New Faculty Intro: Sarah Converse

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

This March, we were enormously pleased to welcome our newest faculty member, Sarah J. Converse, who joins us as an associate professor and the new leader of the Washington Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. The Cooperative Research Unit program was founded in the 1930s to enhance graduate education in fisheries and wildlife sciences, and to facilitate research between natural resource agencies and universities. In Washington the Coop is a partnership between federal and state government agencies, the University of Washington, and the Wildlife Management Institute. While Sarah’s position is technically funded through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), her role operates in all other ways as a non-tenured faculty member—with her home department in SEFS and a joint appointment with the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

Sarah with a sandhill crane at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

Sarah, who grew up in Battle Creek, Mich., brings tremendous experience as a quantitative population ecologist with a strong interest in decision analysis and decision science, conservation biology, demographic estimation, hierarchical modeling, integrated population modeling and reintroduction biology. “I build models of wildlife populations, and then I help land managers use those models to make management decisions,” she says.

That element of her research—working with land managers and seeing real-world applications of her models for different species—really clicked for her during graduate school.

Coming out of her bachelor’s in fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University, Sarah thought she’d probably end up being a lawyer. Then she went on to a master’s program in natural resource sciences at the University of Nebraska, where she got to work on a project she loved involving box turtles and the pet trade. “That really cemented it,” she says. “By the end of my master’s, I knew I would be continuing on and working as a research scientist.”

Her next move was to complete a Ph.D. in wildlife biology from Colorado State University, where she got heavier training in quantitative methods, before accepting a postdoc position at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Two years later, she accepted a permanent position at Patuxent. For the next 10 years, Sarah worked there as a research ecologist with projects that stretched across the country from Washington to Florida, and also internationally. Most involved studying threatened species, including whooping crane recovery and conservation, management of avian reintroductions in New Zealand, and design and analysis methods for albatross population studies.

Sarah and her husband relocated from Washington, D.C., to Seattle in mid-March, and they have just moved into their new home in Green Lake. Here, she has her hands full with a waved albatross in the Galapagos.

“I really enjoyed my time at Patuxent—so many great people there, an amazing place to work—and 10 years went by really quickly,” she says.

Still, she always thought she’d end up back in academia, and this Coop faculty position struck her as a perfect fit and opportunity. “I like the environment and the energy of a university,” says Sarah, “and I love working with students. I also love the Northwest and always wanted to live here, so when this job came up, I was really excited.”

After the national-level focus of her time at Patuxent, Sarah is also excited to be a whole lot closer to some of her study areas and species in Washington. “For 10 years, my closest project, in terms of where I was working, was in Wisconsin, about 1,000 miles from my home,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to getting to know the state of Washington—ecologically, socially, politically, all those things—so I feel I’m working where I live. To be more immersed in a place is going to be great.”

As that immersion begins, we are thrilled to have Sarah as part of our community, and we encourage you to stop by her new office in Anderson 123A (at least part of the time) or introduce yourselves by email.


Photos © Sarah Converse.

Captured here working on a Florida manatee survey, Sarah will stay involved with a postdoc working on lesser prairie chickens, another with polar bears, and a new one working on marine birds in Europe—so even with her new home in the Pacific Northwest, she’ll have plenty of other national and international projects.


Professor Tobin Awarded Powell Grant to Study Insect Invasiveness

Last month, Professor Patrick Tobin and a team of researchers were awarded an innovative grant from the John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis in Fort Collins, Colo.: “Predicting the next high-impact insect invasion: Elucidating traits and factors determining the risk of introduced herbivorous insects on North American native plants.”

This fall, entering his second full year on the SEFS faculty, Tobin welcomed four new grad students to his newly refurbished “Disturbance Ecology Lab.”

This fall, entering his second full year on the SEFS faculty, Tobin welcomed four new grad students to his newly refurbished “Disturbance Ecology Lab.”

