Elaine Caton (2009)

From a “Focus on Ecologists” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2009-2011.

Full NameElaine Caton
Job PositionScience Education Specialist
OrganizationPrivate Consultant
Professional AffiliationNon-profit
Research DisciplineAnimal Ecology, Conservation Biology
Research HabitatForest
Research OrganismTerrestrial vertebrates
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompassesI am self-employed as a science education specialist. Non-profit organizations and government agencies contract with me to develop curriculum and provide science education programs, primarily for K-12 teachers. Most of my work is based in ecology and conservation in Montana.
What do you love most about your job?I love coming up with creative and effective ways to help people learn about the world around them, and I love working with educators who love to teach and are so accomplished at what they do.
Briefly describe your job path.I finished my B.A. in Zoology at the University of Montana in 1984 and spent 10 years working as a seasonal biologist in Glacier National Park, with some winter work in other places. This gave me lots of experience with ecological research in different systems, and interaction with other ecologists. I entered graduate school 8 years after receiving my B.A. After completing my Ph.D in Organismal Biology and Ecology, I worked with Dr. Carol Brewer at the University of Montana in science education. An NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship in Science, Math, Engineering and Technology (with Dr. Brewer as my mentor) allowed me to pursue my interest in facilitating teacher‑ecologist partnerships and develop a program for this at UM. Following this, I received an NSF grant to extend this work partnering teachers with research ecologists in Montana. I think this varied experience in both research and education has allowed me to create my own niche as an ecological educator. Since the births of my two daughters I have switched to consulting work, which allows me to spend more time with my family, work from my rural home, and select the work I do.
What challenges did you need to overcome?I think the greatest challenges for me have been to resist feeling that I needed to pursue a permanent, full‑time academic or agency position, and to be willing to be flexible and pursue my own funding sources.
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future?Work in Latin America.
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party?I tell them I develop and conduct science education programs for teachers.
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice?I grew up in a rural, blue-collar family. My parents weren’t able to attend college but were self-educated and well-read, and encouraged their children to pursue education and doing what interested them. They always supported and were proud of my career.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)?I grew up on a beautiful farm in Missouri, which had a creek, hardwood forest, lake, river and fields that I spent most of my time exploring. My mother was been interested in nature and biology and her enthusiasm stimulated my own interest in the natural world around me. I spent much of my childhood catching minnows, snakes, and frogs, picking berries, and just absorbing information about local organisms. After completing my bachelor’s degree in zoology I had the great fortune to work in Glacier National Park for the avian biologist, Dr. Riley McClelland, who taught me so much about science and natural history. My experience with Dr. McClelland encouraged me to return to school for my Ph.D.
What is the most valuable advice a mentor gave you or that you would offer to someone who’d like to do the same job as you?I would suggest that you get some good research experience before starting graduate work, and that you remain flexible and think somewhat outside the box in terms of career opportunities.