Grad Student Spotlight: Julie Baroody

In the world of forest management, the stakes are usually pretty high. Short-term decisions and long-term planning can have huge environmental and ecological impacts—on everything from wildfires and wildlife habitat to local jobs and sustainable construction materials. When Julie Baroody started her field research in Mexico, though, the situation was put more simply (and a bit more personally): Do a good job, or a local villager goes to jail.

“Oh man,” she remembers thinking, “that’s a big responsibility.”

Julie Baroody

Julie Baroody down at Pack Forest.

Baroody, a graduate student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), had just arrived at a village in the highlands of Mexico’s Chiapas state. Lázaro Cárdenas is a self-governed indigenous community, or ejido, based on subsistence farming and the milpa system of crop rotation. As the population has grown in recent years, the demand for new households has put greater pressure on the available timber stock, and also led to more permanent agriculture.

Each year, villagers have had to travel farther and farther to find oak for firewood—their primary source of energy, including for cooking. Community leaders were concerned they would soon run out of firewood entirely, and that only pine would remain in their traditional pine-oak forest

“Pine takeover” of the pine-oak forest is common in the highlands of Chiapas, but Baroody wanted to know how much was due to firewood harvest and how much to villagers’ prioritization of pine, which can be used as timber. So began the field portion of her thesis project—with a little more than a degree on the line!

The Root of It All
Baroody moved to Seattle to start graduate school in the fall of 2011 after six years working with the Rainforest Alliance on sustainable land use. She had helped launch a program to enhance their work mitigating climate change, and part of her role involved traveling to different sites around the world.

During international trips, Baroody says she would walk through all sorts of forests and wonder about their dynamics and health—why one forest needed thinning, for instance, while another was not dense enough. Those questions eventually triggered a new plan: Find a graduate program where she could deepen her understanding of how forests work. She didn’t necessarily want to be a forester, she says, but Baroody wanted a practical background in forestry to inform her project management experience.

Julie Baroody

Baroody coring a tree in her study area in Chiapas, Mexico.

She was living in Portland, Maine, at the time, not far from where she grew up in Blue Hill along the state’s coast. Baroody then started reaching out to SEFS students and faculty who were doing work similar to what she had in mind. She ended up connecting with Jason Scullion, who was wrapping up his Master’s project in Mexico (and is now working on his Ph.D.), as well as Professor Kristiina Vogt. Those conversations eventually led her to Professor Greg Ettl. “I wanted to learn about sustainable forest management, and I thought Greg would be the best person to teach me that,” says Baroody. Just as important, he took her on with the understanding she would be looking for a research site abroad.

Working through her Rainforest Alliance contacts, Baroody explored a few potential options in Ghana and Peru but eventually decided on the firewood project in Mexico.

It seemed like the best opportunity for her research to have an impact on how forests are managed, but the program almost never got off the ground. Baroody often waited through long weeks of radio silence from her contacts and barely had any details finalized before flying down for several months of field work. Yet in the end the arrangement came together, and Baroody says Ettl was extremely patient and gave her the space—even when the plan seemed on the verge of collapse—to set up the project. “Greg has been really terrific,” she says. “He stood by me the whole way.”

Far Afield
Independent by nature, Baroody says she has a knack for stranding herself in tricky situations with minimal support—and then making the best of it. First there was an iffy study abroad program she survived in Peru, but a stiffer test came after she graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont.

Julie Baroody

Several community members assisted Baroody with her field research, including helping with translation and interviews.

Following an internship in her hometown with the Marine Environmental Research Institute, she arranged to teach Spanish literacy to kids on a local coffee farm in the Dominican Republic. Julia Alvaraz, a Dominican author of magical realism, and her husband had purchased Café Alta Gracia to transform it into a sustainable coffee business and writing retreat. It certainly sounded like a romantic adventure.

The reality for Baroody, however, was that she found herself teaching out of a shack for several months, cut off from nearly all communication with home and the outside world. Back copies of The New Yorker were her only English-language reading, and she remembers riding a guagua (basically the back of a truck) down to town to find out the results of the 2002 elections back in the United States.

She discovered a few things about herself, including that teaching might not be her true calling. Yet Baroody says she also got to live in a beautiful place near the Haitian border and came away with a memorable experience. So in the end, definitely worth it.

For this next project in Mexico, Baroody was relieved to know she would have a more extensive support network. In addition to her contacts at ProNatura Sur, the NGO she originally worked with to set up the research, Baroody would be collaborating with a local university, ECOSUR, the Colegio de la Frontera Sur. One of their professors, Dr. Neptali Ramirez Marcial, was an expert on the region’s ecology and ecological transition, and he would sit on her graduate committee and assist her research.

So with her project mostly organized, Baroody arrived in Mexico in April 2012. Professor Greg Ettl flew down to Chiapas shortly after to spend a week with her and give her a crash course in field research and equipment training. Then she had her first meeting with the community leaders in Lázaro Cárdenas, the study village. “They were very concerned about their firewood use and wanted to know when it was going to run out,” she says, and they were looking to her for analysis and answers. ProNatura Sur had established the relationship with Lázaro Cárdenas through a staff member who was an ejido member, and it was his freedom on the line if she made any missteps. Though the community leaders approved of the project (and sealed the deal with a shot of local liquor), it was an intimidating experience.

