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Next Generation of Forest Service

December 2016

New challenges to forest health and new technology with which to deal with those challenges are part of the future of Forest Service science, but not the biggest part. New scientists are the heart of our future; their intellect, curiosity, and spirit will help ensure healthy and sustainable forests for succeeding generations of Americans. This month, we introduce four people who represent the next generation of science leaders. 

Environmental Education Link

Screenshot of Forest SErvice Youth Employment Opportunities webpageStudents and young adults, learn about job opportunities with the Forest Service.

Sue Crocker

Sue Crocker

As part of a college field ecology class, “The Natural Resources of Alaska,” Sue Crocker volunteered as a forestry technician on the Chugach National Forest and roamed one of the world’s most wild and scenic places. “It was there, managing forests in the aftermath of a devastating spruce bark beetle infestation that I learned firsthand how forest and insect management are intertwined,” she said. “This introduction to forest health set me on a path to continue investigating the interactions between forest insects and their environment.”

Early in her Forest Service career as a research forester, Crocker worked on a Forest Inventory and Analysis field crew where she spent long days in the woods collecting forest inventory data to be used for long-term forest health monitoring. Now, she spends more time sitting her desk using a variety of GIS and statistical techniques to develop landscape-level models to categorize risk, predict patterns of dispersal, and identify stand characteristics that are favorable for outbreaks of insects such as emerald ash borer and eastern larch beetle. These models provide information land managers and regulatory agencies can use to develop mitigation strategies designed to slow the spread of insect outbreaks and reduce their impacts on urban and rural forest resources.

Currently, Crocker is investigating tamarack tree mortality from eastern larch beetle.   In addition to the science she is interested in innovative ways of delivering science.  “What has been particularly exciting about this project is using a new digital tool called an ESRI story map to translate results of the study into an interactive format to appeal to a wider audience,” said Crocker. 

Childhood experiences helped to foster Crocker’s appreciation of the natural environment.  “When my sisters and I were growing up, our dad always centered family vacations around an exploration of the outdoors. We spent a lot of time visiting our National Forests and Parks, which allowed me to experience the wonders and diversity that our country’s ecosystems have to offer.”  

What advice does she have for new Forest Service scientists? “Be passionate about what you do and challenge yourself to keep reaching new heights.”

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Matt Peters

Matt Peters

The road to achieving the rank of Eagle Scout is rooted in outdoor experiences, and for Matt Peters, that road sparked an interest in natural resources that culminated in a career in Forest Service science.

“In Boy Scouts, I spent a lot of weekends camping and spending time outdoors, and that experience made me want to pursue a career that to some extent involved the outdoors,” Peters said. “Of course, now I am indoors looking at nature via GIS and remote sensing, but the challenge of geospatial processing is rewarding enough to offset that.”

A GIS (geographical information systems) technician based in Delaware, Ohio, Peters uses GIS and statistical modeling to contribute to development of products such as the Station’s Climate Change Atlas, an online tool for exploring how climate change may affect the habitat suitability of 134 tree species and 147 bird species.
After earning an undergraduate degree in GIS and analyses, Peters interned with the Forest Service before going on to earn a graduate degree in applied biological sciences. As part of the Climate Change Atlas team, Peters runs models that compile data on climate and other environmental information from different agencies and modeling groups, allowing the Atlas to project:

  • How suitable habitats for tree (and bird) species may change under future climates
  • The likelihood that modeled future habitats can be colonized by the species within 100 years
  • How much factors that are not modeled, such as disturbances and biological characteristics, can influence future outcomes

Peters’ advice to new scientists? “Learn the basics of a GIS program; whether it’s free or licensed software it can be a powerful tool,” he said. “At the core of science is data collection and observation, and knowing how to view and analyze data spatially can reveal patterns and trends that may have gone unnoticed.” Peters cites the use of a dot map of cholera cases during an epidemic in London in 1854 as a prime example of the value of analyzing data spatially; the map revealed that water pumps were the source of outbreaks. “The methods of analysis may not be new, but the technology in which we conduct the analyses is evolving, creating a better understanding of the systems we study,” Peters said.

