Collaborating in Colorado
Profession: Ecologist and Science Coordinator, Bureau of Land Management
- Bachelor’s in Ecology, Florida Atlantic University
- Master’s in Zoology, Colorado State University
- Doctorate in Ecology, UAF
Nikki Grant-Hoffman’s education and career have taken her from Florida to Alaska, Costa Rica and New Zealand, and finally to the red-rock canyons of the Colorado wilderness. Here she tells us about how her education prepared her for the job, and the importance of seizing upon opportunities along the way.
Please tell me about your current position.
I am the ecologist and science coordinator for McInnis Canyons and Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Areas in Western Colorado. I work for the federal government in the Department of the Interior under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
I cover about 400,000 acres and I serve as the ecologist, the wildlife biologist, the riparian coordinator, and the science coordinator. I get to do a lot of things – day-to-day monitoring, supporting management decisions, doing a lot of National Environmental Policy Act documentation for different projects. I also get to do my own research, which is great, and I get to work with external researchers working in the areas I cover, helping with logistics and tailoring their research to management questions we have.
How does your scientific background figure into your job?
I use a lot of my data analysis background in research but also in our day-to-day decisions. We want to make well thought-out decisions that are backed up by the most up-to-date science. Sometimes that’s published science, but often that’s based on our monitoring data.
We manage public lands, and there are lots of groups that have a vested interest in their public lands and how they are managed. So, any time we make a management decision, it needs to be backed up by data. The BLM and federal agencies can be sued when we don’t make well-supported decisions. For any decision document that I write I really need to have that data and analyses, so that if it does come to a point where we are in court my data and the support that I have given behind the decisions will stand up.
At the BLM we have specialists like myself in all sorts of different “ologies” - ecologist, hydrologist, archeologist, geologist. As the specialist you’re often called upon to explain something that might be not well-known or understood. From scientific peers, to grade school students, to different kinds of recreationists, and all aspects of the general public - it certainly behooves you to be able to have a conservation with anyone about what your monitoring means and why it is important.
We often work in the field with a university partner, someone from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, someone from BLM, and in the case of threatened species with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The BLM manages habitat, we don’t manage wildlife. Wildlife is considered a state resource. That being said, you can’t separate one from another. You can’t have the wildlife without the habitat and vice versa, so we all work really closely together with wildlife agencies. For example, a project we’re working on right now is trying to get a better handle on the amphibian populations in some of our canyons. We’ve got a couple of things going on – with climate change and the drying and warming, we’re seeing some of our pools drying up before we reach full reproduction in some amphibian species. We are trying to get a handle on how much of a problem that is. We also have bullfrogs that aren’t native to our area which compete with our natives and also bring in disease that can decimate our native populations. We try to understand where those things are occurring and what sort of management solutions we might have.
What led you to this career field?
I grew up in Georgia and I really liked animals and so I thought, “Well, I’ll be a vet.” Then in college I took a plant taxonomy and ornithology class and got into the field of ecology. I thought, wow, this wasn’t even a career path I knew was an option and it’s really interesting, I really like learning about the natural world.
I took a gap year after undergrad and worked for the School for Field Studies for a year, which is a study abroad program for undergrads. I had an awesome experience working and living Costa Rica. I drove trucks and went to the bank, but I also worked as a liaison between students and professors. We were assigned to professors so we’d help them get certain things they need for classes or make contact with folks for field trips, among other things. For speakers who weren’t comfortable lecturing in English, we’d translate.
I got to hone my botany skills; I was one of the interns that had more botany experience, so I did a lot of translating botanical terms from different resources because the students didn’t always speak fluent Spanish. I got more experience with ecology and what it might look like as a career. It was a great experience working and living in a foreign country.
After the internship in Costa Rica, I did my masters in Colorado and that was when I was first exposed to the federal side of things. My master’s project was on BLM-managed public land, so I worked with the local office getting access to my site and talking with the wildlife biologist.
