Featured Scientist

  • December 13, 2017

standing on a dock, a man and woman look at papers on a clipboard held by the woman.
OSPR’s Jim Hughes and Annie Nelson evaluate an oil spill exercise at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal.

faces of two women, dressed for cold weather, on a marine dock
Annie Nelson and Ima Doty on the Schnyder dock in Eureka

from a mountain pass, a view of an Alpine valley, lake, and more mountains, behind a woman's face
Annie Nelson atop Donner Pass, where OSPR has responded to two past pipeline oil spills

Annie Nelson is in her second year as CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) specialist for best achievable technology, focusing on mechanical oil spill response equipment. She began her career with OSPR as a scientific aid a few months after earning her Bachelor of Science degree in wildlife management from Humboldt State University. She gained permanent employee status as an analyst, working in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment Program. She found it rewarding to witness and coordinate post-spill restoration efforts, but after about seven years, a move to the drills and exercises unit opened the door for her to the world of response preparedness as an environmental scientist. Establishing and fortifying that program took Nelson through the next eight years of her career, before accepting her current position.

What keeps her at OSPR are the wonderful people, the constant learning curve and the many unique opportunities the spill response world provides.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

In 5th or 6th grade, the cutest boy in my class expressed that science was his favorite subject. That was the spark for me. Once I started exploring science, I realized it was really cool and fun to learn. I enjoyed biology and chemistry during high school and became hooked on understanding how our planet operates – down to the molecular level.

What got you interested in working with wildlife?

My senior year of high school came with the opportunity to participate in the Regional Occupational Program (ROP) and I chose “Animal Careers.” The ROP offered classroom education as well as hands-on experience in your field of choice. When it was time to choose jobsites, most of my fellow classmates in the animal careers course worked with veterinarians. I was fortunate enough to get a spot with Wild Things, Inc., an exotic animal facility near my home. I prepared diets and fed the animals, handled them for educational shows and cleaned up after them. I got to work with a variety of wildlife species, from big cats to primates to birds and reptiles – even a sea lion. When it was time to look at colleges and career opportunities, I combined my love for animals with science and studied wildlife at Humboldt State.

Who or what brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?

My dad encouraged me to pursue a career with the state. CDFW was the first agency that came to mind. I applied for the warden cadet academy, wanting to enforce the laws that protect wildlife in California. Unfortunately, my vision disqualified me. I got my foot in the door with a CDFW scientific aid position in the Office of Spill Prevention and Response. I knew very little about oil spills at the time, but 17 years later I am a senior environmental scientist (specialist). My love for this team and continual learning since my first day on the job has kept me with OSPR.

What is a typical day like for you at work? Please describe a “day in the life.”

I usually spend my early morning hours researching online for any new articles that have come out regarding oil spill technology. My focus is mechanical equipment for containment and recovery, for example: boom, sorbents and skimmers. The goal is to evaluate as many as possible and develop a program for best practices. I also develop workshops. Right now, I’m helping to create an agenda for a workshop that focuses on response to spills of oils called bitumen. Bitumen is the consistency of peanut butter at room temperature and sinks in water, making cleanup difficult. This is an area that hasn’t had much advancement with technology but is a growing concern for responders.

As OSPR’s fisheries closure coordinator, I’m the contact person for calls during the work day from field staff who are either participating in an exercises or responding to actual spills for consultation regarding fishery closures due to oil spills. I gather information to provide the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), the agency that evaluates our information and provides recommendations on whether to close or keep the fishery open. Our agencies work together to determine whether a fisheries closure is necessary, where it will be, and how long it will last during oil spills. Currently, I am working on a presentation to take to our field responders that educates them about this process and their role in it. There is so much to learn, I am never bored!

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

In my second position at OSPR, I joined a brand new team that became the drills and exercises unit. Our role was to ensure that the oil industry in California was prepared to respond to spills. I helped build the program from the ground up, re-writing regulations and evaluating hundreds of response drills and exercises all over the state. Industry soon realized that we meant business and they were quick to comply. Improving spill preparedness through the relationships fostered between OSPR and the oil industry we regulate proved rewarding.