Julie Baroody

For Baroody, field season meant long hours in the woods or interviewing locals, and then long evenings transcribing and entering data.

The Research Grind
Lazaro Cardenas is fairly isolated and self-managed, which Baroody says made the project a good laboratory experiment. Her research primarily took two forms: data collection in forest plots, and interviews with local residents to see how they use the firewood (how often they harvest, where they gather wood, how much they use, etc.).

For the latter task, she had four village elders assigned to be her research assistants and facilitate the interviews (in some cases, people they encountered only spoke the Maya language traditional to Lázaro Cárdenas, so they also served as translators from tzotzil to Spanish). Since Baroody wasn’t living in the village—she rented a room in the nearby city of San Cristobal and commuted up to Lázaro Cárdenas every day—she felt the elders were indispensable for earning trust and legitimizing her work. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” she says.

Each morning, she and her team would head out into the field from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Later that evening when back in her room, Baroody would then set to work transcribing the day’s interviews and entering data. It was an exhausting, around-the-clock schedule, and just about her only socializing came via Skype with her boyfriend back in Maine.

By June, Baroody had completed her field work and headed back to Seattle. In her final assessment, she wasn’t able to tell the village exactly how long their firewood supply will last, but she collected enough information to help them create a plan to start reforesting some of the oaks, and to do more selective harvesting. She believes that as the town becomes more accessible by road, as well, increased availability of propane—which has a comparable cost of firewood—will additionally reduce some of the ecological pressure on the forest.

Beatrice

“Beatrice is definitely a teenager, putting everything in her mouth and barking when you don’t pay attention to her,” says Baroody.

Jail time, in the end, was averted, and Baroody says she came away far more confident in her research and interviewing, and feeling capable of leading a team in her field. “It was trial by fire,” she says, and there were times she grew frustrated with hitches and challenges beyond her control. “But I learned to be more patient and go with the flow a little bit.”

This summer, Baroody is putting the final touches on her research and will be defending her thesis, “Firewood Extraction as a Catalyst of Pine-Oak Forest Degradation in the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico,” on Monday, August 12 (the public portion of her defense begins at noon in Anderson 22). She’s also completing a final class before earning a nonprofit management certificate from the Evans School of Public Affairs.

After that, she plans to move back to Portland early this fall. She’ll be taking her new puppy—a 7-month-old hound mix named Beatrice—and rejoining her boyfriend on the East Coast. The only questions left by then will be, ‘Which organization will she be running, and when?’

Photos © Julie Baroody.

Field Notes From the Olympics

Maureen Ryan

Maureen Ryan holding a Cascades frog (photo by Ashley Ahearn)

Maureen Ryan, a post-doc in Professor Josh Lawler’s lab, recently took a journalist out backpacking in the Olympics to visit her field sites. Ashley Ahearn, who is based in Seattle with KUOW Public Radio, was working on a story for EarthFix about Ryan’s research into what will happen to wetland habitats in the Pacific Northwest as the climate changes.

The EarthFix “field notes” story, which ran on Friday, July 19, includes a bunch of cool photos and videos of mountain goats and Cascades frogs in the Seven Lakes Basin area (plus, Ahearn is producing a longer radio segment, set to air this coming Monday). Great stuff!

SEFS collaborators with Ryan in the Wetlands Adaptation Group include Se-Yeun Lee, another researcher in Lawler’s lab, and graduate student Meghan Halabisky. Ryan’s field crew also includes Noll Steinweg, Mara Healy, Rae Parks and Reed McIntyre, and the group’s research area covers three national Parks—Olympic, Mount Rainier and North Cascades.

Photo of Maureen Ryan © Ashley Ahearn/EarthFix

Olympic Peninsula Memoirs

Bob Dick and Darrell WhiteWhile researching material for a book he’s writing about the history of CFR/SEFS, Professor Emeritus Bob Edmonds came across a book that one of our alumni, Bob Dick (’74), recently coauthored with his childhood and long-time friend Darrel White, a high school biology and science teacher. Edmonds just finished reading the book, Skunk Cabbage and Chittum Bark: Sons of the Wynooche, and he was kind enough to offer a brief review!

Here’s what he had to say:

Skunk Cabbage and Chittum Bark is an interesting history on the background of many of our undergraduate students in the 1960s and early 1970s who came from rural backgrounds, and it illustrates how things have changed. The two authors grew up in Montesano and the Wynooche Valley (also spelled Wynoochee), which is between Olympia and Aberdeen/Hoquiam, and the book title refers to plant species the authors describe as “among the quintessential inhabitants of the Wynooche Valley.” Skunk cabbage is common in swampy areas, and chittum bark is Native American for cascara bark, which has medicinal properties. Peeling cascara bark was an income source for Bob and Darrell as young boys.

The book is divided into six parts: Wynooche Genesis, Kid Stuff, Family, Work, Reminiscence and The Valley, as well as an Epilogue. In each section Bob and Darrell document their separate and collective life stories, mostly from the 1950s to 1970s. In all there are nearly 60 short stories or vignettes, such as “Coming to the Valley,” “School Years,” “Fun with Amphibs,” “Timber!,” “Summer Camps,” “Mom and Dad,” “The Birth of a Career,” “The Logger,” “Hikes,” “The Lake,” “The Columbus Day Storm,” “Geology with Calvin and Hobbes,” “Eco-adolescents” and “The River.”

