Featured Scientist

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  • August 24, 2022

Banding wild turkeys and collecting samples in Davis .
Banding wild turkeys and collecting samples in Davis .

Field work in Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Field work in Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Selfie with giant kangaroo rat, Elkhorn Plateau in Carrizo Plain.
Selfie with giant kangaroo rat, Elkhorn Plateau in Carrizo Plain.

Biologist Matt Meshriy assists with statewide coordination on issues affecting a broad group of species that includes upland game birds. His job also focuses on small game mammals and predators and competitors of upland game species like badgers, skunks, coyotes, and racoons. Meshriy provides support on a range of issues impacting upland game species including regulations, harvest estimates, disease surveillance, habitat assessment and grant research.

Educated at San Francisco State University, Meshriy has an undergraduate degree in ecology and evolution and a master’s degree in animal behavior and physiology with a focus in mammalogy. In 2004, he landed his first professional biology job banding spotted owls for the U.S. Forest Service in Plumas National Forest. His next professional stop was at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a research associate in a forest pathology and mycology laboratory. There he maintained culture collections and learned to use molecular techniques like DNA extraction and amplification that later helped him in acquiring grants to fund his master’s thesis work.

Meshriy returned to San Francisco State University and taught biology laboratories and conducted field and genetic investigations of the federally endangered giant kangaroo rat in the Carrizo Plain National Monument. His thesis, titled “Kinship associations of a solitary rodent, Dipodomys ingens, at fluctuating population densities,” described behavioral adaptations of this unique species that facilitate population maintenance and dispersal under unpredictable conditions in their desert environment. After earning his graduate degree in 2009, Meshriy worked for the U.S. Geological Survey en route to being hired by CDFW in 2012.

What led you to a career in wildlife science?

First and foremost, I wanted to do something that felt meaningful. As a kid, my dad got me interested in space. He told me about the moon landings and of future missions to Mars. I grew up with Star Wars in the movie theaters. Although I was raised in the urban landscape of San Francisco and the bay Peninsula, I have always enjoyed being outside in the natural world and regularly explored the coastal mountains on my bicycle and the Sierra Nevada once I could drive.

I worked during my senior year of high school and for a year before and while attending college. I was initially interested in astronomy, astrophysics and meteorology but I came to realize that they required more math than I was comfortable with. I started looking into botany as an alternative area of study, and one semester of calculus seemed more do-able than three. As I enrolled in more elective coursework in the biological sciences, I found my way to biogeography and ecology. I’m fascinated by the relationships between organisms and I’m always curious about the ways that larger groups of organisms and systems are constantly struggling to find or maintain states of equilibrium, and how humans and our activities are increasingly affecting these systems.

Why did you apply for the upland game position?

Before applying for the position, I had very much been involved with the field aspects of data collection and processing of biological samples and data analysis. However, I didn’t have much experience or exposure to other areas of public science like policy, regulation and public outreach. When the job opening was advertised, I was leading a crew in field surveys of the federally threatened giant garter snake in the Sacramento Valley. While I enjoyed the physical work, the idea of being exposed to different aspects of wildlife management was appealing.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

In my experience, our collective progress toward solving problems and improving our understanding of issues moves forward in an uneven manner, in bits and spurts. My favorite parts of the job are the occasions when I feel connected to one of those instances of a shift to forward momentum, when new information becomes available or something new becomes possible.

This might be because a needed regulation gains enough support that it is prioritized for development, or a research need is filled through a new grant or collaboration. It’s the ability to see different facets of issues as I progress in my career. For example, how agencies work together to deliver the science that drives the policy. I like seeing how science is adapted to meet the needs of the public and how each agency and partner is involved. There’s not always a map for that process. Sometimes it takes creative thinking.

What should people know about upland game?

The term “upland game” relates to a group of species that are generally widespread in the state. Many upland game species are versatile and adaptable to a broad range of habitats whereas others occupy more specialized or geographically limited niches in California, like the rock ptarmigan and greater sage grouse.

As a group, upland game species and habitats are fairly ubiquitous in California. There are lots of opportunities for wildlife watchers and hunters alike to pursue upland game birds and mammals without having to travel too far around the state.

What advice would you have for young people interested in science careers?

Explore every opportunity that interests you. The more opportunities you can become involved with, the more likely you’ll find things that satisfy you personally and that you can make a living doing. I don’t think people should spin their wheels in internships or volunteer opportunities that don’t interest them at the outset, on the hope of landing a lucrative job that they assume will fulfil them. Instead, find the pursuits that you really enjoy and then figure out how to string together that set of knowledge, skills and experiences into something that is profitable and unique to you over time. For me, the value in casting a wide net is the broad exposure to issues and species and being able to recognize emergent properties or similarities in different areas of biology and the environment.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • June 24, 2022
scientist surveying milkweed in mountain habitat

Sardiñas surveying Asclepias californica, an early season milkweed species, on Mt Diablo (credit: Ling He/NRCS).

scientist surveying for bumble bees in nature reserve
Surveying for bumble bees in Upper Cottonwood Creek Reserve (credit: Lara Sparks/CDFW)

Scientist leading outdoor group training at butterfly symposium in Bay Area
Sardiñas leading a field training at the Bay Area Grassland Butterfly Symposium.

As CDFW’s statewide pollinator coordinator, Dr. Hillary Sardiñas supports conservation related to bees, monarch butterflies and any other animal in California that transfers pollen between plants to help them reproduce. She works with a variety of partners, including nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies to come up with new ideas and collaborations for improving pollinator conservation.

Sardiñas earned her undergraduate degree in environmental studies from University of California, Santa Cruz. She went on to study at the graduate level, earning a Ph.D. in environmental policy and management from University of California, Berkeley. She was hired by CDFW in January 2021.

When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

When I was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz I worked in the Chadwick Garden, a small organic garden perched above the hills of Santa Cruz. I was taking a summer course on the natural history of birds and practicing my observation skills when I saw a hummingbird nab and eat a butterfly. Up until that point, I hadn’t realized that hummingbirds also ate insects, I thought they only survived on nectar. Making that connection helped me realize I wanted a career where I got to understand what was happening in nature. I started taking more ecology courses and decided to become an environmental scientist.

What was your path to grad school?

During undergrad I got to take an amazing class called Natural History Field Quarter where I traveled statewide surveying plants and animals. It got me interested in the incredible diversity in California. After I graduated, I worked for some native plant nurseries, and I did a lot of seed collection. In learning more about plants and propagation, I discovered some plants weren't producing seeds. I got curious and researched potential causes, which is how I first heard about pollinator decline and the important role pollinators play in natural and agricultural systems. I realized I wanted to work to protect pollinators. I decided to go to grad school to study how to restore pollinator habitat.

