Karen L. McKee

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

Full Name Karen L. McKee
Degree PhD
Job Position Research Ecologist
Organization U.S. Geological Survey
Department National Wetlands Research Center
Professional Affiliation Government
Research Discipline Plant Ecology
Research Habitat Wetlands
Research Organism Estuarine plants
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompasses I manage a research program focused on global change and other impacts to wetland ecosystems. I work for a government agency, so my job is mainly focused on research rather than on teaching. My activities revolve around designing and conducting research in a variety of wetlands around the world, including countries such as Belize, Panama, Australia, New Zealand, China, and Vietnam. Fieldwork has dealt with the impacts of hurricanes, sea-level rise, elevated CO2, fire, and human activities on wetlands. I also conduct greenhouse and growth chamber experiments to investigate how wetland plants adapt to their environment and in turn how plants influence the structure and function of wetlands.
What do you love most about your job? Basically, it’s the problem-solving nature of research that is most enjoyable to me. I love the constant challenge of figuring out how best to address difficult research questions and then interpreting and reporting my findings in a way that is compelling and interesting to others.
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution. B.S.-Zoology, Mississippi State University
M.S.-Botany, North Carolina State University
Ph.D.-Botany, Louisiana State University
Briefly describe your job path. I did not go straight through academic training, but instead worked at various jobs during and in between each degree. I spent a couple of years working as a laboratory technician after my B.S. and also after my M.S. degree. Then I worked as a research associate, a soft-money position that I funded through grants. While working full-time at a university, I finished my Ph.D. and later took a job with the U.S. Geological Survey where I’ve been for the past ten years.
What challenges did you need to overcome? Growing up during the 50s and 60s in rural Mississippi, I did not have the resources or encouragement to pursue a career in science. I worked at a local hospital to pay for my college tuition and living expenses. But the biggest challenge was overcoming the prejudices of the time against females in science. In fact, when I was in college I was sometimes the only female in the class and had to justify my presence in a male-dominated field. For example, male classmates tried to get me removed from a dendrology class because I “would slow the class down on field trips”. Fortunately, most of my instructors were supportive, and the prejudices I encountered early on simply stimulated me to excel at everything.
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future? My long-term goal is to encourage and attract students to science, particularly from underprivileged backgrounds. My husband (who is also an ecologist) and I have established a foundation that provides travel grants to students of wetland science: http://thewetlandfoundation.org. We plan to continue and expand this effort after we retire.
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party? At a party, I would typically say that I’m a scientist doing research to try to understand how to better conserve and manage our natural resources. I usually tell people that I spend a lot of time in the field– observing natural ecosystems and figuring out how they work.
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice? I grew up in a very rural area, but this gave me access to nature. I spent many hours roaming the countryside in and around my family’s farm collecting insects, plants, fossils and other things that interested me. My backyard was forest, pasture, pond, and creek–a landscape filled with a variety of environments and life forms. I learned many skills from my father during hunting and fishing trips that serve me as an ecologist today: observational skills, orienteering, animal tracking, plant cultivation and many others. This early experience was a perfect beginning for an ecologist. My parents were not educated and did not always understand my interest in science, but they supported me in pursuing a career in this field.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)? I can’t really recall any specific person or occurrence that inspired me to become a scientist. I always seemed to have the idea from a very young age that I would be a scientist one day. My appreciation and love of nature came from my father. He always seemed to be able to answer my questions and showed me how fascinating nature was. Later, I became fascinated with science fiction simultaneously with the race for space. I distinctly recall my elementary school playing the “beeping” of Sputnik over the loudspeaker and later watching the first steps on the moon on live TV. Space exploration and the excitement of embarking on a voyage into the unknown were definitely inspiring to me and many others of my generation.
Who currently inspires you? I’ve come to appreciate those scientists who tirelessly and quietly pursue their work with little fanfare and without regard to what is the latest “hot topic”. My colleague and husband, Irv Mendelssohn, has always inspired me with his dedication, enthusiasm, and integrity as a scientist, a teacher, and a mentor. We spent 20 years working as a science team, published a lot of papers together, and the fact that we are still married says a lot about his patience and collaborative abilities!
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? My advice to someone who wants to pursue a career in science:
1. Get a mentor. Find someone who is willing to help you gain or improve your skills and to give guidance in career planning.
2. Do an internship or get a summer job, even volunteer in the field that you are considering. You will gain some skills, make useful contacts, and determine if this is the right career path for you.
3. Focus on communication skills–speaking and writing. If you cannot effectively communicate your science, you will not be successful. You also need to be able to explain your work to policy-makers and the general public. I periodically challenge my staff to pretend they have been approached by a local fisherman, landowner, or refuge manager and to explain in one or two sentences what they are doing and why it is important.Remember that there is no one correct path to success in a career in ecology; you just have to find the one that works for you.
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist (or other profession)? I would most like people to remember my 1. dedication to setting and maintaining high standards for myself as a scientist and never compromising my ideals and 2. advocacy of women in science.
How do you feel your work has contributed to society? As an ecologist, I think my work has helped to generally raise awareness of the interconnectedness of plants, animals (including humans), and the environment. My specific research on wetlands and global change has hopefully further highlighted the consequences of the decisions we make today on our quality of life in the coming decades.
Award Name USGS Diversity Award for “promoting the participation and success of women in science”
Year originally profiled. 2009