No stranger to adventure | Door County Pulse
Even at age 25, Makayla Swain is no stranger to adventure. The biologist and 2015 Gibraltar High School graduate has worked near and far in her quest to better understand the living species on our planet, conducting research projects in Panama, the Arctic, both coasts of Canada and here in Door County.
Swain was born and raised in Fish Creek, WI and credits her parents, Holly and Greg Swain; and her sister, Megan, for the encouragement to pursue her dream.
Swain graduated from UW-Green Bay in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science before earning a master’s degree in biology from the Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2021. It was on the island of Canada’s easternmost province where Swain researched the effects of moose, particularly on soil composition.
In 1904, four moose were brought in from New Brunswick by ship and railroad to establish the moose population on the island. During the 118 years since, the population has shot up to estimates of 150,000 on the island, which is only two-thirds the size of Wisconsin.
Swain then moved 4,400 miles cross-country – to Smithers, British Columbia, in western Canada – to begin a new venture in mining and wildlife studies as a consultant for Environmental Resources Management.
We reached her by phone to talk about her life’s journey.
Justin Skiba (JS): What projects are you working on at Environmental Resources Management?
Makayla Swain (MS): I work on the mine-closure and wildlife-studies team. I primarily work with mining projects across Canada that are in the early stages of development or in operation. Mining operations are integral for obtaining metals, but with them come extensive disturbance of the surrounding ecosystems.
My job allows me to help reduce and remediate the impacts produced by these mines and ensure that at their closure, the areas can return to a more natural ecosystem state.
I assist in reporting, analyzing and executing wildlife field studies at these mining locations. These studies aim to identify and monitor habit and distribution of at-risk wildlife and provide important mitigation and management plans to protect these animals and their habitats.
Wildlife surveys include a wide range of animals that include amphibians; ungulates (mountain goats, caribou, moose, etc.); avian (waterbirds, upland birds, raptors); furbearers (wolves, lynx, snowshoe hare, wolverines, etc.); and bears (black, grizzly, polar). Surveys include going out in helicopters and surveying the mine and all surrounding areas for signs and suitable habitat types.
JS: Tell us about the work you completed in Newfoundland about how the introduction of moose to the island has impacted the environment.
MS: It seems odd to classify moose as an invasive species, but the lack of predators and competition has allowed the moose population to grow rapidly.
Newfoundland now has one of the highest densities of moose in their circumboreal distribution. The research I completed during my master’s degree found that moose are starting to reduce tree saplings reaching canopy height and increasing open-canopy, shrub-dominated landscapes.
It also confirmed that by changing the above-ground landscape, moose are starting to alter soil composition and conditions. Understanding how this large herbivore is starting to alter and shift Newfoundland’s vast boreal forests into open-canopy and shrub-dominated landscape is critical for the conservation and protection of these forests.
JS: How did growing up in Door County and attending UW-Green Bay affect your decision to go into the environmental sciences field?
MS: A teacher, Dave Tupa, gave me my first push into ecology and environmental science through participating in Ecology Club and the Solar Olympics.
At UW-GB, I participated in many hands-on research experiences that solidified my love for environmental science. Participating in a travel fieldwork course to Panama where I researched coral-reef bioerosion and rainforest biodiversity was my first introduction to field work.
From there, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Lisa Grubisha on a study to identify symbiotic mycorrhizae [the association between plants and fungi] for native Wisconsin orchid species and also the genetic diversity of the coral root orchid between Toft Point and The Ridges Sanctuary.
JS: How has your parents’ support encouraged you as you advance in your field?
MS: My parents always encouraged my sister and I to spend as much time as we could outdoors. They showed us that we should respect and love the nature that surrounds us. We live in a beautiful world that we are able to experience, but we also need to take care of it.
Attending the Students on Ice expedition to the Arctic truly was what pushed me into pursuing a job in environmental science, and if it wasn’t for the support of my parents, I would never have had that opportunity.
I am so grateful for my family, for the trees I’ve hugged with my mom, the days spent exploring and playing in the woods with my sister, and the encouragement to explore from my dad.
JS: Who inspired you to pursue a career in environmental sciences?
MS: I struggled in elementary school and ended up needing a tutor, Sue Sucharda. She not only taught me the curriculum pertaining to my classes, but that grades don’t define your success. She believed in me and pushed me to always follow my heart and put in the work needed to achieve my goals.
I never planned to go into environmental science and biology. I loved science but never felt like I was smart enough to succeed. My mom and sister inspired and empowered me as a kid and still continue to do so today