No doubt, Bob’s decision to enter a career in forestry was influenced by his father’s profession as a forester for Weyerhaeuser Company, and the hours he spent in the woods exploring, fishing and hunting. Bob served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Washington and Alaska, then graduated with a BS in Forest Management from CFR and became a professional forester, including stints as Alaska’s state forester and the Washington Forest Protection Association. He is a fellow of the Society of American Foresters, and he retired in 2010 after a 36-year career.”

If you’d like to read more about Bob Dick’s story, his book is available in paperback on Amazon for $18, and also in a Kindle Edition for $9.99 (Skunk Cabbage and Chittum Bark: Sons of the Wynooche, by Bob Dick and Darrel A. White, 2012. Bookstand Publishing, Morgan Hill, CA 95037. 248 pp.). You can also reach Dick via email at mrdickjr@gmail.com if you wish to request a copy.

The Buzz is Back!

Not since the 1990s had the buzz of the white-bottomed Western Bumble Bee (Bombus occidentalis) been heard in Washington State. But last week at a park in Brier, just northeast of Seattle, a group of bee enthusiasts and biologists from the University of Washington documented the first official, confirmed B. occidentalis sighting in two decades!

Western Bumble Bee

Will Peterman snapped this unmistakable photo of a Western Bumble Bee with its telltake white rump.

Among the bee hunters that afternoon was Lisa Hannon, an NSF Graduate Fellow with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences who’s currently researching how landscape factors and farmer practices impact parasitoid wasp communities (important for integrated pest management). Hannon had received a call a couple weeks ago from Will Peterman, a writer, photographer and bee expert in Seattle, to join him in trying to spot a Western Bumble Bee.

Peterman was following up on a year-old possible sighting that a local homeowner had logged with the Xerces Society as part of a citizen science initiative. Hannon’s lab mate, Hillary Burgess, was working on her Master’s at the time, and she was involved in that initial sighting. As part of her thesis project, “Local and Landscape-Level Influences of Bee Abundance and Diversity in Residential Gardens,” Burgess worked with landowners across King and Snohomish counties to keep detailed visitation logs regarding the pollinators visiting their gardens. The homeowner who spotted the bees was collecting survey data for her.

Now it was time to see if the bees were still there.

“On the day I searched, we hit pay dirt after four hours of scouring blackberry brambles,” says Hannon. They took photos of two or three queen bees, and then a second group of UW students returned on Sunday and reconfirmed at least two queen bees. This discovery has stoked hopes among bee lovers and biologists that the species, which is a crucial pollinator for many plants, might be making a comeback in the area (the Seattle Times ran a story about the exciting finding on July 14, as did an NPR program in California on July 18).

Lisa Hannon

Lisa Hannon doing field work in Costa Rica.

B. occidentalis was once one of the most common bumble bees found on the West Coast, says Hannon, with a range extending from Alaska down to California, and east to the Rocky Mountains. The Xerces Society—a nonprofit that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat—considers this native species imperiled due to scattered populations and steep declines, among other factors. Currently, remnant populations can be found in the northern or eastern-most areas of their historical range, but colonies from southern British Columbia to central California are almost nonexistent.

Also along for the bee-spotting adventure was Evan Sugden, an adjunct professor with the UW Department of Biology, as well as several UW graduate students and a couple undergrads who were taking Sugden’s summer bee-keeping course.

“Normally, I chase bees and wasps in high mountain Costa Rican coffee farms and cloud forests,” says Hannon, “so it was a real treat to be able to work close to home!”

Photos: Western Bumble Bee © Will Peterman; Lisa Hannon in Costa Rica © Lisa Hannon.

Staff Spotlight: Pat Saunders

One of the challenges of working at a large university, even if you’re part of a smaller school within it, is getting to meet all of your colleagues. Professors are often scattered to remote study areas or holed up in labs, and everybody seems to have a different research specialty. It’s hard enough learning who they are and what they do, let alone where they’re from, or what kinds of stories lurk behind their casual hellos and handshakes.

At the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), the challenge is doubly hard for those who work at field sites away from the main campus. They don’t get to bump into folks in the coffee room, have a beer after a seminar, or swap news and jokes before meetings. Most interactions occur over the phone or email, and you can go months—even years—knowing someone only by their name announcing itself in your inbox.

Pat Saunders

Pat Saunders having what she called a “Badlands Hair Day.” While camping in Badlands National Park in South Dakota, she says the wind was so bad your chair would get swept away as soon as you stood up.

Today it might be “Pat Saunders” who crops up in the corner of Outlook as you take your first sips of coffee. You’ve communicated with her before, no doubt, and familiar details break through your morning haze. You know she works down at Pack Forest and assists Professor Greg Ettl in his role as director of the Center for Sustainable Forestry. You might also know that she oversees staff who manage the daily operations of the conference center and 10,000 square feet of building space, and that at any given moment she could be budgeting, working with students on a class trip, organizing a research trip, giving forest tours or rescuing lost hikers.

But you’re only scratching the surface. You know there’s more to her story, and that if you pulled up a seat next to her and uncorked a bottle, you’d be in store for hours of entertainment and education, and likely a surprise or two—and you’d be right!