Powell grants are somewhat unique in that they don’t fund new data collection and research, but rather “Working Groups” that mine and synthesize existing data sets to discover overarching trends and insights. For Tobin’s group, they wanted to search for broad patterns in what drives invasiveness on a continental scale. All non-native species initially lack natural predators, he says, and they all generally feed on host plants that haven’t adapted to them. Yet out of 100 introduced insects, there are probably only three or four that become high-impact pests—like the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis)—that are dangerous enough to cause cascading changes to ecosystems. So what’s different about the other 90 to 95 percent of non-native species? What separates the really bad invasive species from the basically benign?

“I’ve dedicated my professional career to this question,” says Tobin, “so I’m excited to have this working group and the resources to really dive into it.”

The ultimate goal of this research is to develop a framework to help predict and prioritize strategies against future insect threats in the United States—with direct applications to invasive species management and risk assessment around the country and world.

The Working Group
When you submit a proposal to the Powell Center, you pitch a project and also a proposed participant list to make up a working group of about 15 scientists. The idea is to bring together a diverse set of specialties and backgrounds to explore an issue as comprehensively as possible. So Tobin’s group includes three co-investigators—Professor Daniel Herms from Ohio State University, Professor Travis Marsico from Arkansas State University, and Dr. Kathryn Thomas, a plant ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey—along with a host of other experts from 12 different universities, ranging from chemical ecologists to population geneticists to forest ecologists.

Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) larva.

Emerald ash borer larva.

Their group had submitted this concept two times previously before finally securing the grant—one of four awarded out of 50 proposals in 2015. “We almost didn’t pitch it the third year,” he says, “but we decided to try one more time. You have to be persistent and keep improving your proposal, and you can’t get frustrated. Last year, we had the dubious honor of being the top-ranked proposal not funded. This year we’re the top-ranked proposal overall. Sometimes in the grant process, it’s just a matter of convincing them it’s a good idea, and it can take a couple years to do that.”

The award will cover travel expenses for the researchers to make three weeklong visits to meet as a group at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Fort Collins Science Center, where they will have full access to the facility’s computational, data manipulation and data management resources. They will have plenty of homework in-between these visits, as well, and the grant also includes up to $100,000 for a postdoc to help guide the project for two years.

Tobin says the postdoc, who will be working directly with him and based at SEFS, will be crucial to the success of the project. “The beauty of these working groups is that they really want you to get things done,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for a postdoc to work with this diverse group of people, and they really get to pump out a lot of papers.”

The group’s plan is to meet this coming June for the first time, and Tobin will start looking this fall for a quantitative ecologist to fill the postpoc position. He has also recruited an undergrad at SEFS to help as part of a capstone project.

Photos © Patrick Tobin.

Cactus moth (now caterpillar) Cactoblastis cactorum.

Cactus moth larvae (Cactoblastis cactorum).

Notes from the Field: Helicopter Sampling in Alaska

Earlier this week, Professor David Butman returned from spending 11 days in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, where he had the memorable opportunity to conduct his field sampling by helicopter and float plane. He was able to coordinate the trip on a shoestring budget, as well, thanks to a great partnership with NASA and colleagues at the University of North Carolina, the U.S. Geological Survey, and Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington (where Butman holds a joint appointment).

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Professor Butman’s research involves measuring fluxes of carbon dioxide and methane in water systems—especially in Arctic and boreal ecosystems—and how those releases of greenhouse gasses are impacting the global carbon cycle and climate change. At a conference two years ago, he connected with Professor Tamlin Pavelsky, a hydrologist at the University of North Carolina’s Department of Geological Sciences. They stayed in touch and kept talking about potential collaborations, and their interests eventually aligned over an engineering project in Alaska.

Pavelsky has been helping with field calibration for a new radar sensor that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is planning to launch on a satellite in 2020. Through its Surface Water and Ocean Topography, or SWOT, mission, NASA is developing this sensor to observe changes in water level to within a millimeter of accuracy, which will have important applications for measuring water volume in lakes and rivers, as well as impacts of flooding.

Daylight extended until nearly midnight, giving them incredibly long days to collect samples. “You lose track of time,” says Butman, taking a “sampling selfie” here.

