My career path first began to materialize in the 6th grade, when I was certain that I would make a living as a bass tournament champion. Fortunately, that plan changed in college when I discovered the world of aquatic ecology. Studying fish and the waters they live in is even more fun than catching them. And more rewarding. Better job security, too.
I'm now 20+ years into a career as a freshwater ecologist and have most recently become an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Along the way I have intentionally switched between academic and non-academic roles in a predictable cadence: get a degree, go work, get another degree, go work, etc. This has helped to keep me grounded and excited to try new things. It has also been a good way to travel and live in a lot of interesting places.
My academic pedigree includes a B.A. from Wittenberg University (a small liberal-arts school in Springfield, Ohio), a M.S. from Penn State University (I was part of the Pennsylvania Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Research Unit and the School of Forest Resources, now Ecosystem Science and Management), and a Ph.D. from The University of Alabama (I am a past fellow of the NSF-funded Freshwater Interdisciplinary Sciences IGERT program).
I have also worked for the U.S. Forest Service (Tongass National Forest, Sitka, Alaska), the pulp and paper industry (National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, Anacortes, Washington), and the state of Oregon (Independent Multidisciplinary Science Team). And I've done extended stints with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Corvallis, Oregon (Western Ecology Division) and in Athens, Georgia (Ecosystems Research Division).
Throughout this journey, fish have remained my critters of choice. And I've been fortunate to be able to work with fishes in streams and rivers all throughout North America. But I've also logged a lot of time working with other organisms, particularly aquatic invertebrates. No big surprise there - to really understand an organism, you need to know a thing or two about its physical and biological surroundings, including what it eats.
On that note, I'm proud to say that I've gradually evolved into a jack-of-all-trades in freshwater ecology. I have a background in basic fisheries science and population dynamics, but I only focus on an individual species when it is being used as a model system or when there is a special management need (e.g., an endangered species). Instead, I tend to pursue more holistic, systems-level research. I've also developed a taste for the large-scale, macroecological end of things. And I do most of this with a distinct conservation bent.
Why are fishes in Southeastern USA rivers so incredibly diverse? Are depauperate, species-poor systems more vulnerable to non-native invasions than species-rich systems? How will changing hydrology affect the composition and diversity of riverine fish assemblages? Will networks of co-occurring fishes persist in the face of climate change and habitat degradation? Are body size differences between predators and their prey consistent among eastern and western streams? How can this information be brought to bear on conservation policy? These types of questions are all fair game in my research program.
The top photo is from my first undergraduate research project, a field survey of physical habitat use by fishes in the Little Miami River, Ohio. Craig Faulhaber was assisting me. I was humping a self-designed "pop net trap" for standardized fish sampling (that never quite worked). The second photo is of a longnose gar that I caught with Tom Kennedy while electroshocking on the Sipsey River, Alabama. The third photo was captured an Oreo break during a long day on the Leaf River, Mississippi with Fred Howell and Judy Dudley. The fourth is of the plane that I crashed and walked away from in Sitka, Alaska. Just kidding. Actually, the landing gear failed during a rough touchdown at a remote field station (I wasn't in the plane at the time) and rather than salvage the plane, the Forest Service was using it as an on-site fuel tank for generators and outboard motors. The fifth is a photo of the fish lab in the basement of the Trani Life Sciences building at Virginia Commonwealth University. The sixth is from an NSF IGERT excursion to the Valles Cladera in north central New Mexico. A couple of famous ecologists on board that day: Cliff Dahm (University of New Mexico) standing second from left, Leslie Rissler (National Science Foundation) kneeling at far right. The guy squatting in the middle is nobody of importance. . .