Q & A with Dr. Cleo Woelfle-Erskine

How did you decide to become a professor?

I’ve always loved teaching, and before graduate school taught environmental science and geography to K-12 students, and home graywater system installation and rainwater harvesting to adults. In graduate school, I discovered I love research as well, and realized I could combine research, teaching, mentoring students, and community-engaged research as a professor.

What do you like most about your work?

As a critical social scientist and scholar of how science works in the world, I love the moments when people from different disciplines and backgrounds reflect on their worldviews and knowledges, and consider how different ways of knowing or ways of managing an ecosystem might contribute to a shared goal like recovering a salmon run. I collaborate in the field and on paper with other academics, and also with tribal members, citizen scientists, grassroots activists, and artists. These transdisciplinary (and sometimes undisciplined!) collaborations can change the stakes and power dynamics of social-environmental problems, and are fruitful in sometimes-surprising ways.

If you could have any amount of funding to conduct research, what would you do, and why?

I would set up long-term study sites in partnership with tribal-led coalitions to restore streamflow and enhance riverine habitat for salmon and other aquatic species. Pacific Northwest tribes have always been at the forefront of salmon and river protection, and can mobilize legal, scientific, and institutional capacities to undertake landscape-scale projects. My dream research project would support ongoing work by tribes and their agency and other partners to study long-term social and ecological outcomes of these collaborations and their on-the-ground work, and train students from tribal and other environmental justice communities in conducting such collaborative, transdisciplinary research. I think such research can foreground indigenous knowledge and sovereignty in salmon and river restoration debates, and can result in more robust—and less contested—policies and projects.

What advice would you give to students who are considering studying at SMEA?

Think broadly and read widely! A masters is the perfect time to learn in one or two new fields—if you’re trained as a biologist, study economic theory; if you’re an oceanographer, take a human geography class. Take advice where you can find it, but trust your instincts about what approaches you’re most drawn to. And always do the reading!

What is your favorite form of marine life, and why?

Salmon, especially coho. All salmon, through their anadromous life histories, bring a watershed together from headwaters to ocean. Thinking and living with salmon means learning to care for all their co-inhabitants—predators, prey, riparian vegetation, microbes, and upland forests their dead bodies supply with nitrogen. Coho in particular are natural strayers, seeking out new tributaries once a dam has come down, and as juveniles are bold—they come right up in your face when you’re counting them underwater.

Read more about Professor Woelfle-Erskine and his work on his faculty page