Daylight extended until nearly midnight, giving them incredibly long days to collect samples. “You lose track of time,” says Butman (taking a “sampling selfie” here).

Right now, they’re in the middle of an intense campaign to calibrate the radar sensor and test it by flying over different landforms and water features. So when Butman learned from Pavelsky that some of those test sites would include the Yukon Flats, he pitched the idea of tagging along to conduct his own biogeochemistry measurements at the same time. He had already marked some of those same areas for future sampling, and the timing was perfect to draw different programs together for common goals. NASA agreed to bring him along, and they ended up covering the expense of the helicopter and plane flights in Alaska, and Butman handled the equipment and labor.

He seized the opportunity and spent 16 to 17 hours in the field on the trip. Butman flew around with a pilot and a student technician to assist him, locating lakes from the air and heading down to take measurements. Assisted by Alaska’s endless summer sunshine, they were able to collect tons of data from 18 different lakes. “It was kind of exciting,” he says. “Some of these systems have never been measured.”

Butman has another proposal in with NASA to fund continued research in the Yukon area, and he definitely hopes to get back up there next year. “It was one of my top three field experiences so far, for sure.”

Photos © David Butman.


Against the Current

If you take a stream ecology course, you are generally taught that as a stream winds down from its headwaters at higher elevations, the water temperature will increase fairly steeply at first, and then gradually—and predictably—approach air temperature as the stream levels off at lower elevations. But several researchers at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS)—including doctoral student Aimee Fullerton and Professors Christian Torgersen and Josh Lawler—have recently published new findings in Hydrological Processes that could change the way we think about stream ecology and temperature dynamics.

The paper, “Rethinking the longitudinal stream temperature paradigm: region-wide comparison of thermal infrared imagery reveals unexpected complexity of river temperatures,” is a meta-analysis of thermal data from 53 rivers across the Pacific Northwest. Torgersen, a research landscape ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an affiliate professor with SEFS, started building this massive data set in 1994. He partnered with long-time colleague Russ Faux at Watershed Sciences, Inc. (now part of Quantum Spatial), to collect thermal information from Faux’s aerial surveys of hundreds of rivers in Oregon, California, Idaho, Washington and a few other states.

Aimee Fullerton

Doctoral student Aimee Fullerton, lead author on the paper, grew up in Ohio and works as a research scientist with NOAA.

Thermal infrared imaging is usually accurate to within a half degree, so these readings provided a trove of high-level, high-quality spatial data to explore. “This is the first time we’ve had the kind of spatial data over many, many rivers—and at a fine resolution—to even look at these patterns,” says Torgersen. “It was my dream project.”

Using these data, the researchers set out to map spatial patterns in river temperature during the summer, when fish are most stressed. They wanted to determine, among other information, whether they could predict the location of cold patches, which provide useful “cold refuges” for fish as they migrate up a stream. And though the authors expected to find geographical indicators for how a stream’s temperature would behave, the actual results surprised them.

Rather than finding predictable patterns, they discovered a great deal of variability and complexity in the streams. About half of the rivers behaved as expected, with temperatures steeply warming from the headwaters, and then gradually tapering off as the stream progresses. With other streams, though, the pattern was more gradual and linear, or the temperature stayed the same; and then in other cases, the temperature actually decreased or fluctuated over lengths of 50 kilometers or more—starting out cold, warming a bit, and then getting cold again.

“I think most people would say it’s not super surprising that there’s variability in these patterns,” says Torgersen. “But at this broad scale to see some of these odd-ball patterns was kind of a humdinger. We just know a lot less about river temperature than we do about air temperature.”

That’s why the mapping of water temperature in this study was so valuable. Most mathematical models of stream temperature, while largely accurate, aren’t able to account for fine-scale variations. Yet there are so many factors that can impact temperature variability, says Fullerton, such as tributaries, groundwater and nearby vegetation, or even coastal fog deflecting solar radiation. So this research provides a crucial perspective for what is actually happening in the water—and, ultimately, how those variations impact all of the species depending on the stream.

