Sun streaming through trees at McMahon Lake preserve
McMahon Lake Preesrve Forest Sun streaming through trees at McMahon Lake preserve © Bigfoot Media (Jason Whalen)

Stories in Michigan

A Lifelong Journey in Science

Emily Clegg shares how she went from being a curious fifth grader to a land protection scientist.

(ALL RIGHTS GRANTED TNC, CREDIT MANDATORY) Emily Clegg.  Photo Credit: © Nick Jensen/Floline Media
Emily Clegg Land Protection Associate, Michigan

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My first foray into the natural science world was a 5th grade, three-day trip to our local outdoor education center (where I ended up working later in life). I remember learning about wolves and pack dynamics, garlic mustard, and prairie restoration. My mom claims I came home and told her I wanted to go to school outside for the rest of my life.

I just always loved science classes in school. I have specific memories of getting the best grades in my class on several occasions—a bird food and behavioral study I did in 8th grade, a geology paper I wrote on the Yellowstone Caldera as a freshman in high school, and the first 100% A+ on a physics paper that the teacher had given in like 10 years as a senior in high school. It’s just kind of something I always knew I was going to do, which prompted me to major in Environmental Science as an undergrad.

I was fortunate enough to learn about TNC as an undergrad and worked two summers as a seasonal staff member out of the Marquette office working on theUP Big Deal and in the Two Hearted. I liked the work I did with the watershed management and specifically with the intersections of forest and freshwater. I knew that to be a contender in the natural resources field, I would have to get a master’s degree. 

Growing from Student to Conservation Professional

Getting through my master’s degree was rough. I struggled a lot with the statistics portion of my research, and it was my first time doing true natural resource project management. The tribe that worked with our lab was depending on my data and results to make resource management decisions. My advisor was very supportive and really saw how much I was struggling and gave me great advice that I still carry around today: that I don’t have to be the best at everything or have all of the answers. If I don’t know how to do something, there are people around us to help fill in your weak areas. 

As a typical overachiever, it was hard to admit at the time I needed help and I didn’t know where to get it from or who to ask. It was one of  the first times I had truly struggled in a science setting, so learning to ask for help was a pretty mind-opening lesson for me to learn.

Completing a Four-Year Project on the Two Hearted River 

I love completing big projects that have results that can be seen. I think the one I am most proud of completing is the Two Hearted River Connectivity and Sedimentation Project. I completed that project over four years which included road stream crossing replacements and bank stabilizations at 23 sites in the Two Hearted River Watershed that reconnected 140 miles of river (25% of the river), and reduced sediment loading by 625 tons per year.

The project took the Two Hearted River Management Plan that I helped write as a seasonal employee and implemented it. That was my first start to finish, large project with TNC. I really had a sense of accomplishment when doing post construction monitoring and seeing the brook trout in places they hadn’t been able to get to before

Some of my favorite projects were ones that didn’t work out, but then we know why it didn’t work—and sometimes that is the result”

Encouraging Women in Science

My advice to other aspiring women in science: it’s ok to not get it right—that’s part of the process, and it’s ok to ask for help when you are stuck or struggling. Some of my favorite projects were ones that didn’t work out, but then we know why it didn’t work—and sometimes that is the result. And it sounds kitschy, but it’s true—asking for help from someone with more knowledge than you isn’t weakness, it’s strength.

(ALL RIGHTS GRANTED TNC, CREDIT MANDATORY) Emily Clegg.  Photo Credit: © Nick Jensen/Floline Media

Emily Clegg is the Land Protection Associate for TNC in Michigan. She works out of Marquette, Michigan.