Alum Profile: From Cape Cod to the Pacific Northwest and Beyond

Submitted by Nell Gross on
Sue Colburn Nevler

Like so many future geographers, UW geography alum Sue Colburn Nevler fondly recalls spinning a globe as a child, though she was looking for her father's ports of call from his work with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution global research fleet. As a sea captain, Sue's dad brought her along to help at the Bermuda Biological Station and on the flight over she read about the UW Department of Geography. "In Bermuda, it was a thrill to sail out into the Sargasso Sea, marveling at the mass of bubbling life forms that were dumped onto the deck. The teeming pile of shrimp, crabs, weeds and fish were the stuff of life’s start. How our experience of Sargassum has changed. The world changed. I came to Seattle from Cape Cod, lured by the idea of medical geography and the work of [Professor Emeritus] Jonathan Mayer and Dr. Nancy Lewis. It was [reading the writings of] Von Thunen [that] led me ... to combine the theories of agricultural geography with my past experience running first a small ten-acre farm and then a forty-acre National Historic Farm on Cape Cod." Here, Sue reflects further on her experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, graduate school, and a career in public horticulture.

On the significance of agricultural geography

I dove into agricultural geography, graduated as the top student in the geography department, then headed to the University of Hawaii at Manoa for a scholarship as a student at the East-West Center. What could be more alluring? Relating work experience with theory stretching across the U.S., the Pacific and into Asia. Graduate school was rich with ideas and fantastic colleagues of extremely diverse backgrounds.

I highly recommend looking into the East-West Center for potential research issues in population and environment. University of Hawaii, Manoa, and the East-West Center birthed my M.A. research on the Big Island looking into small scale agriculture in the periphery of tourist resorts.  A comparison between Hawaiian Homelands farmers and other groups yielded surprising comparative advantages.

On learning from "failure"

I took my M.A. knowledge into three years of doctoral studies. My big failure there was admittedly, over-reach. With two years of Thai language studies, I was ready to base my research into small scale agriculture in the periphery of tourist resorts as a developmental tool in Phuket, Thailand. Beware my mistake! I struck out, outside of normal doctoral support with university connections, and quickly realized that my potential informants were dabbling in illegal activities and I was in the thick of Thailand’s AIDS epidemic. So be bold, but be smart with your research and university connections. I was ahead of my time in my thinking then. I still think the interplay of agriculture and tourism is rich for important research now in so many countries.

My failure in completing my dissertation changed my course, happily, to public horticulture in Seattle. Practical experience with research led me to ideas of social justice across landscapes. I progressed as a docent, director of docent programs, trustee, and then became the first director of the E.B. Dunn Historic Garden (an Olmsted design) in North Seattle.

On connections between current career and study of geography

Geography informed my leadership, combining control of the physical environment with human practice, health and beauty. The ability to discern the importance of connections between entities, was also birthed in geographic studies. I started linking ideas about leadership, best practices, connections between diverse communities together. As a sea captain’s daughter too, I couldn’t help but think of those points where latitude and longitude cross. What happens there? A point of knowing, a win/win.

On her professional pathway

Thinking about linking gardens, I founded the Directors’ Roundtable, a group of local public garden directors who could share ideas, objectives and standardize best practices in a small collegial group. How fortuitous that this was in existence during the pandemic! Horticultural colleagues sought out and needed support during the pandemic’s difficult times.

Honestly, I was hoping to raise all standards and ask for an enormous financial gift from one of our local donors to fund endowments for all our area’s public gardens to enable free access for all citizens. We learned the importance of public gardens to human health. If you know of a willing donor, let me know!

That period of isolation sparked creativity too. Be bold and create. I founded a website to bolster the local gardens in Puget Sound, to be a gateway for visitors who needed suggestions about open public gardens during the pandemic and beyond: Puget Sound Public Gardens. I believe it’s a thing of beauty and utility. I think it’s a great success, but succession planning after creation is smart too. That’s a part of board work, which I think everyone should do at some point.

Advice for undergraduate geography students

Create, grow, maintain focus, and know when to pass on knowledge and reins and make a good exit. I plan on turning over my website to the Northwest Horticultural Society to ensure more visibility and longevity.

So, find colleagues, work together. Look at your colleagues doing similar work in disparate locations. Connect, then compare, contrast and create. Maybe I’m doing something right. The Seattle Garden Club just honored me with its Non-Members Commendation “in honor of outstanding service to the community in the fields of Conservation, Horticulture and Civic Achievement.”  I am honored.

And my best advice: Travel widely and often. I’ve been to over 50 countries, sailed on an expedition from Tierra del Fuego for 38 days, and 8,000 nautical miles up the Atlantic Ocean, stopping at some of the most remote islands of the world. I’m a "shellback," have steered a submarine at 400 ft. depth off of Seattle, paraglided with frigate birds high above Oahu, run marathons, speak 5 languages badly but enthusiastically, have steered every ship I can, and have coined the word "photojourneyist" for myself as I have almost 200,000 photos on my phone. I travel  with my two sons and husband as often as possible.

Get out there, it’s a great big grand world!