Featured Scientist

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  • May 28, 2019

Small red fox running away toward dense tree area. The ground is covered in snow.
A Sierra Nevada red fox dashes into the wilderness after being caught and released as part of an ongoing CDFW study. CDFW image by Corrie McFarland.

Woman wearing blue jacket with camo sleeves, and brown ball cap crouching in field behind large elk laying on its side. Elk's legs are restrained by leather straps, neck is collared, and face is covered with black mask.
Jennifer Carlson on a Roosevelt elk capture in Humboldt County.

Jennifer Carlson is an environmental scientist with the Wildlife Management Program in CDFW’s Northern Region. Based out of Redding, she is one of two unit biologists covering Shasta and Trinity counties. Her biggest current project is working on Sierra Nevada red fox, a state-threatened species, in the Lassen Peak Region, and she is a member of the long-standing Sierra Nevada Red Fox Working Group. In addition, Jennifer has an elk project waiting in the wings and recently conducted the first helicopter survey in her area to attempt to count the different herds in her unit. Her other responsibilities include responding to human-wildlife conflicts and providing expertise and advice to hunters and the public.

Jennifer received her Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Management with a minor in Statistics from Humboldt State University in 1999. She also received her Master of Science in Forestry from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2006. She started her career with CDFW in 2005 in the Timber Harvest Review program in the Northern Region. In 2012, she joined the Wildlife Management Program in her current position. When she is not working, she enjoys spending time with her family skiing, camping, hiking, hunting and fishing.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

My family was instrumental in my inspiration to become a wildlife biologist – particularly my dad. He earned his B.S. in Biology and Chemistry and was a self-taught entomologist. He worked for the department in the 1960s as a scientific aid. But at that time it was difficult to get on with the department as a permanent employee, and he never did get hired. Growing up he would take us on nature hikes and quiz us on all the flora and fauna we saw along the way. His own love of the outdoors started with camping and fishing in the central Sierra Nevada with his grandparents (my great-grandparents) when he was a child and it became a family tradition. It became a summer ritual that we carry on today with my own family – a total of four generations!

What is a typical day like for you at work?

As a unit biologist you don’t always know what the day will hold. When one of the aspects of the job is dealing with nuisance wildlife and the public, you could be getting called out to dart a bear that has found its way into town, or a deer that is stuck in a fence. It can include visiting sites to assess property damage caused by a bear, mountain lion, beaver, or bobcat and issuing a depredation permit. In addition to that there are annual wildlife surveys I am responsible for, including deer, band-tailed pigeons, pronghorn antelope, and elk. I also have special projects I work on and am responsible for overseeing, particularly the Sierra Nevada red fox project in the Lassen Peak area. Running a project from start to finish is very time consuming and takes up a lot of my day, especially during the height of the field season. I help out on other projects that my colleagues run, including capturing and collaring deer and elk, fecal DNA projects on deer and elk, and baited camera stations for mid-size carnivores.

What has been the most challenging, and rewarding aspects, of your study of the Sierra Nevada red fox?

We don’t know much about the Sierra Nevada red fox. We think their numbers in the Lassen area may be less than 20 -- we have a minimum population count based on collaring and genetics of 11 individuals currently. Small populations are difficult to study so this one has been a challenge from the start, and it has been compounded by the rugged terrain and conditions that these foxes live in all year-round. With the snowfall we had this past winter, maintaining functional traps has been a challenge, as has keeping our satellite collars working properly. No matter how much we try to alleviate all the obstacles we anticipate, there will always be a level of uncertainty when working on a wild animal in its natural environment that you must accept as a wildlife biologist. But there are great things we have learned from this project that we didn’t know before. For example, we found and documented the first Sierra Nevada red fox den since the early 1900s. We have some amazing video footage of red fox behavior at the den site as well as vocalizations never heard before. We captured, collared and released back into the wild three females and one male red fox. We documented for the first time an inbreeding event where siblings reproduced and had one pup together. We have also learned that these foxes don’t stay at a low elevation throughout the entire winter, as had previously been thought; instead, they will travel back and forth to the higher elevations around Lassen Peak that we thought they only used in the summer.