What did you do professionally before joining CDFW?

I spent some time working for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation where I had the opportunity to collaborate with farmers from all over the west, helping them design and install habitat for pollinators. From there, I joined the Alameda County Resource Conservation District (RCD) where I worked with species such as the California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog and Alameda whipsnake. I also helped create a monarch conservation program that became the model for other RCD monarch programs. I ended up working with the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts, the nonprofit partner to California’s RCDs, as their statewide monarch coordinator. In that role I was able to support dozens of RCDs in their monarch and pollinator-related outreach and restoration work.

What drew you to CDFW’s statewide pollinator coordinator position?

My dream since I was a grad student was to work at a statewide level to conserve pollinators. When I heard about this position, I knew I had to apply. The timing for this position couldn’t have been better. It has enabled CDFW to respond to the emerging monarch crisis while also protecting other important pollinators like bumble bees. Pollinators are responsible for 80 percent of all flowering plant reproduction, and 35 percent of all crops depend on pollinators. Conserving pollinators is an incredibly important issue that helps maintain ecosystem function and sustain biodiversity. In the past year and a half, I’ve been able to work at the state level to bring partners together to develop collaborative management actions that benefit pollinators.

What is your job like on a day-to-day basis?

Every day is different, which is part of the fun. But I do have a few focal areas. One of the species I work with the most is the western monarch. CDFW owns properties along the California coast that support monarch overwintering clusters, so part of my job is working to enhance these sites. I’m also helping to increase native milkweed supply from commercial nurseries so we can enhance breeding habitat.

I also support the California Bumblebee Atlas, a community science project that we’re partnering on with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. The goal of the Atlas is to better understand the distribution and health of the state’s bumble bee species. We’re recruiting members of the public to help us survey, since the state is so large we can’t cover it by ourselves.

One of my favorite parts of this job is collaborating with other CDFW staff. For example, I assist our land managers with restoration plans and seed mixes. I also support our habitat conservation division by reviewing proposed projects that might impact pollinators and determining how we can avoid or minimize those impacts. I learn so much from all my colleagues.

How important is public outreach in your job?

Outreach is critical, in large part because the public can play a big role in supporting monarchs and other pollinators. People usually understand the importance of pollinators, but not everyone knows all the different species that contribute to pollination such as wasps and bats. I also try to emphasize the importance of other insects, as they contribute to many critical ecosystem processes. Helping people shift to overcome their fear of insects and understand the incredible role they play is important to ensuring their protection. Biologist E.O. Wilson talked about the “little things that run the world,” and I think pollinators are underrecognized for the value they provide. One way we’re working to get the word out is by installing new signs in our wildlife areas describing the role pollinators play in ecosystem function.

What can the public do to help?

Luckily the adage, “If you build it, they will come,” is true for pollinators. Planting native flowering plants creates pollinator habitat no matter where you live, whether in a city or a rural area. It's important to make sure that all plants you purchase are pesticide free so you don’t inadvertently poison the pollinators you’re trying to attract.

I also encourage people to get involved in a community science project. Community scientists help us cover this vast state. Data collected by community scientists helps us assess the status of insect populations and allows us to develop appropriate management actions. There are a ton of different community science projects with varying levels of commitment, so it’s easy to find one that’s right for you.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Stay curious. I started out with plants, then got really interested in pollinators, and even took a detour where I learned a lot about amphibians. All of these experiences and interests contributed to a more holistic understanding of the natural world. I also think having a vision is important. As I mentioned, I maintained the goal of working on pollinator conservation at the statewide level. With this objective in mind, I made sure to connect with a variety of different stakeholders and maintain those connections. I think this is what has helped me be successful in this position, because collaboration is a really effective and efficient way to accomplish a lot in a short period of time. And pollinators need as much support as possible.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • June 15, 2022
Scientist setting camera trap in field

Setting up camera trap at Pixley National Wildlife Refuge.

Scientist walking in a nature preserve
O’Leary working at Sandridge Bakersfield Cactus Preserve.

Scientist measuring a blunt-nosed leopard lizard at ecological reserve
O’Leary measuring a blunt-nosed leopard lizard at Semitropic Ecological Reserve.

Environmental Scientist Reagen O'Leary monitors wildlife and plant species on CDFW ecological reserves in the Central Valley. She’s part of a small team that helps protect and recover threatened and endangered species and their habitats on about 50,000 acres of CDFW-owned lands. O’Leary studied biology at Fresno State University and held several part-time jobs, including zookeeper at Fresno Chaffee Zoo, veterinary assistant at an animal hospital and scientific aid for CDFW’s Fishing in the City program. She also conducted owl surveys and worked in CDFW’s Lands Unit. Her first full-time position with the state was as an environmental planner for Caltrans. She was hired by CDFW as an environmental scientist in 2011.

When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

When I was a kid, I enjoyed watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Jacques Cousteau documentaries. I was very curious about the natural world and wanted to know how it worked. I was the type of kid who could sit in a field by myself and be entertained by my fascination with the plants and wildlife around me. Growing up, I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist and work with whales and sharks. In my 20s, I worked at a veterinary clinic and realized I liked animals more than people – but not in a clinical setting. That led to my interest in field biology.

What do you enjoy about your job at CDFW?

I love monitoring and taking inventory of the listed species, whether they be plants or wildlife. The wildlife species we typically work with include the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, kangaroo rat species, San Joaquin kit fox, Swainson's hawk and San Joaquin antelope squirrel. I also really enjoy teaching young scientists about the different species and habitats they depend on. I like seeing lightbulbs go off in people’s minds when they learn something new and correlate that knowledge to what they already knew but maybe couldn’t put to words. Young people can be transformed by what they learn, and I enjoy nurturing an appreciation for nature.

What does your job look like on a day-to-day basis?

It depends on the time of year. The field work is varied. For example, we have a long-term lizard monitoring grid that we’ve kicked off for this year that will run in the spring, summer and fall. On hot days we’ll be out in the field early to beat the heat and get back home at a reasonable time. I oversee our annual winter resident bird surveys. I also monitor the status of multiple rare plants on our ecological reserves during the species blooming period. Other duties include setting up camera traps throughout the lands for species detections. We conduct kangaroo rat trapping in the summer, which consists of night work, and during winter we conduct fairy shrimp surveys. Overall, I’ve logged a lot of walking miles in the San Joaquin desert doing all sorts of activities.

