Iral Ragenovich: A Career Devoted to Caring for the Land and Serving People

Iral pauses from collecting data on forest impact of balsam woolly adelgid in a long-term monitoring plot, Mt. Rainier National Park, 2016. Image credit: Beth Willhite, USFS.

Iral Ragenovich became a forest entomologist when forestry was not for women, and the thought of insects in forests, or what they might be doing there, had probably not even entered the minds of most women. Like any pioneer, her uncharted route included unique peril, exhilaration, and satisfaction.

Quiet and unassuming, often hiding behind a huge puff of hair, her expression speaks wisdom, and her reserve invites curiosity. Any initial exchange with her does not reveal that she carries more knowledge and experience than probably everyone else in the room. She listens more than she speaks. Although when asked about a specific of forest insect biology or management, she responds carefully and thoroughly, with growing passion as she warms up to a new person’s presence. Iral was the first female entomologist hired by the USDA Forest Service’s program and the first woman to obtain a master’s degree in forestry from Stephen F. Austin State University. She has devoted 46 years to her career in the Forest Service, which has included research and management projects, environmental impact analyses, and training of forestry professionals in a variety of ecosystems in the Southeast, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest. She has worked with more than a dozen different forest pests, including bark beetles, defoliators, adelgids, and seed and cone insects.

With breadth and depth of knowledge that is rare, she deserves more accolades than her personality would ever allow her to accept. In 2017, she received an Inspiring Women award for outstanding mentorship and coaching from the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region. Colleagues across the U.S. wrote letters of nomination. For Iral, those letters were the most meaningful aspect of the award. She was unaware that she had touched so many lives over the years.

See the full story on Entomology Today.


Halos, sometimes called sun dogs, arise from a scattering of light through ice crystals that float ground-wards in cold air. Co-occurring halos are seen or not, depending on the viewer’s perspective; a reminder that perspective can make all the difference. February 2018, Falcon Heights, MN.

Forced out of work; one of my greatest fears realized. The timing is curious, for me personally, the agency I work for, and the country as a whole. It’s an exercise in understanding how work is central and integral to life. Take it away, and what is left? More than 800,000 of us are now finding out the answer while the rest of the country watches, not without judgement. For many, basic needs cannot be met; this is by far the worst collateral damage of a government in turmoil. I am grateful to be among the few who are free to fixate concern on the less dramatic consequences.

Such a lengthy pause serves as a reminder of past furloughs. The one I remember came before my entry into government service. The 2013 shutdown overlapped a small conference of research and management experts. Even from an outside perspective, the overall effect was striking. Government employees were major players in that circle, providing important momentum to push knowledge forward and implement it. Luckily for the rest of us, their absence did not prevent the meeting. Yet, emptiness was felt frequently during formal discussion and small talk. Their ideas remained unsaid, unrealized. The community was not whole without them.

The current shutdown has forced cancellation of a conference. This was an interagency conference, supported strongly by government presence. Not only does it have a history of building a program with international expertise in its field, it establishes and nourishes numerous productive collaborations. And, not least importantly, it serves as an annual gathering of colleagues and friends who are spread widely across the continent and the globe. Thanks to the shutdown, knowledge will not be shared at this meeting. Ideas will not be exchanged and transmuted. No synergistic energy will emerge from Annapolis this week.

In the midst of mounting losses in individual and agency productivity, as with any unfortunate event, a shift in perspective reveals silver linings. For one, this is simply a pause, not an undoing. There will be other conferences, other chances to work together to solve problems. As the pause lengthens, its impacts broaden, which increases the likelihood that different and unexpected groups and individuals will commiserate and recognize commonality. This interesting side effect could strengthen community, professional, and personal relationships. The shutdown is also a forced practice in facing uncertainty – a critical life skill and a good reminder that planetary resources are finite. And for me, it’s a chance to gain perspective on a years’ long entanglement of identity with career trajectory and work productivity.

