Morgan Ernest at Utah State University

Morgan Ernest photoMorgan Ernest grew up as a tomboy, exploring the backwoods of northern Virginia. "I would leave in the morning, check-in with my mom at noon, and come back at dinner," she says. A light bulb went on in the seventh grade, when she saw her first biology film. “As I watched biologists studying bears in Maine, I was stunned. I never realized you could get paid to be outdoors!" She took every course in the curriculum and signed up for the ecology program upon enrolling at the University of Arizona. "I love being outdoors, working with nature. Our mothers told us not to play in the dirt. Ecology provides a socially acceptable avenue for getting our hands dirty."

As an undergraduate, she participated in an NSF-funded summer research project, working with rodents. "I loved it," she says. She continued to work with small mammals—rodents in particular—for her Ph.D. research at the University of New Mexico. and for her postdoc research at Texas Tech University. “There are lots of questions you can ask with small mammal communities, and it’s easier to get data. It’s easier to find large numbers of rodents, as opposed to large mammals. Plus, rodents are very cute,” she laughs, gesturing toward the toy rodent collection in her office. Morgan is currently working on a long-term research project in Arizona, but will soon explore research possibilities in Utah. “There are diverse areas here, with species endemic to the Great Basin,” she says.

She gained a new appreciation for teaching when she taught community ecology and biogeography as a graduate student. “Good teaching is more challenging that I imagined.” She learned how much of an investment it required, and looks forward to her first courses at Utah State.

Recently married, Morgan returned from an Italian honeymoon, where she indulged her love of art history—anything from early Renaissance to the mid-50s–and joined the Biology Department winter semester. Her love of hiking makes Cache Valley an ideal place to live. "Obviously, this is one of the most beautiful settings for a university. The mountains are stunning." She is enjoying the peaceful, laid-back pace after living in Albuquerque. "I've had great support from the administrators and my colleagues. I'm looking forward to getting my life out of boxes, and getting settled in.”

This article and photograph originally appeared in Utah State University’s College of Science Spring 2005 Insights alumni newsletter.