The Maine Concern
Pat Saunders grew up in the small coastal town of Surry, Maine, near Acadia National Park. The community of about 1,500 is located in a part of the state known as “Down East,” nautical slang from the days when ships from Boston would sail east to ports along the Maine coast (even though they’d be heading northeast, the wind would be at their backs so they’d technically be sailing downwind, hence the oddly contradictory “down east”). Timber and fishing were the primary industries, as well as tourism in nearby beach towns during the fleeting summertime.

Pat Saunders

Saunders (left) with her oldest sister Crickie and her son Bryan in Seattle.

Saunders lived in Maine for most of her life until her son Bryan, who had moved out to Seattle, suffered a serious motorcycle accident near the end of 2007. To help with his recovery, she flew out and lived with him for five months as he worked through physical therapy. It took nearly a year before he fully recovered from his injuries, but his mom was enormously thankful for the happy outcome. “The good news is he was fully geared up with helmet and gloves,” she says. “It could have been much worse.”

Not long after Saunders returned to Maine, though, she started thinking she might want to make a permanent move to Seattle. She knew that would mean leaving behind three sisters and a brother, loads of friends and a lifetime of memories. And there was one other potential holdup: Would her son consider it weird if she moved out to live near him?

She called Bryan to ask what he thought, and he gave her an enthusiastic endorsement. Then the wheels really starting turning, as Saunders packed up her things and invited Candy, her best friend of 25 years, to drive and camp their way across the country in the fall of 2008.

Their road trip started with a leg from Maine to Indianapolis to stay with a friend. Next they headed up to Gary, Ind., and skirted around Lake Michigan and Chicago. From there it was a straight shot on Interstate 90 to Seattle—a shade more than 2,000 miles—with plenty of new states to experience. “We had two rules,” says Saunders. “We couldn’t eat in any restaurant you could find somewhere else in the world, and we had to buy a six-pack of local beer in every state we visited.”

They had set out near the end of September, so as they crossed the Great Plains into Montana and the Pacific Northwest, they were often hitting campgrounds about to be shuttered for the season. “We closed down the state parks all the way across the country,” she says. “But we had a beautiful trip. It was gorgeous.”

Into the Woods
During her first few months in Seattle, she lived with Bryan while searching for interesting job opportunities. Then one day she came across a position advertised down at Pack Forest, and she felt an instant connection.

Pat Saunders

Having grown up around her family’s wooded land in Maine, Saunders–pictured here with her son Bryan–felt an immediate connection with Pack Forest.

Back home in Maine, her family has managed a 1,000-acre wood lot for generations. She grew up walking the land, going out with her grandfather and father, cutting wood and marking boundaries. “My father always had this dream that I’d be the forester in the family,” she says, and she learned to identify the conifers and firs and pines and hemlock, and all the hardwoods like maples, ash, elms and oaks. She shared the same lessons with her son, showing him changes in the forest during the seasons and as years passed. “When you walk on the land, you know it,” she says. “I can look at that forest going back 50 years now. It’s in my blood.”

So when she landed the job and moved down to Eatonville, Wash., she felt right at home among the towering woods of Pack Forest and nearby Mount Rainier National Park. She’s one of eight permanent staff members based there, helping oversee 4,300 acres of working forest, as well as conference and housing facilities. Her commute is only four miles, and she loves the familiar small town atmosphere—but also the proximity to a bigger city. “I like where I’m at,” she says. “It’s great to come to work in a place that’s absolutely stunning. I can walk out of my office and go 500 yards and be in the middle of the forest, and yet I’m only an hour and a half from Seattle.”

Saunders believes the same joy she feels at Pack Forest is what makes it such an important educational resource for SEFS and other UW departments. She’d like to see far more students come down and experience the forest, whether as part of a spring planting or summer crew, or on field trips with other courses. “There’s so much here,” she says. “It’s just a great living laboratory and classroom, and when you immerse yourself in the environment, I think it gives you a different understanding.”

Written in Ink
Switching coasts after so many years as a New Englander naturally brought some huge changes. Leaving behind family has been the toughest part, she says, but she’s embraced other adjustments—like saying goodbye to black flies and swarms of mosquitoes—with a bit more gusto. Then there was the issue of Maine’s long winters of brutal cold and snow. Out here, she can handle all the mist and drizzle Seattle can wring from the sky. After all, she says, “you don’t have to shovel rain.”

Pat Saunders

Saunders and her new granddaughter, Darius.

One bittersweet irony of her relocation is that her son has since moved back to Maine. Yet then he got married and now has a brand-new 2-month-old daughter named Darius, so on balance Saunders doesn’t feel too cheated in the bargain. She loves where she is and what she’s doing, and her time together with Bryan in Seattle, though born from tragedy and more temporary than expected, became one of her most treasured periods.

In fact, she has more than memories as a keepsake from that special time.

Back when she was helping care for Bryan after the accident, she spent a great deal of time with his roommates in their house. “He was living with a group of 20-somethings,” she says. “They were incredibly amazing helping him and being really supportive, and I grew close to them.”

Among their house traditions was watching episodes of Battlestar Gallactica (BSG)—the new version, not the original television series that first aired in 1978. “I’m a real science fiction nerd,” says Saunders, “and Friday night was always BSG night. I would drive up from Eatonville to watch the show, and we’d all pile in.”