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

The most jaw-dropping incident that has occurred during my career was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The Macondo well head poured more than 3 billion gallons of crude oil into the Gulf from 5,000 feet below the surface. Eleven people lost their lives when the rig blew up, and it took 87 days to cap the well. This still blows my mind to think about. Although I wasn’t one of them, quite of few of my OSPR co-workers responded to the incident. It was a proud moment for the OSPR team to bring experience and resources to the disaster and help.

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

I’ll stick with my current field. I’d love to conduct studies of the wildlife species most commonly injured by oil spills, in order to develop humane but highly effective hazing techniques and technology. In order to avoid mass wildlife casualties, quick containment of a spill is crucial; however, this doesn’t often occur. Hazing is sometimes necessary to keep animals away from the slick, but the effectiveness is hit-or-miss. I’d be interested in developing some new biology-based tools for hazing to reduce the need for rehabilitation (washing), which can be stressful on wildlife and take up resources.

What is the best thing about being a wildlife scientist?

Knowing that my work ultimately protects California’s wildlife from injury during oil spills is pretty great in itself, but my favorite part of the job is working directly with animals. It’s not every day that I get to handle a common murre or a grebe, but I’ve had opportunities to work in the oiled wildlife care facility in Cordelia, which brought me back to my high school days – feeding birds and cleaning cages. These experiences are always a treat.

Any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

I think that career seekers need to ask themselves three questions: What is my passion, what am I good at, and what opportunities are out there? If you can match up at least two of these with your chosen career path, you have a good chance for success. What I love about the fields of science and natural resources is that our planet is always changing. We will never know everything there is to know and there will always be new discoveries and a need for scientists to study, protect and improve our environment.

Top photo: Annie Nelson (right) and Andrea Moore prepare to board a tug and observe an on-water boom deployment in El Segundo.

CDFW photos

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • November 1, 2017

In the shallow water at river's edge, a woman returns a five-foot-long green sturgeon to the water
Laura Cockrell with an endangered Green sturgeon she tagged in the Sacramento River for a sturgeon movement study

A woman wearing a green California Departmetn of Fish and Wildlife shirt holds a pond turtle
Laura holds a Western pond turtle at Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area.

At an outdoor work-table with test tubes on it, a woman wearing blue latex gloves pokes a dead bird with a cotton swab
Laura swabs a hunter-harvested Northern pintail for Avian Influenza sampling in 2007 at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area.

Laura Cockrell is an environmental scientist at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area, which is made up of three units covering nearly 9,700 acres in Butte and Glenn counties. Her duties include coordinating and conducting biological surveys on the wildlife area, managing wood duck nesting boxes, coordinating with volunteers and interacting with partners, including governmental agencies and non-government organizations. While most of her work involves surveying for game species, she has also captured giant garter snakes and western pond turtles for studies, and conducted surveys for yellow-billed cuckoos and Swainson’s hawks. Laura can also regularly be found planning habitat improvement and maintenance projects, writing reports, creating maps designed for public use on the wildlife area and generally assisting the public.

Laura graduated from California State University, Chico in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science in Biological Science with an emphasis in Wildlife Biology. She earned a Master of Science in Biology with a concentration on Applied Ecology from Eastern Kentucky University. Her thesis used Landsat imagery to evaluate trumpeter swan nesting sites in Yellowstone National Park.

Prior to working at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area, she worked for the International Halibut Commission in Dutch Harbor, and for California Waterfowl in the Sacramento Valley, where she worked on summer mallard banding, pintail rocket netting, nest searches and wetland monitoring.

What led you into a career as a wildlife biologist?

I always enjoyed being outside and exploring as a kid. It took me a little while to find my path in college, but I chose to major in biology because studying ecology and nature sounded like a good chance to be outside every day. I signed up for a waterfowl course, and my passion for wildlife really took off after that.

Who or what brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?

When I first started as a scientific aid with the department almost 11 years ago, I was working on the Avian Influenza Project. I swabbed hunter-harvested birds at the check station to be tested for avian influenza in the lab, and surveyed for bird die-offs throughout the region. I had never worked alone before, and it taught me a lot about how important it is to stay focused and on task when you are by yourself!

