Cathy Nowak’s love of learning leads to pursuit of NRM doctorate in retirement
By: George Watson
It's a long drive from Oregon to Texas, leaving plenty of time to think. This past spring, Blake Grisham, an associate professor in Texas Tech's Department of Natural Resources Management, made this drive, as he has done every year for the last six years. It was his annual trip with students from NRM to the Pacific Northwest to help friend and Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) biologist Cathy Nowak tag and track greater sandhill cranes around the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area.
This time, however, was different. After 20 years with ODFW, Nowak had announced her retirement. She was going to continue the ongoing crane research as a volunteer, just because she was deeply involved and loved the work. But as the miles ticked by for Grisham, the thought kept creeping into his head – why not have Nowak formalize all her work into a doctoral degree?
“I called her and said, ‘If I could get some funding for you to do your doctorate at Texas Tech using these data you've collected since 2008, would you be interested?'” Grisham said. “I expected her to just laugh me off the face of the earth. She had a big trip to Ecuador and maybe Costa Rica planned. I'm like, ‘Who wants to work for a doctorate at 65 when you have all these awesome trips planned?' I've been told ‘no' a lot in my life; that's part of being a scientist.”
Turns out, she was interested. “I was ready to retire from ODFW, but I felt there was much more to learn from the cranes,” Nowak said. “I was planning to continue capturing, tracking and learning about sandhill cranes as a volunteer after retirement. I wanted to do the research. Texas Tech offers many resources not available to me at ODFW in terms of expertise, mentorship and an academic environment. So, I decided to pursue a doctorate to finish the work I had started and to cap my wildlife career by having done something of value for sandhill crane management.”
So, at age 65, Nowak enrolled as a doctoral student in NRM within Tech's College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources. But it's not a normal path for a doctoral student by any means, and not just because of her age.
Nowak is performing her course work and research while still residing in Oregon, where the research is happening. In one aspect, Grisham said, the COVID-19 pandemic displayed the ability of this setup from through Texas Tech's robust distance learning practices, which have been implemented in Nowak's pursuit of a doctorate.
Grisham said some of the graduate classes Nowak will take will be done virtually, but those will be limited due to his belief that an NRM degree is best done with a hands-on approach. At the same time, Nowak has enough experience in the field that many of the classes in the degree program will contain information she already knows.
Still, Nowak is looking forward to the learning process. “Education always enhances life,” she said. “During this process, I hope to better understand the data and observations I compile and to make it available to the wider community of sandhill crane researchers. I also hope to share our understanding of cranes with the general public and open a window into the lives of cranes that few are privileged to see. I have no plans or vision for work beyond this project, but that is a few years in the future so, who knows?”
Pursuing a doctorate from a university halfway across the country is definitely unusual, Grisham said. He said the distance aspect is likely not new to Texas Tech, but having someone pursue a degree in retirement certainly is new in NRM.
“I'm not sure if either individual, either from my perspective or Cathy's perspective, would be willing to do this,” Grisham said. “But I think everything just fell in place with us, how well we get along and our shared visions and goals, both with research and student mentoring.
“I think one of the pros of being in NRM at Texas Tech is we emphasize working together in collaborative ways with different people. We sort of form these kind of family bonds,” he said. “I think that's why it's rare and unique, especially in other disciplines where you don't have such a tight-knit connection.”
CONTACT: Warren Conway, Bricker Endowed Chair in Wildlife Management and Chairperson, Department of Natural Resources Management, Texas Tech University at (806) 4-6579 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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