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Working as a Quantitative Ecologist and Beyond

1 September 2013 792 views No Comment
Penelope S. Pooler

Penelope S. Pooler

For the past seven years, I have worked as a quantitative ecologist for the Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) program in the National Park Service (NPS), first in a post-doc position through annual contract agreements and then as a full-time permanent government employee. In many ways, a position like this was the reason I went into statistics (i.e., to use my quantitative skills to work with ecologists to answer challenging questions).

A quantitative ecologist, or a biological statistician, is an applied statistician who focuses on answering questions in natural resources science (e.g., ecology, fisheries and wildlife, soil science, forestry, etc.). The research questions we work on are often complex, and the people who collect these data are passionate about their research and helping further our understanding of the animals, plants, or ecosystem being studied.

In my work for the NPS, I primarily focused on salt marsh and coastal ecology. My role was to provide input about how best to design long-term monitoring studies on an extremely tight budget that adequately answered our questions in a reasonable amount of time and answer research questions by analyzing the data that sometimes required development of interesting statistical models. Examples of projects I worked on include monitoring water quality and sea grass distribution and density at northeastern coastal parks. I collaborated with researchers to develop the sampling designs and subsequently analyze the data using linear mixed models. As with any position, there was also a fair amount of data management and report writing, but the work was diverse and interesting.

I also was fortunate because our NPS office was based in the natural resources science department of the University of Rhode Island (URI-NRS). As part of the NPS agreement to rent space there, I taught a graduate-level applied statistics course designed for students in life sciences. I have taught at all college levels, but teaching graduate students engaged in their own research is particularly satisfying because they are excited to learn how to design their own studies and implement analyses that provide the most information. Through my teaching, I had the opportunity to meet students and collaborate with both graduate students and faculty members on their projects and publications. This aspect of my position was rewarding, but it was challenging to balance my work for URI-NRS with my work for the NPS.

To be competitive for a position like this, it’s a good idea to take classes in natural resources such as ecology, GIS courses, etc. Most federal quantitative ecologist or biological statistician positions require a minimum of nine credits of ecology coursework. These courses can be anything, but the human resources staff members who review your job application will be looking for courses with ecology, biology, or natural resources in the title. The people who are charged with the first step in the applicant review process are not scientists and are typically quite rigid about the core requirements; if you apply, you need to make it clear to them that you meet the criteria for the series and grade outlined by the Office of Personnel Management.

It is also helpful to get as much consulting experience as you can while in graduate school. The more clients you work with from different fields, the better you will be able to communicate with nonstatisticians and scientists from a variety of disciplines.

Last, ecological scientists are eager to use Bayesian analytical methods and usually have small operating budgets. Becoming familiar with Bayesian modeling and how to use R and compatible Bayesian software, which are free, will give you a competitive edge when applying for these positions.

Although I genuinely enjoyed my work with the NPS at URI, my family recently relocated to Syracuse, New York, because my husband was offered a great position at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. I was able to work remotely for the NPS for six months until I went on maternity leave. When our baby turned six months old, I went back to work part-time as an independent consultant. I was subsequently hired by the State University of New York Upstate Medical University as a senior biostatistician in the Center for Research and Evaluation, the consulting center of the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine. Before taking this position, I had decided to change my focus from pure ecology to public health. I am particularly excited about expanding into research that looks at the relationship between environmental degradation and public health risks.

My previous work collaborating on large-scale federal ecological monitoring programs, along with the valuable experience I’m getting now, will help me reach my goal of an academic faculty position in public health.

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