Their Friday gatherings eventually came to an end when the friends had to move out of the house. Parting wasn’t easy, so in addition to a moving-out party, they decided to come up with another way to commemorate their friendships and emotional bond: getting a group tattoo.

Pat Saunders

“Since the tattoo is on my back, I sometimes forget it’s there,” says Saunders. “I went to a chiropractor once and he commented, ‘I see you like Bonnie Tyler.’ I was impressed he could tell so much from my spine and told him so. He looked at me oddly and said, ‘I was referring to your tattoo!’”

“I’d always said I’d never get a tattoo unless it was really meaningful,” she says, but this felt like the right time. They came up with a design that has the BSG logo and the name of the house, SS AS (the “Sailing Ship Awful Shark”), and around the outside is “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which they used to play at the end of all their house parties. Everyone in the gang got the same tattoo, but they chose different body locations, depending on personal preferences. Saunders opted for the middle of her upper back. “I had to find a place that as I aged and wrinkled and sagged, it would not!”

Getting the tattoo didn’t hurt as much as she expected, but she was glad when it was over. “Believe me,” she says, “childbirth is much more painful.”

Now, anytime she catches a glimpse of her tattoo, she sees a powerful reminder of what brought her to Seattle, the friends she’s made, and priceless memories with her son. If there’s any ink you’d like to be permanent, that would probably be it.

Photos © Pat Saunders.

Pat Saunders

Understanding the Carbon Balance of Biofuel Production

In 2011, the USDA awarded $40 million to the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest (AHB) consortium to develop a system to convert poplar trees into liquid biofuels. Led by the University of Washington and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), the AHB team is developing various strategies to create a renewable, direct replacement for existing fossil fuels that can be used in conventional cars, trucks and jet engines. The long-term vision is to produce 400 million gallons of biofuel per year from 400,000 acres of hybrid, sustainably-grown poplars.

Poplar Plantation

Poplar plantation in Oregon.

Four poplar demonstration plantations in the Pacific Northwest are being established as part of the AHB project to optimize production of biomass feedstock. At these poplar plantations in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, AHB researchers are thoroughly assessing the plantation environmental impacts on a number of factors, such as the carbon cycle, soil, wildlife and water usage.

Part of this research includes life cycle assessment (LCA) to determine total carbon emissions associated with production and use of biofuels. One question to be resolved by the LCA is the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of biofuels, especially compared to petroleum-based fuels.

“The life cycle greenhouse gas emissions depend on many factors,” says SEFS Professor Rick Gustafson, who is leading the AHB research. He says preliminary results show that poplar-derived biofuels unquestionably lead to substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline, but the precise magnitude of the reduction has yet to be worked out. These reduced emissions result from carbon sequestration of growing poplar feedstock balancing emissions from conversion of biomass into fuel and from use of the fuel product.

As a result, producing ethanol from plantation-grown poplar trees can be nearly carbon neutral. Research by Erik Budsberg, a SEFS Ph.D. student involved in the AHB program, shows that carbon emissions from fermenting the lignocellulosic sugars directly into ethanol, and burning the residual biomass to create electricity, is balanced out by the carbon sequestered by the poplar trees and by the displacement of fossil fuel-based electricity. The downside to this process, however, is that the total product yield—80 gallons of biofuel per ton of biomass used— is somewhat low, resulting in inferior process economics and greater feedstock demands. In addition, the ethanol fuel product is not compatible with our current transportation infrastructure, making its use somewhat limited.

Erik Budsberg

Erik Budsberg standing in front of year-old poplar trees at a GreenWood Resources poplar plantation in Boardman, Ore.

By using a different process, ethanol can be produced with a yield of 130 gallons per ton of biomass used. This process uses a different fermentation pathway but requires the addition of hydrogen to produce the fuel. While the yield is high—resulting in superior process economics and low biomass demand—this method has greater life cycle carbon emissions since it requires pumping natural gas, a fossil fuel, into the system. Even so, the process still results in a 60-percent reduction of greenhouse gases compared to gasoline.

A challenge of using bioethanol is that current infrastructure in the United States—most vehicles, and the fuel distribution network—is not built to handle fuels with high concentrations of ethanol, and that’s not likely to change any time soon, says Gustafson. To produce biofuels that are fully compatible with existing infrastructure, the ABH research program is developing processes that convert the poplar trees all the way to hydrocarbons, which are the molecules found in gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

“By producing hydrocarbons, we end up with greater carbon emissions when compared to producing ethanol,” says Gustafson. The process the AHB team is developing, however, will produce infrastructure-compatible hydrocarbons with good yields while still reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent compared to gasoline, which is a big advancement.

It’s therefore clear that producing fuels from biomass like poplar trees leads to significant greenhouse gas emission reductions compared to petroleum-based fuel. The exact amount depends on many factors, such as the conversion process used and the choice of final products. The value of the research under way in the AHB project is that environmental benefits and impacts can be quantified before the factories are built and the feedstock plantations are established. Their research will also identify early on areas where environmental performance can be improved, enabling us to construct the most sustainable biofuels production enterprise possible.

Photo of poplar plantation © GreenWood Resources; photo of Budsberg © Renata Bura.

This Sunday: Alumni Hike with Tom Hinckley!