What inspires me to stay with the department is the potential I see for us to fulfill the goals of our management plan, and to improve habitat on the lands we have been entrusted to manage.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

It depends on the season. Waterfowl season is our busiest season as far as public use. It runs from late October through the beginning of February, but the preparation begins much earlier. During waterfowl season, I am usually in the office or at the check station. After waterfowl season ends, I finalize our hunt records for the end of season report and everyone is out monitoring the area flooding or inspecting damage from flooding. In the spring when we are in full survey mode, I will probably be out in the field before sunrise counting pheasant or quail. During the summer, I am usually in the field banding or in the office working on grant reports. Fall brings us back into preparation for the hunting seasons, where we have to prepare for September dove hunts, the J-9 zone deer hunt and waterfowl season.

What is your favorite species to interact with or study?

I have really enjoyed getting to work with western pond turtles and giant garter snakes. I took herpetology in college and it was great but “herps” were not really my thing until I got to work with them more. Any time we get to work with protected species and species of special concern is rewarding, and it is not something we get to do very often. Seeing protected species thrive on our wildlife areas means the hard work that goes into developing protections is helping local populations persist, and if the local population becomes healthy enough to expand maybe they can rebound throughout their range.

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

Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area is one of the few wildlife areas with an agriculture lease, so we work with our farmers to support wildlife-friendly agriculture practices. Because of the winter flooding this year, some of the rice fields were too wet during planting season, and farmers will be enrolling those fields in the BirdReturns program, which is offered by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with the California Rice Commission. The Nature Conservancy and the California Rice Commission began this program in 2014 to compensate farmers who provide pop-up habitat for migratory shorebirds in the fall and spring by flooding fallow rice fields. We are planning shorebird surveys during fall migration and I am so excited to see how shorebirds will react, hopefully by returning to the area. During the shorebird survey, we will drive down the roads through the flooded rice fields and count the number and types of shorebirds that are using the fields. Normally, if the fields have been planted in rice, they would not be usable by the birds because they are looking for mudflats, not rice fields. We would hope to see a high diversity of species and large amounts of birds using the flooded rice fields.

What is it about the work you do that you would most like us to know?

There are many constraints on the work we do that are created by factors outside our control. A large part of the work on our wildlife area is managing wetlands, but the drought brought a lot of challenges with water management. We work with what we have, but sometimes it is not a lot and that can be frustrating.

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

Wildlife overpasses/underpasses! Our wildlife area has a highway that bisects one of the units, and the amount of wildlife killed by vehicles is such a shame. A few years ago, we had four deer killed in a quarter-mile stretch in less than a week, and this winter someone ended up driving into a waterway at one of our units to avoid a collision with a deer! There are the standard “deer crossing” signs, but people often drive well over the speed limit and put themselves and wildlife at risk for a collision. There has been a great deal of success in reducing wildlife collisions where wildlife overpasses and underpasses were created. I would love build underpasses with elevated roadways for all the major roadways around our units.

What is the most challenging aspect of your career as an environmental scientist?

More than once, I have had to remind myself, “You signed up for this, so put a smile on your face and get it done!” Walking in waders to check traps when it is 110 degrees out is not fun. Examining a carcass that has been rotting for a week is not fun. Cleaning up garbage is not fun. However, all of those things are critical for what we do! So put a smile on your face, get it done and get on with it.

Is there a preconception about scientists you would like to dispel?

One of my classmates in college told me that I should switch to microbiology because “there is no future in studying plants or animals.” We need to understand our environment, how we interact with it and the impacts we make. Scientists are not always in a lab – they are out in the field, too. Obviously, I did not agree with his assessment or I would be a microbiologist! The guy that I was talking to felt like, career-wise, the money was in lab work and microbiology rather than fieldwork. Part of me can understand that line of reasoning, as there are more jobs with the medical profession if you target microbiology, but if that is not where your passion is then why would you take that path?

All photos courtesy of Laura Cockrell.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • September 30, 2016

Terri Weist is an environmental scientist who works out of the CDFW North Central Region office in Rancho Cordova. She is responsible for managing five wildlife areas located in Plumas and Sierra counties (Hallelujah Junction, Antelope Valley-Smithneck, Warner Valley, Crocker Meadows and Chilcoot) and conducting population studies on elk and deer in the North Central Region.

