by Karl Wirsing/SEFS
Earlier this March, we welcomed one of our newest faculty members, Beth Gardner, who joins us as an assistant professor from the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at N.C. State University. Along with Professor Laura Prugh, Beth is one of two recent additions to the wildlife faculty at SEFS, and she brings enormous experience in quantitative ecology.
Beth grew up near Pittsburgh in Lone Pine, Pa., and as an undergrad at Allegheny College she first explored the intersection of math of environmental science.
When she arrived this spring, Beth jumped right in and taught QSci 381: Intro to Probability and Statistics, and future courses could include some form of statistical modeling.
Though she had a deeper personal interest in environmental studies at the time, she thought she was better at math and might settle on that route “by default.” Her compromise was to combine the subjects through a double major, and then to find a senior research project that also drew from both: creating a model of hydroponics and fish growth.
That was a long time ago, so the finer points of her first model are a little hazy, but the experience solidified her academic path. Beth applied to grad school at Cornell University and went on to earn a master’s and Ph.D. in natural resources. She then spent several years as a postdoc at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, where she worked on developing spatial capture-recapture models, which have become one of her core interests.
Her research today generally focuses on using models to assess wildlife populations. Depending on the data, Beth is able to estimate a wide range of demographic rates, such as survival, recruitment, distribution patterns, abundance, resource selection, size of home ranges and other habitat relationships. Put a simpler way, she says, one way to think of models is to imagine a couple people going out on a lake and catching some fish. They might catch 40, which is a good sample, but what they really want to know is how many total fish are in the lake. That’s where Beth’s work begins. “It’s figuring out patterns,” she says. “I take the errors and uncertainty in sampling to build models to tell you what you didn’t see.”
Filling in those data holes can be essential for conservation, management and ecological understanding, she says, especially as climate and land-use changes continue to alter the environment and affect wildlife populations in new and unexpected ways.
Beth reeling in a tuna as part of a project to tag and measure them.
The next challenge is to figure out where to apply her research in the Pacific Northwest. After all, moving across the country effectively rebooted her research program, she says, so she’s still organizing her lab—the Quantitative Ecology Lab—and lining up her first projects. Broadly speaking, though, her lab at SEFS will address three main areas: the development of spatial capture-recapture models, mostly focused on data collected from genetic surveys (e.g., scat, hair-snares), camera trapping and small mammal surveys; the development and application of site-occupancy models to improve estimation of habitat relationships and species distributions; and the explicit incorporation of spatial auto-correlation into count models.
As she gets fully settled at SEFS, Beth will continue to work on a few other ongoing projects, including one looking at the abundance and distribution of seabirds in the western North Atlantic and the Great Lakes, and how those populations might be affected by the anticipated development of offshore wind energy power installations (she has a half-time postdoc, Evan Adams, working with her on this research). She’s also helping a few graduate students wrap up their degrees back at N.C. State, and she anticipates welcoming her first students at SEFS around January 2017.
We are thrilled to have Beth in our school, and we hope you get a chance to meet and welcome her as soon as possible!
Photos © Beth Gardner.
Beth at a field station in Finse, Norway. “Technically, I was hiking,” she says, “but it was early July and the snow was insane.”