Clearly much more is at stake than self-examination, relationships, and missed scientific conferences. Though furlough is mandatory for non-essential staff, it may prove valuable in some sense as a strike. We are public servants, and as much as we long to return to our daily duties, our absence might be noticed enough to provide the necessary momentum for change. Proper, on-time financial support for the sustainability of our nation and its resources is imperative. Funds should not be allocated to unnecessary, fairy-tale sized walls. We did not choose – and do not support – this absence from service. We voraciously consume and dissect every new headline for inklings of its end. And yet, as it drags on, I wonder whether it could be a catalyst, causing our nation to abandon its tribalist fascination, binding us together over our most precious resources: our land and our people.

If time is a series of moments, some of greater meaning than others, my hope is that many moments from now this shutdown appears as a reset moment, a pause that helped to refurbish and redefine personal, agency, and national goals and missions.


Days open and close, shifting slightly in time with each successive repetition – a good rhythmic model to emulate in work. View from my office at sunset, University of Kansas, Lawrence, 2016.

Work is a central theme in most of our lives. I suspect all of us question its meaning at some point. I’m not sure if others think of it often or rarely, though there is certainly fascination with it in psychology.

For me, time follows a repeated pattern structured around work, rest, and play. Some might call it a routine, but I prefer to think of it as a rhythm, with pauses and resets as environments and timelines change. There’s comfort, solace, safety in the rhythm of work. It will always be there waiting when play and rest are finished or grow dull. I pour energy in, seeking the endorphins of concentration and persistent focus. Its needs are predictable, consistent, and usually possible to accommodate. And if I’m lucky, it will reciprocate the energy I invest in some form of reward. This is how I have always thought of work, as lifeblood that pushes me forward into the future when all else is uncertain. In fear of what I might discover, I haven’t wanted to pause to ask why it is such a powerful force, and if it is even important. The time for reflection is long overdue. So, like many others before and after me, I’ve a few words on work.

What is work? Is it strictly defined by the exchange of compensation for time spent completing a task? Or can it take place outside of financial realms, in the form of volunteering, obtaining special skills, or efforts of self-improvement? I think it can and should take place in all those forms. What kind of product does its efforts create? And should this product be meaningful to the planet, all of society, a few people, or only one person? Work should be personalized and all-inclusive along that spectrum of utility, otherwise its definition becomes too narrow, and we might discover that none of us are truly working at all.

I define my work as any challenge that requires time and effort to create something new or improve upon something that already exists. As the process unfolds, it’s useful to pause in search of meaning and importance a few times, but not too often. A sweet balance of reflection and concentrated effort are needed to keep perspective and ensure quality. Maybe there’s a perfect rhythm that can hold this balance steady?

Why work? On some level, work is the elixir of life; it provides satisfying rewards from a task well done or the successful navigation of a challenge. On another level, it’s a mere means to live, and for the more fortunate, to have the financial security or freedom to have and do things of greater interest. For me, and I suspect many others, those extra-curriculars hold more meaning when work is also meaningful.

I strive to reach an elusive, yet sweet balance between work and rest + play. Rhythm is the medium or the structure that achieves this balance. Effort continually adjusts the rhythm based on what needs to be done and what feels like enough or too much. Imbalance comes much too easily, and leads to burn-out at one extreme and under-stimulation at the other. I think it wisest to focus on the rhythm itself; the rest will follow.


Perpetual emergency

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, ID coordinates and supports US wildland firefighting efforts.

Our nation’s forests are in crisis. Wildfire. I suspect few are unaware of this situation, which seems to grow more intense every summer. Our forests are old and packed full of fuel, ready to light up in an instant. So ready, in fact, that sparks flying off a flat tire were enough to ignite what became the Carr fire, a catastrophe that consumed more than 229,000 acres, 1,600 structures, and $158 million.

