When retired professor of ecology Mary Willson was growing up in the 1950s, very few women worked in the sciences.
Mary Willson: Curiosity-driven life 103013 OUTDOORS 1 Capital City Weekly When retired professor of ecology Mary Willson was growing up in the 1950s, very few women worked in the sciences.

Photos By Skip Gray

Mary Willson sets up a mist net during her work involving American Dippers. They banded caught birds and, over the course of their study, found that contrary to the results of a study conducted outside Alaska, male American Dippers in this environment play a role in nest sanitation.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Story last updated at 10/30/2013 - 4:23 pm

Mary Willson: Curiosity-driven life

When retired professor of ecology Mary Willson was growing up in the 1950s, very few women worked in the sciences.

"You were expected to get married and raise a family. That was what women did," she said. "I was never interested in any of those things."

Though it's hard to pinpoint when she first became interested in ecology, she was always curious about the world. It was when she was in graduate school that she discovered instead of going to the library to look something up, she could go outside and find out for herself.

"The answer was not in the literature. It was essentially an unknown, and you could go and find it out. That's very cool," she said. After her first grad school course, "there was really no turning back."

Willson arrived in Juneau in 1989, after retiring from 25 years of teaching ecology at the University of Illinois.

After her husband died, she said she woke up one morning and thought, "I don't have to be here anymore - hmm, where will I go?"

Willson got a job as a researcher for the Forest Service, working for them almost 10 years. She explored topics like bears as agents of seed dispersal, and a hooligan run in Berners Bay.

"The predators were just going crazy... you can get tens of thousands of gulls up there foraging, and up to a thousand bald eagles," Willson said.

One of the best things about arriving in Juneau was the relative lack of topics and animals that had already been studied, she said.

"It was like coming up and finding my own sandbox to play in," Willson said. "I'm flippant when I call it 'a sandbox to play in' - but researchers 'play' to me. It's serious play, not frivolous - but I love just finding some little thing and then finding out more about it. That's what keeps me going."

In the early 1990s, she also began traveling to Chile's southern temperate rainforest and researching the chucao, an "exceedingly secretive" small bird threatened by agriculture-driven forest fragmentation. Willson and a team of people figured out what it would take to keep the bird around, though it's a political decision whether or not that will happen, she said.

After the Forest Service, she worked for the Nature Conservancy for a year, and then she retired.

Her second retirement, however, seems almost as active as her first. She's been publishing most of her life. Books she's co-authored in Southeast Alaska include American Dippers: Singers in the Mountain Stream (with Kathy Hocker) and Beavers by the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska (with Bob Armstrong). She also writes a regular column in the Outdoors section of the Juneau Empire.

Willson recently published a book with Armstrong that was the topic of September's "Wildlife Wednesday" event: Natural Connections in Alaska, a book exploring exactly what it sounds like.

"Ecologists are often interested in relationships," she said. "But you can also focus on a single thing... as I did for 10 years with American Dippers.... Sometimes one thread connects to a previous thread, but mostly it's curiosity-driven."

"Curiosity-driven" is an apt term to describe Willson's life.

"Everything you do in the way of research involves some little discovery - some little 'aha.' It's not earth-shaking - but some little surprise," she said.

In Juneau, she loves being able to hike, kayak, or camp whenever she wants. She also loves Juneau's "vibrant cultural life," especially the lyric opera and the symphony.

Willson goes for regular walks with friends including Armstrong and Hocker, on which they usually find at least three or four really interesting things to explore, she said. She volunteers as a member of the informally-dubbed "beaver patrol," which helps monitor beaver habitat and ensure dams don't negatively affect trails or other wildlife around the Mendenhall Lake and Dredge Lake.

"The idea is that you don't have to kill the beavers. They're actually useful. We like them, but they make ponds that are very good for juvenile coho," Willson said. The ponds also create habitat for ducks, sandpipers, warblers, and other birds.

She's continued to do fieldwork and research, and anticipates gravitating toward a relatively small project next.

"Being a field ecologist is a way to go on being a tomboy all your life, and that's one of the cool things about living here," she said.

Mary Catharine Martin is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at maryc.martin@capweek.com.