Tell us about your upcoming elk study.

The goal of the elk study is to estimate abundance, which is difficult with a wide-ranging species that often uses locations that hinder traditional survey methods. To do this, we will capture and collar cow elk in several different herds to learn their movement patterns and apply two different survey techniques to help estimate abundance. The primary technique will be using a helicopter to survey the different herds and count all individuals sighted in each group – both collared and uncollared. Using this data, you can create a “sight ability” model to estimate how elk many you missed and calculate the population size. The other technique would involve extracting DNA from fecal pellets to identify unique individuals and estimate number of individuals in the population. The satellite radio collars will also give us valuable data on habitat use, resource selection, behavior, disease and cause-specific mortality. This will allow the department to develop a long-term elk monitoring program that our recently released Elk Management Plan outlines for the Northern Region. The project will take place primarily in Shasta County (east of Interstate 5) and possibly Trinity County and will hopefully start in the late fall or early winter of this year.

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to undertake?

It would be hard for me to pick just one project! I would like to help restore a genetically healthy Sierra Nevada red fox population to its historic range. The Sierra Nevada red fox populations that we have left in the state are severely inbred or their genetics have been compromised by other montane (high-elevation) sub-species and/or non-native individuals that have entered the populations. In the last few years we have learned that there are also Sierra Nevada red foxes in the central and southern Cascade mountains of Oregon, although we don’t know the extent or status of that population. I would implement a translocation project that would move individual foxes from their current population into a new one to facilitate “genetic mixing” and increase genetic health. Once we had genetically healthy populations, then I would like to see them reintroduced into areas that they used to occupy, like on and around Mt. Shasta.

I also would like to undertake a massive elk project that was scientifically sound and robust, with an army of people working on it in the Northern Region. With those resources, we should be able to come up with an accurate population size for elk in our region relatively quickly.

What is the best thing about being an environmental scientist?

One of the best things about my job is that I get to be in the outdoors and explore places I never would have been to otherwise. To be able to study one of the rarest mammals in California, the Sierra Nevada red fox, and provide new information on the life history of this elusive canid has been one of the highlights of my career. Flying in a helicopter counting big game species is something I always dreamed about when I was in college and now I am doing it. Some days I have said to myself, I can’t believe I am getting paid to hike on this trail or fly in a helicopter today!

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Jennifer Carlson cradles a Sierra Nevada red fox that was captured and collared in the Lassen National Forest. CDFW image by Pat Sater.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • April 29, 2019

Scuba diver standing on stern of boat called the Garibaldi from Long Beach California
Travis preparing for an abalone survey dive, Catalina Island. Photo credit Derek Stein, CDFW

Smiling man wearing khaki shirt with CDFW arm patch with hand on dorsal fin of small shark on stern of boat.
Travis working on the California Recreational Fisheries Survey, San Diego. Photo courtesy of Travis Buck

Scuba diver underwater with kelp forest and small fish surrounding.
Travis at a CDFW scientific diver recertification training, Catalina Island. Photo credit Colleen Wisniewski

Two smiling men wearing gloves holding up large calipers above large fish laying on table.
Travis and Scientific Aid Nima Farchadi collecting Pacific Bluefin Tuna biological data, San Diego. Photo credit Erica Mills, CDFW

Travis Buck is an environmental scientist with the CDFW Marine Region’s Highly Migratory Species and Ecosystem Management Project in San Diego. His primary responsibilities include data collection and analysis for highly migratory species and representing CDFW on the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Ecosystem Workgroup.

A Midwest native, Travis moved to California in 2003 after receiving a degree in Geography with an emphasis in Environmental Studies from Ohio University. He also completed Tropical Marine Ecology graduate level coursework in Florida and the Bahamas.