As far as day-to-day office work, I coordinate new land acquisitions, write reports, present on our work at conferences, mentor and guide our scientific aids and conduct work funded by grants. I’m the lead staff for coordinating land acquisitions on a Habitat Conservation Plan. I sometimes joke with my colleagues and say, “Who knew we’d need to understand real estate documents to do this job?”

Do you have any recommendations for aspiring scientists?

I would encourage students to be curious about nature and not be scared to ask professionals questions. What I’m discovering with young people is that they sometimes don’t ask enough questions, or they don’t know what questions to ask. Don’t ever think you’re going to learn it all; as a matter of fact, the more you learn, the more you discover what you don’t know. If you are a person with a curious nature, the scientific field is definitely for you. Find folks that like to explore nature and let your curiosity blossom.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • June 6, 2022
Man holding frog in one hand and taking notes in a notepad with the other, with lake and mountain in the background.

Isaac Chellman recording data on a recaptured Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog in Bucks Lake Wilderness, Plumas County.

Man at the edge of a pond, kneeling and holding a frog in one hand, with forest trees in the background.
Isaac Chellman releasing a zoo-reared Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog in Desolation Wilderness, El Dorado County.

Smiling man with hiking gear, standing in a forested area and holding a garter snake with both hands.
Isaac Chellman holding a mountain gartersnake in Desolation Wilderness, El Dorado County.

Man with hiking gear walking alongside a small stream, looking into the water, with mountains and trees in the background.
Isaac Chellman looking for Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs in Desolation Wilderness, El Dorado County.

Isaac Chellman is an environmental scientist in CDFW’s North Central Region, which includes much of the northern Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley. Isaac has worked for CDFW since 2017, leading the region’s High Mountain Lakes (HML) project.

Isaac is originally from the east coast, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology (’02) and later a master’s in Aquatic Ecology and Watershed Science (’11) from the University of Vermont. Following undergrad, Isaac worked for the U.S. Geological Service Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, and later for the USGS Brown Treesnake Project on Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. In 2007, he was hired by the USGS for backcountry amphibian monitoring in Yosemite National Park. After that, Isaac worked for the Western Riverside County Biological Monitoring Program. After taking a few years off for grad school, Isaac returned to Guam as a crew leader for the Ecology of Bird Loss Project, a multi-island ecological study focused on the secondary ecological effects of native forest bird loss caused by invasive brown treesnakes. He also spent five years as the crew supervisor for the Aquatic Ecosystems Program at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, before coming to work for CDFW.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career as an Environmental Scientist?

I’ve been captivated with the outdoors for as long as I can remember. Growing up in rural New Hampshire, I was usually outside, often in wetlands. I became really interested in amphibians (frogs, in particular), and that love of ectothermic critters stuck. My dad and aunt are probably my two biggest influences in helping foster an appreciation for the natural world. Dad would often take my brother and me out on hunting and fishing trips, both locally and further afield. My aunt was the head of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s moose project for many years, until retiring a couple years ago. She was a big inspiration for me, and she definitely supported my pursuit of a wildlife career as I was planning to enter college.

What type of work do you do as a CDFW environmental scientist?

As part of the HML project, the seasonal field crew and I visit aquatic habitats all over the northern Sierra Nevada, monitoring the status and trends of frog populations, assessing fisheries and working to help conserve threatened and endangered species, in particular. Most of the specific projects I work on — which tend to be federally funded through section 6 of the Endangered Species Act, State Wildlife Grants or similar sources — focus on monitoring the various Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog (Rana sierrae) populations in the region, and carrying out actions to help recover the species.

Part of that work involves targeted removal of introduced trout, which prey on R. sierrae in locations where the species overlap. Trout are a major contributor to declines of R. sierrae and Southern Mountain yellow-legged frogs (Rana muscosa). Introduced trout, including brook trout (native to the eastern U.S. and Canada) and rainbow trout (native to the west coast, but not originally found in many areas of the Sierra Nevada), were originally stocked into high mountain lakes beginning in the latter half of the 19th century. Other species of trout are native to parts of the Sierra Nevada (including Lahontan cutthroat trout, Paiute cutthroat trout, Little Kern golden trout, Kern River rainbow trout and golden trout). However, prior to the mid-1800s, most of the remote, high elevation lakes and streams did not contain any fish, which had been precluded by glaciation and natural barriers to upstream fish movement. During my time with CDFW, we have removed introduced trout from a few specific locations that contain small populations of R. sierrae nearby. In those places, R. sierrae have often been relegated to smaller, fishless waterbodies, since the frogs can’t effectively reproduce in areas occupied by trout. We use mechanical methods (gill nets in lakes and backpack electrofishing units in streams) to catch the fish, the carcasses of which are then sunk to the deeper portions of lake bottoms, where they break down and return nutrients into the ecosystem. Once the fish are removed, the habitat is again available for the frogs to reproduce without the threat of being suppressed by predators with which they did not evolve.

Other projects I work on include translocations and reintroductions of R. sierrae into remote, fishless lakes on public lands within the known range of the frogs. For example, in Desolation Wilderness, my colleagues and I have undertaken several frog translocations, using one of the more robust R. sierrae populations in the northern Sierra Nevada as the source, and moving some of the adult frogs to a fishless lake basin about two miles away. The recipient lake basin likely had R. sierrae in the relatively recent past, but the area had been stocked with brook trout for many years, and the frogs were no longer present. However, the fish died out in the absence of stocking, so we began a project in 2018 to reintroduce the frogs. So far, that effort has been really successful.

All the adult frogs we release are individually marked with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, which are tiny (8 mm long) inert microchips encased in glass, which we insert under the frog’s skin to give each individual a permanent, unique identifying code that we can detect using a handheld scanner. We closely monitor the newly translocated population: surveys involve catching every adult frog we find, scanning and recording their PIT tag, and collecting morphological measurements. Those measurements have revealed that the recaptured frogs have been growing quickly and appear to be very healthy.

All of this work, and more, is part of an Interagency Conservation Strategy for mountain yellow-legged frogs in the Sierra Nevada. The strategy was developed over several years by a dedicated team of biologists, managers and administrators with CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, university-affiliated researchers and several California zoos.

What types of invasive species do you encounter?

The main invasive species connection to the HML work is a fungal pathogen, often associated with aquatic environments, known as amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), or just “Bd” for short. Bd causes an amphibian-specific disease known as chytridiomycosis, which has been a major contributor to amphibian declines (particularly in frogs). The disease has been linked to many frog extinctions all over the world. The exact origin of Bd, and all the ways in which it spreads, is not fully understood, but the current prevailing theory is that Bd was likely introduced to North America at least a century ago, and Bd later spread up into the Sierra Nevada, possibly around the 1960s or 1970s.

