Empower Conservation Leaders
With the large majority of U.S. citizens living in urban areas, children may not have early outdoor experiences that draw them to a career in natural resources or conservation. For college students, the diversity of options available for doing conservation work may be overwhelming. Mentors who can spark a second grader’s curiosity in the backyard ecosystem or discuss career goals with a college junior can be invaluable in nurturing tomorrow’s conservation leaders. This month, we feature four Forest Service employees who go the extra mile to connect with young people – from elementary school children to graduate students – and open the door to the wonder and importance of working to sustain our natural ecosystems.
The Resource Assistants Program is a rigorous, immersive, paid internship for individuals interested in Forest Service careers. Resource Assistants work under the supervision of Forest Service staff to complete mission-critical work that demonstrates leadership, critical thinking, and strategic communication. Through direct training, experience, and exposure, Resource Assistants gain the tools to launch their natural and cultural resource careers.
Working out of a USDA Forest Service lab in northern Wisconsin, Research Landscape Ecologist and Project Leader Deahn Donner conducts research on how changing land use and land cover affect biodiversity and the movement of wildlife species such as birds, bats, reptiles and amphibians. Donner considers mentoring students and young professionals an important role. Over the past 20 years, she has mentored dozens of the undergraduate and graduate students who have worked for her on field crews.
Donner is a proponent of informal mentoring as it evolves through building a relationship in which each person is comfortable discussing many topics. “I let my field crews know I have an open door policy, and they are welcome to discuss anything with me,” she said. “I also try to initiate conversations with them about their career goals, background, and other topics. I’m also willing to discuss what worked for me and my struggles throughout my career, and I let them know it isn’t always easy, but that is okay.”
“I think it is important to help students and young professionals see the diversity of options available to them to do conservation work,” said Donner. “I believe too many times, new professionals are only exposed to jobs or disciplines through their schooling, but there are many more options for them. Helping them be creative in determining where they want to go next is rewarding to me.”
In addition to mentoring students on her field crews, Donner has also participated in several career days in local schools, or presented a lesson, such as one on bats, to secondary school age children. “I think the most important thing is for them to see a female in science and also make the topic fun to get them excited about conservation and research,” she said.
Asked what advice she would give to someone interested in becoming a mentor, Donner recommends letting the mentee guide the relationship, and not to be afraid to initiate conversations as well. “The role of a mentor is to provide a safe environment for people to talk about their ideas without expressing judgement or advocating for what you as the mentor thinks is the better path.”
“They have to find their own path, and the mentor just makes sure they don’t get stuck in the ditch, but drive through it instead,” Donner said.
She doesn’t work in fire, but Sheree Johnson’s job is all about creating sparks.
As a civil rights director for the USDA Forest Service, Johnson works with a variety of partners to connect under-served populations with natural resource science and, she hopes, inspire them to pursue a career with the Forest Service. Success for Johnson isn’t necessarily tied to students’ interest in natural resource science; motivating young people to aspire to a career in any STEM field (science-technology-engineering and math) counts as a victory.
“We need to reach youth so they know there are possibilities,” Johnson said. “They can have meaningful careers, and a more diverse workforce results in more diversity in the research questions that get asked and the approaches used to answering them.”
Johnson’s career spans more than 38 years. She served for 10 years as civil rights director for the Northern Research Station; for the past 4.5 years she has been the civil rights director for units of the USDA Forest Service including the Northern Research Station, the Eastern Region of the National Forest System, the Forest Products Laboratory and Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry.
A partnership with the Overbrook Environmental Education Center in Philadelphia is an example of how the Forest Service contributes to introducing students to natural resources and natural resource science. Johnson began working with the Center several years ago; a new 2-year program is providing opportunities for 9th and 10th grade students to learn about water quality, natural resource management, and pollution. Students are developing more than just the STEM skills; the program also emphasizes interpersonal communication, including being professional in how they interact with others, how they dress and in body language.
One aspect of Johnson’s work is to spark students’ interest in a career with the USDA Forest Service; the other side of the coin is developing webinars and other tools that enhance Forest Service employees’ ability to recruit, train and retain a diverse workforce. “Inclusion is essential to the Forest Service’s mission to ‘care for the land and serve people,’” Johnson said. “We serve everybody, so we need to reflect and respect everybody.”
Over the course of 30 years, Joanne Rebbeck ’s commitment to programs that connect young people from diverse backgrounds with natural resource science has been both personal and professional. Rebbeck’s work with students has included serving as a mentor, hands-on presenter and a judge at local and district science fairs. “Children energize me,” Rebbeck said. “I really like to help people and to nurture curiosity and eagerness to learn.”
Rebbeck has worked with students of all ages to inspire a new generation of conservation leaders, but she doesn’t stop with the students. In programs like the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Ohio’s Educators’ Week camp at Hocking State Forest in southern Ohio, Rebbeck works to empower the people on the front lines of natural resource education to share their passion for natural resources with future conservation leaders.
As a plant physiologist with the Northern Research Station in Delaware, Ohio, Rebbeck began studying the effects of air pollution on crops, and from there moved to the effects of air pollution on trees. Rebbeck then transitioned to something completely new, research aimed at sustaining oak forests. Studying oak regeneration piqued her interest in the invasive plants that out-compete oak seedlings for sunlight, and eventually led her to Ailanthus, or tree-of-heaven, an aggressive invasive tree that has moved from urban environments to forests. Since 2014, Rebbeck has led a research effort to investigate whether a native fungus can be used to knock back Ailanthus in southeastern Ohio forests. Results so far suggest that the fungus may be more effective than traditional (and expensive) chemical treatment of Ailanthus trees with no off-target effects.
Rebbeck’s interest in inspiring children to get outdoors and be inquisitive about nature has its roots in her own childhood, when her grandmother’s garden helped a New Jersey city kid onto the path of natural resource science. “We just lived outdoors,” Rebbeck said. “ I think the discoveries I made turning over rocks and learning about plants from my grandmother gave me my love of the outdoors.”
Kevin T. Smith
Studying the response of trees to injury, infection, and environmental change is the focus of research for Supervisory Plant Physiologist Kevin T. Smith. Although the majority of his research is solitary, his work has involved him in teaching and mentoring students and people who apply research findings in their own professions such as arborists and foresters.
“Being a mentor is in part due to my gratitude to a few key mentors I’ve had in my own life and career,” said Smith. He has worked with dozens of doctoral students and early-career professionals over a career that has spanned more than 30 years. “I found as a graduate teaching assistant that although the facts and figures were important, real success in meeting people’s needs sometimes required not just the “what” but the “how” of being a successful and productive student, peer, and supervisor of others.”
“My mentoring philosophy begins with self-evaluation. Is my behavior and presentation consistent with my intentions to be of service? What do I have to offer?” said Smith. “The mentoring process itself involves making myself available as a colleague willing to share how I go about my own work and to learn what special interests challenge my coworkers.”
“Having great mentors throughout my career modeled both the value of mentoring and how to be a mentor,” Smith said. He describes his principal adviser for his doctoral degree as a "real Southern gentleman" who taught Smith the nuts and bolts of science that classwork does not always cover, such as properly handling glass petri dishes and driving a manual transmission truck. “I still think of him almost daily, especially when I’m working at the edge or outside of my comfort zone,” Smith said.
“Helping to develop the next cadre of Forest Service leaders, particularly in Research and Development, is especially important to me,” said Smith. “Not the least of reasons is that some portion of the process helps to refine my own understanding of how the world works as well as being enjoyable for its own sake.”