When Jim Winter was a young man, the money he earned from summer jobs was enough to cover the cost of tuition and books at the then brand-new University of Minnesota – Morris campus. He knows that the situation is much, much different for today’s students, so he’s created scholarships and awards to support 21st century scholars.
Winter, who grew up in Morris, earned his undergraduate degree at UMM in 1968. At the Twin Cities campus, he earned a master’s degree in biology in 1970 and a Ph.D. in ecology and behavioral biology in 1976. He taught at several universities including the last 20 years at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, retiring in 2018. He’s now a Research Professor Emeritus. “That sounds like a fancy title, but all it means is that I can park anywhere on campus now,” he laughs.
From hobby to career
Winter has gained recognition from his expertise in fish biology, fisheries, aquatic ecology, ecology, environmental science and population biology. He’s especially well-known for using radio telemetry to monitor the movements and biology of fish.
His love of nature and the outdoors started early. “There were lots of animals and interesting ecological areas where I grew up,” he recalls. “My father was an avid outdoorsman, and we did lots of fishing together. I have to say that I never realized a person could work with fish as a career. I thought it was what you did for a hobby.”
It all began at Cedar Creek
As the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve celebrates its 80th anniversary, Winter shares memories about working both there and at the Itasca Biological Station. “The University was a pioneer in using radio telemetry for tracking mammals and birds,” Winter says. “I was the first student to apply radio telemetry to tracking fish.”
It all came to pass because Winter learned that the Cedar Creek Bioengineers were developing radio transmitters for fish. “I asked Dr. Donald Siniff, my advisor, if I could participate. He sent me to Cedar Creek and the engineers taught me how to use the equipment, then pushed me out the door and said, ‘Go see what you can do.’ I attached transmitters to largemouth bass at Itasca, followed them around successfully, and decided that I wanted to track fish for my Ph.D. thesis.”
Later, Winter became known for a “fish mobile” that was built by him and engineers at the Cedar Creek site for tracking rainbow trout in Lake Superior. “We used it to listen for signals when it was too rough to be on Lake Superior, and also for following trout in rivers,” he says. The tracking system was constructed by putting a plywood platform on cartop carriers on the top of his van. The team attached a large Yagi antenna and two old television rotors. “One rotated the antenna so the elements would be vertical for tracking or horizontal for going down the highway,” he explains. “The other rotor turned the antenna 360 degrees so I could listen for signals in all directions.” He got lots of inquiries including “Would you mind telling me what you are doing, but I probably won’t believe you?”
As he looks back on how so much of his career began at Cedar Creek after asking if he could try telemetry to track fish, he says, “I somehow got up the nerve to ask if I could be involved and I’m so glad because I was in the right place at the right time. I’ve always told my students to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, because you never know where it will lead.”
A storied academic career
Winter made important contributions during his tenure at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “One of the things that gave me the most pleasure in teaching was to guide undergraduates and graduate students on research projects and to help them achieve their career objectives,” he says. “I was the founding director of the Science Scholars Program and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation in STEM program,” he says.
He always especially enjoyed that “aha” moment when a student discovered something or grasped a concept. “I also enjoyed helping students construct their research presentations for conferences and seeing them beam with satisfaction after their presentations,” he says. “I’m proud that most of the program’s students went on to graduate and professional schools and are engaged in STEM careers.”
Winter has funded generous scholarships and awards for students at Morris and CBS. One award is given to students who demonstrate high potential to continue in the field of ecology, which has always been his first love. A Morris-based scholarship is in honor of his father, mother, and stepmother. His father spent 54 years in agribusiness, selling feed, seeds and chemicals while driving 1,000 miles each week. “The scholarship is for students in western Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas who have an agribusiness background and who want to further their education,” he explains. “My father earned his living selling in those areas, so in honor of him, I’ve focused the scholarship on those communities.”
Another scholarship helps fund student study at the Itasca Biology Station. “That site was instrumental in helping me choose ecology for my specialization in graduate school and as a career,” he remembers. “Because the courses and research projects were in the field, I found it a much more interesting and a better way to learn about organisms and ecological relationships. Later, I conducted research and took students on field trips there. I want other students to have similar experiences and opportunities as I had, so that’s the inspiration for the scholarship.”
He's eager to see how his philanthropy makes a difference. ”You don’t know where the next innovator is coming from, and right now there could be a young person in a tiny town somewhere in Minnesota who just might have a great idea,” he says. “One of these gifts could allow them to pursue their passion, and that would be pretty neat.”
– Julie Kendrick