Bd is currently present throughout most of the Sierra Nevada. Scientists have detected the pathogen in many different species, but some frog species are more susceptible than others to developing chytridiomycosis. For example, American bullfrogs (Lithobates [Rana] catesbeianus), which are native to the eastern and central U.S. but invasive in California, are a known host for Bd. However, the pathogen doesn’t seem to affect bullfrogs very much, particularly when compared with many other frog species. There is a lot of concern that bullfrogs may act as a vector for spreading the disease to more susceptible native species in California, like Foothill yellow-legged frogs (Rana boylii), and lower elevation populations of montane ranid frogs, including Cascades frogs (Rana cascadae), R. sierrae and R. muscosa). There are also native species that appear to be less susceptible to Bd-induced mortality (and could, therefore, also be potential reservoir hosts for Bd), particularly chorus frogs (Hyliola [Pseudacris] spp.), which are often known simply as “treefrogs” in our area. Although many native species are highly susceptible to Bd, not all populations have the same outcome when the pathogen arrives. Some populations are able to persist, and even thrive, despite the presence of Bd, whereas others become extirpated (that is, the population in that particular area dies out). Investigating why there can be such differences in outcomes from Bd infection in various populations, even within the same species, is one of the biggest areas of scientific research surrounding the pathogen.

Although Bd is now fairly ubiquitous in California, there is still concern about moving the pathogen around, in part because there are many different genetic strains of Bd that have been recently identified in the Sierra Nevada. Since we roam all over the Sierra Nevada to study native California amphibians, my crew and I decontaminate all gear that came into contact with the aquatic environment, including shoes and socks, nets and sampling equipment. These efforts also help greatly reduce the chance we’ll move any other high elevation aquatic invasive species (AIS) or pathogens around, including things like Ranaviruses (another group of microorganisms that can affect frogs). Additionally, if we’re ever working in lower elevations areas that may have other AIS present, such as New Zealand mudsnails and quagga/zebra mussels, we also freeze our gear overnight after use, in addition to the other decontamination procedures.

What do you love about your job?

It probably won’t be a shock to know that I love the field work. Being able to study native amphibian populations throughout the mountains and foothills of the Sierra Nevada is incredible, and I don’t take that opportunity for granted. Knowing that I’m doing work that directly benefits native species, while doing so in some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, is hard to beat. I also work with great people, and being able to collaborate with others toward common conservation goals is something I love about the job.

The translocation project I mentioned is one of the more recent work projects that I’ve found gratifying. That project has been a group effort, involving other biologists who have laid the groundwork, including conceptualizing the project and securing the initial funding, and other staff who have helped in the field, including many seasonal scientific aids and partner biologists with Eldorado National Forest. It has been rewarding to recapture many of the frogs we have released and see that they appear to be doing very well, and it has been particularly exciting to see new frogs entering the population. Seeing some initial successes like this is motivating and gives me hope that our projects, along with other great work by colleagues working throughout the Sierra Nevada, can help recover the species.

One other thing I really like about the projects we undertake is that they are relatively low cost, particularly given the benefits we can see. Monitoring, translocations and mechanical fish removal projects are pretty cheap when it comes to conservation work. We can do these projects using small crews, composed mostly of seasonal staff, with limited resources in relatively short periods of time.

What advice would you have for a young scientist wanting to do what you do?

If you’re thinking about pursuing this kind of work, it’s important that you feel fairly confident you’ll truly enjoy it, whatever your specific interest may be. If you are pursuing what you love to do, any potential challenges will be more endurable. In terms of practical needs, it’s important to obtain a baseline education in this type of work, particularly to meet the minimum qualifications many jobs require. It doesn’t need to be wildlife or fisheries biology, specifically, but the degree should have a related focus (for example, degrees in general biology, conservation biology, environmental science/studies, molecular ecology, genetics, zoology, etc.), and that degree could be from a local community college or elsewhere, depending on your desires and resources. With that as a baseline, if you have the ability, I highly recommend applying to all sorts of seasonal field jobs, and try working for different agencies/organizations, on different projects, and with different species, to see what you enjoy the most. It can be a long road of working for low pay and living in austere conditions, but it can also be a lot of fun, and rewarding life experience.

Another big piece of advice I have is to be persistent: do not give up, particularly when it comes to applying for those seasonal jobs. When you’re just starting out and trying to gain experience, it can take many applications before you get interviewed, let alone be offered a job. However, perseverance is huge, and you will eventually be able to land a job in your field, if you keep at it.

Photos courtesy of Isaac Chellman.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • March 16, 2022
Roberts doing camera checks at the Chorro study area in the Central Region

Roberts doing camera checks at the Chorro study area in the Central Region

A female bobcat trapped as part of a statewide population study
A female bobcat trapped as part of a statewide population study

Roberts checking bobcat traps on an ATV in the Inland Deserts Region
Roberts checking bobcat traps on an ATV in the Inland Deserts Region

Roberts setting up a bobcat trap at the Fort Irwin study area in the Inland Deserts Region
Roberts setting up a bobcat trap at the Fort Irwin study area in the Inland Deserts Region

Senior Environmental Scientist Rachel Roberts oversees CDFW’s statewide project to study the population of bobcats in California. The study will inform management practices and help scientists better understand conflict management issues between bobcats and humans. The research will ultimately culminate in the creation of a statewide bobcat management plan. Roberts was educated at San Jose State University where she earned both an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in ecology and conservation biology with an emphasis in zoology. In 2011, she volunteered to do habitat restoration work at Pinnacles National Park in Central California. Her volunteer work led to a job as a scientific aide working with condors at the national park. Since that first volunteer position Rachel has worked for the U.S. Forest Service on both the Modoc and the Sierra National Forest, as well as for the California Department of Transportation as an environmental planner. She also worked in the private sector as an independent contractor and at an environmental firm before being hired by CDFW in 2020 as the department’s statewide bobcat research coordinator.

When did you know you wanted a career involving wildlife?

My dad used to take my siblings and me camping all the time, and we spent a lot of time in nature. But the “aha” moment didn’t come to me until later in life. I was a veterinary technician for a long time. I originally thought I wanted to go to veterinary school, but then I realized I wanted to work outside with animals. This was around 2005 and I was still early in my college career. I was trying to figure out what to do next and my now-husband suggested ecology as a major. Once I got into field classes and was learning more about wildlife biology, that was it. I figured out where I wanted to be.

What inspired you to study bobcats?