What led you to a career in marine biology?

I became fascinated with the ocean and the creatures that inhabit it at an early age. I remember my grandfather used to take me fishing in Florida and that was always very exciting. I especially liked the idea that you never knew what was on the end of your line until it surfaced, and so I began identifying fish as a kid on those trips. I was a big fan of aquariums too, and when I got a little older I became really interested in snorkeling, freediving and exploring reefs in Florida and the Bahamas. It seemed to be a more serene, foreign world, and I wanted to live closer to it and understand the life that existed within it.

In school, I also excelled at math and science, so marine biology seemed like a natural fit. I have an aunt who jokes that I told her when I was five years old that I was going to be a marine biologist. She can’t believe I followed through with what I said at such a young age.

What brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?

I began my career with CDFW in 2007 after three years as a contractor working on the California Recreational Fisheries Survey (CRFS). For the first 10 years of my career, I worked for the Marine Region’s Invertebrate Management Project, primarily on research and management of the spiny lobster fishery. I recently transferred to the Marine Region’s Highly Migratory Species and Ecosystem Management Project to expand my knowledge of marine fisheries.

I think the mandate of CDFW is a pretty epic one, to ensure that California’s natural resources are there and are healthy for future generations. I can’t really think of a responsibility more noble than that. When I look back on the almost 15 years I’ve been associated with CDFW, it’s almost impossible to fathom how much I have learned, and also how much of the state I’ve been able to see through being employed here.

What is a typical day at work like for you?

It might be crunching numbers to track Pacific Bluefin Tuna landings (since they are managed with a quota), or it might be assisting scientific aids with dockside sampling questions, or it might be traveling out of state for a Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting, or a plethora of other duties. Issues with natural resources are dynamic and always changing, and so are the assignments at CDFW. I think most environmental scientists working for CDFW will tell you that there’s no such thing as a “typical day,” and that’s another reason that keeps me here, there’s not a lot of repetition of tasks. You’re constantly learning new skills.

What is the best thing about your job?

I love being at the forefront of marine-related research and being “in the know” about major issues affecting the ocean and its fisheries when sometimes the majority of the public aren’t even aware. And it’s not only about the major issues affecting the ocean, but also the cool discoveries. My job provides the opportunity to act as a messenger, to disseminate these cool discoveries, as well as important problems, to a wider audience.

Diving at the Channel Islands over the years for CDFW, particularly the abalone surveys, provided some of the best memories I’ll ever have. Some of the things I saw underwater were so amazing and surreal. For instance, after one survey at Catalina Island, as we were slowly ascending to the boat, it started to rain. A school of barracuda were above us, and we could see raindrops breaking the ocean’s surface right above them while we hung out in the kelp forest for our safety stop. Scenes like that I’ll never forget. And all the people I’ve been able to meet and work with. Wow, it’s kind of mind-blowing looking back at how much information and how many people and places this type of work can expose you to.

What is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?

I’m proud of the work I did to successfully develop and manage the lobster report card program. Before lobster report cards, which gather data and are required for lobster fishing, we had no idea how large the recreational fishery was for lobster, or how much lobster that sector landed each year. Now we have a much better grasp on that information. Also, I’ve enjoyed writing two articles for Outdoor California magazine that detailed CDFW research on abalone and lobster. Writing is a passion of mine.

I’m also proud of becoming a CDFW diver. I passed the entry examination with only the bare minimum number of required dives under my belt. It was very physical, with underwater breath-holding exercises in the ocean that are pretty difficult. I was pumped when I completed those.

What interesting projects are you working on currently?

I’m really interested in the work my project is doing with Pacific Bluefin Tuna. Not only do I track the total landings of this species in California, but we recently began collecting genetic samples of Pacific Bluefin Tuna landed in San Diego, which could give us further insight into the population being targeted by offshore fishing here. Pacific Bluefin Tuna were so heavily fished over the last century by other countries, the population is at a small fraction of its historic levels. There are real efforts being made at the international level to rebuild the population, however. That’s a good thing.