Last week 22,000 government personnel were devoted to the fire-fighting effort. I was one of them. Several agencies work together to provide people and resources, some permanent and some temporary, like me, for what is loosely termed an emergency. With about 100 large wildfires currently burning across the US, contributing to a count of more than 46,000 for the season so far, resources and people are stretched thin. They work long hours, some for months at a time, with few days off. At the point of physical exhaustion, they search deep inside for resolve to continue. They find it, in reserves long-programmed in the human genetic code, a remnant of the perseverance needed when the struggle to survive was an aspect of daily life.

For me, the initial excitement of participating in this massive forest-rescue effort induced an opioid-like high that lasted several days, eventually transforming into exhaustion. I found a rhythm in 12-hour night shifts dictated by details and updates from the previous day’s fires. Night after night, my adept counterpart from the BLM and I carefully combed each fire’s report for information on growth and impending threats to people and infrastructure. By 5:30 am, we compiled the relevant numbers and key phrases into a quantitative, narrative report that summarized the day’s fire activity across the US. As we left for bed at dawn, the day shift arrived, ready to review the report. Experts in fire management, they made decisions on how and where to distribute limited resources and personnel. By the end of the day, fire reports flood in, and the process begins again. This was my world for only 14 days. For others, and for the fire-ravaged landscape, the rhythm continues until winter, when cold and precipitation put an official end to fire season.

In the literal sense of the Forest Service mission, we care for the land and serve people by fighting wildfire. Fire is by far the greediest program. It overshadows others, many of which are sustainable approaches to manage forested land. Fire itself, of course, is not the enemy. We are. We leveled the continent’s trees when we settled and expanded, then refused to let fire reset forest ecosystems for nearly a century. Now, as a result, we’re in a perpetual state of emergency. I saw the solution communicated best on a bumper sticker; it said “use fire to fight fire”. Prescribed fire is an offensive move that we can’t quite seem to use effectively…maybe because we’re constantly on the defense?

We’re fighting a dragon that we created. Can we win?

Academic and government careers are popular for both men and women in the natural sciences

Dr. Maureen McClung (far right) with students next to an observation bee hive used for studying the impacts of anthropogenic noise on bee foraging behavior. Image credit: Rose Thurman.

Following the thread of a previous post, I explore the career types of graduates reported by the faculty and mentor respondents. Most of the time faculty knew what their former students were currently up to, and reported career type for 1304 of the total 1704 students I examined in the previous post.

I first examined where graduates ended up relative to peers of the same gender; then in a later post, I will look at gender occupancy within each career type.

By field, trends were similar for men and women, for most career types. Academic careers were most common among both women and men in biology and ecology (see Fig. 1), and for men only in entomology (see Fig. 2). In biology, nearly half, 43% and 46%, of female and male graduates, respectively, ended up in academic careers (research-, teaching-, or administration-focused). In ecology, very similar percentages, 47% and 45% of female and male graduates, respectively, resided in academic careers. In entomology, 29% and 41% of female and male graduates, respectively, held academic positions. In forest entomology, government careers were most common, especially for men, with academic careers being second-most common. Thirty-eight percent and 43% of female and male graduates, respectively, of forest entomology held government positions. Thirty-six percent and 34% of female and male forest entomology graduates, respectively, held academic positions.

The largest difference between men and women was in entomology, where far more women (37%) were no longer in science than in any other career type alone (Fig. 2).
Fig. 1. Percentage of female and male biology and ecology graduates in each career type.
Fig. 2. Percentage of female and male entomology and forest entomology graduates in each career type.

These trends likely reflect a combination of availability of jobs and personal career choice. Availability of different careers likely varies among the four different fields. For example, there may be more government and industry jobs in sciences that are heavily influenced by application, such as entomology and forest entomology, rather than ecology, which may offer fewer of those positions. Also, the time of graduation may be influential, since these data span 4+ decades of graduates, 1970 – 2015, a time period that encompasses social and economic change at national and international scales. For example, there was less competition and more funding for academic positions in the 1970s and 1980s than in the 2000s (see this study, this one, and that one).