Fullerton says an important caveat with these findings is that the researchers only studied a snapshot in time. Their data came exclusively during the summer, so they weren’t capturing temperatures during different seasons, or overnight.

Christian Torgersen

For terrestrial ecology, the same paradigm would have you assume that as you go up a mountain, the air generally gets cooler. “If it got warmer as you went up, you’d know there was something up,” says Professor Christian Torgersen.

Still, these results can already reshape how researchers think about stream restoration projects, and how they determine the “natural” template for a certain section of river. It will be vital to examine the broader context of any stream segment—what’s happening directly up- and downstream, or along the riverbanks—to get the most comprehensive and accurate reading.

The diversity of thermal habitats in these streams, moreover, could be good news for the long-term survival of existing species, especially salmon. It appears that species may already be accustomed to navigating through a variety of conditions, and coping with a range of temperature tolerances, which could make them more resilient and less susceptible to future land use and climate impacts. “That’s going to help them with whatever comes next,” says Fullerton.

An important aspect of the climate analysis came from Professor Lawler, who is a coauthor on the paper. He played a key role in developing the approach for comparing patterns of water temperature among streams. “He was essential as a reality check to make sure our assertions were valid,” says Torgersen. “He also helped us couch these results in the context of climate change, and what the implications of this work are for understanding how species respond to a warming climate.”

Next Steps
Fullerton has worked as a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since 2002. Now into her fifth year of doctoral study—working with Torgersen and Lawler—she can’t wait to dive back into the data and expand their analysis.

This first paper focused on a broad-scale perspective, and the next step is to key in on a finer scale and begin to look at how these spatial patterns might be affected by climate change, and therefore might affect the vulnerability of salmon. Specifically, the researchers will be quantifying the size, location and distance between cold water patches that salmon use, and considering how those patterns might change under future climate scenarios. After that, a third component of this research will be to look at drivers of these patterns, and whether we can predict where colder patches will occur in the landscape.

Which is to say, there’s much more to come from this exciting research, which has already challenged a number of long-held assumptions. “My hope is that stream ecologists will be reading this paper and then teach students that you can’t assume the temperature will increase,” says Torgersen. “It could change the way people think about basic stream ecology questions, and how to develop their models.”

Photos © Aimee Fullerton and Christian Torgersen.

Fullerton on a research trip to the Salmon River in Idaho in 2013.

Fullerton on a research trip to the Salmon River in Idaho in 2013.

Testing the Waters

This morning, Professor David Butman was finishing up the installation of a new dissolved carbon dioxide sensor at a site on Issaquah Creek, which drains a relatively pristine forested watershed into Lake Washington. Professor Butman is looking at carbon dynamics to understand how stream systems fit into the terrestrial carbon cycle, and he is collaborating with the U.S. Geological Survey, which is embarking on a large-scale, intensive sampling for water quality across the Pacific Northwest. They’ll pool all of this data when they pull the sensors out in late fall.

“A collaborative time series of data like this does not really exist yet,” he says, “and we are doing this at two more sites in Bellingham that cover an urban and an agricultural watershed.”

David Butman

SEFS Alumnus Aaron Johnston Awarded Mendenhall Fellowship

Aaron Johnston, who earned his Ph.D. from SEFS in spring 2013, was recently awarded a prestigious, two-year postdoctoral research position with the U.S Geological Survey’s Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program! Johnston studied competition between eastern and western gray squirrels in the Puget Sound lowlands for his dissertation (working with Professor Emeritus Steve West), and he will be moving to Bozeman, Mont., after the winter holidays to begin the fellowship.

Aaron Johnston

Aaron Johnston’s fellowship will include two field seasons, and he’ll be expected to produce several publications from the research.