As a student at San Jose State, we did fieldwork at Cañada de los Osos Ecological Reserve near Gilroy. We’d go out to the reserve on a regular basis, and we’d see bobcats all the time. Bobcats are said to be elusive and shy around humans. They did generally try to avoid us, but I also noticed that they would sit there and watch us while we did fieldwork. They were often as curious about us as we were about them. Seeing so many bobcats on a regular basis is ultimately what led to my master’s thesis. I studied what bobcats were eating at Cañada de los Osos Ecological Reserve and how those prey items were changing seasonally. My love for bobcats has grown as I’ve studied them.

What were bobcats eating at the reserve?

Mostly dusky footed woodrats (Neotoma fuscipes), Botta’s pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae) and California meadow voles (Microtus californicus). Interestingly, they were eating more woodrats in the summer, pocket gophers in the winter and voles in the spring. They were also eating small mammals like field mice and deer mice, and birds like quail, northern flicker, turkeys and jays. At times their diet also included Jerusalem crickets, skunks, hares, snakes and lizards.

What is your job like on a day-to-day basis?

The research project is fairly complex. We have a team of bobcat scientists in each of the six CDFW terrestrial regions across the state collecting data. We have a large grid of camera traps that we are rotating through each of our 48 study areas, and we’re walking 40 kilometers of transects in each study area to collect scat for fecal DNA analysis. We are also deploying GPS collars on bobcats throughout the state. In addition to regional staff, there are multiple leadership groups that help the team make decisions. So my day-to-day involves coordinating the entire effort.

For the first part of the project, I spent a lot of time in the field making sure staff were trained to collect data. I'm currently overseeing the bobcat collaring efforts, but as data collection starts to wind down by the end of June 2022 I’ll be spending more time doing data analysis and writing.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

I could give the obvious answers like working with bobcats and seeing all the great bobcat photos. But beyond that, the team of folks that have been hired to do this research are incredible. My favorite part is working with the young scientists. I’ve been really impressed with their data collection and organizational skills. They’ve been a pleasure to work with and we’re working together to achieve a common goal.

What’s the biggest challenge of your job?

Collecting and organizing data on a statewide scale is very challenging. We have various methods of data collection and management which makes the process easier but ensuring that the data is collected the same way across the state has been a challenge.

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in wildlife careers?

What helped me was all the volunteer work I did. I really wanted as much experience as I could get. I was willing to volunteer, work for little pay, or travel to get that experience. Putting myself in a place to be the person who takes on responsibility was key. I always put my hand up when something needed to be done, and I think that gave me the experience I needed to get here.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • January 28, 2022
Kevin Kwak, with equipment in hand and on his back, prepares to electrofish a stream.

Kevin Kwak prepares to electrofish a stream.

Kevin Kwak shows off an impressive spiny lobster he caught diving.
Kevin Kwak with an impressive spiny lobster he caught while diving.

Kevin Kwak is a fisheries veterinarian for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) – one of only two fisheries veterinarians in the entire department. Kevin holds a doctorate degree in fish virology and a doctorate in veterinary medicine from UC Davis, where he also earned his undergraduate degree in evolution and ecology. Kevin joined CDFW in 2012 after working as a practicing veterinarian for a small animal and exotic animal clinic for a few years following his studies at UC Davis.

Based out of CDFW’s Fish Health Lab in Rancho Cordova, Kevin’s work takes him throughout the state. His primary responsibility is diagnosing disease outbreaks and coordinating treatment plans at CDFW’s fish hatcheries. He also investigates wild fish population die-offs and conducts health assessments any time hatchery or wild fish are moved, relocated or rescued to ensure disease is not being introduced into new environments or spread to other fish populations.

Most recently, Kevin developed an innovative treatment for hatchery Chinook salmon suffering from a Thiamine – or Vitamin B1 – deficiency, which is believed to be linked to salmon foraging to a large degree on anchovies in the ocean compared to a more diverse diet. A lack of Thiamine in returning female salmon causes developmental problems and even death in fry salmon. Kevin developed a method to treat the Thiamine deficiency at egg fertilization to avoid any developmental issues.

Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Kevin’s interest in science and the natural world was ignited as a child by the classic television series “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” which he watched Sunday nights with his family.

An avid hunter and angler, Kevin particularly enjoys free diving and SCUBA diving – especially for spiny lobster. He also keeps busy away from work introducing his two young children to these pursuits and the outdoors.

CDFW Photos

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • January 12, 2022
scientist holding fisher

Swanson while conducting research on fishers in the Sierra Nevada.

scientist holding fisher
With a deer fawn found in a residential area. The fawn was reunited with its mother.

scientist working mule deer capture
Swanson (middle) with CDFW staff during a mule deer capture near Lone Pine.

As CDFW’s unit biologist for San Luis Obispo County, Brandon Swanson is responsible for managing wildlife populations locally and responding to the public’s wildlife-related needs. His job can involve supporting safe human-wildlife interactions, increasing public awareness on wildlife issues, and managing CDFW-owned lands such as the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve and San Luis Obispo Wildlife Area. Swanson earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science from Portland State University where he also minored in geographic information systems (GIS). He began his professional career in 2016 with the U.S. Forest Service and joined CDFW in 2018 as a scientific aid. He was promoted to his current position as wildlife biologist in 2020.

What was the genesis of your career in wildlife biology?

My grandparents had a farm, so early on I got to see some of the wildlife issues that they dealt with – for example, protecting against livestock loss and agricultural damage. I did a lot of back-country camping and spent plenty of time in the wild. I was also a Boy Scout all the way through Eagle Scouts.

In school, science was always the subject I loved the most. I wandered away from science in my first few years of college and studied journalism and fine art. I ended up returning to science as a career because I saw a need for people to do the work and I felt it was the best way for me to make a positive impact.

Why did you want to be a biologist in San Luis Obispo County?

I’ve always loved weasels. They’ve always been one of my favorite families of animals. On the Central Coast we have a good number of badgers and long-tailed weasels.

I also wanted the opportunity to work with some of the charismatic megafauna like tule elk and pronghorn. They are amazing animals. Elk are an incredible story of coming back from the brink of extinction. I saw an opportunity to make a positive impact there.

What does your job consist of on a day-to-day basis?

Any issue that involves wildlife in San Luis Obispo County is my responsibility. I respond to human/wildlife issues like when a bear wanders into a more populated area. In those situations, we balance public safety with the welfare of the animal, and we work to get the animal back to its habitat. I also manage lands that are under CDFW’s responsibility. For example, right now we’re developing a water plan for the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve. Additionally, I work with different partners and agencies on collaborations and research. I’m currently working on various research projects with California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

You started your current job during the pandemic. What was that like?

It’s been weird. I haven’t met a lot of my colleagues in person. But I think I made the transition well.

