‘Growing solutions’: Alum invests in his future, works as restoration ecologist on Channel Islands

Views 170 | Time to read: 4 minutes | Uploaded: 4 - 1 - 2014 | By: Emilie Whitman

Not many of us expect to spend our first post-college year managing a nursery full of 4,500 plants in a wetland on one of the Channel Islands, but that’s exactly the project alumnus Peter Harman undertook upon graduating in 2012 with a bachelor of science degree in biology. Harman now works on both Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara Islands as a restoration ecologist for Growing Solutions Restoration Education Institute. For his first project, Harman worked directly with Channel Islands National Park Service employees, as well as other biologists from the California Institute for Environmental Studies.

“All of my work falls under the umbrella of habitat restoration,” Harman explained. “The vast majority of what I do on the islands, as well as the mainland, is growing native plants for restoration projects with attention to site-specific genetics.”

According to Harman, while many of the plants found throughout local habitats can be found in several other parts of the United States, “smaller localized populations tend to evolve and develop slight differences that make them best suited for the individual environment in which they exist. So when a habitat gets restored, it’s important to propagate those plants best suited to live in the intended habitat.”

For his work on Santa Barbara Island, Harman restores the habitat of endangered and threatened seabirds. “Out there, most of the work is tending to plants in a nursery that has been built on the island, and also keeping young plants alive at the restoration sites,” he said. “We also dedicate a fair amount of time during the nesting seasons to monitoring artificial and natural burrows and nesting sites, gathering data about the prevalence of birds returning to the islands.”

Harman’s biology and chemistry education at Westmont informed a great deal of his current ecological restoration work. But Harman also credits his work ethic and job experiences during college for preparing him (and paving the way) for his current position.

“I would say that I feel very lucky to have my job, but I don't think that ‘luck’ is an honest assessment of how I got where I am,” Harman acknowledged. While networking does play a part, Harman attributes employment marketability to initiative.

“I got where I am because I saw an opportunity and I did what it took to get myself involved,” Harman said simply. The best advice he ever received? "Work for free while you still can.”

Harman explained, “In college, many of us have a rare opportunity to work without pay. I'm generalizing of course, but for many of us college is this strange time when we have the opportunity to get an unpaid internship.”

According to Harman, “If that opportunity is managed properly, it’s also an investment in a future job. I met my current bosses while in college and started an unpaid internship for them. I didn't have any practical skills or experience for plant propagation, but at no cost to them I made up for my lack of skills with a strong work ethic. Fast forward six months. College is over, and because I effectively submitted myself to half a year of employee training at no cost to my company — and proved myself to be intelligent and teachable — I had my first job offer without having to hunt for it.”

Harman’s work for Growing Solutions has provided him not only with a couple of years of experience, but also with a vision for his future in the field. Harman, who has always considered graduate school, will leave Santa Barbara for Sacramento this summer to begin his M.S. in biological sciences with a concentration on community ecology, evolution and conservation. Following this program, Harman plans to pursue a Ph.D.

Harman offered those who are interested in following a similar path some advice of his own. “Find a job you want to do, even if you are unqualified, and find a way to get in and prove yourself. There are few employers in the environmental field that have the resources to hire an employee that is starting from scratch, so getting whatever experience you can is the best way to move in and move up.”


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