Meet Katie Peterson, a biologist excited about science education, invertebrates, and her burgeoning botany skills!

What is your scientific background and how did you end up in your current position?

I’ve taken a rather circuitous route to end up where I am today. I went to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota where I began as Chemistry major then moved to Psychology for a few semesters but ultimately I found my passion in Biology and received a B.A. in 2010. While in college, I had the amazing opportunity to study in Ecuador and the Galápagos and I know it sounds cliché but it truly was an eye-opening experience and solidified my research interests and desire to continue in science, specifically ecology and evolution. After the trip I approached my professor and mentor about possible research projects that I could dip my toes in during my last year. A few weeks later I showed up at my parents house with a microscope, a HUGE identification manual, and a box full of spiders. This experience raised my interests in these often-hated creatures and after staring at them for hours and seeing the tiny details: the individual hairs, color variation, and their eyes I was hooked and started to look at the world around me in a whole new way with much appreciation for the miniature creatures around us. Thanks for the experience Dr. Carlin!

Sorting spiders in the field/ Katie Peterson

For two summers I worked in the Aveda Butterfly Garden at the Minnesota Zoo and interacted with zoo guests, which was my first experience with public outreach/education. Through my work at the zoo I realized education was also a passion of mine. I have always loved the outdoors and with my newfound desire to gain experience with education I sought out opportunities that would allow both. After graduation I was overjoyed to accept a position with AmeriCorps at the McCall Outdoor Science School in McCall, Idaho where I taught elementary aged students in Ponderosa State Park… literally a dream job. After my yearlong position with AmeriCorps I then completed a Masters program at the University of Idaho in Natural Resources.

The semester after I graduated, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to plan lessons and coordinate field trips while teaching a course for students in a program from Central and South America on ecosystems. It was an amazing experience and it was my first time developing a course and undoubtedly helped shape my future career goals. I then stepped out of the academic world for the next 2 years working at a local non-profit organization in Moscow, ID the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute (PCEI) first as an AmeriCorps member for a second yearlong position and then a staff member. While at PCEI I taught over 150 lessons and field trips to local school children of all ages. I realized that school was calling me back and fall 2014 I began my PhD program at the University of Idaho in Dr. Christine Parent’s lab. So overall I would say my background is full of invertebrates, the outdoors, and teaching!

Blue Dragon lava flow/ Katie Peterson

Did you have a role model or mentor that influenced your decision to work in science?

Growing up I was not sure what I wanted to be. In my mind the careers I was interested in varied from interior designer to forensic scientist, but it wasn’t until high school that my interest and dedication to pursuing science was put to the test. In my Advanced Chemistry class I struggled, (a lot), but my teacher Mr. C was always so supportive and willing to help and answer my endless questions on “what,” “why,” and “how.” I learned so much in that class about being an active student and it showed me that if I put my mind to it I could be successful in science. Without a mentor like Mr. C who was willing to help a struggling student like me, I have no doubt I would not have pursued a field in science if it were not for him. Thanks Mr. C!

Since high school, I have pursed my passion in biology and there have been many, many friends, colleagues, and professors that have helped me and provided support when I wanted to curl up in a ball and give up. I wish I could thank all of them for helping me stay sane, sharing a laugh, and for believing in me!

Which topic are you working on at the moment? What are the hardest parts related to this work?

For my work I am interested in how geographic attributes like area, age, and isolation effect communities of plants and spiders within a naturally fragmented system. My field system is Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Southern Idaho. It is a volcanic landscape full of lava flows, both smooth pahoehoe and rough ʻaʻā lava, and over 500 vegetated islands called kipukas. My field collections have been made within these kipukas at Craters of the Moon. I collect representatives of the plant community and collect jumping spiders and crab spiders within the kipukas.

Plant press/ Katie Peterson

Currently for my research I am spending a lot of time in either the William F. Barr Entomological Collection identifying spiders I have collected or in the Stillinger Herbarium identifying plants from my last two field seasons while listening to true crime podcasts (I highly recommend Wine & Crime). Since I was neither a trained entomologist, nor a botanist (although I had the opportunity to take an amazing field botany course where I caught the “botany bug”), it takes me while to identify those specimens.

It has been really frustrating, empowering, and exciting after keying, checking historical records, and specimen stacks to finally determine a species. This summer I have begun lab work with my spider specimens so that is another area that I am learning, struggling, and gaining new skills. I have definitely worked to expand my skillset during my PhD to become a well-rounded scientist. I would say one of the hardest parts is learning to ask for help. We all suffer from imposter syndrome but it takes a village to complete a PhD as far as I can tell, and finding those colleagues that are willing to help are so important to be able to be successful.

How does your family regard your career choice?

My family has always been a source of support for me and this is also true in regards to my career choice. I know they probably weren’t the most excited parents on the planet as I collected dead butterflies and stored them in the freezer at home or when I brought home spider samples and had them spread all over the kitchen table, but they are always interested in what I am doing and help me to remain positive even when things get rough. My partner David is a great source of support for me and he has never doubted my abilities, even when I was, and I thank him for urging me to go back to school. He is always willing to talk through a research topic I am struggling with or listen to me practice my presentations.

Sciencecat Zoey checking the work/ Katie Peterson

What advice do you have for young scientists in the making?

My advice would be to take as many courses as you can in varied focus areas (e.g. plant, animal, cell, behavior, coding, GIS, etc.). In each new course you learn skills and you never know when they may come into play in your life. Find a mentor that is willing to help you navigate your field. This doesn’t have to be your advisor necessarily, but it is important to have someone you can bounce ideas off of and ask for advice. Lastly, I would say to take chances, seek out opportunities and experiences that push you out of your comfort zone, and talk to people. You never know what internship or chance meeting will lead to your next adventure.

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

I am passionate about education and outreach and because of my past teaching experiences while at PCEI I started an informal education series in Moscow, ID called Science After Hours (similar to Science Cafes). As a graduate student I have remained heavily involved in the series and organize the monthly events that include speakers from the University of Idaho, Washington State University, and community organizations. Over the last two years, Science After Hours has provided a platform for scientists to engage and interact with the public. 48 graduate students, post docs, and faculty have been involved and have shared their science with the Moscow community.

Completely outside of science I love playing softball and have been on a team with friends for the last five summers. It is a great stress reliever for me and is always a great time. This summer we won our league- yay! I enjoy adventuring on the weekends with David when we can get away; although my hiking pace is dramatically slowed by my need to use my hand lens to takes pictures of ALL THE TINY THINGS along the way. I also love my cat Zoey “Toes” and she is not as helpful in my educational endeavors as she thinks.


You can contact Katie at pete2511[at]vandals[dot]uidaho[dot]edu and follow her on Twitter!