Fieldwork was very limited at first, so that was a challenge. For example, we have a limited number of vehicles, and everyone had to have their own vehicle. It made things difficult logistically. We also had to take a lot of extra safety precautions, so there was additional emphasis on protocol. I also wanted to make sure I was representing the department well by taking all the necessary precautions. It’s been interesting.

Is there any aspect of your job that might surprise people?

My job involves a lot more screen time than you’d think. There are a lot of meetings, and there’s a lot of reading and data analysis. It’s not all cowboying around with wildlife. I wish it was sometimes, but there’s more to it. With more responsibility comes less field time. That’s just the way it is. It’s the bargain you have to make with yourself. The more responsibility you have, the more impact you can have.

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in a wildlife career?

Do as much volunteering as you can. Get a wide breadth of experience. Build up your skill base on practical things like being able to fix a fence or run a chain saw. Those practical skills are often overlooked. In this job, you’re not just doing science. You’re also doing labor outdoors, so you need to have some of those practical skills.

For me, studying GIS in college was extremely helpful. When I’m communicating with the public, using data can be a compelling way to get a point across. Being able to take data and make it make sense for people is invaluable.

A career in environmental science is not easy. It’s a crowded field. You just have to persist and stick it out. It’s hard some days. There are some days in the field where you’re wet and miserable and everything is awful. But looking back, those days can end up being your best memories. And any day that you get to see wildlife makes it all worth it.

CDFW Photos

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • January 5, 2022
Janene Colby,  squatting pouring water using plastic container and lamb drinking water

Janene Colby, assisting thirsty lamb separated from its mother in border construction area.

Janene Colby holding newborn lamb to return to its mother
Janene Colby, returning newborn lamb to its mother.

Janene Colby hiking in mountain of harper canyon
Janene Colby, hiiking in Harper Canyon, San Diego County.

Helicopter in air delivering water which is surrounded by mountain
helicopter delivering water for desert bighorn sheep project.

Janene Colby is an environmental scientist who studies bighorn sheep in the Peninsular Mountain Ranges of Southern California and southern mule deer in San Diego County. Working out of the CDFW San Diego office, she collects demographic data such as abundance, distribution, health status, survival and mortality causes on radio-collared and satellite collared bighorn sheep and mule deer.

She has a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Science from California State University, San Marcos and began working with CDFW in 2005.

You started your career with CDFW a little later in life than a lot of our scientists. What were you doing before joining CDFW and how did that experience help determine your career path?

I worked at a wild animal park as an animal trainer for a North American mammal show. I became very disillusioned with training wild animals to perform for the public. While these animals are supposed to serve as “ambassadors,” it seemed more like entertainment for profit at the expense of the animal’s well-being. It was very disheartening, so I decided to go back to school and become a wildlife biologist.

What do you enjoy about working in the desert?

I like the stark beauty of vast spaces and being able to see the horizon – the orange glow cast on the desert mountains each sunrise and the brilliantly colored sky each sunset. I am a loner at heart and enjoy the solitude and quiet. I never tire of observing the beauty, adaptability and resilience of desert plants and animals.

Your big project in the summer of 2021 was to coordinate the delivery of water to several dry guzzlers in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (ABDSP). Why was this important?

These particular guzzlers originally ran dry due to catastrophic failures in 2020 and were repaired, but there was not enough rainfall during the winter/spring months to refill the storage tanks in preparation for summer 2021. By September 2020, at least three radio-collared sheep had already died due to the dry guzzlers, and we recognized that there was an urgent need to get water into the two dry guzzlers before summer 2021. I did not want to witness more sheep deaths because we could not manage to find a way to get water into these guzzlers.

I reached out to California chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation and the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep for assistance. Without the assistance of these organizations, and the U.S. Marine Corps, the helicopter water haul would not have occurred this summer.

What did this operation entail?

The most difficult part of the job was the timing -- just trying to get CDFW and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (ABDSP) to act and get water into the wildlife water development system (guzzler) before the hot summer months when sheep would need to drink. ABDSP installed the guzzler in the 1980s but it had become dry due to lack of maintenance, and they were unable to commit the necessary time or money to get water to it. And while CDFW had good intentions, we are currently not set up with funding or the ability to quickly secure a helicopter contract for emergency water hauls to remote locations. When it became clear that our agency would not be able to get water into the guzzler before the end of summer, I contacted the California Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation (Cal WSF) and the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep (SCBS). These two nonprofits were able to secure funding for the project and reach out to the Marines at Camp Pendleton for help. 

On Aug. 27, a base camp was set up within the State Park that was approximately 10 miles from the guzzler. Temporary portable water tanks were set up and water trucks delivered 12,000 gallons of water. In the evening, the Marines Light Attack Training Squadron 303 (HMLAT-303) and 1st Marine Raider Support Battalion (1MRSB) arrived at base camp in a UH-1Y helicopter. A safety briefing was held, and the logistics of hauling water was discussed. At dawn on Aug. 28, the UH-1Y helicopter crew long-lined a stock tank 10 miles to the guzzler. Next, the helicopter crew dipped a “bambi bucket” that can hold up to 225 gallons of water into the portable water tank, flew the bucket of water to the guzzler and dumped it into the stock tank, which would then feed the water into the guzzler storage tank. This procedure was repeated seven times until it became too hot and windy for the helicopter to continue safely. By 11 a.m., approximately 1,600 gallons of water had been delivered to the guzzler. We really needed to get water to this endangered population of peninsular desert bighorn sheep at the beginning of the summer rather than at the end of the summer. However, it will hopefully help them out until the first rains arrive in November or December.

CDFW often states that wildlife should be left alone, with minimal human intervention. Why is this different? Why do we need to deliver water to species that should theoretically know how to find water on their own?

Wildlife can only find water on their own if there is water to be had! Bighorn sheep and other desert dwellers are well adapted to extreme desert conditions. In times of drought, bighorn sheep can adjust their behavior to conserve water and can seek out plants such as cactus and other succulents that contain a high concentration of water. However, an increase in mean temperature and decrease in annual precipitation within the desert due to climate change has resulted in a measurable decrease in the quality and quantity of natural water sources and vegetation available for use by desert bighorn sheep and other species.

So in this case, human intervention was necessary?

Most plants and animals on the endangered species list are there due to direct and/or indirect anthropogenic changes to their habitat. Peninsular bighorn sheep were federally listed as endangered species in 1998 due to human caused habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, drought and disease introduced by domestic livestock. Humans created the problem. If we value wildlife, then it is incumbent upon us to help support these animals until we can find a more permanent solution by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving and protecting the habitat that remains intact.