This Sunday, July 14, Professor Emeritus Tom Hinckley will be leading a group hike to discover some secret treasures on the east side of Squak Mountain in the Issaquah Alps. So if you’d like to get out and celebrate the sunshine, strap on your boots and come out and join him!

Tom Hinckley

A spring ski trip to Shrode Lake in Prince William Sound effectively captures the exact OPPOSITE of your potential visual experiences this coming Sunday, says Hinckley. To be a real hiker, one must love the extremes!

The plan is to hike the Sycamore Access Trail to the East Ridge Trail. From there, depending on interest and ability, they will either trek just beyond the summit of Southeast Peak—to see a very large old-growth tree on an unofficial and recently developed trail, about 1,500 feet in elevation gain—or up to Thrush Gap and then Phil’s Creek Trail, down to the Eastside Trail and back to Thrush Gap via the Gap Connector. You’ll experience a wide diversity of stand histories and compositions, as well as some interesting and infrequently used trails. Elevation gain using this latter route is closer to 2,000 feet, and there’s even an opportunity, if energy and time allow, to head another 500 feet to the top.

“This is a gem for forest and understory lovers,” says Hinckley. “It’s close to Seattle but not like the West Tiger III or Mount Si trails with regard to numbers, it gives a great workout, and it will rekindle memories of Dave Scott or Reini Stettler or Linda Brubaker from our school training.”

Hikers should meet at noon in the Issaquah High School parking lot. Hinckley recommends carpooling since there is limiting parking at the trailhead, and you’ll have to bring your own water and provisions. Students, faculty and staff are also invited, and if you’re interested in joining, please email Hinckley (hinckley@uw.edu) to maximize car space and make sure he’s expecting you!

Also, hold October 5 and 6 open for a Methow Valley hike to see the subalpine larches!

Photo © Tom Hinckley
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Alumni Spotlight: Brian Kertson

“I’ve always been fascinated by large carnivores,” says Brian Kertson, a wildlife research scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). “Not just because of the physical adaptations they have, which are remarkable, but because they have to go out, search, locate, capture and kill other animals—despite the fact those animals have spent hundreds of thousands of years developing tricks to get away from them. That’s a really challenging way to live your life.”

Brian Kertson

In his role as a large  carnivore researcher, Kertson often finds himself with unusually exciting dance partners.

You could argue the same about studying major predators. But that’s exactly how Kertson wants to spend his life, and he’s currently living his dream as a large carnivore researcher for the state.

Growing up in Woodinville, Wash., Kertson says he knew early on that he wanted to study wildlife. As part of a high school project, he remembers coming down to the University of Washington and visiting the College of Forest Resources (CFR). He ended up meeting Professor Dave Manuwal, head of the wildlife science program at the time, and Josh Millspaugh, a doctoral candidate who is now a professor of wildlife management at the University of Missouri.

Kertson talked with Millspaugh about his interest in wildlife and working outside, and that he was thinking of pursuing zoology in college. Millspaugh said that if Kertson really wanted to spend his career in the field and working hands-on with animals, he should consider training as a wildlife scientist.

As it happens, Kertson nearly opted for an entirely different form of training since UW had been recruiting him to play football as a defensive end or outside linebacker. Yet the call of the outdoors and wildlife research won out, and he decided to accept an academic scholarship, enrolling as a freshman at UW in the fall of 1997. “I declared a wildlife science major right out of the gate and never looked back,” he says. “It was a perfect confluence of my three real passions: wildlife, science and just being outdoors.”

CFR, now the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), would end up being his home for most of the next dozen years. He stayed on after his undergraduate degree to earn a Master of Science and then a Ph.D. in 2010, all under the same advisor, Professor Chris Grue.

An associate professor with the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Grue is the unit leader for the Washington Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit, which funds research through a number of cooperating agencies. In Kertson’s case, his graduate

Brian Kertson

It’s hard to believe these fluffy cougar kittens will grow up into one of North America’s foremost predators.

research received support through WDFW. “Chris is a great scientist and really adept at working with a wide variety of projects,” says Kertson. “He saw me all the way through for a little more than seven years.”

Cat Scratch Fever
Looking back on his tenure at SEFS, Kertson marvels at the abundance of research outlets the school and university afforded him. It’s an urban campus yet less than an hour from forest and mountain wilderness areas, and only three hours from desert landscapes. He says access to such diverse natural laboratories helped sharpen his tools as a scientist and researcher and, most importantly, helped establish his expertise with carnivores and cougars (also known as mountain lions, pumas or panthers).

Specifically, Kertson’s dissertation involved several years of investigating cougar behavior and ecology in wildland-urban environments in Washington. He looked at how cougars use these environments—how much time they spend in residential areas, how often interactions with people occur, and how the landscape and other demographic factors influence their behavior.

His findings were rather surprising, even a bit hair-raising. “What [my research] showed was that cougars spend a lot more time in residential areas than we knew—a little more than 17 percent of their time,” he says. “Cats use these residential portions of the landscape just like they do wildlands, including hunting for deer and elk in greenbelts and other forested habitats.”

However, the average cougar generates about one report—as in, someone would spot or bump into it on a trail—every 629 days. “So coexistence levels were very high despite a relatively high level of cougar occurrence in residential areas,” he says. “All that was very new. Most work and research on cougars was in wildland environments, and this was one of the first projects to look at people as a permanent presence and a key driver in shaping landscape dynamics for cougars.”