It is more difficult to assess the role of career choice and whether it changed over time. In recent years, the prestigious allure of the ivory tower has soured many graduate students by the traditional perception that it’s a profession that demands one have no personal life and devote all time and energy to a career. Women were particularly concerned about this (see this study). Government positions are often seen more favorably than academic positions when work-life balance is considered (see this study). Salary can also play a role, and may influence graduates (especially those with debt) to choose industry over other career types (see this study).

Survey questions that ask graduates of different time periods what influenced career decisions would help sort out this confusion.

Donna Leonard: at the helm of a world-renowned forest insect management program

ground net sampling giles
As part of the “slow-the-spread” program for gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar), Donna Leonard, forest entomologist at the U.S. Forest Service, collects data to find out where in the forest canopy the gypsy moth pheromone landed — and stuck — following aerial application, in Giles County, Virginia. (Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service, Region 8).

The tension surrounding gender inequality is palpable for nearly all of us lately. It is now well-recognized that women have been, and still are, unfairly challenged in science. Much of this focus is on the current cohort of working women and the biases and personal- or societal-imposed obstacles that they face. My unsettled mind has wandered to the women who came before me. They boldly entered the workforce years ago, as a true minority, and captured many firsts for those of us who followed. What are their stories? How did they achieve happiness and reward in their careers?

Donna , forest entomologist at the U.S. Forest Service, is an excellent example of such a woman. In her first forestry job in 1977, Donna was the only female forester working for a large pulp, paper, and building products company. The men she worked with were baffled as to how she might relieve herself while in the woods all day. In her characteristic, matter-of-fact manner that she is well-known for, she replied, “Well, I pee—what else? I have to remove more clothing than you do, but I pee!”

As entomologists, we should all pay attention to Donna’s story, for two important reasons: She has navigated a career among nearly all male colleagues and, simultaneously, piloted one of the most successful forest insect-management programs in the world for over 20 years running. Donna has consistently orchestrated a suite of forest managers, regulatory officials, and researchers across administrative and jurisdictional boundaries to implement a standardized program that always reaches its goal, every single year.

I was brimming with curiosity about this woman from the moment I met her. How does she run this famous program—and make it look so easy? What are her secrets? Where did she come from? Where does she think the program is going? Where is she going?

See the full story on Entomology Today.

When should a non-aggressive exotic species be demoted to a harmless naturalized resident?

Jack pine, Pinus banksiana, (center) in a mixed pine forest, killed by the European woodwasp, Sirex noctilio.

Exotic species that establish, spread, and cause substantial damage are demonized as foreign invaders that charge with menacing force across the landscape. Rightly so; those pests threaten to displace or eliminate native species and alter ecosystem functions. Chestnut blight, emerald ash borer, and hemlock woolly adelgid are all excellent examples. What about invaders that aren’t so destructive? Or, at least don’t seem to be at the moment? At what point do we stop monitoring a seemingly innocuous invasive species, especially one that has proved itself a serious pest elsewhere? To make this decision, it’s helpful to know how much the species has affected its new habitat, and whether this impact already has or is likely to change over time. That is exactly what we set out to do with the European woodwasp, Sirex noctilio, in Ontario.

Nearly a decade after the woodwasp was first found in a trap near the Finger Lakes in New York (and then a year later across Lake Ontario in Sandbanks Provincial Park), it still hadn’t killed pines in noticeable numbers, either in the US or Canada. Native to Europe and Asia, this woodwasp has been introduced to several countries in the Southern Hemisphere, where it has been a serious pest in forests planted with exotic pines. By contrast, in North America, it seems that only the weakest trees, those that are already stressed by something else, are killed by the woodwasp. Would forests with many weakened trees allow populations of the woodwasp to build up enough that they could then kill healthy trees in well-maintained forests? Could we find any evidence that this had already happened or would likely happen in the future?

Read the full story on the official blog of the Entomological Society of Canada.