Selected through a competitive proposal process, Mendenhall Fellows help USGS staff conduct concentrated research around a number of important areas. Johnston’s proposal, “Extinction dynamics and microrefugia of the American pika,” will pair him with Dr. Erik Beever in Bozeman to explore the effects of climate change on pikas in the Cascades and Northern Rockies, though he hasn’t finalized his study area yet. He’ll have a research budget and be able to bring on a couple assistants to help with the project.

American pikas (Ochotona princeps) are a smaller relative of rabbits and hares. They’re an herbivorous alpine species that spread south with the last ice age, and now they’re holding on in high-altitude mountain areas in western North America. Their dependence on colder temperatures and preferred habitat—talus fields and rock piles at or above the tree line—has generally restricted their range to “sky islands” at the tops of mountains, where movement from one region to another can’t happen quickly, if at all. As a result, a warming climate threatens to shrink or eliminate the habitable range of pikas in the coming decades, and some estimates already suggest that 40 percent of American pikas in the Great Basin have disappeared in the last century, with the remaining populations retreating to even higher elevations.

Aaron Johnston

With their habitat shrinking as the climate warms, American pikas are retreating to higher elevations on the “sky islands” of mountaintops.

Johnston says there are competing hypotheses about why this large-scale extinction is occurring. One widely supported theory revolves around the fact that pikas can’t survive prolonged exposure to high temperatures (more than a couple hours above 80 degrees, in fact, can kill them). Yet in a few regions, where temperatures far exceed that maximum—such as Craters of the Moon and Lava Beds national monuments—some pika populations have found a way to survive using microrefugia to escape the heat. Other hypotheses focus on phenology, and whether changing temperatures will reduce available vegetation for pikas, or if warmer winters will reduce available snowpack for insulation and expose pikas to extreme cold.

To address these questions and help design effective conservation strategies, Johnston’s project will involve modeling and mapping pika habitat topography using LiDAR. He’s been working in Professor Monika Moskal’s Remote Sensing and Geospatial Analysis Lab, and he sees powerful applications of LiDAR for wildlife management. “I think it’s a really exciting new technology that has enormous potential we’re just starting to realize,” says Johnston.

Project Summary
The objectives of this study are to:

1. Develop broad-scale maps of talus at high-resolution through fusion of LiDAR and multispectral imagery;
2. Develop predictor variables for untested hypotheses about substrate, snowpack and phenology;
3. Evaluate regional variation in extinction mechanisms by incorporating new data on extirpations outside of the Great Basin; and
4. Evaluate differences in habitat and connectivity maps created by models with and without microclimate and microhabitat variables.

This project will use limited field work to characterize substrate at selected sites for development of talus maps, and supplement existing data on pika persistence at historical sites of occurrence. Results of this study will increase understanding of pika responses to climate change, inform conservation strategies, and provide map products widely applicable to many research areas, including wildlife ecology, plant ecology, geomorphology, hazard assessment and hydrology.


Congratulations, Aaron, and good luck with this tremendous opportunity!

Photo of Johnston © Aaron Johnston; photo of pika © Justin Johnsen.

Alumni Spotlight: Christina Galitsky

Christina Galitsky

After nearly a decade as an engineer, Galitsky changed course and headed to graduate school to study wildlife ecology at SEFS.

“Ecology is so much harder than engineering, despite what the majority of the population might think,” says Christina Galitsky, who recently earned a Master of Science from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). She would know: After nearly a decade as an engineer, Galitsky moved to Seattle in 2009 to begin graduate study in wildlife ecology—trading factories for field work, and lab goggles for binoculars.

What prompted this turnabout was many years in the making, and it started with a simple desire to feel more energized by her work.

Originally from Allentown, Pa., Galitsky moved to California in 1996 to attend graduate school at Berkeley. She had always excelled at math and science and felt it was a natural fit to study chemical engineering. After school, she spent the next nine years as a full-time engineer, first with an environmental consulting firm in Oakland and then with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Her work involved solving basic engineering problems for some of the poorest people in the world. No question, she says, the projects were immensely important and rewarding. Yet she got to a point where she’d be in a meeting and watch her colleagues be giddy and raving about a tiny engineering tweak, like getting a minute increase in efficiency, and she realized she wanted to share that same pulse of excitement with her job someday—and it wasn’t going to happen as an engineer.

