The Making of a Major

The Making of a Major

Northwest Nazarene University
Aug 25, 2020
Leon Powers

After years of equipping students to enter careers in wildlife biology, Northwest Nazarene University now has the official degree program to accompany it. This fall NNU is introducing a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, and a minor in Wildlife Biology and Ecology.

“The Wildlife Biology program has been at NNU for nearly 50 years,” commented David Hille, biology faculty and alumnus (’03). “It progressed from an impressive wildlife program without a name to a concentration to a degree program. The degree program is the next step in a long tradition.” This tradition, and the foundation of NNU’s wildlife program, began informally in 1974 with the courses and research of former professor Dr. Leon Powers (’64).

When asked how he set the foundation for this degree program, Powers replied, “I simply followed the dictates of a heart-felt passion for studying wildlife and ecology in the field. I was lucky enough to have a long array of great students to work with and had a rich, largely unexplored natural environment in which to study.”

While Powers did offer many wildlife biology courses, the education was greatly enhanced by the research opportunities available in Idaho. Powers’ lab investigated a wide range of topics that involved various species—mostly of the feathered sort. Over the duration of his career, students in his research lab co-authored more than 50 articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and non-fiction books.

“A vital and long-standing element of the NNU Biology Department that has successfully nudged our graduates closer to the wildlife ecology professions has been our strong senior research requirement,” explained Powers. “It was probably more through these scientific publications that the wildlife and ecology professionals—wildlife agencies employees and graduate school professors—first heard of NNU and our students’ legitimate endeavors in science. In those days, it was extremely uncommon for biology undergraduates to conduct research at all, much less of publishable caliber.”

The unique educational opportunities Powers created were exemplified by his obvious passion for the subjects he taught. When talking about how Powers influenced his career, Jeremy Hodges (’04) said, “He had a love and appreciation for birds, which rubbed off on me and was one of the reasons I applied for the job that I ended up obtaining.”

Hodges landed a job as a research fellow with the San Diego Zoo in their Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program directly upon graduation. This opportunity led to a research coordinator position, followed by his current job as senior hospital zookeeper at San Diego Zoo Global.

“I’ve had the privilege of working for, managing, and even starting avian conservation projects around the world while working for the San Diego Zoo,” added Hodges. “The base of knowledge, as well as the work ethic, that NNU taught me enabled me to excel in my chosen career.”

The wildlife faculty grew in 1999 with the addition of Dr. John Cossel, allowing more wildlife coursework and undergraduate research opportunities: students now had ornithological and herpetological research with Powers and Cossel, respectively. Powers retired in 2006, passing the torch to Cossel. Cossel continued to provide wildlife courses and research, building off of the foundational informal program to develop the wildlife ecology/biodiversity concentration in 2006.

Rangeland Scientist Dr. Andrew Olsen (’12) said of his NNU education, “Two things have been particularly valuable: breadth and inspiration. My current position with The Nature Conservancy is multi-faceted ... My liberal arts education provided the foundation to work on all of these topics and to be a well-rounded scientist.

“A Christ-centered science education was critical to my career. My science professors at NNU exhibited worshipful joy at the wonders of God’s creation. A love for creation, and ultimately the Creator, is my daily inspiration. I am so blessed to work in a field where I get to see the fingerprints of the Creator on a daily basis, and I am often filled with adoration even while I work!”

The importance of an interdisciplinary education with mentorship and high caliber research was also voiced by alumna Heather (Craig) McFarland (’10), science communications lead at International Arctic Research Center. She found her international research experiences through NNU to be particularly valuable.

“Those expeditions gave me excellent perspective into a different aspect of biology and into the scientific writing process as we later worked to publish our findings,” McFarland noted. “These trips also provided extensive time for personal mentorship. I was able to observe and learn from professors, such as Dr. Cossel, who I respected as people as well as scientists.”

Many of NNU’s biology alumni have excelled in wildlife biology careers. This program boasts alumni who have gone on to work for organizations such as the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Idaho Fish and Game, and the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge just to name a few. With the introduction of the new degrees, the wildlife biology program will continue the tradition of equipping their students to thrive in this profession.

A wildlife degree program had been long anticipated. The addition of ornithologist David Hille to the Biology Faculty in 2018 was the last piece the department needed to have their goal brought to fruition. This program now has the foundation and the faculty to create an education catering to students with a passion—in whatever capacity and facet—for wildlife biology.

This degree program has something for every student with an interest in wildlife biology. For those pursuing a traditional career in wildlife biology, there is the BS, which continues to emphasize valuable field research experience and now boasts more courses. The BA is for those interested in the nontraditional vocations within conservation biology that focus on the use of communication and media, marketing and business, political and social sciences, outdoor education, etc.—hence the required minor in one of these fields. The minor supports students’ primary degree program, providing an interdisciplinary focus in the broad topics of wildlife conservation.

“In the world’s current condition, this major is extremely timely,” commented Cossel. “With the declining populations of various taxa, continuing climate change, and on and on, it’s more and more important to have quality people coming from a faith perspective to help try to make a difference.”

With its alignment with NNU’s mission, the faculty believes the degree program’s influence will reach beyond their majors. “This degree program is another way students can learn and appreciate the relationship they have with God and also become a practitioner, professionally caring for creation,” explained Hille. “This program helps bring that identity to the whole campus: the identity of recognizing, as a community in relationship with the Creator, we ought to give time and resources towards creation—this includes caring for wildlife and preparing students to embark on the work of conserving creation.”