Senior Ecologist, The Wilderness Society
Education: Ph.D. in Geography (University of Florida), M.S. in Interdisciplinary Ecology (University of Florida), B.S. in Animal Biology (University of California, Davis)
Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible?
My job can be broadly defined in two buckets: 1) conducting novel research to better understand wildlife species and their behavior as a means of informing management and conservation, and 2) reviewing and commenting on development proposals or other management actions to advocate for use of the best available scientific information in decision-making.
My current research focuses on caribou movement, habitat use and response to human activities in northern Alaska. In partnership with scientists from federal, state, and regional agencies, industry, and non-governmental organizations, I conduct primary research to identify key caribou migration areas and seasonal habitats and to understand what impacts development may have on caribou populations and the people that rely on them. This information is shared with policy makers to inform decisions about new development proposals, helping to identify where negative impacts to caribou and people can be reduced and what areas should be avoided to provide habitat for caribou and other species. We also publish our findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals to share the information with the broader scientific community.
When new development proposals or management plans, such as environmental impact statements, are made available for public comment by the government, I review them to see how the current state of science regarding caribou is represented. If there are statements or conclusions that appear contrary to scientific understanding, then I make this clear as part of public comments submitted by my organization or other partner groups. For example, during the recent planning process to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas leasing, I provided thorough review and numerous comments about ways that impacts to important caribou calving and post-calving habitat was misrepresented and made suggestions for improvement. The hope is that such efforts will lead to stronger final decisions that balance the needs of people, wildlife, and a healthy environment.
What attracted you to this career path?
In many ways I stumbled into my career field. As I was nearing completion of my Ph.D. I sought a job as a professor. I applied for various jobs, but nothing came of it. Then I saw a posting for a large herbivore ecologist to study caribou movement in Alaska. I had never been to Alaska, nor studied caribou, but having studied elephants in southern Africa I knew something about large herbivore movement, so I applied and got the job. I am so glad that I did!
Working for a non-profit conservation organization has been an excellent fit for me. I get to do research that is tangibly applied to make a difference for conservation. I also have greatly appreciated the flexibility and emphasis on work-life balance shown by my organization. With two young children, I am grateful to avoid the publish or perish mentality faced by friends in academia. I still do scientific research and publish, but do not face the same pressures of possibly losing my job if I do not publish enough.
I also get to step into other opportunities, like serving on the Western Arctic Caribou Herd Working Group. This advisory group of Alaska Native subsistence hunters, reindeer herders, hunting guides, transporters and conservationists works together to ensure the long-term conservation of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd and the people who rely upon it. I have also been able to pursue my interest in building bridges between the scientific and faith communities in Alaska, such as with a series of talks by Dr. Katharine Hayhoe about climate change, energy development and Anchorage that I helped organize in 2019. These opportunities add variety to my work.
How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
I pursued a degree in geography to add a spatial mindset and tools to my wildlife ecology background. This training served me well and was a large part of why I got my job, even without having experience in Alaska or with caribou. Over the last six years working in Alaska, I have met several other geographers working broadly in the field of conservation for universities, agencies and non-profit groups. Our ability as geographers to think spatially about challenges and solutions is very important to enabling us to serve as problem solvers, especially when it comes to land management over broad spatial scales. In addition to the spatial perspective, the specific tools I honed during my geography degree continue to be critically important in both my research and other conservation activities. Whether it is analyzing spatial animal movement datasets or creating maps of areas where caribou calving habitat is expected to be lost under different development proposals, my geography training features strongly in my current work.
What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often?
I use GIS skills regularly – obtaining/creating spatial data, analyzing it with respect to other data, and creating visualizations to share with colleagues or for publications. I also spend a great deal of my time working in R to conduct analyses, many of which are spatial in nature. While not an exclusively geographic skill, this is one that I learned while earning my geography degree. General skills include scientific writing and communication, strategic thinking and problem solving, and public engagement – from meeting with resource managers, to stakeholders, to community members in the region where I do my research, to members of the general public.
Are there any skills or information you need for your work that you did not obtain through your academic training? If so, how/where did you obtain them?
Yes. Wildlife ecology is a rapidly changing field, with new tools and technologies being developed frequently. One of the most important things I took away from my geography Ph.D. is learning how to learn – the ability to teach myself new things. Now, I may need to learn a new statistical approach, or about a new remote sensing data source, or how to use a platform like Google Earth Engine, yet the baseline of skills I have built during my academic training and the wide array of resources available on the internet, along with the knowledge sets of colleagues who are willing to share their expertise, have been invaluable in allowing me to attain these things.
Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
I have served on one hiring committee as well as in the onboarding of new employees. Specific skills vary widely depending on the position. In general, however, we want someone who is passionate about the mission of our organization to unite people to protect America’s wild places. We want someone who thinks strategically and creatively about how to fulfil that mission. We also want someone who cares about doing these things in an equitable and inclusive manner, recognizing that this unfortunately has not been the case too often in the past.
What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours?
Build a strong toolkit that includes both analytical skills and a demonstrated ability to communicate clearly in both written and spoken formats. It is important to show what you can do through experiences working with people in communities, even as you conduct research. This shows that you can not only do sound science, but also engage well with stakeholders and other interested parties. In the past, getting hired in many non-profit groups was strongly influenced by who you knew and the connections you had. While this still may be important for many organizations, I am noticing a trend away from this in my organization and some others. There is a recognition that such a perspective reinforces the lack of diversity in many conservation organizations and that we need to be more intentional about casting a wider net and really focusing on must-have skills, rather than prior relationships, when making hiring decisions. This could create new opportunities for job seekers. In light of this, search widely for potential positions that may fit your interests and do not give up even if you do not have specific experience in the field to which you are applying. If you have the necessary skills you still could be very successful in a given role.
What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers? At our organization, jobs for researchers are relatively rare. We have hired only one other scientist in the six years that I have been here. There are, however, other opportunities for geographers. For example, we hired both a Cartographer and Enterprise GIS Manager since I started working for The Wilderness Society and have two GIS analysts on staff. While people seem to like working for our organization and turnover is low, there will undoubtedly be other opportunities from time to time in the future. Other organizations may have additional opportunities, both in scientific and non-scientific positions. For example, one of our partner organizations posted both permanent positions for GIS analyst/data managers and short-term positions for staff to work on a specific project over the last few years.