You Can Have It All: Erika Zavaleta


A scientist, a professor, and a mother of four

Originally published in Telluride Magazine, Summer/Fall 2017

Syrup or jam?

This is the question that Erika Zavaleta poses to her children on pancake mornings, and she loves the answer that 10-year-old Russell always gives: “Both.”

Zavaleta has adopted the same sort of attitude toward her life; why not try to have everything you want? Maybe nobody ever discouraged her from pursuing a career in STEM as a woman, or told her that it was difficult to be a professional and have a family. If they did, she ignored it. She became a conservation scientist with a PhD in biological sciences and a college professor at UC Santa Cruz who and spends winters in Telluride and summers in California— and a mother of four. “Why should we have to choose? It helps that I have an incredibly supportive husband and parents. It’s important to have balance. I could very easily have been someone who just worked and never had a family, but my father instilled in me that you have just one shot. You can have a family if that’s what you want and enjoy what you’re doing. I really believe in that.”

Zavaleta was born in New York; her mother had immigrated from India and her father from Bolivia, both to study in the United States. Some of her earliest memories are from spending time in upstate New York, collecting frogs, being outside. She says she felt a strong connection to the natural world and was interested in science at a very young age. “I’m a hands-on learner. What I remember from school is all the things we did that were hands-on— planting seeds, building circuits.”

She got her undergrad degree in anthropology rather than biology at Stanford University, because, she says, she was intimidated by the chemistry. But she gravitated back in that direction, earning her master’s degree in human ecology and PhD in biological sciences. Zavaleta bounced between all kinds of field work and jobs throughout her education—forest service ranger, raft guide, scooping frozen yogurt, bike racer, a position at an environmental NGO, a correspondent for High Country News, carpentry in Europe, a researcher in Alaska. “I had a totally non-linear path to being a scientist. I think it’s really OK to go about your education in that way, and in some ways it’s better. It helps me bring in weird, different perspectives. Scientists have a reputation as being reclusive but understanding different kinds of people and faraway parts of the world is important as a scientist. You need a representative sense of the world.”

Zavaleta speaks furiously, not in the angry sense, but rapidly, like the words tumbling out of her mouth can barely keep up with her thoughts. Dark, curly hair frames her face, and she has a constant, natural smile and sparkling eyes that express how effusive she is about her work. She seems to shine as she talks about her various field projects. She has studied the implications of forest loss in Ethiopia, how climate change is affecting oak trees in California, how wildfire patterns influence animals, plants, and humans in Alaska, and as an advisor to the Wildlife Conservation Society she looks for ways to preserve biodiversity and encourage conservation in urban areas across North America—keeping species from going extinct and preserving migration routes. Now, she’s investigating rosy finches, the highest elevation breeding birds in America that live right here in Telluride. It’s labor intensive, finding and banding the birds, testing their feathers. “They are like the climate change canaries,” she says. “How many are there, are they declining, where do they go in winter, what do they eat? It’s like detective work, trying to create a genoscape. To me, science is ultimately telling stories about the way the world works that give people insight about the way we live in it.”

Zavaleta and her family first moved from California to Telluride in 2014, for what was supposed to be a short sabbatical. Her husband is a big wave surfer and they were reluctant to leave the ocean behind, but she says that after about six weeks they were ensnared by Telluride’s magical trap. They wanted to stay; the three youngest are in school here, she started volunteering with Pinhead Institute and Telluride Historical Museum, and they ended up buying a house and making this their winter home. She found other dry-land outlets for her boundless energy: skiing, hiking, trail running, biking. “I’m one of those people who thinks better when I’m moving.”

All of Zavaleta’s myriad work as a conservation scientist boils down to a single question: How to think mechanistically about a complex ecological problem and use it to figure out the intervention points. It’s about understanding systems, she says. She applies this same logical analysis when she executes the balance between her work and her life. She has figured out how to live in two places she loves, how to juggle a career and a family and still find time to teach, volunteer, travel, and recreate. “It’s another creative problem-solving exercise. I spend a ton of time with my kids; it’s not a given that you have to choose. They come with me on my field courses— it’s good for them, for the students, and for me. I like to move away from thinking about the trade-offs.”