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?

I would organize a giant collaboration to better understand how the combination of warming ocean temperatures, increasing ocean acidification, and increasing hypoxia (like we are seeing take place around the world) will affect all of the commercially and recreationally important marine species off the U.S. West Coast. Humans need to know these things, so we can prepare for a rapidly changing world.

Do you have any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

Work on your math and writing skills! There are a lot of numbers involved, and there is a lot of writing involved. Also, natural resource management actually involves managing people, since we are the ones exploiting the natural resources. So, work on your interpersonal skills – you’ll need them!

Tell us something about yourself that people might be surprised to learn.

I love surfing. I’m obsessed with everything about it! I’m convinced it’s the most beautiful, healthy and rewarding passion there is. I’ve also survived two boat crashes! Honestly, I have. Both were research trips, and neither was the fault of the researchers on board!

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Travis with a yellowtail, San Clemente Island. Photo courtesy of Travis Buck.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • April 16, 2019

Smiling woman and man sitting cross-legged on bow of boat. Woman is holding fish flat on white tray. Man is holding a clipboard and pen. Ed trains a CRFS sampler aboard a CPFV off Fort Bragg

Man kneeling next to young boy standing on boat. Man is holding out large red fish, boy is holding a fishing rod.

Man standing on boat under roof holding metal clipboard. Ed examining catch aboard a boat in Shelter Cove

Man standing on boat holding large brown fish while holding fishing pole in crook of arm. Another hand is holding onto the mouth of the fish. Ed preparing to tag a brown rockfish aboard a CPFV off La Jolla

Man standing on beach holding fish head with tag attached. Ed collecting a salmon head in Shelter Cove

Group of seven people, two women, five men standing on road posing for photograph. Rock face, beach, and body of water in background. Trinidad Pier Youth Fishing Tournament CDFW Staff

Smiling man holding very adorable baby wrapped in white blanket with thin blue and pink stripes. Ed and his new grandson, Edgar V

Three people standing on beach with back to camera, facing the water with orange bucket and blue kayak. Man with red kayak in water in background.Ed training new CRFS samplers in Shelter Cove

Edgar “Ed” W. Roberts III is an environmental scientist in CDFW’s Eureka office. As the lead for the California Recreational Fisheries Survey (CRFS) in Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino counties, Ed is responsible for all aspects of the CRFS on the north coast, from training new staff, to creating sampling schedules, to making sure sampling goals are met.

Ed was born in Oceanside and grew up in San Diego, where he lived until he left for college at Humboldt State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

My passion for fishing and stewardship of the environment was instilled in me by my father and grandfather along the streams and lakeshores of the Sierra Nevada. I kept the first fish I caught (a nice CDFG stocked rainbow trout taken at June Lake when I was 5) in my mother’s freezer for years and would break it out for show-and-tell whenever someone new would come to the house. Growing up in San Diego, I spent a lot of time at the ocean, and I read and watched Jacques Cousteau religiously. I had a sense early on in life that I wanted to become a marine fisheries biologist.

During those fishing trips with my father and grandfather, I also met many CDFW game wardens. Through them I learned about CDFW’s mission, which really appealed to me and my outdoor ethics.

How did you come to work for CDFW?

I started my fisheries career working seasonal and part-time jobs, as most CDFW scientists do. I worked on the CRFS’ predecessor, the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey, for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, as well as several CDFW scientific aid positions. Those projects were interesting and included an aerial census of the harbor seal population in California and a bycatch study of the commercial spot prawn fishery.

In 2000, I was hired as a marine biologist to work primarily on outreach and developing youth fishing and educational programs at the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve and Back Bay Science Center. Since then I’ve worked on the implementation of the Marine Life Management Act, the Nearshore Fishery Management Plan, the development and implementation of CRFS, and other work for the Marine Region’s Groundfish and Invertebrate projects.

