Wildlife Vocalizations: Tammy Colt

Tammy Colt encourages others to pursue their dream careers, even if it’s not what others expect

Wildlife Vocalizations is a collection of short personal perspectives from people in the field of wildlife sciences.

To my 18-year-old self, and to other young people with an interest in the wildlife field, my advice is: don’t be held back by social constructs, by other’s ideas of what you can do and who you are supposed to be. Don’t think that your gender, race, economic status or background predetermines what you can do. And while mentors are great, don’t think that just because someone is older than you, or in some position of authority, that they know what is best for you.  Explore the options for yourself, gather experiences and find what you love to do. 

I was a straight-A student who loved biology (still do!). In my small, rural high school, the only advice I received from teachers and guidance counselors was that if I was refusing to study pre-med, then I should study pre-vet.  No one thought to include wildlife biology as a career choice—and certainly not for a girl.

Tammy Colt helps a colleague at the Pennsylvania Game Commission trap ducks one early morning in Westmoreland County, Penn., using rocket nets on a mud flat. Banding was part of USFWS monitoring of migratory waterfowl. Credit: Tom Keller

Well, I did it, and I graduated. But veterinary practice was just not my calling. In my junior year at Penn State, I asked my advisor to guide me into a research field instead. I had some ideas of what I was interested in, but he pretty much forced me into immunology. Well, I did that, too—I even got a “real job” in the field and have my name on some publications that have something to do with T-cells. I won’t go into the rest of my storied career past, but I can tell you it was a long and meandering path that brought me to wildlife biology—when I was almost 35.

That leads me to another point—don’t rush your decisions. I know you’re an adult now, and you feel like you need to figure it all out, choose the right major, get the right internships, and get the perfect job. But honestly, you have your whole life to do that. So before you choose your path, do some exploration, and decide where it is you really want to go.  I know, I know—your parents will hate this. The adults in your life will hound you about wasting time. But trust me, experience all you can.

Tammy Colt on an annual Easter hike in Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania with her daughter. Credit: Carly Colt

Don’t be afraid to try new things—there is no better time than now (and that goes for anybody!). But for young people without serious commitments (job, relationship, children)—now is the time to do it. And your college ID is your golden ticket to special rates—so travel, and try outdoor adventures even if they intimidate you. These skills may be useful in your future job, and even if not, you can say you’ve tried it. And finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions, to ask for help—I spent so much time being intimidated and lagging behind. In the world I grew up in, girls didn’t shoot guns, use power tools or drive tractors. I do all of those now—what hurdles will you overcome? You can do it!

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Header Image: While walking survey transects for rare grassland birds on abandoned strip mines in central Pennsylvania, Tammy Colt came across this smooth green snake, a now rare grassland species. Credit: Aura Stauffer