Was this a one-time operation or will it be necessary to repeat?

I hope it will not be necessary every year, or even every drought year. But until we study this in more depth we will not know. Due to climate change, it is more important than ever before to carefully monitor and maintain wildlife water developments and invest in more efficient systems with greater storage capacity. To achieve this goal, CDFW and other state agencies like ABDSP need to commit both money and personnel to this task sooner rather than later.

How did you feel upon the successful completion of the water delivery? Relieved? Satisfied?

I truly enjoy and am passionate about my job, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt “satisfied” with this job. If and when we can ensure bighorn sheep will thrive into the future, then I’ll be satisfied. But I don’t think we are there yet.

Outside of this major project, what other kind of work do you typically do?

Checking on the status of radio-collared bighorn sheep is time-consuming, as it entails driving on rough Jeep roads for four to six hours a day, followed by hiking in remote areas for several hours. In an average year, I conduct 40 to 50 sheep and deer mortality investigations. I spend a fair amount of time at my computer doing data entry, processing satellite and GPS data and creating home range maps in ArcGIS, and compiling and analyzing data for technical reports. I also help plan and implement sheep and deer helicopter surveys and captures.

What kind of projects are in your future?

With an unlimited budget and unlimited time, I would set up a long-term study to measure the impacts of climate change on bighorn sheep, and evaluate what management tools would be needed to alleviate or reduce impacts. But I’m not too far from retirement. Even after I leave the department, I will continue to be an advocate for protecting and preserving wildlife habitat. I have not yet had time to give this much thought beyond knowing that I will continue to be an advocate after I retire. I cannot just “relax” in retirement when there is so much more that needs to be done – that is just how I roll.

CDFW Photos

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • June 8, 2021
Scientist Shruti Khanna on a boat on the delta taking notes with a bridge in back

Senior Environmental Scientist Shruti Khanna collecting data on an airboat in the Delta.

Scientist Shruti Khanna standing on the delta raking aquatic vegetation
Khanna raking water primrose, an invasive species of plant found in the Delta.

Scientist Shruti Khanna and another scientist on a boat
Khanna (left) with colleague Curtis Hagen (now retired) on a data collection outing in the Delta.

Senior Environmental Scientist Shruti Khanna works for CDFW in the Interagency Ecological Program (IEP), a consortium of state and federal agencies that monitors the health of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. Khanna works in the IEP’s Program Support and Synthesis Group. Her focus is researching nonnative invasive aquatic vegetation in the Delta. By analyzing data on nonnative invasive aquatic vegetation, Khanna helps conservation managers decide the best approaches to take in conserving the Delta’s ecosystem.

Khanna received her undergraduate degree in computer engineering while living in India. After working in the field for a short time, she decided to pursue her passion for the environment. She moved to the U.S. and enrolled in a graduate program in ecology at UC Davis. She fell in love with ecology and continued her education, ultimately earning a Ph.D. from UC Davis in 2010. Khanna then did six years of post-doctoral research which included studies in the Delta using remote sensing—a tool to study the environment using imagery taken from aircraft and satellite. Khanna’s research skills and experience led to her being hired by CDFW as a senior environmental scientist in 2016.

How do you explain your job to a layperson?

Essentially, I look at photographs of the Delta taken from space and try to derive answers to environmental questions. When we take pictures from satellite or aircraft we get a much bigger picture compared to taking photographs from the ground. This allows us to look at environmental processes at a much larger scale and offer solutions that work across the entire landscape. We have imagery of the Delta dating back to 2004, so the first part of our analysis involves mapping what already existed in the environment. Then we start looking at what’s happening year after year—looking for trends. All the information together helps us look at the impact of different management actions. Everything I do is geared toward helping management decide the best way to manage the ecosystem.

The main mission of IEP is to monitor the entire ecosystem of the Delta—everything from water quality to invertebrates to fish to animals that eat the fish. As many people know, we pump a lot of water through the Delta to southern and central California. Our monitoring helps ensure that the ecosystem stays somewhat stable.

My focus in the Delta is on invasive aquatic vegetation. There’s both submerged aquatic vegetation and floating aquatic vegetation. About 70 percent of all of submerged vegetation is invasive, and more than 90 percent of all floating vegetation is invasive.

What kind research do you do?

A lot of my research looks at how submerged and floating vegetation affects the habitat and water quality of the Delta. For the past two to three years, I’ve been involved with research looking at the effectiveness of treating submerged and floating vegetation with herbicides. We want to know if the treatment is having any long-term effect on the extent of the vegetation. So far, the results show that vegetation is reduced when we treat it, but it comes back the following year.

I’m also looking at what kinds of habitats are easily treated and which are more difficult to treat. Remember that the Delta is a tidal environment. Every day the tides are coming in and out. So, when you treat vegetation with herbicides, it flows in and out with the tides. That makes it harder to treat the vegetation. This area of research is trying to figure out how to design a treatment program that is more effective than what we have currently.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love two aspects. First, I’m able to do cutting-edge research, which I enjoy. Second, there is a lot of multidisciplinary collaboration that happens in my job. The IEP is essentially a loosely connected group of scientists from nine agencies, so I get to work with scientists from many different backgrounds and we work on common problems.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Because there aren’t a lot of people in my field of research, it can be a challenge to keep up my skillset and be aware of new methods and data coming available in my field. I try to collaborate with other professors and colleagues from other agencies and campuses who are doing cutting edge research. By making connections across a wider landscape I’m able to keep up on my skills.

What advice would you give to a young person who’s interested in following your footsteps?

I tell students in my field to focus on a couple of things. First, coding experience is absolutely necessary. They should get comfortable with image processing platforms like Python and Google Earth Engine. They should be up to date on all the new languages and tools. Second, I tell them not to ignore their math and physics education. If you have a strong math curriculum then you understand the methods you’re using to a much deeper level, which means your research will be more powerful. Good research isn’t so much about available data because everyone has the data. It’s what you do with the data that makes your study powerful. To do good research in this field, you need to have a strong math and science core, and strong coding experience.

What would you like the public to know about invasive species?

Not everyone realizes how much an invasive species can harm an existing ecosystem. The very basic law of invasion ecology is that when a species didn’t evolve in an environment, and then arrives in that environment, the species doesn’t bring along pathogens or predators. So it arrives in this novel ecosystem and has left behind anything that harms it. This essentially releases the species from competition. It may not have spread in its native environment, but in the new environment it can spread. When invasive species spread rapidly, they can outcompete and outgrow native species. All the subsequent levels of the food web are impacted and the whole ecosystem can become vulnerable.

