Home is where the start is
A Philadelphia born and raised ecologist gets a whole new education at Penn
“I’m a big kid getting paid to play in the mud,” laughs Mike McGraw (Master of Environmental Studies ’15), the passionate Senior Wildlife Biologist and Ecologist and the PA Branch Manager for Applied Ecological Services. His agency works on small and large scale conservation and restoration efforts all over the United States. From helping businesses make greener choices to guiding the National Parks on land use, Mike and his team make an impact wherever they land.
One of Mike’s most successful projects is the Seneca Meadows Wetlands Preserve in the Finger Lakes region of New York. There, he tracks the biological data for a site that was transformed from a 200-year-old corn field into a lush wetland in 2008. He’ll be monitoring the flora and fauna over a 10-year span to measure the health and sustainability of the land and the wildlife it supports. So far the results are quite astounding: the site has counted 225 species including every single marsh bird species in the state of NY nesting on site.
Mike and his team also built and now maintain the Washington Avenue Pier here in Philadelphia. Though the site is small, it is mighty. They turned a once empty piece of waterfront into a public park filled with native plants that attract local (and happy) animals and insects. Mike reports that the protected greenspace is so effective that it supports a healthy population of northern five-lined skinks—a reptile that hasn’t been recorded in Philadelphia since 1954.
Mike is himself a proud Philadelphian, who grew up catching snakes and salamanders. When his company offered him an opportunity to extend his expertise, going to the Ivy League in his own backyard, Penn was a natural choice.
“One of the most attractive elements of Penn’s MES program was the ability to customize the curriculum and collaborate with other universities.” The program’s flexibility helped him balance work and family life, and it opened him up to new possibilities. Between learning geographic information system (GIS) mapping techniques in the classroom to hiking through the remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for his capstone, Mike pushed frontiers professionally and geographically.
While taking Field Ecology with Dr. Sally Willig, Mike often waxed poetic about birds—so much so that he started taking his classmates on bird walks on weekends. That experience led to him teaching his first class in Ornithology in the MES program. “It was nerve-wracking to develop a curriculum,” he remembers, “But I’m gregarious, and I love sharing knowledge and learning while teaching. Penn was phenomenal in providing me with support.”
So how does the bird-loving professional ecologist balance his academic life with his career and raising young children? He admits with a grin, “You just lump all these things you love into a ball of functionality.”
Today, Mike has his heart set on a PhD and keeps busy traveling from the Delaware River down to Florida for work. “I’m doing what I love,” he smiles, “This program helped further ensure that as a permanent career track.”
And as for the future, Mike has a little advice for all of us, “Always promote appreciation for nature with kids. That’s the true definition of sustainability: providing resources for generations down the road.”
Now in its 20th year, the Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania prepares students like Mike to reach new heights in the environmental field—from careers in conservation to public policy, and beyond.
“If you interviewed me last year, I would have said I wanted to go to med school. Now, after being exposed to so much at Penn, I know my calling is in global work,” shares Akudo Ejelonu.
“Birds are excellent indicators of how your ecosystem is doing,” shares Heather Kostick (Master of Environmental Studies, December ’16—expected), “If they can’t survive, we’re in bad shape.”