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From Elliott Bay to Bristol Bay

Story by
Nancy Joseph

UW biology major Jeff Jorgensen spent the summer in remote Bristol Bay, Alaska, collecting data on spawning salmon and their environment. It was a long way—both literally and figuratively—from Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle, where he had worked as a book buyer for nine years.                                                                                  

Jeff Jorgensen

Jeff Jorgensen 

Jorgensen’s journey from book buyer to biologist was unexpected. He had studied “virtually no science” when he earned a BA in economics from the University of Minnesota in the 1980s. But at Elliott Bay he was made buyer for scientific and technical books, requiring him to read hundreds of books in the sciences. 

“Reading new books year after year, I began learning more about the natural world,” says Jorgensen, “and I became really intrigued.” 

Soon Jorgensen was taking night classes in chemistry, physics, and biology at two local community colleges. “As the questions I was asking became more complex, I realized that I needed more science training to study them,” he explains. “I began taking one course every quarter.” 

After four years, Jorgensen had taken every course available at the community college level. “At that point, I knew I’d have to make a decision,” he recalls. “I couldn’t continue as a book buyer—which was a demanding full-time job— and pursue a degree in biology at the same time. I decided I was ready to leave Elliott Bay and move on.” 

Jorgensen was thrilled when he was accepted at the UW. “It made my decision easy,” he says. “The natural science programs here are very strong. But the thing that really drew me to the UW was the possibility of doing research while getting a degree.”

Jorgensen has taken full advantage of those research opportunities, first working as a lab technician in the School of Fisheries and then heading to Alaska in July to assist a graduate student with her research. He also took a six-week field course in Alaska that involved writing three scientific papers and conducting an independent research project. 

As he nears completion of his biology degree, Jorgensen is looking at the possibility of graduate school. He feels good about his decision to change careers but admits that his passion for books—and bookstores—has not waned. 

“There is something about being surrounded by new and diverse ideas, the way you are in a bookstore, that has been very important to me,” says Jorgensen. “But I’ve been able to find that at the University as well. I’m still surrounded by books and by ideas. But I also get to be in the field, exploring those big questions that intrigued me when I started reading science books at Elliott Bay. It’s been a good combination.”