What is the most rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?

I represented CDFW on a collaborative groundfish tagging project from 2002 to 2006. At the time, I believe it was the biggest fish tagging program of its kind in the state – we tagged over 32,300 fish from 32 species and learned quite a bit about the life histories and movements of some previously little-studied species. During the early 2000s, the California charter boat industry was hit hard by recently implemented bottomfishing restrictions that were necessary to help depleted fish stocks recover. This tagging study was paid for primarily through federal groundfish disaster relief funds. We hired sportfishing boats that were impacted by these new restrictions to use as research platforms, helping to ease the economic problems their owners and operators were facing. At the same time, we, the fishery biologists, worked side-by-side with the captains, crews and volunteer anglers we enlisted to help us with the work, benefiting from their experience and on-the-water observations. It was a great example of resource managers and consumptive users working together for a common purpose. I am very thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of that project.

 

Tell us about your current work with the CRFS.

The CRFS is a statewide survey of marine recreational anglers. CRFS samplers intercept saltwater sportfishers at the completion of their fishing trips, ask them some questions about that trip and their fishing habits and collect biological data from their catch. The data we collect are then used to create estimates of saltwater sport catch and effort. Those estimates are used by fishery managers at both the state and federal level to manage our state’s finfish resources for sustainability. If you’re reading this and you’ve ever participated in our survey, I want to thank you for your cooperation, and for doing your part to conserve our resources.

Within the CRFS, my specific and primary responsibility is to ensure that the data we collect is of the highest quality. I work towards fulfilling that responsibility by cultivating and maintaining good working relationships with the angling public to increase awareness of and cooperation with our survey, by working with my staff in the field to make sure our strict sampling protocols are followed, by reviewing the data my staff collect for quality control purposes, and by reviewing the estimates of marine finfish catch and effort that are generated using those data.

CRFS, by design, can be used to document changes in fisheries and species assemblages that may be due to variable oceanic conditions caused by climate change. We observed many unusual occurrences this last year, and I’m currently working to publish some of those findings.

What is the best thing about your job?

Aside from the pride I have in knowing I am working to maintain, enhance and restore our marine ecosystems for the use and enjoyment of present and future Californians, I get a lot of satisfaction from helping students and recent graduates with degrees in natural resources gain valuable experience in their chosen field. Many former employees have expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to hone their skills. Those thanks really mean a lot to me and make me feel like I’m making a difference.

Over the course of your career, was there a discovery or incident that surprised you?

I recently published a note regarding a tag return from a California scorpionfish that I tagged in 2004 (tagged during the same project I mentioned previously). It was recaptured in 2017, after spending almost 14 years at liberty with my tag in its back. Interestingly, the fish was caught in almost the same location where it was originally captured and remains the longest documented tag retention for this species.

Do you have any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

Most of the people I’ve met during my career are not here for the money – they do their jobs because they have a desire to learn and passion for the resource with the end goal being sustainability. Don’t go into the field expecting to get rich. Cultivate your passion for science and resource management during your education, and be prepared to work entry level, seasonal, part-time jobs to make connections and get your foot in the door. Success in this field is equal parts passion and perseverance.

Away from work, where are we likely to find you?

Fishing and camping with my family is the greatest pleasure in my life. On a day off, or even after work, you might find me fishing the south jetty at Humboldt Bay with my wife, children, brother-in-law and nephews. On vacation, you might find me camping and fishing with the same crew, plus some aunts and uncles, at Trinity Lake or on the Kern River.

Tell us something about yourself that many people would be surprised to learn.

I’m an Eagle Scout, volunteered with Scouting for more than 15 years, and I am an Army veteran. I’ve played fantasy baseball with the same group of people for the last 30 years. Also, my grandson, Edgar V, was born on March 16, 2019. I can’t wait to help my son pass on our love for fishing to his son.  

