Serra Hoagland, biological scientist with the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS), graduated from Northern Arizona University (NAU) in May with a Ph.D. in forestry. In addition to receiving her Ph.D., she received the honor of being the first Native American to receive a doctoral degree in forestry from NAU, and is only the third Native female to receive a Ph.D. in forestry in U.S. history.
Dr. Serra J. Hoagland began her career with the Forest Service in 2010 as a wildlife biologist trainee on the Smokey Bear Ranger District of the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. In 2011, she joined SRS as a biological scientist with research interests in traditional ecological knowledge and remote sensing applications for wildlife conservation.
Hoagland says she found out about the honor approximately two weeks before graduation and reports that she was shocked and surprised to find out she would be the first Native American to receive a Ph.D. in forestry in the 117 year history of the university. “NAU has a strong tradition of serving Native students and Native communities but clearly there is still a legacy effect or ‘lag’ in Indian higher education,” says Hoagland. While Hoagland is honored, she admits that the news was also a little disappointing, but hopes that there will be more Native Americans to follow at the Ph.D. level.
In a forthcoming article in a special issue of the Journal of Forestry co-edited by Hoagland, she discusses the experiences of Native Americans in higher education. “Until recently, Native students had few opportunities for funding and guidance to pursue higher education. Now, opportunities for support abound, but many students may not yet be connecting with these opportunities,” she says.
Hoagland, a 2003 graduate of Union Mine High School in Placerville, California, says she chose NAU because her maternal grandmother, Elaine Hamilton-Paisano, a Laguna Pueblo, attended NAU in the 1940s, something that was unheard of for the times. “Knowing that she attended the same university decades before was empowering; it was like she was always there with me,” says Hoagland. Her grandmother was the first person in her immediate family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Hoagland was exposed to conservation by her dad, Dave Hoagland, who for a time studied marine biology in Hawaii, and by the fact that she and her older brother spent all of their time outdoors growing up in the Sierra foothills. She credits her high school science teacher, Mrs. Goodis, for introducing her to biology and ecology, both of which she found exciting. A lifelong love for wildlife carried her to California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo where she majored in Ecology and Systematic Biology.
Her love for ecology and a dedicated mentor gave Hoagland the confidence she needed to continue her education. She received her Master’s in Environmental Science and Management from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2011, and entered the Ph.D. program at NAU in 2012 while continuing to work part-time for the U.S. Forest Service.
At the graduation ceremony, NAU President Rita Hartung Cheng mentioned Hoagland’s achievements during her commencement speech. “Building a strong future lies in the hands of critical thinkers. It will require creativity, innovation, and an element of risk. It will take eagerness and understanding. It will take the ability to lead and the knowledge of when to follow. These skills are a critical component of NAU’s forestry program, and Serra Hoagland is a perfect example,” Cheng said. “Serra is a strong advocate not only for our environment, but also for the role that women and Native Americans can play in protecting it.”
Looking to the future, Hoagland says she would like to continue researching habitat relationships of the Mexican spotted owl on tribal lands and incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into forest and wildlife management. She is also interested in tribal forestry and plans to continue to work with the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society as well as the Intertribal Timber Council in addressing tribal research needs.
“Lastly, I’m interested in working with Native and non-Native youth to inspire them to pursue careers in natural resources, whether that’s through teaching, mentoring, hosting young research assistants, or providing scholarship funding for those individuals,” says Hoagland. “I think it’s important to recruit the next generation of natural resource professionals, since they are the future caretakers of our environment.”