Faculty Profile: John Umek
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From fly-fishing with his grandfather to a career in conservation biology and education, professor John Umek is a product of his environment. The great outdoors was Umek’s backyard throughout his childhood in Idaho.
“I am extremely fortunate in where I grew up. I come from a pretty small lower- to middle-class town with roughly 1,000 to 2,000 people. It was a place where you spent all your time outdoors and just had to be back at 6 o’clock for dinner or when the sun went down,” Umek said. “Whether it was fishing, hiking or hunting, I considered the great outdoors my personal backyard and playground.”
Umek teaches a variety of environmental classes at SNC, from conservation biology to natural resource management. He says he likes to make the most of our natural environment while doing everything he can to protect it.
“One of my goals in life is to preserve native fish,” Umek said. “I remember seeing a picture of my grandfather and my father when my father was a little kid. He was holding a salmon he had caught that was bigger than him. I said, ‘I want to catch that,’ but they had to explain to me that they couldn’t take me fishing for that type of salmon anymore because the population was gone. And that really hit home and stayed with me.”
As Umek became an adult, he realized that he could choose a career path that might make a difference in preserving the natural world.
“In college, I realized I could work for a state agency and, for lack of better words, play with fish,” Umek said. “To know that for the rest of my life I could work to preserve and protect fish, maintaining their healthy populations… That got me hooked.”
Umek attended the College of Idaho, a small liberal arts college about 30 minutes outside of Boise, where he majored in biology. As he started to work toward his graduate degrees, he found that he had a passion for teaching as well as for environmental science.
“For both my master’s degree and Ph.D., I worked as a research assistant and did research that was paid for through a grant,” Umek said. “Being a teaching assistant paid for the rest. I was required to teach for at least two semesters, but I ended up teaching a few years at UNR and really fell in love with it.”
Umek says that transitioning from field work to the classroom was relatively easy. “I found that when you teach the things you’re interested in, such as a conservation biology class, your enthusiasm really shines through to your students,” Umek said. “That passion for teaching comes from teaching what you love. It’s authentic.”
Another of Umek’s passions is fly-fishing. “There’s not many things better than sitting on the river and fly-fishing,” he said. “I’ve come to a point in my life where I don’t really care if I catch any fish. It’s just about being out there because it’s a great place to think and be centered. Some of the best times are taking someone out there and teaching them to fish for the first time.”
Of course, being a biology professor adds extra meaning to Umek’s favorite pastime. He says he enjoys every little detail of the fish he catches. “For me, looking at a fish and its different gill plates is awesome,” he said.