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • January 25, 2019

Man bent over in water at shoreline with net in evening at sundown.
Fishing for night smelt from the beach in Pacifica.

Man standing in water at shoreline holding net at sundown.
Fishing for night smelt from the beach in Pacifica.

Smiling man on boat wearing yellow jacket and ballcap with sunglasses holding up shark in both hands. Water in background.
Ken Oda holds a soupfin shark caught while capturing California halibut for a hooking mortality study.

Man wearing beige official Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform with beige ball cap inside boat at helm.
Ken Oda piloting the research vessel Triakis on San Francisco Bay while doing Pacific herring surveys.  

Ken Oda is an environmental scientist with CDFW’s Marine Region and a member of the Northern and Central California Finfish Research and Management Project. Based out of the Monterey office, Ken is also the lead person for sandy beach surfperch research and management.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Monterey. My great-grandfather operated a sardine cannery on Cannery Row, and my grandfather ran a wholesale fish business on Wharf 1 in Monterey, specializing in local abalone.

What led you to a career in marine biology?

It’s genetics. My mom’s family was in the commercial fishing industry. My dad was an avid fisherman and diver. I became fishing-obsessed at a young age and wanted to learn everything I could find about fish. Given my strong interest in fish and all things fishing, my parents “suggested” that I choose a career path consistent with my fish fascination.

After searching for colleges offering fisheries degrees, I decided that Humboldt State University could offer me the best education. I graduated from Humboldt State with a Bachelor of Science degree in fisheries, with a mariculture emphasis.

In 1982, my mom went to the annual open house at the CDFW’s Granite Canyon Mariculture Laboratory in Big Sur. She had a conversation with the director, Earl Ebert, who invited me to do my senior thesis at the lab as a volunteer student intern. My job entailed taking care of juvenile Red Abalone. Later, my first paying position was as a scientific aid sampling sport and commercial rockfish landings from Monterey to Santa Cruz. I worked as a fisheries technician on groundfish for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. By 1988, I began my first permanent position as an entry level marine biologist. Later I promoted to marine biologist conducting population assessments on San Francisco Bay herring. In 2005, I transferred back to Monterey, which eventually landed me on my current project.

What inspires you?

The learning opportunities. I remember reading vintage issues of CDFW journals and informational publications, e.g., ocean fishing maps and fish identification books, and thought that I’d want to do that kind of work someday. I had the privilege to meet and work with ichthyologists Dan Miller, Dan Gotshall and Bob Lea, who authored the publications that I had read.

I’m also inspired by the fact that I’m working on surfperch fisheries that my family have been active participants in since the 1910s.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

The best thing about my job is having daily opportunities to learn something new while in the field, interacting with others or through data analysis.

I’m doing more writing than fieldwork these days, but on those days when I can get out of the office, I head to a local beach to collect surfperch. To do so, I gather up my fly and/or conventional rods and reels, a tackle bag/soft cooler, electronic thermometer, and a smart phone for taking photos and storing data in the field. If successful, I’ll bring the fish back to the lab and collect life history information from them: lengths, weights, sex, maturity, and ear bones (otoliths) used for age determination and input the data into a spreadsheet.

When I’m not in the field, I check and respond to emails and phone calls, and search for publications to support the reports that I’m writing.

What interesting projects are you working on currently?

Writing “Enhanced Status Reports” (ESRs) as part of the implementation of the 2018 Marine Life Management Act Master Plan for Fisheries. The ESRs describe the individual species or species groups, habitat, research and management, and the state-managed fisheries that they support.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I was the project lead person that coordinated the purchasing process for building a custom research boat for the Pacific Herring Project. This was the first for the Marine Region in many years. The process from the funding proposal to delivery of the boat took about three years. It took a team of CDFW staff, consultations with commercial fishermen, boat builders and naval architects and engineers to pull it together and deliver a boat that is still in service after 20 years.

