Katy Kavanagh (Professor, Researcher)

Blazing New Paths Through Research  

More than 30 years of experience, education and research have taught University of Idaho associate professor Katy Kavanagh that humans have very little control over the life and health of a forest. “So we need to be humble,” she says, “and we need to know what makes a forest productive, not how we can make it productive. “Katy’s goal as a teacher of forest ecology and management is for her students to understand what makes a tree grow and how its growth responds to management. “By understanding the organism they are manipulating, the students of the future will be better prepared to predict the outcome of their management decisions,” she says.

For the past decade, Katy, a Connecticut native, has taught and conducted research at the U of I. Her courses are primarily field-based. “Students do major projects such as writing a management plan or conducting an experiment using models,” she explains. “We use models to help us peer into the future.” Katy finds teaching both challenging and rewarding. She especially appreciates receiving good evaluations from her students after putting them through their paces by immersing them in math and writing.

Katy’s career path evolved from a childhood spent building forts, swinging on grape vines and roaming through the forest near her suburban neighborhood. A school guidance counselor, who took time to talk to her about her interests, pointed Katy toward forestry. Her education includes a BS and MS Degree in forestry from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in New York.

She earned her doctorate in forest science at Oregon State University. Katy grew up knowing the hardwood forests of the East Coast. “When I was 18, I obtained my first forestry job on the Challis National Forest in Challis, Idaho,” she recalls. “Here I discovered the wild conifer forests of the West
and knew my days in the eastern deciduous forests were limited.” Since then, she has combined her teaching load with numerous research projects and grant-writing (to support programs) at both Oregon State and the University of Idaho, where her husband Ken is a half-time technician and business owner.

Along the way, several individuals have provided her inspiration and guidance. There’s her mother who was widowed when Katy, the youngest of five children, was 18 months old. “My mother cut her college career short to be a wife and mother,” she says, “Little did she know she was going to be the single parent . . . and have to find a career to support us. She always instilled in me and my siblings that we could have career and a family.”

As one who appreciates people with vision, creativity and passion, Katy cites Dr. Steven Daley Laursen as one of her role models because of how his vision and passion set up the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho “to face the next century.” Oregon State University professor Barbara Bond’s passion for the sciences and U of I professor John Marshal’s help in launching her career as a professor of ecology have also earned an exemplary status among individuals making a difference in her life.

Nowadays, this Moscow mother and grandmother loves gardening, knitting and helping her husband (known for his fine wood craftsmanship) renovate their house. She enjoys life as an associate professor, combining teaching with field research. A recent project has involved studying the effect of forest structure on forest water use. “In order for forests to take on carbon dioxide and thus produce wood,” she explains, “they must transpire water. This tradeoff between carbon intake and water loss is very crucial in the western United States where summers tend to be dry and water is a limited resource.”

Over the course of her career, Katy has collaborated with other scientists on conducting field work and authoring numerous publications related to forestry issues. Her research has taken her throughout the West and to forests in Costa Rica to study ecosystems and how they respond to changing conditions be it from management or climate shifts. Her research has also dealt with Swiss needle cast disease, forest transpiration rates, and fire effects. “It’s always a reward,” she says, “when my research requires me to spend time in the forests camping, hiking and crunching data.”

Want to know more?

º Visit Katy’s web site

º Silviculture instructors — Katy’s colleagues in the U.S. and Canada

º Forest Resources Department – University of Idaho

º The first fire ecology BS degree program in the USA is at the University of Idaho

º Experimental and Research Forests that are essential for long-term research