Living Out the Grad Student Dream at UAF while Mentoring Undergrad Researchers
By Sophie Gilbert
Rain dripped from the ancient forest canopy and trickled down the back of my neck as I crouched motionless behind a small spruce tree. A few meters away, a female deer had just given birth to twin fawns and was licking them clean. My field assistant and I had closely monitored this doe for weeks, and now the effort was about to pay off. We slowly approached as the mother deer moved off a few feet, keeping wide, anxious eyes on us as we weighed and collared her new offspring. Data in hand, we walked away to the soft bleats of the new family reuniting.
Fast-forward three months: I’m in my office, typing hard-earned data into a spreadsheet. My research as a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is focused on how deer populations are affected by climate, timber harvest and predation in Southeast Alaska. I split my time between two worlds – summers at a beautiful field site in the temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska collecting data, and winters in Fairbanks attending classes at UAF and analyzing the data.
Rewind 10 years: I was an undergraduate at the University of California Los Angeles. Freshly minted ecology degree in hand, I wanted to go see the things I’d studied as an undergraduate in action in the wild. I enrolled in a field course through the Wrangell Mountain Center in McCarthy, Alaska. There, I fell in love with Alaska’s wild, wonderful landscape and met an amazing person, who also happened to be doing research on glaciers. Five years later, I married him.
We’ve made life choices as a team, including where to go to graduate school. We had a nerdy approach to our search for the right university: we each made a list and compared them to find overlap. At the top of both lists was UAF. At UAF, I could study the relationships of large herbivores and carnivores in a wild setting and Tim could study glaciers just a few hours away from his office.
Back to the present: As a graduate student researcher I hire and supervise undergraduate student researchers. My project has supported five undergraduate field assistants over three years. Together we collect data, evaluate habitats, capture and release deer and monitor their survival. Undergraduates are essential to the project’s momentum and success. They are part of a large community of undergraduate researchers nationwide exploring a wide range of hands-on science opportunities. They have the chance to really contribute to new research, including getting their hands dirty collecting original field data.
Undergraduate research opportunities are inherently competitive. There were 300 applicants for the two positions I had available last year from undergraduate programs all over the country. Yet if you want to go to graduate school in the sciences, field experience is vital. UAF undergraduates have an edge in getting great field research jobs. Many positions are advertised on campus exclusively, and many researchers try to hire UAF undergrads before opening up positions to a broader market.
Our work is valuable far beyond the scientific community. Alaska researchers are making discoveries that challenge and improve on some of today’s game management approaches, hopefully resulting in updated policy and regulation.
In the future, I want to expand my research to include other animals that are affected by habitat and climate change. My focus will be on animals that are important both to natural systems and to humans, as deer are. I just submitted a proposal for my next project--figuring out how future climate and habitat changes will affect Alaskan mountain goats’ ability to move around the landscape, survive and reproduce.
I hope to continue to do exciting wildlife research in Alaska throughout my career. I’d also like to teach the next generation of wildlife ecologists. I’m not sure exactly where I’ll end up, but I know I’ll continue to research wild animals in wild places.
Wildlife researcher Sophie Gilbert studies how predators and prey interact and are affected by changes in their environments. Her favorite parts of research are thinking up new ideas and solutions to challenges, and getting to learn something new every day. Learn more about her work at: www.gilbertresearch.org