Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

a profile of Nanette Seto

Each May, we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month to honor the cultures, contributions and achievements of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, and to recognize the unique challenges they face.

First established as 1979 as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week, it was extended to a full month in 1992. May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.

Please read on for a profile of Nanette Seto, the first Asian-American migratory bird chief in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service history

Nanette Seto is chief of the Columbia-Pacific Northwest and Pacific Islands Regions Migratory Bird Program, but as a child she might not have imagined reaching such a perch. Born in Hawaii as a child and grandchild of Chinese immigrants, she did not have a conventionally outdoor-oriented childhood. Her parents were not nature enthusiasts and did not take their children camping, wildlife watching, or surfing, but in Honolulu, nature was never too far away. Her father’s love of gardening and numerous pets nurtured her appreciation for plants—orchids were a favorite—and animals. Her interest in Wild Kingdom episodes and her exposure to local environmental campaigns, further stimulated love of wild creatures and desire to help them.

The way to make a career out of her interests was not immediately clear though. “All my career aptitude tests involved animals, driving me towards veterinary medicine” she said, “so even though I didn’t know about wildlife studies, I knew I wanted to do something to help animals.” She began college at the University of Hawaii with enrolled in pre-med/veterinary studies because that seemed the to be the only career path available.

She quickly realized that veterinary medicine wasn’t exactly what she was looking for in a career, the calling of saving wild creatures was still strong. She changed her major to zoology and kept searching for the right career. It wasn’t until her senior year of college that she found her path, when a professor introduced her to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, she luckily got an entry level position with the Service providing logistical support to remote field stations in the Pacific and quickly learned of a co-op program that would allow her to work part-time with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service while completing a master’s degree. Nanette went on to get her master’s degrees at the university with a focus on conservation biology.

Her master’s degree research involved studying Bonin petrels on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. After completing her master’s degree, she was hired as a permanent employee and got her first field assignment back on Midway. “As someone who grew up on an island, it was easy to spend time on an isolated place like Midway, and surprisingly, the travel opportunities I could take while off island were wonderful.”

She knew a career in wildlife was the future for her.

After four years on Midway, where she met her future husband, she took her first assignment on the mainland, at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Olympia, Washington, then she moved to Portland, Oregon to work with the Migratory Bird Program Pacific Region. That was followed by a stint at the national headquarters as the chief of the Branch of Bird Conservation, where she worked on bird management plans, invasive species issues, partnerships with Federal Agencies and seabirds, among other tasks. After three years she moved back to Portland, where she became the first Asian-American to be named regional migratory bird chief.

Her time in Portland has been a special experience. As chief, she oversees all aspects of the migratory bird conservation in the region, including work with partners, habitat restoration, migratory bird joint ventures, and permits. “I feel my role is to build a great team, then support them so they can do great work,” she said.

Nanette also believes in the importance of environmental education, and she and her staff have partnered with several schools in the Portland area, modeling the  Idaho Bird By Bird Program. The program includes monthly classroom visits, coupled with visits to local parks and refuges. It also focuses on work with diverse schools.

"When I was growing up, I didn’t know the Service existed,” she said, “so it’s a passion of mine you to educate young kids about our agency, and career opportunities in wildlife conservation.”

Her desire to foster nature connections in children doesn’t end at the office door either—one of her favorite things to do is spending time hiking, camping, and exploring the natural world with her husband Jon and daughters Olivia and Mirabelle.

Asked about how her heritage has influenced her career, she was reflective. “I don’t think about it too much. My parents didn’t come from a background where people spent leisure time in nature, but they instilled in me a belief in myself and a drive to succeed,” she said. But, given that the field is still predominately white, “it’s hard not to notice when I walk in the room and no one else looks like me. It’s hard not to feel sometimes as though I have to prove I should be there.”

Her advice for the next generation? “I would tell kids not to be discouraged if they don’t see a lot of people like them in their field of interest. Go for it, and don’t let anyone stop you from pursuing your dreams.”

Nanette’s pursuit of her dreams was clearly successful, even if it took some time for them to take shape. From orchids and monk seals to petrels and more, Nanette has found a home in wildlife, while blazing a trail along the way.

Nanette Seto on Midway Island, where she spent her first field assignment. USFWS.

Nanette Seto on Midway Island, where she spent her first field assignment.

Nanette Seto on a trip with her family. USFWS

Nanette Seto on a trip with her family.

Last Updated: May 7, 2020