a little girl, I was blessed to be around a medicine woman, so some of my thinking about the environment and sustainability was very healthily influenced by this woman. Recognizing the sensitivities of being a white privileged female in our society, and then going to a culture where people have been suppressed and scrutinized for practicing their own culture is incredibly important in these relationships. In my job, my goal is to be as transparent with the tribal communities as possible, as they have been made promises which were broken so many times over and over again; they have a hard time trusting governmental authorities. But by being honest and clear when something is outside of my authority and just listening to any feedback or information they give me and saying “Thank you so much for sharing this with me, I have to take this to Olympia”, I can help to be this bridge between indigenous knowledge and WDFW policy. By working together, we can create leaps and bounds of more change compared to just working independently.
What do you see for the future of the Stillaguamish habitat recovery project?
The next step I see for my position is finding the middle of the Venn diagram of values between anthropogenic and the environment. It’s not something that, even at the end of my career, we’re likely to see the Chinook recovered. This is going to take decades and we’re in this for the long haul. Even if at some point in the future, it’s decided that the Stillaguamish Chinook are not recoverable, it won’t change the situation, because it’s going to be the same story at the next river with the lowest population. I think it’s possible to recover the Chinook in the Stillaguamish, it is just going to take a collective effort and desire. As much as I focus on the Stillaguamish watershed, the Chinook don’t stay in the watershed—they can go all the way up to the Bering Sea. It’s really the West Coast as a whole and how our behaviors impact the environment.