Over the course of your career, was there a discovery or an incident that surprised you?

During the 1997 El Niño storms when levees in the Delta broke and caused widespread flooding, it was not unusual to see random items drifting around in San Francisco Bay while doing surveys — a travel trailer, dead cattle, snakes, a refrigerator.

What are the best – and most challenging – things about being a fish and wildlife scientist?

I appreciate feeling “dialed in” with the fish species through field work and seeing fish in the flesh. Fish and fishermen are more than numbers in a table or points in a graph and observations sometimes can’t be captured on paper or camera.

The most challenging aspect is presenting information that you know won’t be popular to a group of people and trying to remember that you’ve done your best despite their reactions.

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?

A statewide quantitative survey of surf species using fishing rod castable armored cameras and a fleet of four-wheeled ATVs.

Away from work, where are we likely to find you?

Fishing somewhere — on a tropical flat, a coastal river for steelhead, or the Delta for striped bass. I’m happy fishing anywhere for just about anything.

Tell us something about yourself that many people would be surprised to learn.

I played competitive volleyball, which resulted in two surgeries and broken fingers.

Do you have any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

Realize that it’s a very competitive field these days for jobs, prepare accordingly, take opportunities to meet those working in the field that have taken similar career paths and volunteer to determine if a job/career is what you really want. Keep an open mind — we never know it all.

CDFW Photos courtesy of Ken Oda. Top Photo: Ken Oda at work collecting surfperch in his Sandy Beach Surfperch Research and Management project.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • December 13, 2018

Woman with ponytail in hair wearing white laboratory coat with white latex gloves holding tray in front of a large machine.
Erin loads evidence samples onto the Applied Biosystems 3500xl Genetic Analyzer in order to visualize their DNA profiles.

Smiling man wearing red shirt and blue jeans with smiling woman with arms around young child wearing blue graduation cap and gown in front of tree.
Erin and her husband, Jeff Rodzen, a fisheries geneticist for CDFW, have two children, 4-year-old Ryan and 9-month-old Reagan.

Smiling woman wearing wide brim hat, sunglasses, shorts and blue tshirt on merry go round horse holding baby in front facing baby carrier
Erin and her husband, Jeff Rodzen, a fisheries geneticist for CDFW, have two children, 4-year-old Ryan and 9-month-old Reagan.

Woman dressed in dressage clothing riding white horse
Erin competes in dressage aboard her horse Grande.

Erin Meredith is a senior wildlife forensic specialist. With 18 years at CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Laboratory (WFL), Erin is the senior member of the four-person scientific team that conducts DNA analysis, species identification and other evidence processing to support CDFW’s criminal cases and protect California’s fish and wildlife from poaching, exploitation and abuse.

CDFW’s lab is just one of approximately 10 wildlife forensic laboratories in the nation. It works on approximately 100 criminal cases every year and plays a key public safety role by helping to identify the correct species and offending animals in attacks that may involve mountain lions, black bears, coyotes, and even great white sharks.

Born in San Jose and raised in Placer County, Erin holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in genetics from UC Davis.

What inspired you to become a scientist?

From a young age, I always enjoyed math and science. I liked the definitive answers and learning about how things worked. In high school, I had a wonderful biology teacher, and I specifically remember him teaching a unit on DNA. At that time, DNA and genetics were just starting to become more mainstream, and I was just so intrigued with how the DNA bases were essentially translated into the “language” of different functions within the body. I think that was the turning point when I knew specifically what I wanted to study in college.

How did you get to CDFW?

While I was at UC Davis, I started working as an intern and undergraduate researcher with a group that did fish genetics. It turned out that they had a long history of contracts for genetic work with CDFW’s Fisheries Branch, so I had my first exposure to the department there. I was not necessarily interested in sticking with fish genetics as I was becoming more interested in the law enforcement and forensic aspects of DNA. I thought I’d end up working in human forensics at the time.

