Published December 26. 2012 4:00AM
Melissa Gibson, 29, likes to get her hands dirty.
So when she arrived at orientation at the University of Vermont in 2002 as a prospective zoology student and found no classes that would provide hands-on experience, she balked.
"It was looking through a microscope, pretty much," she said, "and that wasn't what I wanted to do."
So Gibson switched to wildlife biology, enabling her to use her hands more, and work seasonally upon graduation for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife - where, at age 22, she met her now-husband.
When she graduated Wheeler High School in North Stonington 10 years ago as Melissa Siwinski, the loves of her life were Brutus, Snowball, Wolfie and Max - and five other cats who lived with her and her family. Back then, she had a reputation as a lover of cats and animals of all kinds. She worked at the Gales Ferry Animal Hospital, taking pity on - and taking home - several rescues.
She's long since downsized, but also upgraded. Her two cats, Teddy and O'Malley, were recently joined by her two sons, Gabriel, 2, and Rhys, born in May.
For Gibson, her sons are a full-time job.
"My mom stayed home with us when we were kids, and that's how I always imagined myself. So when the opportunity came up, I didn't hesitate," she said. "We struggle a little financially, but it's worth it."
Since her graduation, Gibson has also reprioritized her visions for the future, and the present. She'd hoped to attend graduate school at the University of Western Australia and get a full-time job in her field.
By the time she finished college in 2006, her plans had changed.
"The job market was nothing," she said. "And to find a permanent job anywhere, particularly in my major, was impossible. Nobody was offering anything."
Instead, Gibson began working summers and autumns for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, getting laid off for the winter and working back in Connecticut with marine fisheries in Old Lyme. Later, she would go back to doing veterinary technician work at animal hospitals for a few years.
"The only thing I could ever get was seasonal jobs here and there," she said.
When the economy tanked, what was difficult became near-undoable, and Gibson said she was never able to establish a permanent position anywhere in her field - at least, not one where she wouldn't be in front of a computer full-time.
"A lot of the biologists tend to get stuck behind their desks, and that's not what I wanted," she said.
It might have been easier to find a job farther out west, she said. But then she would have had to move away from the man who would become her husband in 2009 - David Gibson, a fisheries specialist at the department where Gibson had her first post-grad job. And later on, leaving her family simply wasn't an option.
"I guess my only disappointment would be that I don't have, you know, the extravagant career that I always imagined myself in," she said. "But that's not to say I'm not very pleased with where I am now."
Gibson lives in Milton, Vt., with her husband and sons on a 500-acre wildlife refuge, living rent-free in exchange for maintaining the property as part of her husband's job - the same post he held when they met. They moved in 2008 and began the process of gutting and renovating their house on the property; four years later, there's just one room and a bit of siding to go.
In the meantime, Gibson has access to all the perks that come with living on 500 acres of pristine woods and wetlands, helping her husband and his colleagues with their fieldwork - getting her hands dirty, just as she'd originally wanted.
"Even though I'm not getting paid, I still get to dabble in everything," she said.
Gibson said she still has her share of difficulty. She'll be paying off her student loans from college for years to come. And she maintains a twinge of regret over her academic career.
"I could have done better," she said. "I wasn't terrible, but I could have done better. I enjoyed my freedom a little too much."
But that doesn't mean she no longer has plans. Once her sons begin school and she has some free time again, Gibson said she'd like to look into taking some online classes - and perhaps, one day, using her science degree to become a biology teacher.
And for now, she enjoys every minute of raising Gabriel and Rhys, which she sees as a privilege.
"I'm very happy with where I ended up," she said. "I think that everything happens for a reason."