Judith Vergun, Tradition and Ecology

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2011. Profile circa 2004.
Currently, Director for Conference and Presentation Programs in the Association for Integrity and Responsible Leadership in Economics and Related Professions, Washington DC.
Professor (retired), College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University and School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology, University of Hawai’i at Manoa.


1993 Ph.D., Agricultural Sciences, Oregon State University
Dr. Vergun’s career as an ecologist blends her Traditional Ecological Knowledge with ecological research to address sustainable management practices. Dr. Vergun received a 2004 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring for her work with African-American, Latino, and Native American students.

Ecologist Profile

Dr. Judith Vergun
Dr. Judith Vergun

My father was the most influential person in guiding me into ecology. We spent many hours throughout many seasons outside together observing and documenting events in nature. Also, I didn’t like school because I didn’t like being inside buildings to learn things, I preferred to be outside to learn, no matter what the weather…snow, wind, rain, hot sun…I liked it all. So, I spent most of my time in the mountains and high deserts observing nature and making sketches of things – trying to figure out why things were the way they were. It’s hard to be an ecologist when you’re inside buildings all day, every day. I still prefer being outside all day and at nighttime too. So, in a weird way, not liking school guided me into ecology.
When I was a little kid, I loved to be with my father on his working trips. He was a geologist by western science training and knew a lot of American Indian traditional ecological knowledge too, although, he never distinguished between the two knowledge bases when he taught me things. He never said, ‘This is Indian knowledge’ or ‘this is what western science teaches’, he just said, ‘this is how it is’… and it was. Everything he taught me turned out to be true. For example, if you want to find water in the desert, look for the anthills. They indicate where the water table is highest. And, if there is a heavy infestation of yellow jackets in mountain forests very early in the fall, the winter will be hard and long, therefore: Prepare for it. He taught me to always be aware of my surroundings and to trust my experienced intuition. He reminded me that experienced intuition is gained by awareness – using sight, sound, touch, smell and respect in the environment. Watch the behaviors of animals, birds, fish and plants to learn what’s going on in the environment. Watch cloud locations, shapes and their movement to predict weather. Watch snowmelt, stream velocity and meanders. Watch how everything interacts and affects everything else during all seasons. That’s what my father taught me. It was fascinating and I felt really alive learning that way.
Ross Racine of the Blackfeet Nation and Executive Director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council is another important mentor for me. He can ‘read the land’ in almost a split-second and with careful observations understand the past climate history, management and current site conditions. Ross has a special magic with animals, especially horses. He is the most straightforward, honest person I know. He calls it like it is and lets you know if you need to rethink something. That’s being a really good friend. Ross mentored me through the psychodrama of earning a PhD during late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s mostly his fault that I’m a PhD ecologist. I still call on him for advice and mentoring.
Currently, I am the director of two comprehensive ecological research, education and outreach programs: The Native Americans in Marine and Space Sciences Program at Oregon State University and the Kumu Ola Program at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. My Ph.D. in Plant Community Ecology and Science Education positioned me well for this work. But, actually, when I was younger, I never thought about ecology as a career. In fact, I disliked school so much that I was more interested in working, getting married and raising a family than in continuing my education after high school. What I learned from my father was a way of life, not a career choice. At least, at that time, I didn’t recognize it as a career choice. My work after high school took me in a completely different direction. I was a high fashion model based in San Francisco, then worked in television and movie production for about 15 years. This was a good job because I could schedule my work to fit well with my family life—I was able to marry, have three wonderful daughters and spend time with raising them, and work when it didn’t interfere with my family life. My first interest was in being a good mother. I’m not sure when I first heard the term ‘ecology’, but I think it was when my media agent noted that the list of TV commercials that I would NOT do was longer than the list of what I WOULD do. My agent had the job of booking me for commercials. I refused to work in commercials that advertised products that ruined or polluted our natural environment or compromised our health… for example smoking cigarettes… I wouldn’t participate in advertising cigarettes. I wouldn’t advertise gas-guzzling cars… or work in ads that showed cars being driven through streams and in natural environments where cars should not be. My agent said that ‘maybe I was an environmentalist or something’. She was right. I needed to pursue the ‘or something’. I decided to change careers, go back to school and earn a Ph.D. in ecology to be able to do the work I do today. My daughters agreed that it would be a great idea and we moved to Oregon, lived on a farm and I earned my degrees at about the same time they graduated from high school and college!
What were my challenges? Having enough money, time and energy. The biggest challenge, was balancing work, family and my studies. I was a single parent supporting the family financially and trying to earn my degrees at the same time. I had little sleep during those years!
Also, the distance between the university and my PhD project was a challenge. I drove between reservation, home and the university 2 or 3 times a week. My Ph.D. project was on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in North Central Oregon. Oregon State University, where I took classes, is in the Willamette Valley where I also lived on the farm with my daughters. It was a 4-hour drive each way between the reservation and the university and the drive included going through the Cascade mountains. Driving through icy mountain passes late at night or in the early morning during winters was quite often a white-knuckle driving experience. One night, conditions were so bad that the snowplow went out of control and plunged down the mountain. For some reason, I made it safely through the pass that night.
My key advice for students today is: Learn who you are—find and appreciate your own unique self and understand what is important in your own life. Then, follow your passion. You will do well if you pursue what most is most interesting, exciting and meaningful to you. Work hard and don’t lose sight of your goal when the going gets tough. Also, find a good mentor. Someone you trust and who has the wisdom to guide you through your academic experiences and help you make good choices. My Ph.D. mentors were wonderful: Paul Doescher, Edward Jensen, Gregg Walker, Clara Pratt, and Russell Ingham. I accepted a position at Oregon State University after completing my PhD because I felt that I could do well professionally under the guidance and mentoring of Dr. Douglas Caldwell, Dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS) at the time. Often people choose to work at a different university than where they earned their graduate degrees. I chose to stay at OSU and it was the right choice for me. I joined the faculty in 1993. Dr. Caldwell’s mentoring has been and still is invaluable. Currently, I hold a joint appointment with COAS at Oregon State University and with University of Hawai’i at Manoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST). My work continues to be interesting and challenging.
To effectively communicate ecology to a diverse audience, one must know the audience. Understand to whom you are speaking and understand their worldviews and concerns. Dialogue with the audience or study with people in those diverse communities before designing your presentation. Understand what is culturally offensive so that you don’t make innocent but rude comments by accident. This way you can tailor your comments in a presentation that is productive ecologically and meaningful and respectful to the audience.
Also, you need to be clear about the message you wish to communicate. Know how to state, in uncomplicated language, what is important and why. And remember that listening is part of communicating. Listen carefully to people’s questions and concerns. Give thoughtful, clear and respectful answers. Some people may know more than you do about some things. Or, they may have a different perspective. My best advice is to provide interesting and thoughtful information about something—and that’s enough.

If you plan to argue for people to change their minds or if you appear to be pushing an idea on them, they’ll become defensive… you’ll lose their trust. This accomplishes nothing. Just provide valuable insight and responsible information, and then let people decide for themselves what to do with that information. Gaining trust is more important than gaining agreement.