It was my uncle who worked as one of the hatchery coordinators in the department who connected me with wildlife forensics -- kind of by accident. He told me, “Hey, there are these two guys in Region 2 who walk around in lab coats all the time. I’m not exactly sure what they do, but they have something to do with forensics. You should really look into it.” And so I did.

I ended up meeting Jim Banks, who was a senior wildlife forensic specialist and had been with the department for nearly 20 years. He invited me to come in and learn about the techniques they were using and what some of their investigations looked like. Little did I know he was testing me as a replacement for his scientific aid who was about to go off to graduate school. When she left, I got a scientific aid position at the lab. I guess you could say the rest is history.

Unfortunately, the lab has always been very small. For the majority of its existence, it was run by only two full-time staff and scientific aids, so I was actually a scientific aide from 2000 to 2007. It was a long ride. I obtained a full-time position in 2007 when Jim Banks retired.

Let’s say you’re in a social setting without any CDFW colleagues around. How do you explain what you do for a living?

I usually ask them, “Do you ever watch ‘CSI?’ ” Most of the time they say, “Of course, that’s such a cool show.” And then I say, “Just imagine instead of humans, it’s crimes involving wildlife.” My joke is always that human forensics is boring – you only work on one species. With wildlife, the possibilities are essentially endless.

How many species do you typically work on?

We currently have extensive DNA databases and can do individual matching like they do in human forensics on California deer, elk, mountain lion, black bear, coyotes and wolves. We can also use DNA to identify virtually any animal to the species level. The lab has done cases involving everything from abalone to zebra.

Beyond processing criminal evidence, can you explain the lab’s public safety role?

The lab is called in to assist with DNA analyses on many public safety incidents – especially when there is the potential of physical contact between a person and an animal and the department needs to confirm the species or identity the offending animal. Typically, these incidents involve black bear, mountain lion or coyotes, though we’ve also analyzed attacks by other species – deer, river otter, and great white sharks to name a few. By analyzing the DNA left in the form of saliva around bite wounds or even so-called “touch” DNA from claw wounds, we can verify an attack actually happened, confirm the species involved, and, depending on the species, obtain the genetic profile and sex of the offending animal. This genetic information allows us to compare the DNA profiles of trapped suspect animals with the offending animal’s DNA collected directly from the human victim. When these genetic profiles are a match, we can confirm with statistical certainty that the trapped suspect is indeed the offender. If the profiles do not match, we can free the innocent – which has happened a good number of times.

What do you like best about your job?

I like that we can use DNA to tell the story of what actually happened or what is actually present in each case. Many times, the suspected poachers’ stories or even accounts from people involved in possible wildlife attacks just don’t add up. Sometimes even what our wildlife officers believe to be true from their investigation is different than what the DNA shows. DNA doesn’t lie so letting the science speak and tell the true story is a wonderful tool.

If you had free rein and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to take on?

This is a very difficult question as there are so many projects to choose from. As a forensic lab, we try to watch what the human forensic labs are doing and mimic their methods to the best of our abilities. We are currently watching what is happening with Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) and how this technology will evolve in the forensic community. We are interested in the potential to utilize this to combat issues such as “zone poaching” – killing a deer out of a zone for which the hunter doesn’t have a tag -- or possibly issues regarding hybridization.

With the passage of AB 96 and the resulting new ivory laws in 2015, we are doing more work with wildlife that is trafficked internationally. The demands placed on the WFL have already expanded beyond what we envisioned, resulting in new collaborative efforts and non-DNA-based analyses. I don’t know exactly where any of these paths will lead, but I do know that the WFL will continue to do its best to answer any legal questions through the use of thorough and principled scientific methods.

Tell us something about yourself people would be surprised to learn.

Many people know that I am a lifelong equestrian. I still love to ride and compete, but my secret goal in life is to be on “American Ninja Warrior.” I do a lot of physical fitness type activities, but nowhere near the training needed for that show – yet!

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Erin Meredith.

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