Christina Galitsky

In her free time, Galitsky is an accomplished rock climber, mountaineer, snowboarder and lover of all things outdoors.

Galitsky decided to take some time off work to figure out her next move. She spent a summer interning with the U.S. Geological Survey on the Olympic Peninsula and researched graduate programs and professors studying wildlife biology, conservation and related areas.

She soon discovered SEFS and was particularly attracted to the work Professor Josh Lawler was doing with climate change and landscape ecology. She wanted to be involved in research that would directly influence policy or on-the-ground management, and when she met Lawler and visited campus, she felt a strong connection. “At first it was his research, and then our conversations,” she says. “I really liked his lab and the way he has his students weigh in on potential next students, which I think is really unique and special. Josh was clearly passionate about what he does and wanted to make a difference in the world. I liked all of those things about him.”

After so many years in the workforce, Galitsky wasn’t eager to take out new student loans and debt, so she was relieved to find that Lawler had funding for another Master’s student. Plus, he was open to her doing field work, which became the heart of her graduate program.

For her thesis, “Effects of Local Vegetation and Landscape Patterns on Avian Biodiversity in the Threatened Oak Habitat of the Willamette Valley, Ore.,” she spent several field seasons meticulously documenting birds, learning to recognize species by sight and sound, patiently listening and watching for long hours.

Christina Galitsky

Galitsky out birding.

“I found field work really hard, frustrating and amazing, all at the same time, every day,” she says. “Getting to see the sunrise every day and hear the birds in the morning was great. But having to get up at 3 a.m., not so good.”

The stress of field work, too, was different from her previous office deadlines. If things don’t go right in a field season—if your research doesn’t come together, or you need to adjust your methods—you’re in school for another year. “There’s more urgency to figure out how to make it right,” she says.

Galitsky persevered, of course, and she credits her committee, which included SEFS Professors John Marzluff and Aaron Wirsing, for their critiques and encouragement in building her confidence as a researcher. Above all, she’s grateful for Lawler’s support as her advisor. “Working with Josh was the highlight for me,” she says. “He just blew me away with how understanding, helpful and encouraging he was. He always seemed to have time for me, and he really helped me through grad school, probably more than he knows.”

Now, her transition from engineer to ecologist is complete: As of May 1, 2013, Galitsky is the program coordinator for Tree Kangaroo Conservation at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

Not quite two months into her new gig, she says she feels privileged to have found a home at the intersection of so many of her interests. “The tree kangaroo program has both a wildlife and a people component, which was exactly what I wanted,” she says. “I think that’s why this project hits home to me. It’s been really fun working in a place where everyone has the same passions about animals and conservation.”

Tree Kangaroo

This photo, taken by Bruce Beehler, captures an incontrovertible truth about tree kangaroos: their incredible stuffed-animal cuteness.

Tree kangaroos are found only in one small region of Papua New Guinea, and Galitsky hopes she’ll get a chance to travel there in the next year or two with her boss, Dr. Lisa Dabek. Her current position, though, is not as a field research biologist, and she’s been focusing on fundraising, program management and outreach. “I’m probably most excited about the outreach,” she says. “We scientists aren’t always the best communicators, and I enjoy the challenge of being the link between scientific research and the public.”

As she settles into her new role, Galitsky has no regrets about her past career. Her new work, she says, isn’t more worthwhile; it’s just more her. Unlike her years spent in cement plants or steel factories, where she felt invested if not inspired, these days she finally has her passions and profession in tune. How can she tell? This time, the line between work and play is awfully fuzzy.

“I still love going out and watching birds and trying to identify them, probably to the dismay of my boyfriend and everyone around me,” says Galitsky. “I can’t shut it off!”

Photos of Christina Galitsky © Matt Gerhart; photo of tree kangaroo © Bruce Beehler.

Tree Kangaroo (Photo by Bruce Beehler)