CDFW Photos

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • April 28, 2021
Scientist Julia Coates in a wet suit on a boat with mountains in back

Coates working on sea cucumber monitoring surveys in 2018 at Anacapa Island, about 11 miles of the coast of Port Hueneme in Ventura County.

Scientist Julia Coates in a wet suit on a boat on the ocean
Coates’ job involves using statistical analysis to help scientists predict how policy decisions will affect the health of a fishery.

Scientist Julia Coates scuba diving
Dive work for CDFW’s Invertebrate Fisheries Management Project.

Staff in CDFW’s Marine Region work to sustainably manage California’s marine resources. Julia Coates, a Marine Region senior environmental scientist, works on quantitative analysis and experimental design projects involving both invertebrate and finfish populations. Her ultimate goal is to produce analyses that can help inform future policy decisions. Much of her work involves predictive modeling—a cutting-edge form of statistical analysis that helps scientists predict how various policy decisions will affect the health of a fishery. With those predictions in hand, scientists can choose the policy decision that most closely aligns with their goals for a fishery.

Coates began her academic training with an undergraduate degree in integrative biology from UC Berkeley. She then completed coursework and gained professional fisheries experience at the University of Washington. Her next stop was San Francisco State, where she earned a master’s degree in biological oceanography. Next came a job doing environmental consulting in San Diego. She then completed a PhD in the joint program between UC Davis, and San Diego State, focusing on pink abalone in Southern California kelp forests. She followed that with a post-doctoral fellowship looking at the relative impacts of water quality and fisheries on the biodiversity of Southern California rocky reefs. In 2014, she was hired by CDFW as an environmental scientist with the Invertebrate Fisheries Management Project. She was promoted to her current position as senior environmental scientist in 2018.

How would you explain statistical modeling to a layperson?

Much of my work involves helping the Marine Region implement a relatively new type of fisheries analysis approach called Management Strategy Evaluation (MSE). MSE is a way to help compare the likely outcomes of different management approaches. It helps answer questions about which approaches are more likely to achieve different goals given uncertainty due to both environmental variability and error in our ability to monitor fisheries and implement management actions. Stock assessment is familiar to many who are involved in fisheries. While stock assessments estimate where a stock is today relative to the past, MSE looks to the future.

Think of it like the simulation testing that’s done to determine the safety of a car or how weather-proof your tent is. The product is tested in a simulation of the real world before it’s actually used in the real world. In our case, we’re simulation testing a management action, like changing a fish’s legal-size limit, before implementing it. We might also simulation test an alternative management action, like a limit on fishing effort, and compare the outcomes of those two options. Imagine we do many simulations, each performed under slightly different environmental conditions. Then our outcome is actually a range of potential future realities that we can describe statistically.

Here’s how it works: We construct a biological model of the fished population. It is basically a series of equations that calculate the number of births and deaths (including harvest) in each time step. We can enter known or closely estimated inputs into the model to produce simulated past harvest and population sizes. When we compare that simulated past to our actual data about the past, and the two are similar, we have reasonably good confidence in our model to describe likely patterns in the future. We then use the model to calculate future fish populations under a particular management approach. An example might be a catch limit that is adjusted based on a fisheries-independent abundance index like an annual survey. Our simulation includes the output of the annual survey, calculates a recommended catch limit, applies that catch limit to the simulated fishing in the next time step, and then the process continues. It’s called closed loop simulation. Where the population ends up tells us if that management approach is likely to lead to a sustainable fishery. Of course, we also track simulated catches along the way to see if it is an economically sound approach.

Before we had the computing power to do these types of simulation experiments, scientists would have to try to do this in real time. That’s basically how fisheries management was done. You do some sort of stock assessment to try to estimate how healthy the stock is. Then you would choose a management action, try it in real time, and wait 10 or 20 years to observe what happens. Then you would decide to continue what you're doing or take another approach. Now we can simulate possible outcomes as well as address questions about how those outcomes might differ under different environmental conditions and how confident we are in the results.  

MSE presents a lot of great opportunities for stakeholders to get involved. Stakeholders often have information that can improve the underlying model. They can also let us know what metrics of fishery performance are most valuable to them. There are often many trade-offs when there are competing interests and stakeholders can have a seat at the table in weighing the options.    

How is your new position different from your previous work as an environmental scientist?

When I started with the Invertebrate Fisheries Management Project as an environmental scientist, I wore a lot of hats and did a lot of policy and day-to-day management in addition to science. The job included interacting with the California Fish and Game Commission and interacting with stakeholders. There was limited time to focus on the science. I enjoyed being in that job for a few years because it put me in a good position to learn more about fisheries management and how policy gets created and implemented. When this opportunity came around to focus exclusively on science, I had to take it. It’s an opportunity to apply my many years of training and improve my quantitative skills.

How do you like your new role?

I love my current position, though I miss the field work in my old job. What I do now is always interesting. There’s way more work to do than I could even scratch the surface of. I’m never bored.

I did a lot of diving when I was working on the Invertebrate Management Project. I became a marine scientist because I love being in the water. I’ve been in the ocean since I was born. I grew up sailing and doing a lot of snorkeling and scuba diving with my dad. I’ve done a ton of scuba research in my career. All of my field research through my PhD was scuba related, as was much of my environmental consulting work. I am still on the Marine Region dive team and get in the water when time allows. I think it’s really important to stay connected to the tangible research we’re doing that impacts our fisheries and wider ecosystems.

It’s my goal to be as effective in my career as I possibly can be. Even though field work is essential to that, I feel I can do more by coming out of the water. I think I can do the most if I stay focused on the science and use the science to inform colleagues in the Marine Region, who can then use the data to inform the policy side.

Do you have any advice to aspiring scientists?

It’s really important to get that first environmental scientist job and to do well in it. You have to not only be comfortable in the field, but also work to be a good writer and have solid analysis skills. I see a lot of young students coming out of bachelor’s or master’s degrees and wondering where they can take their skills in the field of marine biology. Unfortunately, the opportunities can be limited. I encourage people to at least consider going back to school. It does take a long time, and it may not always be necessary. You can get an environmental science job with a range of qualifications. But the PhD level training gave me options for which direction I wanted to go in my career.

I have two kids, and I have a lot of interests outside of work, and I enjoy that balance. But it wasn’t easy to get to this point. I had my daughter halfway through my PhD coursework. My son was born two weeks after I defended my dissertation, and I jumped right into post-doctoral work and commuting long-distances with a newborn at home. Now that they’re older and I’ve been in this position for a while, I’m really happy with the way things settled out. I still get to be a scientist and I still get to be a mom, and I’m really grateful.

CDFW Photos

Categories: Featured Scientist
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