To be clear, Kertson wasn’t talking about downtown Seattle or Bellevue or other highly urban environments. He was investigating border areas of east King County and southeast Snohomish County where residential and other developments abut or overlap with parks, forests and natural areas. The takeaway, though, was that the borders weren’t as defined as previously thought. “Unbeknownst to many of us, we share our neighborhood greenbelts, forests and trails with one of America’s foremost predators—and we’d never know it,” he says.

Cougar

Despite a fearsome reputation, cougars rarely attack humans in Washington, with only 18 documented attacks since 1900 (only one of which was fatal).

That doesn’t mean you should get the willies the next time you take the trash out or stroll down the road for a latte. “The reality is, from a safety standpoint, there are a lot of things people should be way more concerned about,” says Kertson. It’s an issue of risk perception. Since 1900, there have been 18 documented cougar attacks on humans in the state of Washington, and only one of them proved fatal, way back in 1924. Plus, he says it’s helpful to remember that a key part of a cougar’s survival strategy is to minimize its exposure to people, even as it lives and hunts in fairly close proximity. So don’t expect to find a cougar curled up and purring in a sunbeam on your sidewalk.

On the Prowl
Kertson, in fact, has to work awfully hard to locate and capture cougars, and he often spends entire days in fruitless pursuit. Yet he says it never gets old when you’ve caught one of these cats and are kneeling next to it (while it’s sedated, of course). “It’s always exciting and a bit awe-inspiring, because they’re just muscles upon muscles. Big cats like cougars, I would argue they’re the epitome of predation efficiency. Everything about their body is the result of thousands of years of evolutionary adaptation to make them more efficient and effective hunters. That’s pretty incredible to see firsthand. It sort of puts you in your place in the universe.”

With such intimidating quarry, there’s plenty of thrill in the chase, too. “When I’m out doing radio tracking sessions, I’m not afraid of cougars or large carnivores,” he says, “but I have a healthy respect for them. And when you do find yourself in close proximity, even when you know exactly where they are with the radio tracking equipment, you have a very primitive, primordial reaction—your heartbeat picks up, you breathe a little quicker, your senses are a little more attuned. You hear a little better, see a little better, you’re a little more on edge. That reaction is deeply hard-wired.”

Brian Kertson

Kertson out radio tracking cougars.

Having felt that kind of pulse-pounding excitement, Kertson knew what he wanted to do after school. But when he completed his Ph.D. in 2010, a strapped state budget meant fewer opportunities in his field. He managed to secure a few months of post-graduate work funded by WDFW, and then he found an opening investigating wolf and elk dynamics as a researcher with Idaho Fish and Game. Not long after he moved to Idaho and took that job, a position finally opened up back with WDFW, so he applied and ended up getting hired and moving closer to home. Then, about four months after that, a research position with carnivores opened up in Issaquah, Wash.

The job roulette wasn’t ideal, he says, but finding the right fit isn’t always a linear process or something you can line up perfectly on a calendar. “It was kind of a funny period where I bounced around between really good jobs, but I finally had the opportunity to pursue my dream job—so I went after it and was fortunate enough to land it.”

In his role with WDFW today, Kertson doesn’t spend all of his time in the field prowling for predators. Seasonally, the winter is his busiest season for cougar capture. For much of the rest of the year, field work is interspersed with time  in front of a computer analyzing data, writing reports and grants, and reviewing and providing expertise to other agency staff working with large terrestrial carnivores. Such tasks might seem mundane by comparison, but Kertson says they’re all vital parts of the scientific process. “I think my favorite part of the job is that there’re always so many new questions to be answered,” he says. “Whenever you think you’ve got a good idea of how the world works, you’re constantly surprised by what you see and what you learn.”

Husky Ties
Back in Issaquah and back in the orbit of UW, Kertson was eager to reconnect with his alma mater. Shortly after accepting his current position, he reached out to several colleagues at SEFS to obtain affiliate faculty status. Academic partnerships are common at WDFW, he says, and agency professionals are encouraged to interact with universities and mentor students as much as they can. “It’s very much a mutually beneficial relationship,” he says.

As an affiliate assistant professor, he currently sits on the committees of a few SEFS graduate students, including Laurel Peele, Justin Dillinger and Carol Bogezi, who he’s helping capture cougars in the Issaquah area.

These relationships are especially meaningful to Kertson. When he reflects on his own education and career path, he’s grateful for the insight and instruction of so many people along the way. Now he’s returning the favor. “I think the biggest factor allowing me to get where I wanted to go was utilizing the relationships and friendships I’ve made, and reaching out and creating new connections,” he says. “I was fortunate to meet the right people to point me in the right direction.”

Cougar

Kertson says he doesn’t walk the woods afraid of cougars and large carnivores, but he has a “healthy respect” for them.

It’s worth noting that Kertson didn’t meet those people and make connections by accident. He pounced on research opportunities he came across as an undergrad to help broaden his skillset and network with practitioners. “A big part was early on I knew what I wanted to do, so I volunteered a lot,” he says. “That allowed me to meet people and obtain the skills that would make me more marketable. The summer before my junior year, I began volunteering on a research project with WDFW. I got to meet their staff, they got to meet me. I made sacrifices and put in a lot of work, but as a result I’ve had a lot of opportunities.”

