Iral Ragenovich: A Career Devoted to Caring for the Land and Serving People
By Laurel Haavik, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in the “Behind the Science” series by Laurel Haavik that peeks into the lives of scientists. See other posts in the series.
Iral Ragenovich became a forest entomologist when forestry was not for women, and the thought of insects in forests, or what they might be doing there, had probably not even entered the minds of most women. Like any pioneer, her uncharted route included unique peril, exhilaration, and satisfaction.
Quiet and unassuming, often hiding behind a huge puff of hair, her expression speaks wisdom, and her reserve invites curiosity. Any initial exchange with her does not reveal that she carries more knowledge and experience than probably everyone else in the room. She listens more than she speaks. Although when asked about a specific of forest insect biology or management, she responds carefully and thoroughly, with growing passion as she warms up to a new person’s presence. Iral was the first female entomologist hired by the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Health Protection program and the first woman to obtain a master’s degree in forestry from Stephen F. Austin State University. She has devoted 46 years to her career in the Forest Service, which has included research and management projects, environmental impact analyses, and training of forestry professionals in a variety of ecosystems in the Southeast, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest. She has worked with more than a dozen different forest pests, including bark beetles, defoliators, adelgids, and seed and cone insects.
With breadth and depth of knowledge that is rare, she deserves more accolades than her personality would ever allow her to accept. In 2017, she received an Inspiring Women award for outstanding mentorship and coaching from the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region. Colleagues across the U.S. wrote letters of nomination. For Iral, those letters were the most meaningful aspect of the award. She was unaware that she had touched so many lives over the years.
Her story shines with an admirable simplicity derived from strength and tenacity to reach her goals. She describes her decisions as more “black and white than those of many other women.” Iral’s career has always been her priority, except for a brief stretch where she might have sought a career move but remained geographically close to her mother, who was aging. I marvel at her ability to see through decisions so clearly, something many of us strive for and rarely achieve.
Iral developed an interest in forestry during high school. She can’t remember the motivation exactly, though she knew she wanted to work outdoors. She says, “Quite frankly, forestry was something none of the other girls were interested in, and I wanted to do something different.”
Her father, a civil engineer, encouraged education for all his children, including the girls, although he did not like the idea of forestry at first. He thought all foresters fought fire, and that was simply too dangerous for his daughter. Later, while Iral was in the final year of earning a bachelor’s degree in biology, her father met a forester and learned that not all forestry was fighting fires. Iral wasn’t necessarily interested in firefighting, although she admitted that she had read about people stationed in fire towers, and the idea of “holing up on a high hill to be away from everybody” appealed to her introverted nature. Her father then asked her when she planned to take forestry.
In 1970, among only a handful of women, she set out from her home in Montana to earn a master’s in forestry at Stephen F. Austin in Texas. She earned an undergraduate degree in forestry at the same time, because she was wholly dedicated to her preparation, and “it didn’t hurt to take another semester of those courses.” One year into her graduate thesis in silviculture, her major professor left for a position in West Virginia. She ended up working with Jack Coster, Ph.D., instead, who was a forest entomologist. She says she “got into forest entomology through the back door” and “hasn’t had any regrets since.” Coster was extremely supportive. In 1974, when the Forest Service offered her an entomologist position, she considered turning it down; she felt that they were more interested in hiring based on gender than merit. Coster convinced her to take the job, “to show them that you’re the best damn entomologist they have.” She took his advice and did just that.
Iral loved the challenge and reward of field work. She told me a favorite story from her early days in the Forest Service. It’s set in the hardwood bottomland swamps of Alabama and features caterpillars, beavers, and snakes. Iral and her colleagues were testing whether the bacterial toxin Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) could be applied aerially to tree canopies to kill forest tent caterpillars (which can defoliate entire forests in one season). At the time, Bt had not been used much in forestry. The project was successful, and it turned out that only a small amount of Bt was needed to suppress forest tent caterpillar populations, specifically 4 BIUs (billion international units) per acre, she explains, matter-of-factly. The entomologists worked entirely in canoes and small metal motor boats, which Iral describes as a magical experience. With spray paint, they marked the trees that they would sample for caterpillars after the Bt treatment. At high water in early spring, she paddled by a group of baby beavers stranded atop their home (which turned out to be 20 feet tall once the water receded!), likely placed in dry safety by their mother. Iral was thrilled to hold a baby beaver in her hands! These ecosystems were also teeming with poisonous water moccasins that had crawled to top branches to stay above the water, at eye level with her canoe. As she glided by them here and there, she heard a hissing sound at her feet. She held still, carefully looked down, and found with relief that her knee was accidentally pressing down the top of a spray paint can! Forest entomology was wondrous, dangerous, exciting!
Iral wanted variety and new forest insect problems to tackle. She followed her desire to see and work in new forests, moving from her first position in Pineville, Louisiana, to Ashville, North Carolina, then later to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and eventually Portland, Oregon, where she is now. Her path was not without struggle. She had to work hard to prove that she was competent at everything the men could do. She is careful to tell me that she didn’t feel like she worked harder than the men; most of the pressure to succeed arose internally.
Sharp experiences that are now less common for women influenced her decisions and priorities. Early in her career, a trailing question in an interview was “By the way, are you planning to get married?” Iral said no, because she was more interested in her career at the time. The male interviewer responded, “Good, because don’t bother to apply if you’re going to get married. We don’t want to have to train someone who will quit.”
With that prevailing attitude, options were limited for women compared to current metrics. Some of her early male colleagues would not tell their wives they traveled with a woman for work. When in Louisiana, she was paired with the only black male entomologist, a great risk for both of them, given the culture in the South at that time. She experienced sexual harassment while in graduate school, a story that she bravely related in detail to a room full of people at a conference recently. Again, though, she is emphasizes that her male colleagues have almost always been supportive, looking out for her. That has been my experience, too, arriving to forest entomology decades behind trailblazers like Iral. As the struggle for gender equality still drags on, I think we often forget the critical role of supportive men in advancing our careers, helping to instill self-confidence to face daunting challenges. Iral’s father and major professor were both pivotal in launching her forward into the professional life she desired.
Iral does have a personal life, though she neglects to mention it right away when I ask. She keeps our conversation focused on the Forest Service and her career—clearly what she deems as most important. She is protective of her free time; she seldom teleworks, leaving her work at the office or in the field. She makes Ukranian Easter eggs, collects wax seals, and has run several marathons. Her first purchase once she had a job was a piano, not a car or a house. I learn from a colleague that she travels often with her sister; their goal is to visit all the major U.S. National Parks. She is a true woman of the outdoors in work and play. She remained steadfast in her pursuits and now revels in all that she has seen and done. Her simple sage advice to others is “If you enjoy what you’re doing, keep enjoying it; if you’re not happy in a situation, you need to change it, either internally or externally, maybe by moving.” Happiness in life and work has a different look for each of us. Iral has achieved her ideal of both. She sets a pristine, enviable example. I dare to follow it!
More details about Iral’s life and career can be found in her interview for the book Outdoor Women inside the Forest Service, 1971-2018.