Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Michelle Kondo

November 9th, 2017 at 2:30PM

You wouldn’t expect to see a Forest Service scientist conducting research in a bustling inner city area like downtown Philadelphia, but Michelle Kondo is studying how trees and other urban natural resources relate to public health from the USFS Northern Research Station Philadelphia Field Station. From her office, which is a stone’s throw from national tourist treasures like the Liberty Bell, the Rocky steps, and more, Kondo is focused on helping us understand more about the natural sciences within cities.   

What led you to the Forest Service and when did you start working here?

The Forest Service and I share common history. My maternal great grandfather was a ranger on the Olympic National Forest in Washington state. His daughter, my grandmother, was a secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I started in Philadelphia as a postdoctoral fellow in 2010 and transitioned to a full-time position in 2014.

What do you do in the Forest Service and what is your favorite part of your job?

I get to work in collaboration with cities, community groups, urban residents, and other researchers to answer questions that come from communities.

Where did you grow up?

Seattle, Washington – in the summer the salty sea air from the Puget Sound would rise over the bluff and travel through my open bedroom window to wake me. And any chance I had, I would be in that 55-degree water until I was completely blue. I attended public schools in south and central Seattle, and my classmates were from every country that lines the Pacific Rim.

Who or what inspired you growing up?

From a young age I loved math and anything having to do with numbers. I was especially interested in using numbers to describe space and human environments. I also had other, different sources of inspiration. In high school I discovered the writing of authors such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Zora Neal Hurston, and Isabelle Allende, which spoke to me and gave me courage.

Michelle Kondo with her family in Yellowstone National Park.
Michelle Kondo with her family in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

What do you like to do for fun on your free time?

I like to spend time with my family; we love to hike, bike ride, and camp. We play music together, and we also love to travel and go on food adventures. In my free time I like to swim, write, catch up with friends, and I recently joined a gym.

What is your highest personal and professional achievement?

My highest achievement was probably completing my undergraduate degree. I attended Carnegie Mellon University to study civil and environmental engineering. My journey to start school my freshman year was my first time setting foot on campus, second time travelling east of the Washington-Idaho boundary. I struggled in many ways personally, and my parents both faced health challenges, making it difficult for me to be so far from home. The odds were against me.

How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?

The majority of the American public now lives in urban areas, yet most urban residents are unaware of the work of the Forest Service. I would like the public to perceive the Forest Service as a key supporter of healthy urban environments.

What are your future career goals?

I would like to conduct funded research on strategies to improve public health, especially in disadvantaged urban areas. Greening strategies are of particular interest.

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve their country as a Forest Service employee?

Gain interdisciplinary training and perspective. Natural systems are intertwined with social and economic systems. Spend time in public service, and get to know the three branches of the Forest Service, from the National Forest System, to Research and Development, to State and Private Forestry, and everything in between.