Weist got her first Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology from California State University, Long Beach and her second Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Management at Humboldt State University. After working as a seasonal aid for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife sampling bottomfish in Eureka, she pursued a Master’s of Science degree in Wildlife Management from Humboldt State University. The emphasis of her master’s thesis was studying habitat use by mule deer near Mt. Shasta.

She was hired permanently by CDFW in 1991. Her work has included surveying deer, elk and pronghorn from both fixed wing airplanes and helicopters, capturing deer, elk and bears (including entering bear dens to count the young and collar the females) and helping with Canada goose captures. The purpose of the captures is to monitor movement, populations and survival of the various species.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

I grew up in southern California where people were abundant but wildlife was not. Experiencing nature was not readily available to me. But I was drawn to nature for that very reason. Nature was a mystery to me and I needed to learn more about wildlife and the environment.

What got you interested in working with wildlife?

My interest was inspired by the environmental revolution of the 1970s and the wildlife shows I watched as a young girl growing up -- particularly the show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” which was very popular at the time. I remembered watching (host) Marlin Perkins and thinking I wanted to do his job when I grew up! And I came pretty darn close.

Who or what brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?

Opportunities to work with wild animals are rather limited to resource agencies, non-profit organizations or zoos. Once I went to graduate school and worked at a few seasonal jobs with CDFW, I realized that I found my niche. My inspiration to stay comes from the moments in my job when I’m helping wildlife, learning something new every day and the camaraderie I have with my colleagues. 

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

When I was a graduate student at Humboldt State University, I studied mule deer in Northern California for my master’s thesis. This project was developed by Tim Burton, a longtime CDFW biologist in Siskiyou County. That project opened the door for me and prepared me for my life’s journey with CDFW.

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

I would love to conduct a study to determine fecundity (the ability to produce abundant healthy growth or offspring) and fawn recruitment (the young living long enough to become adults) on our migratory deer populations. This effort would help determine major causes of mortality, predation rates, disease and other factors that affect abundance of this important wildlife resource.

What is the best thing about being a wildlife scientist?

It’s interesting that when I tell people what I do, I often hear that they had wanted to pursue this career too or what a great job to have. I feel great pride in what I do and it can be quite exciting at times.

Any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

First, be patient. It took me a long time and lots of seasonal jobs to get here. Take any job to get into the field -- don’t limit yourself. My first jobs were in fisheries, which helped me meet people and learn about the department. Learn to write well. Get an advanced degree because it helps advance critical thinking skills.

Is there a preconception about scientists you would like to dispel?

I prefer the term “biologist” over “scientist” for that very reason. Biologists study living organisms, their distribution and relationship to the species around them. The term is more descriptive of what we do.

What is it about the work you do that you’d most like us to know?

I think the scientific terminology often gets in the way of communicating with the average person. People can be intimidated by the jargon or suspicious of the message simply because we don’t explain it in terms that they understand. Conversely, people sometimes think we know everything about everything, which is so far from the truth. For example, why don’t I know how many bears live in Plumas County? While scientists strive for precision and accuracy, we do not have the resources (time or money) to get the answers we all want to know. Managing natural resources is more about managing people than wildlife since we have little to no control of the factors that drive populations (habitat, disease and predation).

What is the most challenging aspect of your career as an environmental scientist?

If I’m honest, it’s trying to educate the public regarding nuisance wildlife and convince them that they have to change their behavior to live with, not against, wildlife.

What is your favorite species to interact with or study?

Mule deer, because that was the animal I studied for two years for my master’s thesis and I still enjoy learning more about them.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

Some days I am in the office, responding to emails, answering phone calls from the public, updating data files, catching up on all the paperwork that piles up or responding to wildlife issues (such as nuisance complaints or dead animals). Other days, I’m in the field collecting data on a particular project or attending to our wildlife area needs (fencing, maintenance, etc.). On really good days, I get to capture and radio collar deer or elk to continue learning more about the species that we, as a department, are responsible for maintaining for future generations.

Categories: Featured Scientist
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