The payoff for his persistence and opportunism came in many forms, and one of the most memorable was getting to volunteer on a field project that was way above his pay grade. “It was crazy,” he says. “As an undergraduate intern with WDFW I was assisting with black-tailed deer captures, running around in helicopters, participating in net gunning operations, running around in the forest and tackling deer to put on radio collars.”

Had he chosen to play football, he could have been tackling an entirely different type of cougar. Instead, he’s working with one of the most powerful predators in North America. He’s tracked and caught and measured close to 100 of these big cats, cradled their heads in his lap and felt the immense power of a 185-pound cougar at his fingertips. How many people get to say that?

Photos © Brian Kertson.

Brian Kertson

Grad Student Spotlight: Oliver Jan

In case you need further proof that not all “light bulb moments” happen in a lab or classroom, consider the story of Oliver Jan, a first-year doctoral student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) at the University of Washington.

He remembers one afternoon as a senior in high school when he was driving home from work. As Jan battled an overwhelming need to use the restroom, a different though not entirely unrelated thought elbowed its way into his frantic mind: Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could turn human waste into fuel and energy?

Oliver Jan

Since high school, Oliver Jan has studied various ways to convert waste products into useful, renewable energy sources.

As soon as he got home, Jan jumped online and typed in a few search terms around his idea. Words like “chemistry” and “chemical engineering” kept popping up, and he suddenly knew what he wanted to study at college. “I liked energy,” he says, “and this idea of converting waste into something more productive.”

Jan, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, went on to major in chemical engineering at UC Irvine—where a second moment of serendipity steered his studies.

At a chemical engineering conference in Minneapolis, Jan ended up meeting SEFS Professor Fernando Resende. They struck up a conversation at a reception, and Resende talked about his laboratory and explained some of his research with alternative fuels. Jan later followed up with Resende and ended up becoming one of his first graduate students at SEFS.

One year into his program, Jan’s doctoral research now focuses on thermochemically converting lignin, an organic waste product of the pulp and paper industry, into renewable liquid biofuels that can be used to power cars, airplanes and other forms of transportation.

“It’s not a groundbreaking idea, because a lot of people here are looking at this problem,” he says, but that doesn’t make the research any less urgent or important. Lignin is the glue that helps keep plants and trees limber and protects their structure, and it’s the second-most-abundant source of renewable carbon on the planet. Yet Jan says only 2 percent of 50 million tons of lignin is being used commercially. “There has to be a better way to implement lignin.”

He feels the same about research funding.

One of the biggest challenges facing young researchers, says Jan, is overcoming a huge activation barrier for funding. Depending on your field, you have only a handful of reliable grant sources, such as the U.S. Department of Energy or National Science Foundation, and the application process is hypercompetitive—especially for less-established scientists.

Not one to leave a surface unscratched, though, Jan started exploring different options to help finance and promote his doctoral research. He soon discovered Microryza, a “crowdfunding platform for science research grants” that two former UW researchers, Denny Luan and Cindy Wu, designed and founded in 2012 (the name comes from Mycorrhizae, fungi that live in the roots of plants).

Oliver Jan
Jan’s fundraising page on Microryza went live on July 1, 2014.

Like Jan, Luan and Wu were frustrated with the traditional research funding model, so they created a grassroots structure of individual public donations. Their site is similar to Kickstarter, except instead of seeking public funding for creative arts—music, design, films, games, technology—Microryza lets viewers browse a range of compelling research projects. Individuals then pool their money in support of a project, pledging various levels as “backers” until the funding goal is reached. These backers are only charged if the project reaches its donation target during a set timeframe. And unlike Kickstarter, the purpose of Microryza isn’t to invest in a tangible product or reward, says Jan. It’s to share in the scientific process and help fund research you believe is important to society.

Research categories on Microryza cover a broad range, from ecology and medicine to economics and engineering. A sampling of current projects on the site includes “How Does Mount Rainier Help Maintain Traditional Tribal Plant Harvesting?” and “Engineering E. Coli to Produce Hydrogen Gas Fuel.” Some have modest goals in the $1,500 to $3,500 range. Others are more ambitious, depending on the nature of the research.

What particularly caught Jan’s eye was how many professors and students were among the people seeking support for their research. And not just the numbers, but their success—even right here at UW.

Dan Jaffe, a professor of Chemistry and Atmospheric Sciences at UW, recently put up a proposal for consideration, “Do coal and diesel trains make for unhealthy air?” He set the target at $18,000. Within a week, he’d surpassed $20,000 in donations and launched the project with 113-percent support.

Jan then set to work on his own Microryza project, “Can we transform waste into clean biofuel?” He knows his target of $20,000 is aggressive, and he plans to spend the summer drumming up excitement and interest through friends and social networks. But he’s not pinning all of his hopes on this fundraising experiment, which he believes has an upside regardless of the outcome. “Even if I don’t get the funding,” he says, “it’s a great way to see how many people are interested in the biofuels work we’re doing here at the UW.”

As of July 1, 2013, his webpage on Microryza is now fully up and ready, so feel free to take a look and see if his research moves you. Who knows, you could be the one who fuels Jan’s next scientific discovery!

Photos © Oliver Jan.