What led you to UAF for your Ph.D?
I worked at UAF under Christa Mulder. When I was working on my Master’s, I did a presentation at an Ecological Society of America conference and happened to bump into her. She was looking for a Ph.D student to work on a project that I thought it sounded like fun, and being able to spend time in Alaska was really interesting to me.
The project was in New Zealand, looking at the effects of invasive rats and seabirds on islands. My bit was looking at seedling ecology. The invasive rats extirpate burrowing seabirds, which are an important part of that area and don’t necessarily come back without introduction once they’ve been extirpated. I looked at what that does to seedling ecology. What we found was about nutrients and disturbance. Birds bring in a lot of nutrients and also a lot of disturbance because they’re burrowing and scratching things up, which affects what can germinate. Rats are omnivores so apart from eating the seabirds they’re also eating a lot of the seeds. Certain seeds are more susceptible to not passing through rat digestion without being crushed as they masticate them. We found that those types of plants don’t tend to do well versus those that are less affected by rat digestion.
It was an awesome opportunity to work with a great group of highly motivated coworkers. It was also neat working with the Department of Conservation in New Zealand. It had that management-science overlap that I really enjoy. I liked being able to go out with the local managers of the islands and talk about how our research fit into their plans. And being in New Zealand and going to uninhabited islands was amazing.
Partway through my Ph.D I made the conscious decision that I would prefer to go into federal work versus academia, partly because I really like the applied nature of it. There are points on the landscape that I can point to and say I did something there that made this project happen in a better way because of the techniques I put into place here. I love the science, but I think for me, being able to see it on the ground and have a hand in that is really awesome and fascinating.
Did something lead you to the BLM specifically?
I worked for the National Park Service for a season, worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife for a little bit, and then got my current job. I have enjoyed working for federal agencies, but I really like BLM. Number one, we are an agency that manages the most land in the United States, so as far as having an impact, we’re it! We manage a lot of species habitats, rangelands, areas where you’re going to have renewables, oil, and gas.
I also really like the multiple-use aspect of BLM. BLM has a focus on conservation, which is amazing. But being a citizen of the world, we use our lands for lots of different things and the idea of trying to use those in a way that is sustainable and will provide for future generations really speaks to me and I like being a part of that.
The other thing I like about BLM is everything we do is by team. Any problem that you have, we have an interdisciplinary team look at it from the perspective of the ecologist, the wildlife biologist, the hydrologist, the archeologist, the range conservationist, etc., and then you bring in the general public perspectives as well. You constantly step outside of your box and see how your interests and science all fit everybody’s needs. I really enjoy that constant stretching.
What advice would you give students considering a career in STEM?
I really enjoy what I do, I think what I do is important, so I would definitely recommend it. If you’re interested in this kind of work, do your homework, talk with people, take advantage of internships, seasonal positions, things like that so that you can find a good fit for yourself.
Paid internships are an awesome way to try different things out and see what you like. A lot of federal agencies partner with programs such as Youth Conservation Corps, Student Conservation Association, GeoCorps, Chicago Botanic Garden Internships, and other programs. There are also seasonal positions with a lot of the federal agencies on USAJobs. Those kinds of internships and positions are a great way to test if you like it and figure out if there is a particular agency you feel passionate about, or a particular area of the country.
The other thing I’ll point out is, don’t think it is too late. I was a Division I scholarship swimmer as an undergrad, and so I never had the time to do internships and things that I have talked about as an undergrad. If you have something that takes up a lot of your time, a musical instrument or a sport or something, you don’t always have the time to take those after-school or summer jobs because you’re training or practicing. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but I will say that you might be playing a little bit of catch-up. So be aware of that and actively seek those gap year opportunities, paid internships, seasonal work, once you graduate to make up that gap.
Interview by Courtney Breest, Alaska NSF EPSCoR. Click here for more Faces of STEM. All photos courtesy Nikki Grant-Hoffman.