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Sonya Sachdeva

Sonya SachdevaHow people think – the cognition behind our behavior – has tremendous consequences for nature. As a research social scientist in the Station’s People and their Environments unit, Sonya Sachdeva’s research explores how people decide on a best course of action and how they learn about their options.

Social media is giving cognitive scientists like Sachdeva new insight into human behavior. The standard method of data collection in her field has traditionally been for subjects to respond to questions in a lab setting. “That kind of method is fraught with inaccuracy,” Sachdeva said. “Memory is not perfect, and people are not always honest.” Social media, and particularly Twitter, is giving scientists a look at what people believe and value on a global scale. “Instead of relying on how people in studies report their beliefs, we can collect that data from sources people are directly engaging with,” she said.

In research published earlier this year, Sachdeva and her colleagues assessed whether Twitter traffic can be used as a complementary source of data in measuring particulate pollution from wildfire smoke. Their results suggest that the frequency of daily tweets related to wildfires is a significant predictor of fine particulate levels, beyond daily and geographic variation.    

Born in Kuwait, Sachdeva discovered forests at the age of 9 years, when her family moved to Michigan. “Behind our apartment, we had an unending woods,” Sachdeva said. “After school I would take long walks in the woods and pretend to be an explorer, I was mesmerized.”

People proved to be even more fascinating, and Sachdeva’s academic career focused on understanding why people behave the way we behave. As an undergraduate she majored in economics, but she felt that it gave her an incomplete picture of human behavior. She pursued a degree in psychology to understand how thought, beliefs and values shape behavior, and then in her doctoral studies she began exploring the moral values that guide behavior. The jump to natural resources science was easy, she said. “One area in which moral values play a major role is environmental behavior,” she said.

Issues such as climate change can only make understanding values and decision-making around natural resources and agriculture more vital, Sachdeva believes. “We are going to need public support and collaboration, and to achieve that we are going to need to understand the value systems that drive decisions,” she said. 

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Nick Skowronski

Nick Skowronski

Fire management decisions require an understanding of the physics of fire, the ecology of systems, command and tactical strategies for suppression, the social and political dynamics of communities that are at risk, and many other things.   Experts from each of those realms work together in a very challenging environment to do their job. “I wanted to be a part of that the instant that I was exposed to it,” said Nick Skowronski.

Skowronski, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service, specializes in fire research and uses remote sensing to analyze large sets of data collected by satellites and airplanes to answer questions that will help inform fire management decisions.  “While working in the field we use a lot highly technical equipment, but we also spend an awful lot of time climbing through the charred remains of a forest after a fire and sifting through the ash” he said.   

Currently, Skowronski is collaborating with a professor at West Virginia University to use a new satellite to look at patterns of burn severity in the New Jersey Pinelands.  “We are using three-dimensional measurements of the tree canopy to try and estimate how much fuel was consumed in the canopy during the burn,” said Skowronski.  “Results of the study could also really help us to understand the correlation between fire severity and fuel consumption (or carbon release) spatially,” he said. 

Skowronski is passionate about getting his research information out to the managers who can use it.  The North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange (NAFSE), a program funded by the Department of Interior through Joint Fire Science Program funds, provides very effective ways for managers and scientists to interact such as during field trips and workshops, and through webinars.  “However, when time and schedules permit it, getting out in the woods with managers one-on-one is a great way to share information” he said. 

Two main factors helped guide Skowronski into his current career.  “First, I am an Eagle Scout. I will be forever grateful to our Troop’s Scoutmaster for introducing us to our natural resources,” he said.  “The second factor was a semester that I spent at the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset, Maine, during high school. Living in a cabin with a woodstove during a Maine winter, learning bird calls, and reading Leopold was pretty impactful.”

What advice does he have for new Forest Service scientists? “I’d suggest finding a topic that doesn’t feel like work and to work with people that respect you and that you respect.”

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