Budding ecologist wants to protect, preserve wildlife

| Judy Berthiaume

When John Lennon said that life is what happens while you are busy making other plans he could have been talking about Hayden Wilke.

Long labeled the “smart kid,” Wilke came to UW-Eau Claire planning a future that reflected a stereotypical “smart kid” path.

He would study pre-med, go to medical school, finish a residency and finally enjoy a long career as a physician specializing in radiology or orthopedics.

“So, like any eager student hopeful to attend medical school, I dove into my pre-professional course curriculum, filling my schedule with classes in chemistry, physics, statistics, biology, you name it,” says Wilke, a native of Green Bay. “After a handful of semesters with this heavy course load, my enthusiasm for a career in medicine began to fade.”

Then, much to his surprise, his junior year he found himself completely captivated by a biology class focusing on plants.

“My professor at the time, Dr. Tali Lee, was teaching our class about the morphology of plants and I was just in awe by how much I enjoyed learning about the ins and outs of it all,” says Wilke. “Her enthusiasm and passion for teaching the material inspired me.”

It was in that class, he says, that the idea of pursuing a career in something other than medicine popped into his head for the first time.

Then the summer before his senior year, the Blugold spent time shadowing physicians and volunteering at hospitals.

“I got a front-row seat to the daily routine and rhythm of the job, but it just didn't appeal to me,” Wilke says. “So, I finally decided to hang up the dream of becoming a doctor.

“As crazy as it sounds, I made it official by tacking on a biology major just a semester away from graduation. Although it meant postponing graduation another year, it was the best decision I could have made. After that, everything just seemed to fall into place.”

Now a senior pursuing biology and Spanish linguistics majors and minors in chemistry and dance, Hayden describes himself as a “budding ecologist” instead of a future doctor.

He is making the most of every opportunity that has come his way since he began reimagining his future.

For example, he eagerly signed on when his biostatistics professor, Dr. Evan Weiher, offered him a spot in a research group working on a sedge study.

“Thankfully, I jumped on this opportunity because it unveiled my interest in field biology and, more specifically, my love for conservation biology,” Wilke says. “With each new day out in the field, the trumpeting squawks of the Sandhill cranes, wildflowers in bloom and grasses whooshing in the wind all caught my eye as if I was the first ecologist to witness their beauty.”

In late May, Wilke will begin a summer internship at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos Islands.

He will participate in scientific research centered on conservation and management, sustainability and marine life.

“I'll be on the islands for the entire summer and be part of a variety of different sub-projects,” Wilke says. “Right now, I’ve got my eye on some of the ones involving insects, birds and fisheries.”

His interest in insects stems from a fall entomology class.

“I couldn't believe how fascinated I was by the diversity of insects, so they are definitely at the top of my list,” Wilke says of potential summer projects. “I've already had the opportunity to work with insects and plants, but I haven't worked with birds or fish yet, so I've got my fingers crossed that I get assigned to one of the projects while I'm down there.

“I'm hoping the internship will give me a better idea as to where I would like to direct my efforts in the field of environmental biology.”

While he no longer has his future carefully mapped out as he once did, he is confident he is entering a field that will be challenging and fulfilling.

“I am so excited about environmental biology because I get to use my voice to protect and preserve the wildlife around us,” Wilke says. “Plants and animals can't speak up for themselves like we humans can and, in a way, I feel responsible to let them be heard.

“I am keeping my options open about how I do that. I would definitely like to go to graduate school, but other than that, I've had thoughts about ecological restoration planning, DNR work, endangered species surveying and possibly even becoming a professor in the future.”

What can other Blugolds learn from his UW-Eau Claire journey?

“As cliché as it sounds, choose a career that you absolutely love and never settle for anything short of that,” Wilke says. “I'm a firm believer that you should never cut corners when it comes to your happiness.

“I'm so glad I'm finally starting to live by those words because there isn't a day that goes by where I feel uninspired.”

Photo caption: A biology class on plants inspired Blugold Hayden Wilke to rethink his future. Instead of being a future doctor, he’s now a budding ecologist.